Wednesday, September 26, 2007

If Poetry Seems Irrelevant...

In a five thousand word essay in The New Criterion, Joseph Epstein looks back on the changes in the literary landscape of the last 25 years.

The decline of the schools of criticism, the passing of the youngest of the the New York Intellectuals (Susan Sontag) and much more. It is a sweeping assessment that hopefully was written with tongue in cheek nature because it is painted with extremely broad strokes.

Critics, novels, globalization, poetry and the universities are all discussed. However, theatre merits one single sentence:

"English playwrights are less dreary than American, still up to taking on large themes (see Tom Stoppard, passim), though they are much aided here in having a superior cadre of fine actors."

But perhaps we can extrapolate his feelings from looking at his meditations on other subjects.:

On Poetry:

Poor poetry, it is the Darfur of twenty-first century literature. Everyone wants to do something about it, but nobody quite knows what is to be done. Money is poured into it (think Miss Ruth Lilly’s $100 million bequest to Poetry magazine), prizes and titles are awarded to poets roughly every thirty-five minutes (think Poet Laureate of the State of New Jersey), new poets are produced roughly at the rate of rabbits (don’t think, lest serious depression set in, of all those endless MFA programs turning out more and more people who will themselves go on to teach in MFA programs). I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that in the United States today there are more practicing poets than members of the National Rifle Association.


Contemporary poetry has an air of crushing intramurality. Poetry has become a schoolhouse affair, with poems being, as they say in the MFA programs, relentlessly “workshopped,” an empty word which means no more than discussed in a classroom setting. The only people who read contemporary poetry appear to be those who write it. Stories circulate about magazines with more would-be contributors than actual subscribers. Poets of reputation meet to give Pulitzer and other prizes to pals. Contemporary poetry begins to seem like a club to which one is lucky to escape membership.

On Novels:

Some while ago I was asked to write about Russo’s novel Empire Falls and a novel by Jonathan Franzen called The Corrections, which is steeped in hatred for the middle-class from which Franzen derived. The comparison between the two novels reminded me of an essay Matthew Arnold wrote about the difference between Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, which was that Tolstoy, the larger-hearted man, came to love his heroine and Flaubert never veered from his loathing for his. A good heart remains the first requisite for a great novelist.


So many young novelists appear to be up against the same problem, settling for composing books that go in for verbal feats and imaginative flights over gripping moral dramas: I have in mind the novels of Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Gary Shtayngart, Jeffrey Eugenides, among others. Belief goes to the heart of the problem: if you don’t know what you believe in, you cannot construct moral dramas, which leaves you with making jokes through elaborate literary constructs to make the sham point about reality not quite existing, or that life is really no more than a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom.

Early in The Emperor’s Children a character is reading one such novel, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and finding “bits of it made him laugh, but he couldn’t seem to keep track of the broader premise, or plot (was there a premise or plot?).” I didn’t have much better luck with this novel than Ms. Messud’s character, and I have decided to take a pass on such fiction: time is not limitless, the grave yawns, and so, while reading it, do I.


Thomas Garvey said...

The article sounds obnoxious as hell, true, but I do like that line "Time is not limitless, the grave yawns, and so do I." I have to remember that for my next ART review!

Art said...

I liked that line also.

There are some other good ones in there.

He does end the whole article on a more hopeful note. But the whole thing just seems a little silly, as if Epstein knows that to cover the whole literary landscape of the last 25 years is a ridiculous undertaking.

In fact, he basically refers us Cynthia Ozick's book of essays as a better source for such observations.