Showing posts with label Forum Threads. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Forum Threads. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Forum Thread: Is Poetry Dead? (Discussion)

From time to time, I will move up threads that seem to be relevant in the moment. New users jump onto every day, and, perhaps, have missed some of the earlier threads.

This thread was originally posted on March 31, at 9:50 PM, when was just a week old.

Dana Gioia, in the May 1991 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, wrote the still-controversial essay "Can Poetry Matter?"

Some relevant excerpts from Gioia's essay:


American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.


Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theater? At most readings the program consists of verse only—and usually only verse by that night's author. Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.


A clubby feeling also typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary poetry. Although these collections represent themselves as trustworthy guides to the best new poetry, they are not compiled for readers outside the academy.


Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia.


In 1940, with the notable exception of Robert Frost, few poets were working in colleges unless, like Mark Van Doren and Yvor Winters, they taught traditional academic subjects. The only creative-writing program was an experiment begun a few years earlier at the University of Iowa.


Reviewers fifty years ago were by today's standards extraordinarily tough. They said exactly what they thought, even about their most influential contemporaries. Listen, for example, to Randall Jarrell's description of a book by the famous anthologist Oscar Williams: it "gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter."...[Reviewers'] praise mattered, because readers knew it did not come lightly.

... art faces more towering obstacles than poetry. Given the decline of literacy, the proliferation of other media, the crisis in humanities education, the collapse of critical standards, and the sheer weight of past failures, how can poets possibly succeed in being heard?


[Closing paragraph:]

It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let's build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.


I have posted some highly relevant passages from Gioia's article, but this essay is well worth reading in its entirety.

Gioia also offers "six modest proposals" for how "poetry could again become a part of American public culture," good advice for 2011, but you can read that for yourself (link below).

From Can Poetry Matter?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Forum Thread: "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" (Anonymous Folk Poetry)

[Note: this thread was originally posted in April 2008, but I thought it was worth a bump up to 2011.]
I'm going to crawl out on a limb here and make a case for why most modern academic poetry will not endure beyond this generation.

This morning, a traditional folk poem was published in our morning paper (York Daily Record, 10 April 2008, 6A) as part of "Save Those Clippings," by Richard Bowers, a column on aging and how older people seem to collect clippings and other stuff throughout their lives; the author even mentioned Emily Dickinson's penchant for collecting things: "After her death they found volumes of scraps with thoughts (her own and others) that were like seeds from which grew her marvelous poems."

Bowers suggested that his readership pour themselves a cup of coffee, sit back, relax, and read the following traditional/folk poem on aging:
How do I know my youth is all spent?

Well, my Get-up-go has Got-up-and-went.

But in spite of it all, I'm able to grin,

When I think of where my "Get Up" has been.

Old age is golden, I think I've heard it said.

But sometimes I wonder as I crawl into bed,

With my ears in a drawer, my teeth in a cup,

And my eyes on the table until I wake up,

'Ere' sleep dims my vision, I say to myself,

"Is there anything else I should lay on the shelf?"

And I'm happy to say, as I close my door--

"My friends are the same, perhaps even more."

But nations are warring and business is vexed

So I'll stick around to see what happens next.

When I was young, my slippers were red,

I could kick up my heels right over my head.

When I grew older, my slippers were blue,

But still I could dance the whole [night] day through.

But I am old, my slippers are black,

I walk [huff] to the store and [I] puff my way back.

But never you laugh, I don't mind at all

I'd rather be huffing than not puff at all

The reason I know my youth is all spent,

"My Get Up and Go has Got Up and Went."

But I really don't mind when I think with a grin

Of all the grand places my "Get Up" has been.

Since I have retired from life's competition,

I accommodate myself with complete submission.

So, I get up each morning and dust off my wits,

Open the paper and read the obits,

If my name is missing, I know I'm not dead,

And I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.
[Bracketed words were added by Pete Seeger for a song of the same title.]

This poem, published in a market of about 350,000 people, probably received more views on one day than any published modern chapbook in its entire life cycle.

