As I mentioned in in an earlier post, I've read The New Criterion off and on over the years. Although TNC considers itself a bastion of high culture, its intellectual habits are sometimes merely sophomoric. Sometimes, though, it's really quite interesting. It's a frustrating mixture.
In the April 2004 issue you'll find an article by Eric Ormsby, TNC's regular poetry critic, called "Of lapdogs & loners: American poetry today." [See pp. 5-18.] This article so perfectly exemplifies the faults found all too frequently in The New Criterion that I am compelled to say something about it, even though it isn't available on-line.
Ormsby is himself a poet, and he clearly knows vastly more about contemporary poetry than I do. His article laments the careerism in the poetry world today, lambasts various poets, praises others, and so on. It's the usual stuff that one finds in TNC. I can take it or leave it, since I don't have much of an interest in contemporary poetry, but at least Ormsby quotes various poems and attempts to explain why they succeed or fail. There is some seriousness in his criticisms of his fellow poets, in other words.
The most remarkable section of the article is Ormsby's discussion of Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, which begins as follows: "Our two most prominent gatekeepers are Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, both of whom exercise their self-conferred prerogatives with freewheeling abandon" [p. 14]. Ormsby doesn't provide any direct support for this claim. He does refer to a New York Times article from 1997 (discussed below) that says that Vendler is "arguably the most powerful poetry critic in America," but he never quotes this passage himself. It seems, then, that he simply expects us to accept his claim that Bloom and Vendler are the two most prominent gatekeepers in the poetry world. (And, by the way, if they are as prominent as he claims, it is false to say that their prerogatives are self-conferred. As for the freewheeling abandon with which they are said to exercise their prerogatives, well, there's no evidence on hand for that claim, either.)
Ormsby dismisses Harold Bloom in a single paragraph without bothering to argue against any of the Bloom's critical judgments. "Bloom's literary buffoonery," he says, is "faintly endearing" [p. 14]. That's all we get. Consequently, once again, it seems that no argument is necessary.
This is the height of intellectual arrogance. If a critic decides to write someone off, then he has to give us reasons. Otherwise, we have the right not to pay the slightest attention to that critic's judgments. Criticism is not to be idenitified with the forceful expression of a negative opinion. Writers for The New Criterion all too often dismiss their targets without the slightest hint of an argument.
Matters get worse when Ormsby turns his attention to Helen Vendler, whom he discusses at some length. Here are the three paragraphs that contains the bulk of his criticisms of her:
No poet I have ever met takes Professor Vendler's judgments seriously, but by the same token, no poet I know will venture to challenge her in print. The usual demurral I hear is that "she's good on Shakespeare." And it is true: Point her in the right direction, towards such established poets as Keats or Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens, and she does have, on occasion, interesting and perceptive comments; left to her own devices, however, she goes sadly, and often embarassingly, astray. Her enthusiastic espousal of such nugatory poets as Rita Dove or Jorie Graham or August Kleinzahler at best, poets of only passing interest; at worst, boring and unreadable confounds even her most craven acolytes.
I never considered Professor Vendler's opinions of any great moment, except as flagrant instances of the captious taste that reigns in the academy, until I read an article by Dinitia Smith in The New York Times of November 22, 1997 entitled "A Woman of Power in the Ivory Tower." There I learned, for the first time, and to my considerable amazement, that other people heeded her pronouncements and, in fact, that poets in particular cowered before her like eunuchs at the court of some unstable potentate. After reading the article I began to notice that whenever Professor Vendler's name came up in conversation with other poets, the chat grew conspicuously guarded; though all agreed, when pressed, that she was fundamentally clueless, not one would deliver an opinion that was not evasive in the end.
[. . .]
On matters relating to contemporary poetry, though I agree with some of her opinions and respect her passion in advancing them, I believe that she is more often wrong than not; this wouldn't matter much if she were not a gatekeeper of such influence. Like some self-elected dog-catcher she strews the tainted kibble of her patronage in every direction in the hope of luring new lap-dogs to her gilded kennels; never mind if they later turn out to be sidewalk terriers rather than pedigreed hounds, Professor Vendler will champion them at every show in town. And, to be honest, who wouldn't be tempted? Pulitzer Prizes, MacArthur Awards, tenured jobs at Harvard, fulsome reviews in widely read magazines all these, if Dinitia Smith is to be believed, flow from her favor. [These three paragraphs are on pp. 14-15.]
Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Ormsby is telling the truth, and thus that he has never really met any poets not a single one who take Vendler's judgments seriously. So what? Poets have no greater insight into the merit of poetry than do poetry critics. In fact, they probably have less. Besides, Ormsby's article isn't supposed to be an opinion survey. If he wants to be a serious critic, then he must explain the failings in the reasoning of those whom he is criticizing.
Ormsby quotes a bit of verse from Jorie Graham and a bit of exposition from one of Vendler's books [p. 15]. Neither the verse nor the expostion comes off too well, as far as Ormsby is concerned. There's no need to quote him. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that he's completely correct, and thus that that bit of Graham's verse and Vendler's exposition of it are worthless. Well, that takes care of a few lines from the entire combined corpus of these two authors. That's all that Ormsby is willing to give us in support of his criticism of Vendler's critical prowess? Even the best critic can completely flub something. One sin does not a sinner make.
In the third of the three paragraphs quoted above Ormsby returns to his gatekeeper theme. Once again, no critic becomes an influential power on her say-so alone. Consequently, talk of self-election is inappropriate. It's just more of Ormsby's scorn for Vendler. Ormsby, I should add, not Vendler, is the one who comes across as self-elected.
Ormsby mentions a New York Times article that was published on November 22, 1997. I wondered how accurately he reported its contents. Unfortunately, it's not available for free. You can look at the abstract, and if you wish, you can purchase the article from the archives, which I did, for $2.95.
Here are several of the paragraphs that support Ormsby's claims about Vendler's influence:
In the tiny realm of poetry, with its fragile rewards -- the $1,000 prizes, the transient euphorias after a word of praise in a review -- Helen Vendler is a kingmaker. With one critique in The New Yorker or The New Republic, she can enshrine a poet in the canon or rip a reputation to shreds.
Helen Vendler, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, is arguably the most powerful poetry critic in America. For two generations, she and the Yale professor Harold Bloom, who has been writing less poetry criticism recently, have to some extent decreed which poets will enter the pantheon.
[. . .]
She denies she is powerful or responsible for the success of proteges like Jorie Graham, who won a Pulitzer in 1996. ''Reviewing doesn't mean much if your fellow poets don't think you are good,'' she says, seated in her town house in Cambridge. ''The canon is made by poets themselves.''
True, there are poets not beholden to Ms. Vendler, poets of the ''Spoken Word'' who carry on the declamatory tradition of the Beats, and even a Pulitzer Prize winner like Philip Levine, whom Ms. Vendler has publicly excoriated. Still, she has given her favorites celebrity and jobs, getting the young poet Lucy Brock-Broido, for example, a position at Harvard, and then giving her a rave review in The New Yorker. Ms. Vendler even named a book ''Soul Says,'' after a poem by Ms. Graham.
Outside the charmed circle of proteges, however, Ms. Vendler is so feared that many refuse to speak publicly about her. One poet, about to publish a book, was even afraid to say something nice, ''for fear,'' he said, ''she would misconstrue it.''
Ormsby manages to quote the phrase "something nice" in his paraphase of these paragraphs. That's it. Critics have been known to quote from secondary sources. Ormsby should join the ranks of those who do so routinely and at appropriate length.
Therefore, it seems that Ormsby wasn't simply making up those stories of Vendler's influence, even though he couldn't be bothered to provide much in the way of evidence to prove that he wasn't making them up.
Even so, why does he rely on a single newspaper article published nearly seven years ago? That's the best that he can do? We're supposed to believe him on the basis of such slender evidence? Couldn't he at least have asked some literature professors for their opinions? After all, who turns to The New York Times for arbitration of literary disputes? Has nothing changed in seven years? If not, we haven't been told why not.
Ormsby's criticisms of Bloom and Vendler are slovenly and unconvincing. In fact, to call them criticisms is to treat them too charitably. His claims hardly rise above the level of mere assertions. Perhaps Ormsby is right. After all, he could be correct. I'm not writing this post in order to defend Bloom and Vendler. Perhaps these two critics do not deserve their prominence. But if they don't, Ormsby hasn't even begun to demonstrate that they are undeserving. Consequently, anyone who is serious about poetry criticism must decline to take Ormsby seriously when he dismisses Bloom and Vendler.