THOU SHALT NOT CRITICIZE THE STATE OF LITERARY CRITICISM.
Elizabeth Lund is the Post's chief literary paladin gatekeeper, who lauds ad laudanum literati, as if they were little caesar gods and goddesses. Examine any of her filler-column hagiographies like "A new collection of John Ashbery's work and other best poetry for September."
"John Ashbery [...] left an indelible mark on American poetry," she notes. "His avant-garde approach stretched, twisted and redefined the concept of poetry." Okay, but how precisely did it do that? Any examples of stretching, twisting and redefining? Well, yes. An example is provided from the "monumental book-length poem 'Flow Chart'," "orchestral in its span and scope." Ashbery writes, uh, "explores his thought process and the collective experience of everyday life," which
is so busy, but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something/ we can never feel, except / occasionally,/ in small signs/ put up to warn us.
Now how might those lines compel readers to want to read more of such grandiose greatness, of such an iconic Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award poet? Well, if readers are of the open wide and swallow variety, no problem at all! And Lund lauds the "tremendous range as a poet who masterfully combined the mundane and the dreamlike." Hmm.
Next Lund takes on The Best American Poetry 2017. And of course no questions asked about who the judges were, nor what their criteria were. And of course in direct contrast to Emerson, as in, "I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions," she sits awe-stricken before the badges and names: edited by "Natasha Trethewey (Scribner), former U.S. poet laureate, features many of the field's biggest names, including Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Kevin Young and Matthew Zapruder."
Lund argues the poems to "have a wonderful cohesion and flow, as if each contributes to a larger narrative about life today." Yet is it not odd that a whole book of poems from many different poets are somehow cohesive? Well, that must mean that not one poem in the entire collection concerned criticism of the collection itself and the academic/literary establishment in general, including the "badges and names." Is it right to prohibit such poetry? Well, for Trethewey, the answer is yes.
Don't Call Us Dead is the third and last book reviewed by Lund. It is--oh, but of course!--a "stunning collection" and authored by self-proclaimed "neither gender" Danez Smith. And it is--oh, but of course!--on the long list for the National Book Award. Lund emphasizes the "deeply moving sequence in which the speaker envisions an afterlife for all of the black men and boys who have been shot and killed by police." One must then assume, though Lund doesn't mention it, that that must include all the black men and boys who have murdered, raped, and robbed, though in Smith's ideologically-restricted, woeisme victimization mind perhaps there simply ain't such men and boys. In his "unpopular heaven," "there's no language/ for officer or law, no color to call white." Sounds like the Chicago hood, where black on black murder is rampant! Hmm. Sadly, Lund does not have the capacity, let alone courage, to raise such an uncomfortable reality. All she can do is note that Smith won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, among other honors and "takes aim at the racism and inequities in America that make many black people fear for their safety on a daily basis." Yeah, like in the black neighborhoods of Detroit! Ah, but Lund can't say that in her and Smith's imaginary world of black good/white evil. She terminates her hagiography with a real tear-jerker: "These pieces pulse with the rhythms and assertiveness one expects from poetry slams. They also demand that people understand why the speaker [Smith] wants to leave Earth 'to find a land where my kin can be safe.'" Hell, why leave Earth when he could simply plunk his carcass into one of the nation's many university safe spaces. Why encourage people like Smith to wallow in self-pity and unreality? is truly mind-boggling, mind-belittling, and downright intellectually sad to observe just how low literary criticism has sunk. Thanks WaPo for playing your part!
Lee Goldstein (Lawrence, KS). My mind has a flow and I either tap into that or not. I am trained in mathematics and to "forcefully try" isn't usually valid in its problem solving. There are a lot of societal institutions I don't like very much--but do they have ears if I object? In that respect, others make me feel like an agitator when I dissent from the herd. It seems most people are trying to protect their groupthink--and there are its offenders! For instance, in Topeka, KS, where I just moved from, they try to put down individual expression, or so it seemed to me. Lawrence is more progressive by comparison, but then, here, what I say, people already know for themselves and that is why they are here. So I don't think my own dissent at a basic level is often worthy, especially because I am daunted by groupthink. I try to hold my own ground most of the time in retreat.
By the Editor