New York Times's Nostalgic Vision of Poetry

by on Mar.04, 2011

In last Sunday’s New York Times, there’s a long lifestyle type of article about the new editor of the Paris Review, a youngish (my age…) guy named Lorin Stein. The article is mostly about how Stein likes to go out partying and serial-date and get dressed in dapper clothing.

There is a little bit about how he knows Jonathan Franzen and is a protege of Jonathan Galassi, but there is remarkably little about what he thinks about literature. He says he wants to make the journal “matter” but there is nothing about his ideas about literature; rather, making the journal “matter” seems a matter of throwing parties with famous people.

This is not a critique of Stein, who presumably has those ideas, but of the New York Times, which seems more interested in a lifestyle model of literary Fame and Reputation than anything about poetry.

It seems the NY Times basically covers two things when it comes to poetry: Robert Lowell/Elizabeth Bishop (letters, reissues, appreciations, nostalgic yearning, how many more articles can they really write about those two!) and harangues against the poor quality of contemporary poetry with its “experimentalism” and MFAs and such. And lifestyle articles about Paris Review editors in dapper outfits. And Fredric Seidel.

It seems NY Times poetry coverage is wholly dictates by a nostalgia for a 1950s/60s era of superstar poets, the old-fashioned, well-dressed geniuses with their intriguing personal lives (they’re mostly men, very virile, “serial daters”). The MFA “industry” obviously runs against this ideal of the superstar who supposedly comes naturally brilliant, who is not influenced by others (the Romantic Genius, the True Original).

The MFA Industry “churns out” poets (Dana Gioia says) like so much ground beef. There is too many poets, too much being published, it’s hard to know who “matters” anymore. Ideas and stylistics move like contagion, not like a linear Literary History.

In the article, there’s also something like a nostalgia for print culture – the era when Paris Review “mattered” for literary discussions.

The article refers to Stein as a “dandy,” but the dandy is, according to Baudelaire) not actually rich, that’s part of the deal; they behave like “aristocrats,” but they’re not actually aristocrats. No, what the NY Times likes about Stein is not that he’s a dandy, but a throwback to the Lowell Era of the Great Artist. One feature of that nostalgic vision of poetry was of course that there was Greatness, not differing ideas of poetry and aesthetics. You didn’t have to have opinions about art, you merely had to admire Great Poetry. Who’s on top? It’s easy. It’s boring. Who’s on first?

We might go back to Megan Milks’ post again:

In his essay “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy,” referenced last week by James Pate in his Chaos Theory post, Deleuze manages to make the simulacrum — always already negative in aesthetics, subsumed by a Platonian reverence for the Original and its copy — positive. The Platonian motivation, Deleuze says, is always “selecting among the pretenders, distinguishing good and bad copies or, rather, copies (always well-founded) and simulacra (always engulfed in dissimilarity)” (257). The copy in these terms is necessarily second to the original. There is always rank, a hierarchy that privileges the Original as though such an almighty thing exists.
In Platonian terms, then, the simulacrum is a degraded copy — and Baudrillard shares in this sneering at the simulacrum. Deleuze however recuperates it from this assumption of ‘degradation’ (or maybe more so from the assumption that degradation is negative, automatically inauthentic because impoverishing to the Original). For Deleuze, the simulacrum is not so much a false pretender as an active pretender, a pretender that pretends “underhandedly, under cover of an aggression, an insinuation, a subversion, ‘against the father,’ and without passing through the Idea.” In other words, the simulacrum enacts the falsity of the Original – like Butler’s drag.

The New York Times book section (and the hierarchical, east-coast culture which it represents) wants there to be an Original, the True Poet (like in the good old days with Lowell), who “mattered” by being crowned by the literary establishment. There has been some talk about why the New York Times and such publications don’t review women writers etc, and this may be part of the answer: the Original is Male. The Female generates excesses, even when she is a he. That is, Stein is the “serial dater” – he is singular, the women are the multiples. Though clearly that’s just one issue involved.

Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.

(That’s from Joyelle’s essay.)

Congratulations on your destruction.

26 comments for this entry:
  1. Monica Mody

    I just watched Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, and at some point in the movie Basquiat is shown collaborating with Andy Warhol: by painting a layer of white paint or a word over a horse or some other Warholian simulacra. And Warhol looks at that and says, “I just don’t know what’s good anymore.” He’s not freaked out, or angry, or anything – it’s more like a giving up. I loved that.

