Wednesday, February 18, 2015

`Diversity Cannot Trump Style'

Without breaking a sweat, poets, those sensitive plants, turn like spoiled toddlers into envy-fueled savages. I’ve seen it happen, and seen it casually excused and defended by their friends.  Catharine Savage Brosman, who turns eighty-one this year, is a scholar of modern French literature and a veteran of the Poetry Wars. She is poetry editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. In her latest collection, On the Old Plaza (Mercer University Press, 2014), in the spirit of a gentler Pope or Swift, she includes a loose sequence of poems satirizing the less-than-civilized literary world. Most are unavailable online but here is “On a Disgruntled Poet”: 

“Annoyed because I had declined
to print his poems—two frail barks,
unseaworthy, I thought—he whined,
included out-of-place remarks 

“alleging my incompetence,
then added that I was too old
to be an editor. What sense
he may possess should tell him, `Hold 

“your pen! That’s agism! You’re daft!’
Why burn a useful bridge? Instead,
acknowledge that the poet’s craft
is hard, success unsure. Ahead

“new chances lie; but talk goes round—
Friends, patrons, publishers might hear,
Concluding that you’ve run aground.
Miranda rights for this aren’t clear. 


“You’re doubtless waiting for my death.
Write on, Sir, but don’t hold your breath.” 

I won’t publically play the “Who’s She Talking About?” game, but a lengthy list of well-known whiners comes to mind. Here the envois to some of the other poems in the sequence. This is from “On a Dyspeptic Reviewer” (“That good wits / should be so used is almost vice, / and foolish also: picking nits / he may himself acquire lice.”): 

“Beware: we know that critics’ spite,
a boomerang, comes back to bite.”    

And this one, especially good, from “On an Erstwhile Editor, Feminist”: 

“Let race, class, gender nurse their bile;
diversity cannot trump style.” 

“The wheels of fortune surely turn;
your book may be the next to burn.”
There’s nothing new about the vanity of poets (and the rest of us) and the Hobbesian world they inhabit. In 1733, Swift gave us their definitive field guide in “On Poetry: A R[h]apsody”: 

“The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their foes superior by an inch.
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind:
Who, though too little to be seen,
Can teaze, and gall, and give the spleen;
Call dunces, fools, and sons of whores,
Lay Grub Street at each other’s doors.”

[ADDENDUM: A reader suggests Howard Nemerov's "On Being a Member of the Jury for a Poetry Prize:

"Jury’s the mot juste under our ground rules:
I may say Guilty, and mostly I do,
But sentencing’s beyond me, poeticules,
As, by your poems, it’s beyond most of you."]

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