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    Monday, April 25, 2005

    Superstar Poet? or not...

    Upon reading the NYTimes, which, as you can see I read with quite regularity. I came across a book review and article all rolled into one on Jorie Graham. The article was a discussion of poetry’s sort of subtlety and the way in which certain people sneak onto the syllabi of MFA students everywhere, start popping up winning awards, publishing books with major publishing houses, and therefore seem to earn the title of Superstar Poet; Graham of course being that person. Jorie Graham has a considerable resume, winning many awards, a Pulitzer and MacArthur Genius Grant included, and she teaches at Iowa etc. But the journalist wants to know how this Superstar status came about, and frankly, so do I. Is she a superstar because of her accomplishments, and if so, then shouldn’t her poetry reach these epic heights and reflect her awards? I personally have never been a big fan of Graham’s work and mostly enjoyed her poetry for its risk taking and unwillingness to conform to the status quo. But one can only read on that enjoyment for about 10 pages or so and then must take a break, put the book down and return to it for another 10 pages or so another day. You appreciate her work in small doses and move on. Graham’s books are not books that you take to bed and snuggle up with, refer to again and again, and lend out to other friends most deserving of a good read. (Ex. Sarah Manguso-The Captain Lands in Paradise, Mary Jo Bang-Louise in Love)

    The reviewer in this article equates her new book to tinfoil, well ok, he doesn’t exactly do just that but he comes close. He closes his review with this question: “So have we gotten a little ahead of ourselves in appointing our Major Poets? If we think such writers should embody their times, then maybe not: the haze at the center of Graham's work neatly reflects the current confusion and fragmentation of American poetry. But if we think a Major Poet is meant to be more than this, then maybe we should be arguing over these matters more often -- and more publicly. Because if the books the poetry world leaves in the laps of its slumbering audience are compromises rather than necessities, isn't it likely that readers will wake only to rub their eyes, thumb a few pages, sigh and go right back to sleep again?” This is a question that I most thoroughly want answered. What do we want from our Major Poets? How do we unify a seemingly fragmented world of poetry with all of its dips and divides and fizzures?


    Blogger mephistofales said...

    Unifying the world of poetry? I don't think there's ever been a unified world of poetry. I think the last great attempt would've been Elliot & Pound who wanted to exclude just about everything in order to bring about a neo classical age in modern times. The idea of unification and homogonizing doesn't appeal to me at all. Having a meter stick for greatness is also limiting in my humble opinion, either the work is good or its not. The criteria to judge the work and decided good or bad, interesting or not, will change as often and with as great a variety as the work itself. There are inherant questions I think that one should ask of any poetry that is read, but I'm not always sure the same question applies to every single poem. I'm just not sure...

    I agree with you in that the superstars are questionable, the laurettes were laudable, once, and the avante garde takes itself a bit too seriously. I don't know what qualifies these groups or what qualifiers ascribe group affiliation. I do know there is this phenomenon and like you, would like to see the liner notes.

    4:11 PM  
    Blogger Michael said...

    Major Poet? What does that mean exactly? Does the application of the term 'Major Poet' imply that the poet is known outside the realm of poets (ie. non-poet general population)?

    At the heart of it, isn't the question: what's the nature of becoming the 'superstar' in any given field? I know nothing of J.Graham, maybe she's really groundbreaking, maybe she was, but hasn't been for sometime. Maybe she had a great publicist and wooed the right critics.

    Superstar = the critics, the task of convincing those "in the know", some PR, and a bit of talent (well, sometimes). These people then become the meter-stick Len mentioned. Plus there will always be the critics or 'true judges'- those that have been given (or wrested) the authority to decide what is good or more better for the larger percentage who can't decide for themsleves.

    Oh and who is the 'slumbering audience' anyway?

    7:21 PM  
    Blogger gradylove said...

    blah blah blah. so mike, not only did kristine getting you talking about this, but len sucked you in. big mistake. last time I talked to len about poetics my hair had started turning gray by the time we were done. I spend my days writing poetry and I have no idea what the fuck he's talking about. and erza pound is so annoying eventually.

    I will say this, I agree with mr. len on one point, either the work is good or not and I think people just know what speaks to them in that regard. it's like going to a museum, you stop at some work longer that other work for some reason.

    I'm the slumbering audience by the way, mostly because in conversations like these I even start to bore myself.

    10:08 AM  
    Blogger mephistofales said...

    Grady over here has an opinion for every minute of the day. He's both the audience and the critic, don't let the casual veneer fool you, he's got teeth man.

    As for audience, I suppose we're all the audience and the critic at the same time. You are definately a relavent meter stick where judgements surrounding good vs. bad, super vs. mediocre are called into question.

    As for Pound becoming annoying... well frankly... everyone and everything becomes annoying in time, its about moderation, and I don't care for the guy, he wasn an antisemite on Italian Fascist Radio, not my kind of people... but he did write some remarkeable poems.

    3:29 PM  
    Blogger Kristine said...

    So major poet would, yes, mean eventually known to the world outside the realm of poets. Not immediately because, well, we poets aren’t very popular. It would takes years and years for a poet now to show up in high school english classes.

    I think you’re right, at the heart of it is that nagging question of what does it take to make it in your field.

    7:18 PM  
    Blogger Michael said...

    I have to admit that I'm always drawn into this sort of discussion fairly easily, John. I enjoy the aestetics & criticism debate (the DBAE method was a always hotly contested subject among art teachers).

    I'll put this on my discussion agenda for the next time I'm in SF, kris. [writes note on hand]

    3:26 PM  
    Anonymous Chad said...

    This may explain why Jorie Graham has earned many allies in the poetry world. Note the following cases of nepotism.

    Jorie Graham selected her student, Joshua Clover, as winner of the Walt Whitman Award, which has since changed its guidelines.
    selected her student, Michele Glazer, as winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Poetry in 1997, which prompted AWP to change its guidelines. Glazer, who studied with Graham at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize for her second book.
    chose her student, Geoffrey Nutter, as winner of the Colorado Prize in 1999.
    picked Iowa graduate James McCorkle for The American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry published by Copper Canyon Press.
    awarded the 2004 Barnard Women Poets Prize to her former student, Tessa Rumsey, whose first book was selected for the Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series by Jorie's ex, James Galvin.
    "'It's hard to imagine how one could be a better teacher of poetry than she is,' says Mark Levine, a former student who now teaches at Iowa himself."* He must have been a very good student, as Graham picked his first book for the National Poetry Series in 1992.
    Presented her partner/Harvard colleague, Peter Sacks, with the Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series prize for his book.

    A statement adopted in competitions to prevent judges from selecting students is often referred to as the Jorie Graham rule.

    9:27 PM  

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