Saturday, August 13, 2011

`And Be Not Queasy To Praise Somewhat'

David Myers is back, and so the donnybrook resumes. I don’t know anyone who argues with such relish and surgical precision. Even when I have no stake in the contest, I enjoy the action when he’s involved. Besides, David writes better than anyone else in the bookish precincts of the blogosphere.

For one of his maiden outings he takes on one of those insufferable journalistic novelties that today pass for belles lettres. Slate asks fourteen writers to “confess their least favorite `must read.’” (“Confess” is melodrama. “Must read” is Madison Avenue.) Only four of the contributors are familiar to me, and only two of the four make consistent sense. While others say silly things about The Bostonians, Ulysses and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Francine Prose reduces Beowulf to a cheesy swords-and-dragons fantasy, which it is.

It’s also nice to watch J.D. McClatchy dismiss Virginia Woolf and William Carlos Williams. Others take deserved potshots at The Catcher in the Rye and The Alexandria Quartet, but how revealing that most contributors, in a touchingly obtuse nineteenth-century holdover, limit themselves to novels. Congratulations to McClatchy for bucking the trend:

“The absolute worst, the gassiest, most morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the most earnestly and emptily studied and worshipped … that's an easy one. Ezra Pound.”

For a moment, take a cue from McClatchy and turn to the relentlessly overrated poets: John Ashbery, of course, and almost at random: Charles Olson, Frank Bidart, Sylvia Plath, Robert Creeley, Rita Dove, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds, Stephen Spender, Tony Hoagland, Ron Silliman, Philip Levine, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Jane Kenyon, George Oppen, Charles Simic, Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Robert Lowell, Franz Wright, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, Frank O’Hara, A.R. Ammons, Mary Oliver, Allen Ginsburg, W.S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, Ted and Langston Hughes – on and on, the long dreary parade of oversold mediocrities. Few honest readers can “confess” to reading them with pleasure, but as David wisely notes:

“The goal should be to encourage readers to put down bad books and pick up better ones—books that succeed where the overrated books fail.”

A better book to pick up is The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (edited by Timothy Steele, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1997), which includes “To My Contemporaries”:

“How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

“But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

“Despise me not!
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.

“But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.”


Cynthia Haven said...

Great minds think alike, Patrick. Just posted on the same Slate column today.

I can't claim to be a big Theodore Roethke fan, though I have to say "The Waking" is one of my all-time favorite poems. That one alone redeems him, in my opinion.

WAS said...

I respect poets for what they do and don’t get recognized for perhaps a bit too much to lay out my own inner circle of “oversold mediocrities” (although Anthony Hecht would be at the top of any such list). I have no such problem with fiction, having been insulted by bad writing, unbelievable plotlines, fake characters and self-conscious preening from lionized luminaries so many times I don’t even want to go near a book of "must read" literary fiction. I agree with Myers on “Beloved” in particular and Toni Morrison in general, and, almost at random, I’d tick off my own list of painfully overrated:

John Updike, Don DeLillo, Vladimir Nabokov, Ayn Rand, Phillip Roth, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Dave Eggers, Mark Helprin, William Styron, E. Annie Proulx, John Barth, Colson Whitehead, Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, Jay McInerney, Andre Dubois III – ah, this list goes on too frighteningly long I have to stop.

Anonymous said...

“The goal should be to encourage readers to put down bad books and pick up better ones—books that succeed where the overrated books fail.”

Exactly so.