Friday, April 24, 2009


Ever since Paul Muldoon (I wrote about him being overrated before here) took over as poetry editor of The New Yorker, the poetry has gotten worse and worse, with only a few exceptions.

The New Yorker is in many ways the Mount Everest of the poetry world. Or to make another analogy, The New Yorker is to poetry what Carnegie Hall is to classical music, if, say, most if not all other venues where classical music could be played only fit fifty people and were in West Podunk’s grammar school or a very hip but tiny night club.

Not that there aren’t publications where better poetry is published routinely, but their audience is nowhere near the size of The New Yorker and most of them, ninety-nine percent or more, don’t pay anything, whereas The New Yorker has throughout most of its history been the highest paying venue for poetry.

It’s also a “career” booster to be in The New Yorker. Almost any poet who publishes there is quite capable of getting their next collection published by a major publisher, and vice versa.

It is true that throughout its history The New Yorker has rarely if ever been on the cutting edge of poetry publishing. Unlike its articles and cartoons and humor pieces and even political investigative pieces, where The New Yorker has been way ahead of most other publications in terms of quality and importance and breaking new ground. It’s even done that at different times with its fiction (though in recent decades the fiction too has often been quite conservative or just plain lame).

And it’s true that for most of its history, the poetry in The New Yorker, again with terrific exceptions, has almost always been backward looking if not just plain backward. But even then, the quality has at least been relatively high and the exceptions have been higher, like poems by W. S. Merwin (this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner) or by more avant garde poets, like the now well established and accepted by the academics John Ashbery, or the more bold selections Elaine Equi, Sparrow, et. al.

But that seems to have stopped or actually been reversed in recent issues.

The kinds of poems published lately use techniques and structures and subject matter that for the most part are so old and overdone and used up, it would be as if the iTunes store only offered songs written by Stephen Foster, or only Al Jolson’s greatest hits, or music made in pre-microphone times, like Rudy Valle singing through a megaphone.

Or as if all the theaters in Manhattan only showed black and white silent films, but not the classics, only ones made these days by people who just prefer films with no sound and with outsized gestures and overdone make-up etc.

It might be an interesting change of pace to see something like that occasionally, or a technical challenge to a true genius to recreate old effects but do it in a new way, and just as in all the arts some contemporary poets are capable of using forms and techniques that are centuries old and making them new, though none have managed to surpass the classics that come from a time when those techniques were originally used (unless they transform them into something entirely different ala Ted Berrigan’s sonnets or Terence Winch’s villanelles, etc.).

No, the poetry Muldoon is putting into recent New Yorkers isn’t accepting that kind of challenge or setting that kind of goal, it’s just poetry that seems to be all about showing off the poet’s skill at using rhyme and/or meter and/or antiquated grammar/syntax/vocabulary etc. to express some incredibly mundane or petty or even deliberately obscure take on a deliberately boring subject.

I suspect the New Yorker bosses either have convinced themselves that they really don’t know anything about poetry so should abdicate all questions of taste to Muldoon, or are just intimidated by his having won awards and been praised in many publications for his own versions of all of the above, though he is better at it than any of the poets he’s chosen so far.

Hmmm, maybe he doesn’t want to be upstaged in his own area of expertise or be outshone by anything newer than the stilted style he uses and now obviously prefers in the poets he’s publishing in The New Yorker.

Here are just some lines from poems in recent New Yorkers:

“We sisters had the Vondorfer hair,
pink with ripples and electrodes in the right places,
wavy orange stuff environing our faces.” —Jana Prikryl

“In Walrus, Gmble, Mimsy, Borogrove—
Which lead to Dum and Dee and to that Wood
Where fury lurked, and blackness, and that Crow.” —A. S. Byatt

“…the boy passes by with his oxen, heading for the fields.
And the girl who loves him takes him fresh bread.
On the crest of the hill she sits down and says to her George,
“Come, sweetheart, eat some bread, eat your fill.” —translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley

“I spent the morning trying to remember
the joke about a peanut and assault.
People dropped bombs on each other elsewhere.
I knew that many of them were at fault…” —Dora Malech

Now, you might find some technical things to admire in some of the above lines, (I deliberately chose what I think are the most successful) but if the rest of the poem reproduced pretty much what those lines accomplish and nothing more or more meaningful or clear or exciting or provocative or new or etc. would you really want to keep reading them?


Anonymous said...

