Have a Good Time

July 28, 2010

what the New Yorker doesn’t publish

For starters, this letter:

To the Editor,

While I was glad to see praising reviews of poets Rae Armantrout and Anne Carson in recent issues, I was somewhat disturbed by their contents.  Dan Chiasson says that Armantrout is the “best poet of the [Language] group” because she “takes the basic premises of Language writing somewhere they were never intended to go.”  This ideological attack on experimental writing is repeated in Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Carson’s “Nox,” when O’Rourke says that Carson’s “singular gift” is complicated by “a postmodern habit of pastiche and fragmentation,” which O’Rourke calls “so much formal detritus.”  Not all critics have to be behind Language poetry or formal experimentation, but to praise a Language poet and a formal experimenter for all they do that isn’t subsumed by those categories is a shockingly brazen party-line statement of what is and is not acceptable in poetry.

It’s no surprise that a reviewer unsympathetic to Language poetry would only find praiseworthy the least Language-like elements in Armantrout’s work, nor is it surprising that a reviewer unsympathetic to formal experimentation would only care for Carson as a traditional lyric poet.  What is surprising, and troubling, is that the New Yorker would print what amount to polemics against Language poetry and experimental writing in the form of reviews that pick out their outliers for praise.  And in drawing the line where they do, excluding most Language poetry and experimental writing, the New Yorker obviously also excludes (for example) explicitly political poetry or poetry by people of color, which receive even less critical attention.

This is obviously not as important as the New Yorker failing to cover, say, Gaza* (nothing in the print edition since a shocking Lawrence Wright article in November 2009–which might be worse than not covering it at all–and very little before then); and that in turn is obviously less important than the actual situation in Gaza.   But the very rare and selective eye towards poetry reflects the same deep ideological biases as the Gaza coverage.  Similarly, the New Yorker‘s poetry predilections are mere instances of the broader biases of Official Verse Culture, which themselves only reflect more pernicious forces of reaction and white supremacy. Perhaps I am overstating, but for me at least, the New Yorker has a profound role as an arbiter and definer of culture and politics. Presenting the ideological as neutral, even as it is of course ideology’s oldest trick, must be resisted!

* Nothing on Oscar Grant.  Nothing on SB 1070.  Two brief stories on Sean Bell, one making fun of how black people speak, and one round-up of musicians’ responses.  These kinds of stories on Sean Bell are emblematic: the New Yorker casts attention away from police violence making language and political music the real story.


  1. I find my opinion of the New Yorker improves dramatically when I do my best to ignore 1) any poems published within a given issue & 2) anything related to poems in a given issue. Their editorial method seems to consist of publishing mediocre poems by good poets, horrific poems by mediocre poets, and poems by their interns. When a decent poem sneaks in, it’s only under the condition that the poet has previously won a Pulitzer, and that the poem either exactly reflects the New Yorker’s usual standards, or at least doesn’t depart from what we’ve come to expect from the poet in question.

    Comment by Allen Edwin Butt — August 9, 2010 @ 12:32 pm |Reply

  2. I notice that the poems by dead poets, that is the poem that gets into the magazine because the poet just died (probably a foreigner) and has been lately much acclaimed (or discovered), is better than the average NYer poem.

    Comment by Glenn I — August 9, 2010 @ 2:19 pm |Reply

  3. Thanks for this. I’ve been trying, over the last two years, to draw connections between the way fiction is reviewed in the cultural back-pages of publications such as the New Yorker and New Republic (mostly via a critique of their leading fiction critic, James Wood) and the ideological biases of the more explicitly political front-pages. I don’t know as much about poetry, but the conclusions you draw certainly resonate with what I’ve seen — not only in the way that many artists and trends are completely marginalized, but also the way that a few who engage in formal experimentation are nominated for “domesticating” appropriation, sanitized for their audiences.

    Comment by Edmond Caldwell — August 9, 2010 @ 3:32 pm |Reply

  4. @ E.C.: Thanks for your comment and for re-posting on Contra James Wood–I’ve been following that project for quite some time and I’m very glad to have (in a small way) contributed to it. I’m thinking about what the differences might be between poetry and fiction. Wood’s “positive” reviews of experimental writers are so clearly a response the pressure of popular or “canonical” writers moving outside psychological realism–but with poetry the “canon” is very much shaped by whatever The New Yorker decides is worth reviewing (consider Charles Bernstein’s idea of “official verse culture”)–they review a shockingly small amount of poetry, and usually only the most conservative. It’s a little unclear to me how writers like Carson and Armantrout ever make it into the New Yorker’s pages at all…

    Comment by Daniel — August 9, 2010 @ 5:59 pm |Reply

    • Carson and Armantrout make it in by being famous. Honestly, I think in some ways my first response was inaccurate: the New Yorker publishes a poem I enjoy once every month or two. But it’s always by someone who’s become famous through other avenues (for example, Armantrout’s career for the last thirty years in which she’s become rightly beloved by enough people to win a surprisingly well-chosen—& well-deserved—Pulitzer prize). The New Yorker seems to have little interest in the cutting edge of poetics, but rather throws us the occasional backhanded bone by serving up poets who were the cutting edge a decade or two ago but are by now well-enough established that their poems won’t seriously challenge readers’ sensibilities. Carson and Armantrout are both poets whose work I often enjoy and admire, and it frustrates me to see the New Yorker attempt to praise them while attempting to dull their teeth.

      Comment by Allen Edwin Butt — August 9, 2010 @ 7:13 pm |Reply

  5. Who, on earth, DOES like the poems in the New Yorker? I’m trying to find that person, those volumes of people, who read a New Yorker poems and are, somehow or another, actually MOVED by it. I really can’t name one person, unless they publish something anathematic to their usual (sub)standards. Do any of you know someone who is regularly impressed and happy with the mediocre to atrocious poetry of the New Yorker? Who are there people and why do their aesthetics matter more than say, your average person who actually cares about poetry?

    Comment by Bridget M — August 12, 2010 @ 12:33 am |Reply

  6. (Typos abound. Never post things before going to bed!)

    Comment by Bridget M — August 12, 2010 @ 12:34 am |Reply

  7. Kudos to this post. As an addendum, the New Yorker also neglects to publish LGBT writers and writers with disabilities. The poetry of white males is much more palatable to New Yorker sensibilities.

    Comment by Judy Campbell — August 29, 2010 @ 11:30 pm |Reply

  8. […] an implicit statement about the aims or the borders of poetry itself, here, that seems related to Daniel’s points on the ideological exclusion of experimental voices at the New Yorker.  A film historian as knowledgeable as Bogdanovich obviously doesn’t need to be informed […]

    Pingback by On “meanings and reverberations” and the writing of space out of film « Have a Good Time — January 25, 2011 @ 6:29 pm |Reply

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