Don’t Force Dammit

Context N°12

by Anne Burke

Poems we could do without . . .

I think it’s about time we call a moratorium on poems that begin with talk of trees, leaves, and branches, leading inevitably to an overt statement about something or other (love, appreciation of nature, the mystery of everything) or an implied statement about something or other (see list in previous parentheses). I don’t want to name names here because people get offended so easily when confronted with the vacuousness of their art, as do their admirers. I, however, think that someone must defend the integrity of trees, leaves, and branches, and object to their manipulative use at the hands of third-rate poets who can be read, understood, and loved by people with severe brain damage. Please keep your impaired imaginations away from nature; let it be; do not despoil it further. Even if all Americans sigh at the conclusions of these putrid, all-too-familiar piles of words and even if the National Book Awards will give its annual embarrassment to the latest installment of the trees-leaves-branches genre poet, the endorsements of the masses are also what brought us George W. Bush. Popularity is not the measure of art. In fact, beware the popular. I do wish I could name names here, but I am tired of being censored in this publication, and so will refrain from doing so.

What was that about elitism . . .

Granted, one does not look to the book show on the weekend edition of C-SPAN in order to participate in the intellectual rigors of the day, but what was Michael Silverblatt & Panel up to in discussing “elitism” during a taping from last summer’s BEA convention in New York? The short description on the C-SPAN website is: “This forum addressed the question of whether or not publishers, booksellers, and reviewers alienate the public by projecting an image of ideological elitism.” Publishers project an image of ideological elitism? Huh? We can only hope that one day publishers might do this. But, with this phony premise in hand, all on the panel proceed to reject elitism, of course, led by (who other than?) Laura I-Once-Had-A-Mind Miller of Salon. Rather than arguing against elitism, however, the panelists seemed more to be against excellence. But of course they didn’t use that word because no one is going to object to excellence, except perhaps Laura Miller. A given in the discussion was that the panelists were all capable of understanding challenging books, but they were there to defend the common man against such things, and apparently they don’t have a high opinion of the common man. Mr. Silverblatt appeared to spend the time regretting that he had gotten involved in any of this.

One book, one city . . .

I was delighted to see that last year New York refused to participate in what I think is a mindless gesture towards reading, community, good feelings, and mental health, or whatever the hell this idea of having everyone read the same book in the same month is supposed to promote. The great virtue of the book qua book is that it is one of the last forms of human activity where one can be alone, encountering something (a book) on one’s own terms, reading it at whatever pace, relating to it however one can or chooses. In short, it is a purely democratic form of activity, paying homage to the concept that an individual can function independently rather than as a faceless member of a cheering crowd. I see this idea of the “one book” as a means of corrupting the very act of reading. Further, it is interesting that the books chosen to be read are inevitably promoting a social or political agenda, serving as civic lessons for us all. Government-sponsored reading! Are we all morons so as not to be able to see what the intentions here are? Once upon a time, books were meant to upset the apple cart, to make politicians nervous, threaten the status quo, shake up our expectations, make us question things anew. I will change my views about everyone reading the same book the day that one of Jean Genet’s novels is selected.

And do you know what THIS word means?

