A Caveat to a Recent Post by Reginald Shepherd
"...I don't understand the compulsion to categorize and label. Why must every poet be put in a box? And why are there only two (with a special, somewhat patronizing box for properly accredited oppressed minorities)? I have been much labeled and categorized in my life, and its rarely been to good ends. I have usually thought that one of the things that art offers is a way out of such categorical thinking."
So far, so good. But three paragraphs later, such generous thoughts seem to have slipped from Shepherd's mind. He writes (and I quote him at length and verbatim):
"I focus on the shortcomings of the poetic avant-garde for the same reasons that I focus on the shortcomings of political leftism: one is more sensitive to the failings of those one feels closer to. I expect nothing (good) of Ted Kooser or Billy Collins in the poetic realm, anymore than I expect anything (good) of the Republican Party in the political realm. Thus I'm not much disappointed by them. (Though the Republican Party does have a seemingly unlimited capacity to horrify.)
"Given the frequent conflation of so-called poetic conservatism and political conservatism, I must point out that Billy Collins, at least, seems to be a political liberal. I would also say that I don't consider him to be a traditional or conservative poet, because his work eschews most of the traditional resources of poetry; it certainly doesn't seem to seem to conserve those verbal virtues. In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser rejects and even disdains most of what makes poetry interesting and engaging, in the name of a highly patronizing populist clarity that assumes readers of poetry are lazy, ignorant, and unintelligent. While some readers undoubtedly are these things, it seems a very depressing enterprise to write on the assumption that one's readers are both incapable and unwilling."
I note the following:
1. I recently used The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (its full title; something Shepherd overlooks) as a text in an introductory poetry class. There is no question that Kooser's poetry is syntactically straightforward and written in a style which can be read, understood and, for my money even enjoyed (on some level) by almost every literate person. I will not argue for the merits of such poetry, in part because I think that Kooser's work defends itself. But for my class of beginning undergraduate poets Kooser's handbook seemed appropriate. My goals in that class were to persuade the students to write clearly and straightforwardly and to develop some appreciation of the poetic line and the image. What I hoped for was akin to what an introductory drawing instructor hopes: "If I can just have them spend enough time drawing lines..." It turned out that my biggest problem was persuading the students that it was okay to stop rhyming long enough to construct an image, but that is another post. I still think that Kooser's handbook, when coupled with a general anthology,* is a useful one for beginning poets. I don't think Kooser says a great deal in his book that will be of interest to poets and theorists like Shepherd, in the same way that I don't think a vocabulary workbook would be of great use to one whose life-goal is to unify competing theories on the phenomenology of language. To criticize what is expressly and clearly labeled a beginner's manual for failing to contribute to an ongoing philosophical debate about the future of American poetics seems unfair.
2. Kooser does not "reject and even disdain most of what makes poetry interesting and engaging" in favor of "a highly patronizing populist clarity." What Kooser actually says in The Poetry Home Repair Manual is that poetry should be written with an audience in mind, (I will grant that this is a debatable proposition, but it isn't contemptuous of anyone) and that those who write difficult poems can expect to find a smaller audience for their work than can those who write more accessible poems. That strikes me as a true statement, and for proof, look at the list of "bestselling" poetry books listed on the Poetry Foundation's website.
Rather than argue about Kooser actually says, or even the tone in which he says it, let's go to the text of Kooser's book (p. 2):
"It is possible to nourish a small and appreciative audience for poetry if poets would only think less about the reception of critics and more about the needs of readers. The Poetry Home Repair Manual advocates for poems that can be read and understood without professional interpretation. My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of the twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it is a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility towards them. Everything you'll read here holds to that."
"One other point: Isaac Newton attributed his accomplishments to standing on the shoulders of giants. He meant great thinkers who had gone before. Accordingly, beginning poets sometimes start off trying to stand on the shoulders of famous poets, imitating the difficult and obscure poems those successful poets have published. That's understandable, but they soon learn that, somehow, no literary journal is interested in publishing their difficult poems. If these beginners were to study the careers of the famous poets upon whose work they're modeling their own, they'd find that those writers were often, in their early years, publishing clear, understandable poems. In most instances, only after establishing reputations could they go on to write in more challenging ways. In a sense they earned the right to do so by first attracting an audience of readers, editors, and publishers with less difficult poems."
*I used 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002), edited by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl.