Dean Young and Elizabeth Bishop Battle It Out

My girlfriend likes to joke about poets—Dickinson vs. Whitman, say—battling it out in a Celebrity Deathmatch. This is funny not the least because it implies poets are celebrities. Yet I think it rings true, in that sometimes we pit those writers we look up to against each other. In our minds, that is. And so it happens that in my head just now Elizabeth Bishop is matched up against Dean Young.  And what they’re battling over—and I suspect this battle will rage on maybe forever—is the phenomenon of Creative Writing.

Young opens his provocative Art of Recklessness with the assertion that all the many thousands of people writing poems in Creative Writing programs right now are “a sign of great health.”

POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!

He calls poets a tribe and their communal activity a sort of drum circle and dance around the primal fire of the Imagination. This makes me think of Wallace Stevens:

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men

Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn

Their boisterous devotion to the sun

Only, Young would include women I’m sure.

I’m trying to square all that with Bishop’s delightful, late interview with Elizabeth Spires for the Paris Review. “I don’t think I believe in writing courses at all,” she admits. Yet it’s “what they want one to do.” “You see so many poems every week, you just lose all sense of judgment,” she says. A skeptic to Young’s optimist, she relates, “some classes were so prolific I had to declare a moratorium. I’d say, ‘please, nobody write a poem for two weeks!’”

Of course these things were said, and in Young’s case written, under vastly different circumstances, in vastly different worlds—not to mention worlds of Creative Writing. To some degree, too, Bishop is demurring. She’s having fun with us, because that’s what she does (especially when we’re guests in her house): she entertains. She’s also being humble, characteristically downplaying everything. When word of her Pulitzer Prize finally reaches her on her mountain in Brazil, she tells us, after finally being convinced it’s true, she feels (at a loss) the thing to do is to celebrate with someone. Only no one’s around. She goes in her neighbor’s house looking for someone and, coming up short, settles for Oreos she finds in the kitchen. Which of course she describes as ghastly. And that’s how she celebrated her prize!

But there’s a troubling truth to her disavowals. A kind of undeniable unspokenness that puts me in mind of Marianne Moore’s “I too dislike it.” Or of Berryman, in a slightly altered context: “we must not say so.” Certainly Dean Young must not say so! It’s his field. Why bother to write a book about how it’s no use?

The kids wanna write, sure. That you can count on.

Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts.

Other pedagogical questions aside, one of Bishop’s concerns would seem to be the drop in reading literature that coincides with the rise in Creative Writing. You know the truism: everyone writes but no one reads. Anything other than their own poetry. But surely Bishop goes too far, and must be taken with a grain of salt, when she quips that young artists should be “discouraged.”

Or is some discouragement a necessary part of progress? Is that kind of tough-em-up, weed-em-out, coach-mentality a thing of the past? Like disciplining by punishment instead of reward. Interestingly, “discipline” is a poetry word Young reviles.

Young, in his democracy tights, clotheslines Bishop the Gatekeeper. Sweat pops off her laureled brow like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.

Young’s tribal metaphor reminds me of my first AWP conference (which is itself a kind Battle Royale or orgy). Second year of my MFA, I had driven fifteen hours to Austin from Atlanta. I made it to the Hilton the first morning just after the first panels started. The hallways emptied. Microphones mumbled. I ducked into the first door I saw.

It was a panel on small presses. Check the Chicago schedule. Thursday, 9 am. I bet there’s an Indie Press panel. The little curtained room felt fittingly underground. Night Boat, Action Books, Ugly Duckling Press. A small but involved crowd. It was early. The marginalized first slot of the weekend.

I’ll never forget this guy from Night Boat standing up to testify. He said complaining that too much poetry is being written and published is like complaining that too many people are dancing. What’s poetry but expression? Who would fault expression? Maybe you think all the dancing isn’t great, but it’s still dancing. Just dancing.

We live in an old chaos of the sun…

O happy accident! To this day it remains my most interesting AWP experience.  There was something at stake in that room. The real power of a real cause. The ethos that art is for the making.  The memory of that magnanimous conviction keeps my heart’s door open—at least a crack.

Indulging in a Stevenian orgy of the Imagination, Young sticks to his tribal metaphor in part, I think, to emphasize community over the individual. To counter-act our canonized, commodified notions of big-nameness, of greatness and majorness of authors and presses. Even Young’s good buddy Tony Hoagland banks on such notions in a recent Writer’s Chronicle article. In questioning poetry he characterizes as the contemporary New York School—poetry which he associates with certain small presses, some of whom, perhaps, were attending that panel—Hoagland asks, by way of dismissal, what “major” poets have emerged from this “school” in recent memory. Fed up with the monotonous, underwhelming chanting of the tribe, Hoagland calls for more stand-out voices, more assertion and proclamation.

