Well, maybe sometimes. But shit, does it piss you off as much as it does me to see so much mediocrity or just un-interesting crap being canonized? Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article on the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about how he’s the next Seamus Heaney (The Irish Nobel-winning poet), and in passing commented on his rock band Racket and compared his lyrics to Van Morrison’s as well as “Gershwin or Cole Porter” (I assume the writer meant Ira G.) and then quoted some that fell so short of that mark, they were like lines from a junior high show off self-consciously proving how clever he can be:
“You may buckle your sword and sandals
To fight off the Goths and Vandals
Now they’ve dented your chrome
Just don’t sit around to count the cost
Of every shiny thing you’ve lost
Back in the catacombs
Do what you must when you’re in Rome
Just don’t try this at home.”
Has this guy listened to Van Morrison’s or Ira Gershwin’s or Cole Porter’s lyrics?
I respect Muldoon’s achievements in the poetry world, where there’s very few rewards that amount to much more than a college teaching gig. He’s managed to get some of the better ones. And I appreciate his growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland and all that must have meant. And I don’t have anything against him or his success, just against those who champion his poetry as more than it is. I read poems of his that appear in THE NEW YORKER and wonder how he ever got this great reputation. But then I wonder that about a lot of people who have garnered whatever the big rewards are in their various arts and professions.
I know it’s all a matter of taste. I’ve left plenty of poetry readings where people I’m with, especially other poets, had exactly the opposite take on what we just heard. And I’m just as guilty of bad writing and bad acting and whatever other things I’ve attempted and put out into the world. But my lines don’t get quoted in The New York Times. Actually the only lines of mine that ever got widespread attention, in Time and other major publications, were some I wrote, or rewrote for the narration of the film DRUGSTORE COWBOY, but they were attributed either to the director of that film, one of my favorites, even if I hadn’t had anything to do with it, or his co-screenwriter, or the guy who wrote the unpublished jailhouse novel the film is based on—or to Matt Dillon.
And it’s pretty much the same everywhere isn’t it? You may ask. Like in the corporate world? Guys who fuck up a corporation’s profits and operations and all that and get rewarded with a several-million-dollar severance pay and a top gig at some other corporation? But I’m mostly concerned with the arts, where I’ve always, or mostly, made my living and achieved whatever modicum of “success’ in the world’s terms that I have. Success in my terms is moving someone, touching them somehow so that for a moment they don’t feel so alone or are able to transcend whatever pain or confusion or disappointment or frustration or whatever they’re trying to get through and find some relief or distraction—or enlightenment if I’m really lucky.
But this isn’t about me, but about the people who compare a writer like Muldoon to those he’s not even in the same league with as far as I can see. Though he may be a wonderful guy, I never met him, his poetry seems no better than tons of workshop students around the world who are equally often un-interesting, but much less likely to ever be compared to a Nobel winner favorably, or have claimed for her or him what one of the critics quoted in this article says about Muldoon—that he has “reconceived the whole way in which modern poetry can be written”—or given some top gig at Princeton or somewhere similar, and what seems like a sweet life of making a very nice living off your creative endeavors—and even your amateur rock band gets a gig at The Knitting Factory.
The article quotes several lines from a Muldoon poem:
“a grave lit by acetylene
in which, though she proceeded him
by a good ten years, my mother’s skeleton
has managed to worm
its way back on top of the old man’s,
and she once again has him under her thumb.”
I don’t know about anyone else who might teach poetry workshops, but in mine, I would be encouraging some changes in those lines. I have nothing against clichés, if they work or are used originally or in a context that makes them shine in new ways or resonate in ways they haven’t until then, but even if you have absolutely no knowledge of poetry whatsoever do those lines in any way say to you that this is a writer who has “reconceived the whole way in which modern poetry can be written” or has half the wit of Porter, the ingenuity of Ira Gershwin, or the passion and depth of even the most simple lyrics of Van Morrison?
Maybe it’s just me.