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.”


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.


Why Poetry Doesn’t Sell

I know why books of poetry don’t sell. I witnessed part of the problem last month when I attended a conference put on by Missouri’s Center for the Book. Several of the local poets who were invited to read had also signed up to have tables at the book fair to sell their collections. Yet, none of them had set up displays or even sat down at their table for five minutes to talk to conference attendees. Most of the poets swooped in, gave their reading, and then slipped out a side door. Those who did stick around and were a little more social kept their books in their satchels.
The concept of poets as divas seems oxymoronic and exotic and yet they exist. Do poets really lack an audience or do they refuse to do the work necessary to create one? Instead of work, they show practiced indifference. Perhaps they believe it is too crass to sell their books. They wrote it, maybe they believe it’s someone else’s problem to sell it. Or do they suffer from a defeatist attitude? No one reads poetry, why bother?
I used to host a book club at a local bookstore and had little difficulty finding readers. Fiction and nonfiction writers would contact me and ask to if they could add my book club to their “do-it-yourself” reading tours. They seemed willing to sell books out of their trunk if they had to. The publishing industry has always struggled and now with the recession it’s going to struggle even more. Promoting books has increasingly become the responsibility of the writers. Someone forgot to tell the poets.

Walter Bargen appointed Missouri Poet Laureate

On Tuesday, January 8, Governor Matt Blunt named Walter Bargen, one of our favorite local poets, as official poet laureate of Missouri.

Walter’s work has appeared in the pages of The Missouri Review no less than four times–in 1983, 1989, 1991 and 1997.

On Making the Public Personal in Poetry

A few weeks ago at the University of Missouri, I had the opportunity to go and listen to Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet, playwright and Nobel Laureate. In fact, I got to see him speak twice: first at a question and answer session attended by a small group of writers in the Corner Playhouse, and later at a public lecture entitled “The Politics of Art.” Although the lecture was superlative, it was his responses in the Q&A session that I think will live with me the longest. There he answered questions about what there was to be learned from the differences in ritual and fundamentalism; how to treat of subjects tragic and huge; how art can try to do what forgiveness cannot; and how to treat of public tragedies in a way that makes them personal. Soyinka’s answer to this last question, as I heard it, had to do with finding the quintessential humanity of a situation, and it is this consideration that I can’t stop thinking about.

Even as a poet who believes that the full spectrum of human experience is art’s province, no matter what the actual artist has demonstrably, “authentically” experienced, I’m often troubled by the attempts to represent public suffering and catastrophe, current or historical. Or, more properly, I’m troubled by the fact that such attempts most often fall short of doing justice to human suffering, and instead reduce those concerns to mere reportage or, worse, political sloganeering. So I’m always cheered by finding or being given poems that reveal a quintessentially human aspect. As luck would have it, I had recently been rereading the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who as a teenager fought with the Polish underground against the Nazis and was later, as it says on the dust jacket of his book, Mr. Cogito, “a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement.” His work has been a standard-bearer for me when it comes to the questions of representing historical and contemporary suffering of human beings. After hearing Soyinka’s answer, I immediately thought of Herbert’s poem “Five Men,” which I quote here from Selected Poems, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott:

Five Men


They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged

nothing more
can be said about them


when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the light of the projectile
the ear record a steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken

now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with the shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttons straps
and steel helmets
are more alive
than those lying beside the wall


I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers

what did the five talk of
the night before the execution

of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not have opened
of how vodka is the best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruit
of life

thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the colour of the morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

The poem is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is its insistence on what cannot be said—even as it takes us through the description of being executed, it has already suggested that we can only imagine it as an empathetic moment in the poem which is quickly replaced by the stark realization of the executioners’ uniforms. Yet, to me, the great lesson here, and one answer to the problem of how to convey the public events as a personal concern, is that our empathy, such as it is, can lead us in our imagination to hear a conversation between the doomed prisoners that rebuffs, if only for a little while, that doom, a conversation that is filled with the awareness of life. It is this awareness that leads us to make poems, and these poems that address “the betrayed world.” In the process of making such poems and offering them, we ultimately find what Wole Soyinka referred to as the common humanity which is endangered by such public events of suffering and tragedy. Imagination gives us that which we cannot otherwise know, and it is the empathy that arises in response to the forms imagination takes—whether an inspired response to a random question or a precisely realized work of art—that make the world and its population personal to us.