I want greatness as much as the next elitist. But in a contemporary context, “majorness” is meaningless—Young’s dance party becoming a schmooze-fest of “networking” and glad-handing. But that’s how it’s always been. It’s also always been the case, as Pope’s couplet attests, that new writers leap in out of their depth. Great art DOES require hard work, I think. But it also can’t forget its roots in PLEASURE. Though asserting that doesn’t make one any more likely to actually have something to say! As Bishop mentions in her interview, it took her twenty years to get the middle of “The Moose” right. Twenty years! Of course, you don’t see Dean Young quibbling with “The Moose”—though he lambasts the painstaking labors of Flaubert’s le mot juste. Why should it be painful? Good writing, he says. That’s easy. It’s risking being bad that’s difficult…

I’m not sure Bishop would fully agree. She probably read all of Flaubert and his letters multiple times in her life. But then again, who knows. I’m sure a great many things I do (or don’t) and believe in (or don’t) would embarrass her to the point of tears. But I’ll say this: I think she was too sensitive to marginalized groups, and had too much of a social and political conscience—as evidenced in her writing, which in the interview she asserts is political—to condone Young’s intentionally reckless (ab)use of the tribal metaphor. Nor can I imagine her writing a book telling people how to write better poems. And never, ever by using her own poems as example.

The fighters fly off the ropes at each other, slam mid-air, and landing on their backs, writhe, like Flaubert on his couch, in pain.

 

Hammering Makes The World

The poet Dean Young, ready to drop knowledge and drink ice water.

This past Friday, my friend Marc McKee organized a benefit at Orr Street Studios here in downtown Columbia in order to raise money for Dean Young. In case you haven’t heard the good news, Dean received a transplant last week, and thus far, all news has been good about his body accepting the new ticker. More news on his progress is here. All of us feel tremendous relief at this news. Despite the circumstances, the benefit was more of a celebration, a social event that honors both Dean’s spirit by being as lively, funny, encouraging and deeply benevolent as the man is,  as well as his poetry’s zany and antic cartwheels in the service of art and beauty.

However …

The good fight isn’t over. Surgery is expensive. Heart surgery is really expensive. And this isn’t the time or place for political discourse, but health insurance is only going to get Dean so far. We need your help. Marc, knowing this, asked for a little help. Gabe Fried, a terrific poet himself, helped Marc round up poets to give their time and energy; and Allison Smythe was instrumental in securing the space at Orr Street Studios on such short notice. The three of them put on a terrific and fun benefit last week in the hope of raising whatever amount they could to help with the medical costs. Dean’s friend Joe DiPrisco has been the mastermind behind several national events that have been created in order to help out. Here‘s where you can get the good word.  Joe wrote:

Dean’s expenses will be sky high and relentless for as long as he lives–which is going to be a long time if we can help it. Yes, he has “good” insurance, but insurance does not pay for everything, and we estimate his out-of-pocket expenses to be in the area of $50,000 to $100,000 a year—going forward for many years to come.

At the benefit, Marc let us know that over $170,000 has been raised by nearly a thousand contributors thus far. Eight poets affiliated with the University of Missouri, Stephens College, and the local arts community came together to celebrate Dean’s work; each poet read at least one (often two of Dean’s poems) as well as one of their own. The readers included Marc, Gabe, and Allison, as well as poets were Katy Didden, Jessica Starr, Melissa Range, Austin Segrest, and Sara Strong.

Dean Young is a close, dear friend of Marc’s, and hearing Marc talk about what Dean meant to him, what his poetry has meant to him, and to so many others, was one of the highlights of the evening. Katy Didden shared her story of meeting Dean at Bread Loaf, his pure delight at being there, in open fields under a clear sky, meeting fellow writers with his characteristic joy and good humor.

Marc McKee captivating the audience through lyrical hypnosis.

Here’s something to acknowledge: several poets admitted they have never Dean. I thought this was a brave and marvelous thing.  They only knew Dean through his poetry, just from what they’ve discovered about him through his work, his influence on Marc, and the impact he’s made on “Dean-iacs” over his many years of teaching. His accomplishments are numerous: ten books of poetry, Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Griffin Prize, the Lenore Marshall prize, and the winner of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and so on. But the accolades really don’t matter: something about his poetry has moved us.

It’s strange to hear the cadence of eight different poets reading Dean’s work. I’ve read another writer’s work aloud before, and it is an incredible challenge: the inflections, pauses, rhythms, all of it, is so different when it isn’t the work that you spent months working on. Yet every single poet read Dean’s poems magnificently. We laughed a lot Friday night – how can you not when hearing Dean’s best work? – but there were also moments that also brought us to tears, like the final stanza in “Elegy for a Toy Piano“:

When something becomes ash,
there’s nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.

We also heard “Changing Genres”, “Red Glove Thrown in Thorn Bush“, “Commencement Address“, “Bay Arena“, “Centrifuge“, “One Story”, and “How I Get My Ideas.” It was a terrific, successful, fantastic evening, and we all have Marc McKee, Gabe Fried, and Allison Smythe to thank (along with all the other poets) for such a great event.

One thing I always tell my writing students is “be generous.” Sounds simple, but as we all know, it really is incredibly hard to be a giving and kind person, not just in a workshop, but with our writing, with ourselves, and throughout our lives. And, so, my request to all of you out there in the TMR audience, is just that: be generous. We need your generosity. It would be an incredible gift if you would.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review. Donations for Dean can be made at the National Transplants website, Transplants.org, can be made by clicking here. Remember that any size donation, even just a buck or two, is greatly appreciated and goes a long way towards helping. Thank you!