Now why is that?

"My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" is certainly not "great" poetry; it doesn't play with language, doesn't stun with great metaphors and imagery, doesn't pretend to be the unknown poet's grand opus.

It's just a poem that focuses on the human condition and in a way that the Uncle Lyles of middle America can understand and enjoy. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" does the same thing, but in a way that does not reach everyone.

Now I love Prufrock, but I must admit it has taken me several readings to get there, and I still don't understand everything in that poem. But I'm an academic, and I'm expected to engage in a poetic struggle with Prufrock and his problems. But the average poetry aficionado can just get up and leave. And does. And will continue to do so. Now T.S. Eliot's work will endure, simply because the academy says it will by continuing to publish his poems in anthologies and imposing it on college freshmen. Perhaps Eliot's work endures because he was the first to wrestle with language in that long meandering manner, with vivid metaphors and similes, so he gets a pass for getting there first, just as e.e. cummings has been forgiven for all the imitative lower case "i" poems that have dogged his work.

But here's the deal: once my students move on from Prufrock, most of them will forget him or only remember him as that strange old guy with the thinning hair, talking of bugs struggling on pins, yellow fog rubbing its back, crabs, peaches, women coming and going and speaking of Michelangelo.

Now back to "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went." I remember this poem from my childhood. Being raised by grandparents, I was privy to aging issues from a very young age. For amusement, my grandmother often dragged me to funerals of distant acquaintances and even strangers just because they were "from the parish." My grandmother loved this poem and knew it practically by heart. Of course, I'd roll my eyes and wished I could hang with younger people, but guess what? In an odd way, this poem has stuck with me. When I read it in this morning's paper, it struck a chord and brought back a past that no longer exists.

I can read a New Yorker poem by a famous poet, and five minutes later, it's gone. No footprint at all. And it doesn't even matter if the poem is a linguistic masterpiece or just an exercise by a tired well-known poet. Something always seems to be missing.

So, today, on the way to a conference, I tried to figured out why most people feel so removed and even alienated from modern poetry, which is often well crafted and even deeply personal.

I decided that "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" would be a good poem to deconstruct, to figure out why this simple poem has endured among the masses, even touching folk singer Pete Seeger enough to write a melody for it. I came up with these reasons:

1. The poem rhymes. Readers love to read and listen to rhyme. Back in the day when most people couldn't read, rhymed poems were easy to memorize and pass down to the next generation. Also, there is something about poetic patterns that is appealing and comforting.

2. The theme is universal, easily accessible to all readers. Even as a kid, when I was rolling my eyes, I understood, at least on one level, what aging meant to my grandparents, and this poem "explained" it in a way that I could understand. Modern poetry tends to be so overly personal, almost to the point of being obtuse to most readers except for the poet's inner circle. This navel-gazing trend became popular with Sylvia Plath's works ("Daddy," "Edge," and "Ariel"); her poetry (which I love, by the way) practically requires an accompanying compendium of her life. But "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" requires no bio, cultural, or historical background.

3. The poem offers humor. Readers love to laugh and tend to shy away from works that are too dark. Modern poetry tends to offer too little humor, not even dark humor.

4. It's sentimental and smarmy. People love poems that make them cry and remember back when--nothing like a good tear jerker to get your day started. I really noticed this in Macedonia, at parties where the rakjia flowed, the hankies and guitars came out, and the sad songs about lost love and lost nations were sung and wailed. These people were intellectuals, too, but they weren't ashamed of their beloved folk songs and poems.

5. The poem is predictable in its rhyme, diction, structure, and, yes, cliches. Poetry that allows the reader to remain in his/her comfort zone is going to stick with him/her emotionally, even intellectuals.

6. The poem tells a story, the narrative about the slippers (red, blue, and black) ties the story together and actually depicts the aging process, using the slippers as a sort of extended metaphor.