  2. adam strauss

    Could nostalgia be linked to Kitsch, tho admitedly without the atrocity? Or is that link the sort of dynamic you’ve been trying to revise? Conventionally speaking, I’d argue kitsch totally thrives on nostalgia/retro impulses/studiously avoids the present tense (tho of course if it exists now it is the present).

  3. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Sudden inspiration for a book title: ‘The Contemporary Claymation Anti-Genius’s Guide to Fashion & Industry’.

  4. adam strauss

    Can kitsch–even atrocity–be in the present? Taking C Forche as an example: the poems in that antho, by overtly anouncing a connection to capital H history (at-least in theory if not sanctioned monuments etc), inherently make them “period pieces,” by which I by no means automatically mean in an H Bloom way.

    For the ever-present gap in argument: Gwendolyn Brooks could be called a periodicizing poet, but minus three or four poems kitsh could be a hard moniker to lob onto her work.

  5. Johannes

    I think any art can be called kitsch. Esp any artist that employs anti kitsch rhetoric. Whaich is what youve identified in ny times.

  6. Lara Glenum

    Nostalgia is a form of atrocity.

  7. Carina Finn

    what poetry needs is a return to the celebrity — what these estabpo pubs aren’t getting is that the nature of the celebrity has fundamentally changed. the new celebrity is all about excess, all about the style-shift, all about a sparkly outfit & fuck the lyrics. the new poet is a pop-star, is public & sparkly & excessive. the celebrity poet is an earnest young whore. stein should hie hence to the paparazzi & seek their patronage if he wants to make the paris review pop. anyway I only care about what happens in us weekly.

  8. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Well the pop star is certainly the anti-genius, anti-Original, etc. Derivative and molded for mass popular consumption on a scale of its own artisan craftwork (a thousand craftsman of popular expectation and desire); ‘pop’ right in the label after all. This does make sense as a counter to Johannes’s ‘true genius’, you can’t get much further from the talent-in-solitude notions.

    The general notions about the ‘authenticity’ of pop artists seems ripe for application too–i.e., ‘performer’ vs. ‘artist’. I can see why perspectives that enjoy artifice hover near this ideal.

    The pop star after all is the artist that has sold out, signed that big record deal, left their ‘real’ fans behind, etc.

    They are essentially feedback conduits–how many write their own songs, etc., that same old critique. The public wants X, X is designed for the public in the form of Pop Star Y; the trick is the buying into of the mass delusion of originality and resonance. The feedback loop of excess–yes, scattershot the eyes and ears, hit as many 30-second attention spans as possible, etc. Artisan pandering & regurgitation.

    I hope someday to make a living ghostwriting poetry for one of these hot up and comers; how are we going to fit all those lights and pyrotechnics for the readings, though? When do they start lip-syncing; have they already?

    I guess I’m old-fashioned, would rather be selling my CDs by hand at a bar show at 2am standing on an inch layer of stale beer; surely there is excess anywhere one wants to look.

  9. Johannes

    The thing Carina points out is that that Lowell is not different from celebrity: they are both based on celebrity roles (as is the 2 am bar band). On some level, it’s then a debate about images of the artist. However, I don’t think that’s all there is, or that this is necessarily easily divorced from the poems.


  10. Chris Pappas

    Explanations spoil on: what is? and more on: what is happening? For every speakable thing, with life in frame of Human being, makes its counter-being: its opposite. So every thing which seems so is only so in the context of an apparent negative; we must imagine. Each side of the empty equation affirming what the other denies. Denying what the other affirms. It’s interesting how many things there are that aren’t so.


  11. adam strauss

    I like: “Nostalgia is a form of atrocity.”

  12. Johannes

    And atrocities are often based on nostalgia.

  13. Ryan Sanford Smith

    It is, and a self-punishing one.

  14. adam strauss

    And hence kitsch is often atrocious in the most “genuine” sense of the word? Is facism kitschy? Genocidal programs kitschy–exspecially ones featuring some consciously styled uniform? War kitschy? Or are these things–via their brutality–something other? The minute kitsch becomes the vector for dead bodies–not art bodies but ones in the “real” live demos–does it lose its kitsch status and become un-modified atrocity?

  15. Carina Finn

    bc both nostalgia & atrocities require a Great Love, which is a Terrible Thing

  16. Matt

    Frederick Seidel. Not “Fredric”.

