So here is my dos centavos. I am and I am not a part of this petty American po-biz community, if it can be said to be a community. Much of what Orr says here is familiar, observations of how narrow, and petty, and ugly as fuck po-biz folks can be in this country. He holds a mirror up to our smug American MFA entitlement, little worlds full of little people who to me appear to working towards shrinking these already little worlds, denying that poetry can have audiences larger than our cliques, colleagues, disciples, and disaffected scenesters.
Orr cites Donals Hall’s essay, “Poetry and Ambition,” which is an essay I’ve enjoyed very much, and which is the essay that introduced me to that useful term, “McPoem,” that assembly line, mass produced, generic product. And certainly, our having been churned out of MFA machines endangers us as poets, in our complicity in the McPoem’s production and reproduction as we assume various types of teaching and mentorship positions.
One question here: is it true that contemporary American poetry is trying to redefine “greatness” as “smallness”? Why would such a thing be desired?
Orr goes on to discuss the active distancing American poets assume by citing and salivating over the greatness of international poets who come from volatile places in the world. I’d like to add that Orr engages a kind of distancing himself, by not including any American writers of color in his discussion of Great American Poets.
Orr dismissively discusses the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, and I fucking hate Orr’s condescending tone here, and I hate his use of the term, “foreign.” Here is a section of Milosz’s poem Orr cites, “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.” Maybe not the most poetically awesome lines in English, but perhaps they read much more profoundly in their original Polish? Maybe there’s some good music and wordplay to be had in its original language?
Still, even in his unnecessary belittling of Milosz and other international poets, Orr has made a very good point: in discussions of great living poets (by the way, Milosz is dead), why must folks always blindly default to writers who do not write about American historical, cultural, geographic contexts, the problems with being “here,” linking our homegrown cultural and political movements to those abroad. In discussing Latino poetry, for example, why always default to Neruda’s love poems (ignoring that he wrote political poetry) and Octavio Paz, both of whom are also dead, when we have living Chicano and Nuyorican poetry movements right here, in our American cities, writing about our American lives.
Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons. And we do so because their very foreignness implies a distance — a potentially “great” distance — that we no longer have from our own writers, most of whom make regular appearances on the reading circuit and have publicly available office phones.
In addition, non-American writers are the perfect surface upon which to project our desire for the style and persona we associate with old-fashioned greatness. One hesitates to invoke the dread word “colonialism” here, but sometimes you’ve got to call a Mayflower a Mayflower.
Orr uses the term “colonialism” here; I didn’t bring it up, but of course I agree with him. There is something so exotic about a politically persecuted other, from that war-ravaged, underprivileged other place. As well, there is something sexy about being the savior and discoverer of this politically persecuted other, that war refugee other. Something about power dynamics, no? I believe members of these communities have the power to speak for themselves, or find collaborative, non-dominant-submissive ways of working with translators.
Certainly, as a poet who writes political poetry, and who aspires to write great poetry, I participate in my share of hugely admiring international writers such as Bei Dao, Mahmoud Darwish, Eduardo Galeano, reading their work, buying their books, learning much from them about the world and about literature. And I do believe they are great (or Great).
Let me be clear that it is not at the expense of reading, studying, teaching, supporting, and learning from the political poetry of living, contemporary American poets such as Juan Felipe Herrera, Suheir Hammad, Jack Agüeros, Harryette Mullen, Linda Hogan, Lawson Fusao Inada. I believe they have written great things. By great, I mean this: the poetry that tries its best to understand our place and condition in the world, spiritually, historically, culturally, politically. Poetry that seeks to connect with readers and audience, and in doing so, growing community. Poetry that grows larger than the individual I, taking on the beauty and the problem of we. Poetry that seeks to do all these things with a keen sense of music and a deep love of language.
There are poets in our midst, colleagues and those coming up around us, who do these things, who try to do these things, who aspire to write great things, who aspire to be great. Orr believes that American poetry will soon be running out of greatness because he is looking in the wrong fucking places.