Reading the NYTBR on Bishop and Lowell
[FB’d this in dismay on 5 March, but seems worthwhile to keep track of on my blog. It concerns a review of Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall, but mainly Patricia Bosworth’s review of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, by Kay Redfield Jamison.]
So, trying to relax on a windy & cold Sunday morning, I turn to the just-delivered paper The New York Times, skip all the outside layers of toxic DT-news & non-news, dig all the way to the travel section, knowing that in its fold they hide the weekly Book Review. For years now I haven’t had any truck with the NYTBR, except for checking their non-fiction reviews from time to time. Opening it this morning I instantly come across what I fear most: their take on American poetry — & I’m instantly in a time-warp of major proportions. Fifty years ago when I first came to this country & city & opened the “paper of record,” it was the same names I saw bandied about: Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell. Clearly, the NYTBR suggest, nothing has happened in American poetry since then, though even back in 1967 — I first typed 1067, & it could as well be 1050 years ago — they were completely out of touch with what had in American poetry in the twentieth century, & a fortiori, its lineaments after WWII. So here we have a former student’s biography-memoir of Bishop, who is a competent to at times good minor poet with a smallish oeuvre of about a hundred poems but a very sad life story, which is of course what creates the draw. So be it.
Then there is another biography of Lowell, another sad & depressing life story of this Boston upper-class male who went from riches to lithium. What irritated me enough to write this note, however, is the reviewer, Patricia Bosworth’s, description of Lowell as “a towering figure in the world of letters [well, maybe in certain limited quarters he still is, but less & less so … ] — a two-time Pulitzer winner [OK, that’s the usual lazy way reviewers alibi the claims to literary greatness], and the successor to Ezra Pound [what?! No way: Lowell is totally not the successor of Pound — he is exactly the opposite!] The reviewer then goes on to state (I could say “brazenly”) that Lowell “carved a niche with reams of innovative poetry he churned out in bold, often experimental styles. His subjects were wide-ranging and epic: the Greek myths, the American Revolution.” If Lowell’s writing is Bosworth’s idea of “bold” and “innovative” poetry, then that shows at least a profound ignorance of twentieth-century poetry, American or other, on her part. Lowell’s idea of “epic” and history are, as David Antin showed many years ago, “all out of the elementary school history text,” and “… Fourth of July speeches. It is cocktail-party intellectual history.”
That at this point of our ever more troublesome history, the same platitudes can still be spewed forth in the “paper of record,” is profoundly dispiriting — but to be expected from the NYTBR. To any reader interested in an accurate account of the history of poetry in those years, I can only recommend to go to & read the already mentioned essay by David Antin, “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in Modern American Poetry” (in David Antin, Radical Coherence: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, Chicago University Press, 2011, pp. 161–196). Among many other insights, Antin makes clear the lineages of modern & postmodern American poetry: “Eliot and Tate will lead to Lowell and even Snodgrass, while Pound and Williams will lead to Rexroth, Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan, Creeley, and so on.”
’Nuff said for this morning; returning now to the pleasures of Nate Mackey’s Late Arcade, the fifth volume of his ongoing prose work From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, just out from New Directions.