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?