I realize I’m really late to the party on this one, but just as Sam discussed last week, it’s healthy to knock your idols down a few pegs, if only for preserving your own sanity as a writer: thus, I introduce to you Poetry Magazine‘s “Antagonisms” series, in which today’s poets are asked to write “short pieces about some ostensibly great poet they had never really liked, perhaps even hated.”
Hater-ade? Maybe. But I call it a healthy skepticism. The results are highly entertaining, but no less illuminating. Take Jason Guriel’s recent take-down of e.e. cummings, the poet infamously wary of capitalizing his own name:
Young people encounter many temptations on their way to adulthood: vampires, Atlas Shrugged, Pink Floyd, the acoustic guitar. Of course, such stuff, designed to indulge one’s sense of oneself as a unique individual, must eventually be repudiated. It’s not easy growing up.
But I had no trouble saying no to the relentlessly quirky e.e. cummings.
“No one else,” he continues, “has ever made a formula for avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to people who don’t actually read poetry but would like to think they can write it.”
But before you call him pretentious, I should note that Guriel indeed has a serious axe to grind: he’s especially suspicious of the purpose of the cumming’s disregard for punctuation, for the fundamentals of sentence-construction, and even plain spacing. What reason could there be but “to convert that stubborn student the syllabus has failed to win over to verse”?
Meanwhile, Ange Mlinko objects to the “wishy-washy” stick poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Her verdict–that Bishop’s poems “hang rocks on my eyelids”–is a reminder that brilliant criticism is every bit as valuable as a brilliant poem.
Personally, I think Kay Ryan goes too far in attacking Walt Whitman for his “big stride, his wide, encompassing arms,” but at least she admits she’s operating purely from prejudice. This candidness and freedom from self-justification is what makes the “Antagonisms” series so indispensable. Besides, Ryan manages to drop one of the few essential truths there is about studying literature: when reading great writing, there is always the risk that “you can lose sight of the fact that you really don’t like it.”
The “Antagonisms” series reminds us of what teachers and courses can lead us to forget: it’s entirely okay.