7. The poem is generally upbeat in tone and actually has a warped happy ending: I'm not listed in the obits today, so all is well with the world. Wow! Why not go out and celebrate with breakfast at Denny's? It's a glorious day to be alive and not a good day to die! What's not to like about that?

8. The poem is timeless, no tedious references to popular culture that will fade within a few years and require extensive footnoting. Its meaning will be as accessible in 2108 as it is today.

9. The poem is slightly ribald ("Of all the grand places my 'Get Up' has been"), but not so much that grandpa couldn't read the poem to his granddaughter. The double entendre allows the elders a "wink, wink" moment as the kiddies have fun with the rhyme and wordplay. Hell, you could read this poem in church.

10. The poem is simple--one does not need pages of literary criticism to decode meaning--it's all right there on the surface. Yet the poem doesn't speak down to the readers; its language is simple, yet descriptive enough to paint a glad-to-be-alive moment in the speaker's life.

It would be so easy to sneer at a poem like "My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went," but in an odd way, this poem has and will continue to endure because it deals with a very common aspect of the human condition: aging. Anyone who is fortunate enough to get older will face the very issues the poem covers. For more of intellectual exercise, one might read Stanley Kunitz's "Touch Me," which covers some of the same themes, albeit on a higher level--although with some multiple readings this is still an accessible poem.

"My Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went" will continue to appear on the pages of daily newspapers (whether it's a print version delivered at one's door or appears on a computer screen), whereas most modern poems with all their sophisticated LangPo techniques will fall into obscurity, buried in old dusty and unread books.

One last note: Robert Frost's work endures and will continue to endure because of its layered nuances. We all know that "The Mending Wall" is not just about a fence between two neighbors, nor is "The Road Not Taken" just about a walk in the woods and trying to figure what literal direction to take. Yet a young or less astute reader may very well enjoy those poems on a surface level.

Thus, Frost offers the best that a poet can offer: popular enjoyment and intellectual appeal.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Forum Thread: Publishers' Reading Fees: Pro or Con?

As more small publishers begin charging reading fees, you might want to conduct some serious research before writing those checks.

For example, Google "Iowa" + "Foetry" and see what you find. Better yet, try "Tupelo Press" + "Foetry" or even "Tupelo Press" + "" Then make your decision whether or not you'll write and send that check.

Educate yourself. Love everyone, but trust no one until you do a little digging. Trust your intuition, but only after you do your homework.

Make sure that your target publishers don't have a history of taking your money and then engaging in cronyism and questionable publishing practices. It's one thing for an owner/editor to grant publishing contracts to his/her friends when no contest and/or reading fee money is involved, but do you really want to fund the editor's friends' writing career at the expense of your pocketbook?

Twenty-five dollars here, and thirty-five dollars there. After a while it begins to add up.

For a mere $7.00 - $35.00 a year, you could register your own snappy domain name and set up your own online press. It's not difficult to do. Set up a Blogger or WordPress blog for free, publish a "Call for Manuscripts," and in you're in business. You can then publish your friends' work. Your friends can set up their own domain names and blogs and then publish your work. And beyond the domain names, it won't cost either of you a dime. And if you don't mind "blogspot" or "WordPress" in your URL, you don't even need a domain name.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

The 20th Century method: set up a press, send out fliers, and buy ads in all the major writing magazines. Publish a few issues, and then set up a contest, and advertise that as well. Schmooze at conferences and get grant money from your new friends who have been appointed by the NEA, etc., to hand out money. Then when you are appointed to dole out public money, you return the favor.


And if you aren't in this loop, you might as well forget about it.

But don't worry about it--you now live in the 21st century and have the web at your hands for
  • Research

  • Self-Publishing

  • Publishing others' work

You can actually earn a little money by blogging, and some people make a lot of money at it, so why place your writing career in the hands of a stranger who doesn't give a damn about you or your work?

Learn your way around a computer and the web, and forget about the "old" ways of getting published. Learn a bit about Search Engine and Keyword Optimization. And don't be afraid of html. Get computer savvy asap. The web offers a lot of free articles, and much of it is accurate, even Wikipedia.

Other reasons not to pay a reading/contest fee:

  • If you're an unknown, it's basically a crap shoot. As a former editor, I can tell you how easy it is for a screener to miss a good poem, story, or essay. If you are known to the editor, your work will get a more careful reading, and don't believe otherwise. If you are unknown, your work will receive a perfunctory glance.

  • Your work may not be ready for publication (one must always consider this possibility).

  • Your writing style might not suit the taste of the publisher, screener, and/or judge (a lot of hoops to jump through).

Before sending a reading or contest fee, watch for these red flags:

  • The publisher consistently publishes the same poets and writers. If this is a contest that advertises manuscript "anonymity," this is a definite red flag.

  • You receive nothing for your fee except a form rejection letter.

  • The screeners and final judges are anonymous.

  • The publisher consistently selects the work of friends, family, and former students and professors (finding this out may require a little digging).

  • The publisher has a history of dubious behavior.
I last entered a contest in 2005; I sent my contest entry from an Eastern European country (where I was living at the time) at considerable expense. At the time, I was very naive and was under the mistaken impression that the final judge would be reading all the entries.

I then stumbled upon Foetry and quickly discovered the reality: that typically, only 5-10% of all manuscripts are forwarded to the final judge. In addition, unless you know if the preliminary screeners are graduate students or professionals, then you are not properly informed.

As much as I enjoy reading some of my students' work, I certainly wouldn't want them to judge my work because I understand all too well that their critical/ analytical abilities are not yet quite developed; some of them are still writing about wads of snot in search of the Holy Grail (I'm not kidding, either). Would you want a judge who develops piece of snot as the protagonist of his story to make a screening decision about your work?

Obviously I am biased against paying an editor/publisher to read writers' work, and I will not pretend otherwise or apologize for this viewpoint.

However, I am willing to consider what you think about this practice. If someone can make a compelling argument in favor of reading fees as part of the publishing model , I will even elevate it to a post.

By the way, can someone please tell me the difference between a reading and a contest fee?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Forum Thread: Insult Poetry


Insult poetry has a long poetic tradition, for example, this poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834):


----------In Koln, a town of monks and bones,
----------And pavements fanged with murderous stones,
----------And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches;
----------I counted two-and-seventy stenches,
----------All well defined, and separate stinks!
----------Ye nymphs that reign o'er sewers and sinks,
----------The river Rhine, it is well known,
----------Doth wash your city of Cologne;
----------But tell me, nymphs,
----------What power divine
----------Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?


The earliest known African-American insult poem:

Bars Fight

by Lucy Terry (1730-1821)

Samuel Allen like a hero fout
And though he was so brave and bold
His face no more shall we behold.
Eleazer Hawks was killed outright
Before he had time to fight
Before he did the Indians see
Was shot and killed immediately.
Oliver Amsden he was slain
Which caused his friends much grief and pain.
Samuel Amsden they found dead
Not many rods off from his head.
Adonijah Gillet we do hear
Did lose his life which was so dear.
John Saddler fled across the water
And so escaped the dreadful slaughter.
Eunice Allen see the Indians comeing
And hoped to save herself by running
And had not her petticoats stopt her
The awful creatures had not cotched her
And tommyhawked her on the head
And left her on the ground for dead.
Young Samuel Allen, Oh! lack a-day
Was taken and carried to Canada.

(First published in 1855)

One of the oldest known African insult poems:

----------You really resemble
----------An old man who has no teeth
----------And who wants to eat elephant hide,
----------Or a woman without a backside
----------Who sits down on a hard wooden stool.
----------You also resemble a stupid dolt
----------Who while hunting lets an antelope pass by
----------And who knows that his father is sick at home.

An insult poem offers a way for the poet to express anger without engaging in a total snark fest; the main hallmarks of an insult poem are humor and exaggeration. Insult poems do not generally deal in universal themes--they are personal and are directed to a specific person or group. However, these poems are artistic in that they emphasize the poet's verbal superiority with words (as opposed to down and dirty fighting and name-calling).

