Don’t tell me what the poets are doing

June 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Yesterday over at Quillblog, yr. humble correspondent published a post with the admittedly provocative title, “Why do people hate poetry?” The post began by pointing out a piece by Harry Eyres that ran in this past weekend’s Financial Times online. Eyres argues that instead of mouthing hypocritical platitudes about the benefits of poetry, it would be more honest to own up to the form’s marginalization and to address the reasons why people hate poetry:

It might be better to ask ourselves why, on the whole, we hate poetry – that is to say why we ruthlessly marginalise it and exile it to a cold place of almost total neglect – than to utter dishonest platitudes about how great it is.

Poetry is “up against it” in our modern, media-saturated culture, Eyres contends. “Unlike video games, reality television, amateur dance troupes, it is not a cultural phenomenon that is generally welcomed into people’s lives.”

In response to this, I posted an excerpt from the speech that James Wood gave at the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony last week. The speech was reprinted in The Globe and Mail, and the passage I excerpted reads as follows:

Poetry waves a flower in the face of a highly utilitarian age. That great secular hybrid, pragmatic evolutionary psychology and neuro-aesthetics, is busy telling us that art is a slightly puzzling evolutionary superfluity. Art is defended as “cognitive play,” crucial for the evolutionary development of homo sapiens. Art, for such people, must always somehow be justified. But poetry sings the song of itself, and offers a musical gratuity. Just as no one should have to justify, in pragmatic terms, playing the piano or listening to Bach, so no one should have to justify reading Keats or Wallace Stevens. And I am not making the weak case that poetry evades or exceeds such pragmatic cost-counting, but that it challenges such utilitarianism, makes it doubt itself. It faces down the enemy.

There, I thought – I’ve presented two sides of an argument in point-counterpoint, and that should be that. Of course, I expected some reaction, if only to the aggressive title of the post, but what I didn’t expect was the vitriol hurled at Wood by people working in the field of Canadian poetry. (Remember: Wood is defending poetry here.)

Zach Wells, a highly articulate poet and critic, excoriates Wood for his “caricatures” of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience (okay, “neuro-aesthetics”) as they apply to art. Wells – an aficionado of Steven Pinker’s thought on the interstices between neuroscience and linguistics – castigates Wood for his “pseudo-religious gabble,” which, in his view, “misses the point by a barn’s width.” Jonathan Ball, a poet with a collection forthcoming from BookThug, says in response to Wells that he “could not have said it better.” Angel Guerra, a book designer, calls Wood’s comments “[s]nobbish and hectoring,” and says that “[h]is was a language aimed at an exclusive audience.” Bill Douglas, the book designer responsible for the design of A.F. Moritz’s Griffin Prize-winning collection, The Sentinel, decries Wood’s “tired lament” and implies that the critic is a “wryly funny blowhard.”

What’s interesting to me is that these are people actively involved in the Canadian poetry community, attacking someone who was offering a passionate defence of poetry. The language of this attack is all too familiar: Wood is accused of elitism (apparently because he uses big words) and exclusivity. Wells comes closer to the mark when he criticizes Wood for not recognizing the way poets are working to incorporate modern theories in neurology and linguistics into their art, but that was never Wood’s purpose. His speech was a valediction, not a critical assessment. It was a song of praise for art that exists for its own sake and does not, in his words, require justification.

Anyone who does require justification of poetry’s vast rewards need not look terribly far to find it. It does not take a “stuck-up pseudo-intellectual” like the ones another anonymous (natch) Quillblog commenter mentions to enjoy the rollicking humour in Jeramy Dodds’ definition of the word “raccoon” as “A sexual position favoured by the limbless,” or the stream of mangled clichés in his poem “The Epileptic Acupuncturist”: “People who get their rocks off / in glass houses are the same people / who’d bend you over a rain barrel / just to give you the wet T-shirts / off their backs.” Or the brutal juxtaposition of the organic and the mechanical in Sina Queyras’s image of a cancer patient “Lying on the examination table, her bowels / On the ultrasound in front of her.” Or Kevin Connolly’s paean to baseball: “It’s Posada, never an easy out, but the hook / is there for Lilly. It’s the seventh and his old team, / the 250-million-dollar Yankees, have beaten the / shit out of us all week.” Not a stuck-up pseudo-intellectual image in the bunch, just a group of poets delighting in the compression and torque of language.

So why is poetry so marginalized? Why does it sell less than even the redheaded stepchild of prose fiction, the short-story collection? Perhaps one reason is that those who are supposed to be promoting it can’t help but express knee-jerk disdain, even toward people who are in the process of defending the form.


2 Responses to “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing”
  1. Dan Green says:

    I agree with Wood on this, but I don’t quite understand his use of “pragmatic” as a scare word. His own defense is itself quite pragmatic. Those who “get” poetry do so because it just works for them. No other biological, philosophical, historical, sociological or theological explanation is necessary

  2. Adrian Michael Kelly says:


    What strikes me most about this bound-to-be-ephemeral hullabaloo is its sadly colonial, that is, its all-too-Canadian aspect. I realize that the Griffin is now an “international” prize, (though ghettoizing Canadian titles in a category all their own suggests that our poetry still can’t compete on an international level) but why do we need James Wood to tell us why poetry matters? He promises to review more poetry for The New Yorker—good for him—but until now he has been a critic mainly (if not exclusively) of the novel. More important, I can provide a list of fifty Canadians who could have taken the podium at the Griffin and rehearsed pretty pieties about poetry’s floral power. Of course, none of them is the “leading critic of his generation” because Canada, with its minimal literary culture (fatcat prizes and glitzy galas don’t count), has no interest in nurturing home-grown critics of James Wood’s authority. In America, intelligent reviewing gets you a New Yorker gig and an endowed chair in the Ivy League; in Canada, intelligent reviewing leads to seasonal appearances in the Globe and a new desk chair from Staples. Wells are right—in a way—to underline the weaknesses in Wood’s little speech, but they are also charging at windmills. Wood was just doing his context-appropriate job, that is, he was cooking up soufflé for people all too willing to swallow the stuff and to gawk at him. We neglect our own talent, and we import even our glitz.