In the 4th part of the National Poetry Month blog, I ask America's best poets to answer five more questions by readers of poetry.
1. April 23 is Shakespeare's 450th anniversary. If you went back in time and could ask him one question, what would that question be?
Alfred Corn (author of Unions, forthcoming in 2014):
I would ask him about his various loves and what bearing those had on his works.
David Lehman (author of The Last Avant-Garde):
Did you mean "solid" or "sullied" when you wrote, "Oh, that this too, too solid [sullied] flesh would melt. . ."?
Henri Cole (author of Touch):
I would ask him if he likes American poetry, and if he thinks we're doing okay by the sonnet, and if he would like to eat a sandwich in the park next door.
CAConrad (author of Ecodeviance):
OH MY GOD, I say, "William!! PUT DOWN that quill, grab my hand and get on the time machine built by the Huffington Post (apparently) and come to where poetry is COOL!! It's in a year called 2014!! NO STOPS ALONG THE WAY MY FRIEND!!" Actually we STOPPED to grab Kafka, and then the three of us made out, my lips simultaneously tingling wet with Elizabethan England and early twentieth century Prague. How thrilling!!
John Gallaher (author of In a Landscape, forthcoming in 2014):
How long did you think your writing would last? Were you aware you were a genius?
Adam Fitzgerald (author of The Late Parade):
I would ask about his sex life, starting with the identity of the Young Man of the Sonnets.
2. What bothers you most in your literature community?
Careerism. Which leads people to put the goal of visible "success" before actual literary achievement. And, too often, ahead of probity and basic regard for others.
Cronyism in editing, hiring, judging, and reviewing. It's deadening to think about, but I try to cultivate hope as a virtue.
It bothers me less than it once did, as it's gotten better in recent years, but I still come across a kind of tunnel vision in corners of the poetry community, where writers speak of a small group of poets as if that was all there is. It's a big tent. I'd like poets to poke around in it a bit more in their reading and writing habits.
3. Which poets, alive or dead, are overrated/underrated?
Underrated: Bernadette Mayer, James Schuyler, A.E. Housman, Charlotte Mew, Robert Hass, Christina Rossetti, Swinburne, Donald Justice, Melville, John Crowe Ransom, Léonie Adams, T.E. Brown, Walter de la Mare, Harryette Mullen.
Matthew Zapruder (author of Sun Bear):
I am continually surprised at how misunderstood and underrated James Tate is. I think he might very well be our greatest living poet. People think he is a joker or surrealist (he can be both), but there is also an intense real dread and deep humanistic love in his poems. Those things come in odd forms, and often mixed up with other elements (like narrative), but they are there for us.
All poets are underrated, except a few. I don't really like one-line-joke poetry that gets a laugh at the expense of others or poetry that has a hole in it where the heart should be.
Underrated: First up, I think is Robert Lowell. He brought quite a few new things to the art. I think he'll come around again in a few years. Similarly, Anne Sexton isn't talked about as much as she once was, but I also think that'll be turning again. As well, Kenneth Fearing. No one talks about him much, but he was doing things 80 years ago that still seem fresh. I'm glad to see Rae Armantrout coming into her own in recent years. For a long time I would have listed her as the most underrated poet in America.
Time deals with the overrated, so I can't be bothered. But the under appreciated, oh my what a LIST!! My obsession for the most delicious in everything poetry drove me to ask this very question of poets I know, love and trust a few years ago. I called it THE NEGLECTORINO PROJECT. And I DO BELIEVE it's due for an update, a PART TWO!! But here is the original, many MANY things to set your hair on fire!! Poets like Rosalie Moore, Merle Hoyleman, Alexandra Grilikhes, AND OTHERS!! Click here: http://neglectorino.blogspot.com
4. Are prizes like Pulitzer, NBA, NBCC are good for poetry. Is there discrimination against women poets, non-white poets, gay poets?
A big prize like the Pulitzer will certainly advance the career of the poet who wins, bringing prize money, well-paid invitations to read, and a boost in book sales. Also, the domino effect: those who win one prize are likely to win others, since committees like to make choices that seem plausible.
Such prizes are good for those who win them. Their market value goes up. Otherwise, the prizes don't mean shit.
Prizes don't matter much if other poets don't admire you. I'm always hoping to convert those who discriminate against me.
Prizes are fine and good things. They give newspapers a reason to mention poetry. There is discrimination of all kinds, as these things are run by people. A specific complaint I have is how narrow the aesthetic focus of many awards is. They claim to be rewarding the best, but what it seems is more that they are rewarding a kind of poetry more than a general regard for the totality of what's being written.
Prizes are for poets, not poetry. Where there's people, there's discrimination.
5. Is poetry useful?
Must we ask this? Is air useful? Food? Love?
Absolutely!! As important as any tool that prevents us from languishing in the hypnotic call to war from the president, the generals, and their well cloaked bosses on Wall Street.
Yes. For instance, I was driving a van of famous writers at a festival years ago, when a wasp flew in through an open window and began to harry them. Philip Levine killed it with his Selected Poems. In less practical ways poetry is also useful. It gives me the opportunity to ponder the human condition with a measure of distance.
No, and that's what makes it useful.