Lal--Many thanks for your dissenting opinion on Paul Muldoon. I too have thought him grossly over-rated as a poet. And most of the other poets he's now printing in The New Yorker are as unmemorable as he is. But, as you say, one doesn't read the New Yorker for its poetry. With any luck, though, American poetry will survive both Muldoon and The New Yorker, and a hundred years from now they'll be reading Whitman and Lally in the schools while Muldoon and The New Yorker will be but forgotten dust.
Bob Berner

AlamedaTom said...


When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an Attorney's firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

CHORUS. -- He polished, etc.

As office boy I made such a mark
That they gave me the post of a junior clerk.
I served the writs with a smile so bland,
And I copied all the letters in a big round hand--
I copied all the letters in a hand so free,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

CHORUS. -- He copied, etc.

In serving writs I made such a name
That an articled clerk I soon became;
I wore clean collars and a brand-new suit
For the pass examination at the Institute,
And that pass examination did so well for me,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

CHORUS. -- And that pass examination, etc.

Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip
That they took me into the partnership.
And that junior partnership, I ween,
Was the only ship that I ever had seen.
But that kind of ship so suited me,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

CHORUS. -- But that kind, etc.

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

CHORUS. -- He thought so little, etc.

Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule--
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!

~~ Got your back, Willy

Tore Claesson said...

I'm by no means an expert on poetry, although having read a few poems in my life The examples you included in your post do not interest me. They seem to state what's been said over and over and often more eloquently. I did however read a modern poem in the New Yorker the other day. One I really liked and felt compelled to show the others in the room. It wasn't in the latest issue. But probably the one before that. I found it in a paper bin in a studio where I was working.
Although I do read the New Yorker regularly and have done so for many years; and rarely can put it down after I picked it up, I almost never read the poems. so I am perhaps no the fairest judge when I agree with you that the poem part hasn't always been up to par with most of the other content.
I tend to think I didn't pay much attention to it as it hardly ever touched me.
As far as Muldoon goes I've only come across his writing a few times, and never did it stop me. It seems over-wrought, if there's such a word. Trying to impress rather than express.

Lally said...

"Overwrought" is the perfect word Torre. And I hope I made it clear that The New Yorker still publishes some decent and even excellent poems now and then, but the general trend in quality under Muldoon has been, for my taste, downward. I suspect the few good poems published are either holdovers from the previous poetry editor or by old New Yorker favorites that are not part of the trend Muldoon has initiated but he feels he should include for magazine politics reasons.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, Professor Muldoon had something to say. To be exact, it was well before he became "Professor" Muldoon. Since becoming yet another well-tenured cog in the Academic-Industrial Complex, Muldoon has had zip to say, ZERO, no matter how cleverly he dresses it up. He is, at best, a clever poet (the most damning praise, as any real poet knows.) His stock-in-trade is etymology; he deals puns as if they were vehicles of insight. Yes, Paul, you've got a big vocabulary (or a large thesaurus) -- how about putting it to some use?

Muldoon has chosen to use what little energy he still has to endlessly promote himself. He is virtually ubiquitous on the Princeton scene, the Mustapha Mond/Big Brother perpetually watching you from local newspapers and magazines. Overrated? You bet.

Curtis Faville said...

I think Larry Fagin said once that the cartoons in The New Yorker were better than the poetry.

I began reading The New Yorker in my early teens and kept at it for over two decades, until they gave the reigns to Tina Brown, who more or less blew its tradition out of the water. The magazine has had a long history, and has gone through several changes in that time. Beginning as a "smart, hip" satire magazine in the late 'Twenties, its editor (Harold Ross) steered it into more tranquil waters. When Shawn took it over, he made it even more conservative, but the quality of its investigative reporting and profiles and "casuals" remained high.

The poetry was always on the conservative side, from Louise Bogan's editorship through Howard Moss, and so on. It has never relinquished its "intelligent, dismissive and slightly condescending" air, disdaining all kinds of regional challenges to its Eastern sophistication.

Like Poetry (Chicago), it has published nearly everyone of note, but its history shows that its taste was always backward, timid and bland.

They might have published Ashbery and Schuyler, but they'd never have dared publish a poem of O'Hara's. That shows very clearly the divide in American culture.

Look at any comprehensive list of poems published in Poetry and The New Yorker over the last half century, and it's a litany of mediocrity. How this should be, when they offer a national reading audience and actual payment, is a mystery.