Do you have a favorite public domain insult poem, or have you written one yourself (with or without an explanation)?

If so, feel free to post it in the comment section.


Some information is from The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Terms, 2nd ed. Edited by Ron Padgett. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2000. 91-92.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Forum Thread: Has "Confessional Poetry" Debased Poetry?

"Confessional Poetry" (From Wikipedia):

Confessional poetry traffics in intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about details of the poet's personal life, such as in poems about illness, sexuality, despondence. The confessionalist label was applied to a number of poets of the 1950s and 1960s. John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and William De Witt Snodgrass have all been called "Confessional Poets." As fresh and different as the work of these poets appeared at the time, it is also true that several poets prominent in the canon of Western literature, perhaps most notably Sextus Propertius and Petrarch, could easily share the label of "confessional" with the confessional poets of the fifties and sixties.

Development of definition

In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional" in a review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled "Poetry as Confession," [1] Rosenthal mentions earlier tendencies towards the confessional but notes how there was typically a "mask" which hid the poet's "actual face." "Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal."[2]

Life Studies broke new ground: the reviewer in The Kenyon Review saw clearly what new thing had been achieved: "For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry."[3] Nevertheless there were clear moves towards the confessional mode before the publication of Life Studies. Delmore Schwartz's Genesis had been published in 1943, and John Berryman has written his Sonnets to Chris in 1947, although they were not to be published until 1967 (and then as Berryman's Sonnets).[4] Berryman's sonnet sequence fits in the long tradition of highly personal sonnet sequences, stretching back through George Meredith's Modern Love to William Shakespeare's sonnets and the sonnets of Petrarch. The difference between the long tradition of intimate, personal, lyrical poetry and the confessional approach, lies in the shameful confidences that Rosenthal identified, it goes "beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment". [5] In his 1955 poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg wrote "[To] stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,..."

The impetus towards more personal, more autobiographical writing, dates back at least a century and a half before Life Studies. In February 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in a letter to Thomas Poole: "I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book—let him relate the events of his own life with honesty—not disguising the feelings that accompanied them."[6]

Constructed self

In a letter to The Guardian on 20 April 1989, Ted Hughes wrote that there was a "Fantasia about Sylvia Plath". [7] Plath's life and poetry have been constructed in such a way as to perpetuate particular fictions about her marriage, mental illness, and "autobiographic" writing, and although this may in part be due to a mythologizing tendency among critics and biographers, it can be shown how Plath fictionalizes herself in her writing. [8]

Later writers such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde present personal difficulties in a socio-political context. For example, Lorde's poem, "Coal" reflects on such personal problems within a given cultural context. Levertov's "Life at War" presents something inextricably personal bound in the conflict of the age.

What defines poetry as confessional is not the subject matter, but how the issue represented is explored. Confessional poetry explores personal details about the authors' life without meekness, modesty, or discretion. Because of this, confessional poetry is a popular form of creative writing that many people enjoy not only to read but to embark upon. Another element that is specific to this poetry is self-revelation achieved through creating the poem. This passes on to the reader, and a connection is made.

Reasons behind writing confessional poetry

Poets whose writing is classified as confessional (it has been argued) use writing as an outlet for their demons. Writing and then re-reading one's work changes the cognitive processes with which one's brain processes this information—it offers perspective. Anne Sexton famously said, "Poetry led me by the hand out of madness." But she also argued against this perception in her interviews. In an interview with Patricia Marx, Sexton denies that writing “cured her”:

“I don’t think [that writing cured my mental illness] particularly. It certainly did not create mental health. It isn’t as simple as my poetry makes it, because I simplified everything to make it more dramatic. I have written poems in a mental institution, but only later, not at the beginning”.[9]


Confessional free verse poetry seemed to have become the dominant approach in late 20th-century American poetry[citation needed]. Robert Bly in the preface to his 1983 translation of Antonio Machado's poetry, Times Alone, praised Machado for "his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own".[10] The reaction to confessional poetry has sparked new movements such as that of the Language poets and New Formalism.


