Posted at 6:53 PM on Monday, December 22, 2008 by David Horowitz
I will get nothing but grief for making negative comments about Barack Obama's pick of a poet laureate, so let me say at the outset that the president-elect can hardly be faulted for making such a lousy choice, since Elizabeth Alexander has been lauded from one end of the academic literary culture to the other. Showered in honors by the current standard-makers of the high culture, there is no literary voice that I have been able to detect that has the artistic intelligence or alternatively the cojones to protest her selection. She is a professor of poetry at Yale, and has accumulated innumerable literary awards and earned a place on the short-list for the Pulitzer Prize. It is precisely this discordance between the high place she has been accorded as a writer and the incredibly bad writing she has actually produced that makes this a cultural moment that should not pass without notice.
I had never heard of Elizabeth Alexander before she received this appointment, and out of sheer curiosity went up to her website and read the poems she apparently is most proud of. I am still finding it hard to believe what I found there. Her writing is tone deaf, bad prose -- let alone bad poetry -- and teeth grindingly banal. "Poetry I shouted, Poetry/I screamed, Poetry/changes none of that [i.e, history]/by what it says/or how it says, none./But a poem is a living thing...and as life/it is all that can stand/up to violence."
There are three ideas here. The first, that poetry changes nothing, is a rip-off of one of the most famous lines in modern English poetry -- W.H. Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen" is thus banal. The others -- that a poem is a living thing and "as life" is the only thing that "can stand up to violence" are either meaningless or idiotic or both. If Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, then I have missed a career as a power forward for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Here is a so-called poem about the Watts Towers, three spires built by an Italian immigrant namd Simon Rodia who bejewelled them with the bottoms of coke bottles and other urban detritus creating one of the most inspiring monuments America has:
Stravinsky in L.A.
In white pleated trousers, peering through green "Red noise"? maybe. "locusts hiss to replicate the sun." No way. But this is the line that really stopped me: "The Watts Towers aim to split the sky into chroma, spires tiled with rubble nothing less than aspiration." That second clause is the banality: "tiled rubble" -- yah, that's what the Towers actually are -- well, not exactly. Rubble is the tile that Rodia used to ornament his cement and wrought iron spires. But then there are the spires themselves. The "spires....aspire." Genius.
sunshades, looking for the way the sun is red
noise, how locusts hiss to replicate the sun.
What is the visual equivalent
of syncopation? Rows of seared palms wrinkle
in the heat waves through green glass. Sprinklers
tick, tick, tick. The Watts Towers aim to split
the sky into chroma, spires tiled with rubble
nothing less than aspiration. I've left
minarets for sun and syncopation,
sixty-seven shades of green which I have
counted, beginning: palm leaves, front and back,
luncheon pickle, bottle glass, etcetera.
One day I will comprehend the different
grades of red. On that day I will comprehend
these people, rhythms, jazz, Simon Rodia,
Watts, Los Angeles, aspiration.
But what the heck is chroma? I looked the word up to make sure. It's the Greek word for "color" and also is the name for a "queer literary magazine" (Wikipedia). The English meaning of the word, however, is not color but "purity of color," or in something called the Munsell color system, is used to designate the distance of a color from white or gray. Ok, so the Watts Towers aim to split the sky into what? Queer literary magazines? Purity of color? It's not as if the term could mean split the sky into colors, which is what the poet evidently intends. (Although I'm not sure what that would mean if it actually could mean what she wants it to mean. A stained glass window might do that, but not cement towers embedded with bottle and can bottoms.)
The poem conveys no coherent image -- the writer seems to forget that she is peering through green sunshades when she perceives the sun as a noise and seeks the grade of red and tells us that she sees 67 shades of green etcetera and looks towards the day, when she will through (or not through) the green sunshade, comprehend the "grades of red" and also "these people" -- which people exactly? -- whom she aspires to comprehend along with "aspiration."
This is not poetry. It is gobbledygook, and the high honors accorded to Elizabeth Alexander are simply multiple ways of announcing that the academic philistines have prevailed and poetry in America is dead.
Because I have been away from academic literary studies for a long while, I checked these impressions with a friend who is a professor of literature. This is what he wrote back:
"Just read a couple of her poems, David. Drivel, but it hits all the right pieties in the academic culture. Yes, American poetry is in a dead state. Their only audience is one another. And it's an institutional thing. All poets now want jobs in the university, and one of the amazing trends in recent years is the explosion of Creative Writing majors and MFA programs. In fact, I would say that the only thing keeping English from slipping into the status of Classics is freshman comp and Creative Writing majors, most of which require enrollment in 4 or 5 literary studies classes.
And the creative writing teachers have an advantage. They actually have some conviction and enthusiasm about literature. For them, literary study isn't all about race, gender, class, and sexuality, and unmasking ideology in novels. It's about enjoyment and inspiration and instruction as well, which is why students flock there (apart from all of them wanting to be Sylvia Plath and Kerouac)."
And yes, although I didn't mention it, Elizabeth is -- to the point of banality -- one hundred percent politically correct.
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