    Can I ask you an honest question? Why do you spell people’s names wrong all the time? I mean, you do it all the time. Do you do it on purpose?

  17. Johannes

    I’m a really poor speller. Sad but true.

  18. Nick Demske

    damn. wise words, johan.

  19. adam strauss

    LOL: for fear of mispelling, JG, I tend to abbreviate your name or just write like it’s obvious you are the addressee (that looks tres mispelled!),

  20. adam strauss

    @CP: Great love, as opposed to Love—interesting; where did the kitsch go?

    I hope all’s well

  21. Jake Levine

    “The social revolution cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped itself of all its superstitions concerning the past. Earlier revolutions relied on memories out of world history in order to drug themselves against their own content. In order to find their own content, the revolutions of the nineteenth century have to let the dead bury the dead. Before, the expression exceeded the content; now the content exceeds the expression” Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire.

    The revolution is taking place and I think its becoming difficult for traditional literary establishments like the New Yorker, Harpers, NY Times, Penguin, etc… to deal with the onslaught of talented young writers who’d rather be published outside of major writing awards / the old institutionalized presses. I don’t think I’m an outsider in that I read blogs like this one, htmlgiant, big other, etc, more than I read anything in the New Yorker (actually, I don’t read the New Yorker). Validity is being challenged, reasserted, and I think what we are doing now is stripping our old culture in anticipation of a new one, which we are forging out of the detritus of James Franco poet biopics. I think of the myth of Ginsberg or Hart Crane as being somewhat less mythic now, and while I am disgusted, I am kind of excited by my own revulsion; that these hypotexts are doing sometime to the way I think about these poets as living, think of their texts as living, but now I think of them as becoming more deadened, at least epistemoligically in the now. And that, for all its shitfuckstupidness, is super awesome. The old garde is losing grip on its function, its high browedness, the east coast-west coast paradigm is dead, and the new avant is not really interested in appealing to them for self-recognition. In a Hegellian sense, we are no longer slaves, no longer have to appeal to the master as the “other”. We have stripped them of their power, and they are floundering. They are no longer relevant or interesting. New MFA poetry instructors are teaching essays by Joyelle and poetry by Ariana Reines. The first dude I taught was Douglas Kearney. I didn’t think, well I need to teach women or black people, I just started that way because I thought it would be a good intro to poetry. I don’t think I’m alone.

  22. Chris

    Not only have I the natural predisposition towards being a genius poet and have written many incredible poems but I also dress formally and beautifully and am a handsome man. I have never taken an MFA, preferring to teach myself over the last decade, writing, reading critical studies, all the poetry I can find, thinking hard about tone, pacing, murder, syntax, rhetoric vocabulary,historical contexts, cultural contexts, death by fire, music etc. My lifestyle is id-driven, eg (I once had sex with five women in one day. I AM as proud of that as any mid quality poem I’ve ever written )I can also hold an audience in thrall of my charisma and incredible reading voice. I’ve punched plenty of people in the head. Watch the hell out for me and my work, chumps.

  23. Ryan Sanford Smith

    That’s a whole lotta chest-thumpin’!

  24. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Which is to say, I’ll add, that being wary of letting someone place you gently atop a pedestal is fine, but even better is being wary of one’s own eagerness to build one’s own pedestal then stand atop it, breathing from the labor and attempt to strike a memorable pose.

    I’m also wary of intellectually lazy parodies when one is, justifiably enough, probably annoyed when someone has done it to you. It’s a grade-school cafeteria fight with slightly more sophisticated ammunition. Everyone ends up looking childish and who’s the better for it?

  25. Aase Berg on Motherhood and Authorship - Montevidayo

    […] of Scandinavian, Baltic and Russian poets. I thought it might provide some kind of perspective on my observations about the New York Times and their myth of the virile man. Warning, I just translated this so it's a bit of a rough […]

  26. Chris

    I wanted to add that one of my acquaintances, one Terence Winch, wrote a poem after one crazy evening in a Cambodian pistol-disco listening to me expound on my genius. Terry is a little tousle-headed semi-douche who always finds his way into my company through the practice of buying all my drinks: Laphroaig 15 year single malt. I own ties more interesting than Terry and certainly silkier…god damn, the fact of the matter is- this is really MY poem, and the story of how I rose to become the greatest poet Phnom Penh’s Martini Club and it’s free-lancing bop-girls have ever encountered.

    Here is MY poem “My Work”.