I was wondering what Ron Silliman would say about the appointment of W.S. Merwin as PLOTUS, and today you can read it on his blog. He makes some really good points, as you'd expect, viz -
"... if the appointment of the PLOTUS is not about the range of what’s possible in American verse, it still serves a function, the creation of a public advocate for poetry. In this regard, one would have to say that Kay Ryan has been a superb Poet Laureate, perhaps not as great in the role as was Robert Hass, but quite conceivably second only to him. Hass proved an advocate for the environment as well as for poetry and left behind a column in the Washington Post, the most visible public occasion for poetry in a generation, which has only recently disappeared. Since she was yanked out of the relative obscurity of the College of Marin, Ryan has seemed to be everywhere, and has constantly spoken up for poetry without any particular agenda as to what kind. That strikes me as exactly what the laureate should be doing. Kay Ryan got it right."
(Digression: Ron doesn't pretend to care for Merwin's work, and uses Lowell as a bludgeon against it. But blaming Lowell for the SoQ is, in principle, like blaming WCW or Whitman for bad free verse; more importantly, it makes no sense because it assumes resemblances between Lowell's and Merwin's work, which are few. Nor was Merwin in any sense a student of Lowell's. Rather, at the age of 18 he sought out Ezra Pound (as Lowell did, too, as a teenager!), and it was Pound who gave him the first advice about poetry that he took; he studied with John Berryman, who doesn't strike me as SoQ (or is he?). And though I get the knock on formalism, Merwin's a lot less formalistic than, say, Richard Wilbur - and come on, even Lowell famously gave up his line-endings very early on. But that's just my pet peeve... Incidentally, Merwin's committment to the ecological arguably equals or exceeds Hass's.)
Ron's larger point about the aesthetics that govern the choices made for the post seems to me undeniable. As he points out, poets "who have never been named to the post include the late George Oppen, John Ashbery, Gary Snyder..." And he asks us to "imagine, if you will, what this same post might look like in the hands of Juliana Spahr, Linh Dinh, or Charles Bernstein, Bob Holman, Stacy Szymaszek, Rodrigo Toscano, Geof Huth or Camille Dungy. Or if the post was shared, say, by Kevin Killian & Dodie Bellamy. Or if the laureate had a name like Prageet Sharma, Mytili Jagannathan or K. Silem Mohammad." But would poets such as these even want or accept a ceremonial post?
I really like how Ron contrasts Merwin's translation of The Poem of the Cid against Paul Blackburn’s of the same poem "as evidence as to why & how Blackburn was a great writer." I absolutely agree about Blackburn (actually, the body of his work altogether is better evidence than just the Cid), but the fact that it's impossible to imagine him having been a PLOTUS means something... What?
I've often been struck by the incredible difference between the two poetry best seller lists on the Poetry Foundation website. The "contemporary" list, which consists mostly of trade books, has seldom lacked the names of poets such as Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Robert Hass, Kay Ryan, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, and yes... W.S. Merwin! Obviously, a lotta people are reading these poets. The other list, though - the "small press" list - looks more familiar to folks who write, read, edit, and blather about poetry day to day. And it's also more diverse, more changing, and less predictable: some names on it just now are John Murillo, Bhanu Kapil, John Beer, Ayane Kawata, Alice Notley (though she's a small press list perennial), Graham Foust, and Elizabeth Arnold. Clearly, there are distinct worlds of American poetry that just don't get through to each other: different audiences, differing ways of thinking about how poetry ought to be written.
(Another digression: I already know what Bill Knott will say about all this - here's an example from the old Harriet:
"... even among the damned there are divisions . . . there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed! who want their poetry to be read! who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!—
what traitors these are to their class—(jeez, if they didn’t want to be failures, why did they become poets!)—
no wonder all the normal (i.e. unsuccessful) poets hate the Judas Billy Collins and the quisling Mary Oliver . . ."But for me that's a plate of red herrings, because...)
There are all kinds of poems and all kinds of readers, and nobody's gonna convince me that this is a bad thing. Nor do I think we need to hybridize poetry. Yet maybe we can hybridize readers. When Ron says: "What a distance we still have to travel," I think, in my Pollyanna way, that the distance to travel is for each of us to move in the direction of the other. (And I'm not capitalizing "other," 'cos when you capitalize the other, as Jean Shepherd once pointed out, bad things happen.) I've read work by everybody named in Ron's post and in this one, and it hasn't hurt me one little bit. So maybe a good thing would be for each PLOTUS to use the pulpit to get the word out about the diversity of American poetry, which includes Ron's own substantial body of work. How cool it would be for the PLOTUS at any given moment to turn folks onto the likes of Eigner, Blackburn, Oppen, Armantrout, and Notley as well as, yes, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop? Ron is right and generous to note that Merwin isn't, thankfully, a bully - but maybe we need a PLOTUS to avail him- or herself of the bully pulpit on behalf of the varieties of American poetry. I always get a kick in the pants for espousing the eclectic, but if appreciating and nurturing the many conflicting textures of our poetry isn't consistent with the best dreams we can have for this country overall, then what is?
Pictured: A female American plotus.
Via rob mclennan's blog:
Sarah Manguso: "Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear. No pure forms exist. And I wish everyone would stop telling me about the 'new' 'hybrid' writing. Everything is already a hybrid. In any case, I think books belong to their authors, not to genres. Many writers get marketed in more than one genre, but readers just think, Look, here is another book by so-and-so, don’t they?"
(“David Shields in conversation with Sarah Manguso,” The Believer, June 2010)