When Critics Mess with Our Holy Texts: Not “The Moose”!

Literary Critics

There’s an old joke in the world of poetry workshops where a typical workshop takes an Emily Dickinson poem to task: clarify this, make this more consistent, cut this stanza (seems repetitive?). It’s funny because it’s ultimately so unthinkable.  Not Dickinson. Not “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.”

It’s surely rare that a critic takes a Dickinson or a Shakespeare to task. You might be an outlier and prefer other poets. Or “My Life Had Stood” might not be your favorite Dickinson jam. But the thought of a critic actually getting in there and saying this poem does not succeed, this word or move is wrong—if we’re talking about the untouchables of the canon, the Shakespeares and Dickinsons and Blakes (“dark” and “secret”?—redundant?)—is preposterous, or seems so to most of us.

Why? Because it’s patently obvious that Shakespeare and Dickinson are great poets, geniuses; furthermore, that they’re geniuses who know their own minds and intentions better than we do. Anytime we take issue with an author’s work, we’re claiming, at least in a limited instance, that we know better. And heaven forbid we then suggest a revision!

And yet, I know: nobody’s perfect. Shakespeare and Dickinson—never mind the mystery of who they were and what they thought—surely made mistakes. And maybe it’s a critic’s job (a critic with incredible confidence) to point up those mistakes, those failures, to even offer (oh, but it’s too insane to say!) corrections.  Because there must be a limit to our worshipful regard. These writers aren’t really gods. Right?

Plus, here’s the thing about knowing better: our various schools of criticism are empowered by, operate by, knowing better: better than popular thought, better than past thinking, better than our poisonous western culture.

famous world poets.

So.

One of my holy texts is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose.”  A great poem, right? Undeniable, right? And yet we can’t really say that. Challenging these monoliths makes the critical world go round. And though Bishop might be the best-regarded American poet of the 20th century, she isn’t as safe as a Shakespeare or a Dickinson. The window of time is smaller; we think we can know better what she meant and thought (or should have)—there’s ample evidence. And with evidence comes scruples.

Take Canadian critic Robert Boschman, who, in his recent eco-critical study of Bishop, takes issue with the end of “The Moose.” Now, anyone familiar with eco-criticism and “The Moose” might have seen this criticism coming: the moose is too nice, too consoling, too Romantically what western culture wants to make out of the natural world at the expense of the natural world: in a phrase (Boschman’s), too “like a park.”

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless…”
 
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”
 
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

Eco-criticism, it would seem, can’t abide the moose that comes out of the woods and halts the bus in its dreamy divagation through the night forest of New Brunswick evoking an uplifting note of “joy” from us “all.” No, says Boschman, with that, Bishop fails us and herself (compared to other, more successful poems, like “At the Fishhouses,” which, with the untamable power of what he calls her “primordial sea,” advances the anti-human/western eco-critical agenda).

Perhaps what irks the eco-critic worst of all is that word “harmless.” Boschman seems eager to find in Bishop’s poems allegories for “nature” (in this case, the moose herself), a nature that should be full of indifferent—if not retributive—harm.

But Boschman does more than claim that the moose is too sweet. He also knows how the poem should have gone instead. Yes, the moose should have been a he-moose and not a she, and he should have caused the passengers to feel threatened and not joyful.

Where would he get such a notion? Does he dare so brazenly revise Bishop? He does. But he makes it like it comes out of her mouth—what she almost, could have, should have written. Because, you see, critics have a dug up a letter in which Bishop describes experiencing the confrontation between such a moose and such a bus. What happened, apparently, is that a she-moose was wondering down the road, the bus stopped, the moose walked off into the woods. While this went on, the driver related how one time a he-moose had approached his bus and, like in the poem, sniffed the hood.

Aha! Bishop’s poem, we see, is a mix of fact (she-moose) and fiction (hood sniff).

Boschman asks chidingly: “If it was the more aggressive male of the species that, in point of fact, sniffed at the engine, why change it?” According to Boschman, she “changed it” to “have it both ways”—that is to say, beautiful and terrible, “sweet” and scary. This, claims Boschman, amounts to “facile consolation.”

“The Moose” needs no defending here: it defends herself. But I’ll say this: there’s plenty of threatening, anti-social nature poems out there. Plenty of apocalypse. But earned, authentic hope and joy–dare I say, awe?–a poem both social and sublime: it’s the rarest thing and endures for a reason.

Eco-criticism opens up Bishop’s poem in several ways. For example, the “wending” tidal flow of the poem’s first sentence, and the interplay of natural descriptions with place names, are brilliant observations that help us better understand the culture of the poem. Indeed, I think it’s very important to watch a poem’s treatment of, and underlying assumptions about, the natural world. But it gets sticky when eco-critics judge the success of a poem, absolutely, on whether it advances the eco-critical agenda (even as they try to convince you that the poet is really, at her best, an eco-poet at heart). Especially “given the ecological crisis at hand in the form of a rapidly overheating planet,” I worry that critics get away with these kinds of readings all too easily.

Who you gonna side with?

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.