Ah, well, the morning NPR show. This morning there was a segment on feeling safe. They interviewed a few common folk on the street (one said he feels safe when he is reading a book, another said she feels peaceful when she jogs), but the piece’s narrator was given center stage on the subject. She feels peaceful when she visits a cemetery in Seattle (“Hey, get me a cup of gourmet culture while you’re out, okay?”) and gazes on a statue of a shrouded woman. To quote: “They say the figure is androgynous, that you can’t tell whether it is a man or a woman.” Oh, thank you, NPR, for explaining what androgynous means. How much thought went into the decision to explain the meaning? Why not just say that people can’t tell whether it’s a man or a woman? Well, because NPR is essentially about lifestyle. For those listeners who know the meaning of androgynous (we are, after all, talking about the NPR ever-faithful audience, and so this number must be at least 13%), they feel fine—just the kind of word they like to hear and know that most of their fellow Americans have no idea what it means. For the other 87%, they too feel good—they just got invited into an “elite” club (the sound of Laura Miller groaning in the background), and they vow to try to use this word in a sentence at least three times today. . . . The perfect NPR puff piece, one that will not upset anyone, especially our government officials who fund this outfit. Behind the subject of today’s show, I am sure (though I didn’t catch the beginning), is that we all must feel a little nervous these days, what with the threats of war with Iraq and more domestic terrorist acts (NPR of course would not mention the anxiety caused by having a raving lunatic running our country). . . . Which reminds me about a segment that the morning show ran the day before Thanksgiving, a segment about the rare “bronze American turkey,” the true turkey, the tasty turkey, the all-natural turkey that roams the range free and is raised by only a handful of true Americans, as opposed to the turkey mills that raise overweight turkeys, mostly white meat, turkeys so fat that they have to be artificially inseminated, filled with chemicals. . . . You can imagine thousand upon thousands of NPR listeners, all of those hopeless yuppies, taking notes on the bronze turkey, which they will all try to order next year, and then gleefully tell people they heard about this wondrous creature on NPR. Yes, it’s all about lifestyle. . . . Does anyone remember when NPR was an alternative to commercial radio?

And don’t forget the Sandwich Show . . .

I wish this weren’t true, but PBS—another bastion of intellectual rigor—had an hour-long show on about the best sandwiches in America. Is this what PBS was created to do, the great response to what Newton Minnow called “the vast waste land” (i.e., commercial television) all the way back in the 1950s? Well, well, well: half a century later, and we have a show about the best sandwiches and where to find them. Now, I will admit to having watched this show with some degree of interest—who doesn’t want to know about the best sandwich place in Philly if, sentenced to Hell, one winds up in Philly some day and is in need of nourishment? . . . But why is this show on PBS??? Who thought it was just right for the television partner to NPR (well, of course, it sardonically is just right). . . . Two more cheers for the common man. Are PBS and all of those hopeless foundations that fund it so despairing of the average American that they can’t do any better, or are they so dumb as to think this is the best and brightest of our fair land? So, I ask you: Are they stupid, or are they cynical? The correct answer here is that PBS is cynical and the foundations are stupid. . . . At any rate, I can assure you that the show was quite interesting and quite a welcome alternative to the moronic Ken Burns specials (can anyone who is intelligent watch a Ken Burns documentary without puking for several hours afterwards?). Or a welcome alternative to the ever-insipid Charlie Rose. Oh, dear God, I could go on but won’t, for fear I’ll wind up asking why PBS has become the home for the Lawrence Welk show—well, that is, the reruns of the show.

Poetry Magazine and the big bucks . . .

Why is everyone so upset about Poetry Magazine hitting it big time with a $100 million endowment grant from Ruth Lilly? The uproar is really astounding. I don’t think I’ve read or heard one positive comment about it. The most common complaint is that the donor should have spread the money around, so that other poetry magazines or organizations could benefit. But why should she have? It’s her money. If she thinks the magazine is that great, then she did what she should have done, and what almost no one else has ever done in this country: given substantial amounts of money to literature. The only thing dismaying about Lilly’s gift is that this is so unusual a philanthropic gesture that it makes headlines across the country. . . . Of course, there is the wonderful irony here that this major gift did not come from anyone in Poetry’s hometown, Chicago. . . .

New York Times Book Review, alas . . .

Has anyone noticed that the blessed Review has now shrunk to about 4 pages in length? How did this all come about? How are we to find out about the best of the best in books with all of those truly penetrating reviews that the Times is so famous for? Who would have thought that Fahrenheit 451’s vision of a bookless world would have come about as an inevitability of the marketplace? Leave it to the United States to come up with inventive ways of controlling the media!

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