Quincy Lehr Responds

    I come to praise Maryann Corbett, not to bury her. One
reason one writes polemical prose of the type to which she objects
(and I’d bracket the piece she attacks with “This is Not a Manifesto”
rather than the more closely argued “The New Formalism: A Post-
mortem”) in order to start a dialogue about important issues. Corbett
shows a great deal of spine in writing a serious challenge to a journal
that has frequently published her work, and, I trust, will continue
to do so. I am tempted to write a polemical article defending calling
out editors, but I tire more easily than in yesteryear, and will content
myself with answering her central points against me.
    In the first place, Corbett claims that I only implicitly sketch
out the kind of poems I would like to see, with only two examples in
the essay. She extrapolates from there that I wish to see long poems
(in excess of 100 lines, say) of an explicitly political nature. Corbett,
whom I know as a generally discerning reader, has clearly missed the
significance of passages such as this:

    I do not here intend to pull that routine where some
    critic whose work, on balance, revolves around his children,
    his own childhood, and his ex-wife, lambastes other American
    (or other Western) poets for having no personal experience
    of having shrapnel surgically removed from their legs. West-
    ern poets are from the West, after all, and acting as if we were
    from civil war-torn regions of the world would, in most cases,
    be risible. Indeed, with the political spectrum as narrow as it is
    and popular struggle at a low ebb in the U.S., as is the case in
    much of the West, directly political poetry is damn difficult to
    render convincingly. From any perspective. Without it sound-
    ing like a talking point.

    In other words, even while advocating a more political poetry in the
broad sense (and I see nothing to contradict Corbett’s points on that
score in my original essay), I neither advocated nor excoriated the more
narrowly topical.
    The humor, moreover, has a serious point in the essay—namely
an acknowledgment of the potentially limiting effect of what were,
indeed, some rather sweeping pronouncements about poetry. The
acknowledgment that such articles can “devolve into the ravings of
a fiftysomething minor poet and adjunct professor with a hatred of
slant rhyme if one is not careful” should indicate a certain responsible
guardedness in telling others what to do, for instance. Corbett’s own list
of poems she likes and magazines that promote a more public poetry
(and I agree guardedly with some of her assessments) indicates where
the guardedness comes from.
    Another bit of housekeeping—Corbett takes me to task for
supposedly not naming names enough, then suggests that “novices”
and this journal’s slush pile must be to blame for my generally glum as-
sessment of contemporary poetry. I suspect we’re talking past each oth-
er a bit here. I was not categorical in my formulations, and, if pressed,
would say that there’s a great deal that’s positive happening, both in
print and elsewhere. Obviously. But look, especially in the land of fluff
reviews and MFA log-rolling, one can only call A. N. Other Poet insipid
and overrated so many times before it is construed as bullying—and by
the way I named someone specific in the original draft of this response,
but Anna cut it because she feared it might cause offense. I was not
talking about “novices” and not about every member of the Establish-
ment, nor all given periods of an Establishment figure’s life.
    The backbone of a scene is made up of poets who regularly
publish in journals and who, given luck, connections, good fellatio skills,
and even talent, have a book or two. These sorts don’t get very many
attempts to defend themselves in print, and, whether good or bad, the
Somewhat Established only see their name in critical prose on rare oc-
casions. I’m not sure what would have been gained from pulling down
back issues of Poetry, say, or Measure, or any other journal and running
through what I did or did not like. Hell, such poets make up the bulk
of our contributors, and it is quite possible that a poet whose work I
might not generally like would send in a piece that both Anna and I
would think was great. I’ll generally save the naming of names for the
more analytical pieces (where I tend to punch above my weight) or
reviews.
    But fundamentally, yes, Maryann, I’m less enamored of the
current po-scene than you are. I don’t think less of you for having
a frequently higher opinion of what’s out there than I do, and given
that neither of us is crunching the numbers, your math is as good as
mine in that regard. But the reverse holds true as well.


—Quincy R. Lehr
Brooklyn, NY
 

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