Poetry criticism? Or tendentious culture warfare?

In an otherwise interesting and intelligent piece in The New Criterion, reflecting on the work of some contemporary British poets, and deeming it superior to the work of many contemporary American poets, David Yezzi makes what seems to me a characteristically tendentious NC move:

A poem can only be truly American, they [i.e., many American poets] would argue, if pushed to some stylistic extreme, to a radical innovation of some kind …

Yezzi then goes on to say that, by contrast to those who would supposedly argue the above, British poets have long incorporated radical experiments into a more cohesive tradition. From which follows his entire essay, intriguingly exploring the work of Armitage et al.

But really: Who are those “many American poets” who “would” argue that unless a poem be “willing to break through boundaries of precedence and even of sense,” it isn’t “truly American”? Have our poets recently been manning and womaning the barricades in order to label, in the mode of Sarah Palin’s followers, some poems “real Americans,” and others not, based on how willing those poems are to be radically inaccessible? Or is Yezzi arguing with — and misconstruing, possibly deliberately — William Carlos Williams (d. at eighty in 1963)? Or what?

It’s a straw man. He invents a vaguely described, unsupported characterization of attitudes of American poets in order to present a general view of some comparative virtues of the British poets he wants to discuss — and the aesthetic values he wants to promote. Let’s say I’m wrong — let’s say many American poets, instead of writing poems, are busy condemning accessible poems as un-American — he’d still need to show at least a glimpse of what he’s talking about.

The real problem with this gambit is that it gives the sense that Yezzi is writing the piece mainly to rope certain British poets into a condemnation of some supposed errors of American poets. Which makes a possibly compelling essay on trends in British poetry seem sophomoric. And there’s way too much of that kind of immature/precocious crap thing in The New Criterion.

One thought on “Poetry criticism? Or tendentious culture warfare?

  1. on this eve of buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death (yes, all on same date, “they” say) i will put forward a zen-like observation: accessible writing is fearless writing.

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