Kirsch, Adam: The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Virago Press, London, 1991. ISBN 9781853813078.

Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction New York: Oxford University Press, 1960 ISBN 0195007182

Rosenthal, M. L., Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews, Persea Books, New York, 1991, ISBN 0892551496.


1. The Nation, September 19, 1959), reprinted in Rosenthal 1991, pages 109–112. Rosenthal somewhat reworked the review into an essay "Robert Lowell and the Poetry of Confession" in his 1960 book The Modern Poets

2. Rosenthal, 1959.

3. Thompson, John, "Two Poets," Kenyon Review 21 (1959) pages 482–490.

4. Kirsch, page 2, makes this observation in his reassessment of the historical context of Life Studies

5. Ian Hamilton, "A Biographer's Misgivings," collected in Walking Possession, Essays & Reviews 1968–1993, Addison-Wesley, 1994. ISBN 0201483971

6. The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume III, 1854, page 601.

7. Reid, Christopher, editor, Letters of Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber, 2007 ISBN 9780571221387), pages 552–556. The letter is a response to an earlier letter to the newspaper complaining that Plath's grave was hard to find and poorly maintained; Hughes is most angered by a false assertion that Plath and he had divorced, and he attributes this to the "fantasia" generated by the academic Plath industry; the issue of the fantasia is explored in Chapter 3 of Jacqueline Rose's The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991)

8. Rose, page 5

9. “Interview with Patricia Marx,” Hudson Review 18, no. 4, Winter, 1965/66)

10. Bly, Robert (translator), Machado, Antonio Times Alone, Wesleyan University Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0819-56081-0, page 1.

Available under Wikipedia's GNU Free Documentation License

Version: Modified on 15 April 2008, at 01:46

Of course, this Wikipedia article is not the definitive word on confessional poetry, but merely a jumping off point for a discussion about the place of confessional poetry in the academy.

Since this is a thread on confessional poetry and its affect on poetry, I have a confession to make:

I love Sylvia Plath's poetry, for it is a mirror into her short life and offers the reader a voyeuristic view of the darker aspects of her psychological makeup; I fear her work appeals to the baser side of my personality.

However, I often wonder if the "confessional movement" has, somehow, debased "Poetry" itself.

Feel free to post your thoughts.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Forum Thread: Does the Difficulty of Modern Poetry Mask Its Underlying Superficiality?

In 2008, The Writer's Chronicle published a timely article: "On Difficulty in Poetry," by Reginald Shepherd. In his introduction, Mr. Shepherd says, "It's been the fashion at least since the Modernists to complain that contemporary poetry has become difficult, and that this difficulty has alienated the readers who used to flock to poetry as they now flock to John Grisham novels and American Idol" (8).

Then he refers to enduring difficult poets of the past: Shakespeare and Donne--though I would contend that these poets were not considered difficult back when they were writing their plays and poems. They're considered difficult now because their works are written in English not commonly used today.

Shepherd believes that poetry ought to challenge the reader and that total understanding of a poem is not necessary. Sometimes it's enough to appreciate the language, allusions, and structure, even when meaning eludes. He even says, "...the poem that alludes frequently eludes" (10). In other words, meaning is secondary to how a reader experiences a poem, intellectually, emotionally, and sensually.

Up to this point, I agree. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is definitely an elusive poem worth reading and rereading and pondering because underneath all the fancy language, allusions, metaphors, there is substance, a universality of human experience and mortality.

However, as I read some modern poems, I get the distinct feeling that they hide their underlying superficiality behind difficult language--that a poet's walk down Fifth Avenue, during which his contemplation of his grocery list has been interrupted by an ill-timed bomb by an overhead bird will not be enhanced by complicated allusions to Prometheus.

Shepherd says, "Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modern poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion" (13).

Perhaps that is debatable; what I see in modern poetry is a tendency toward sameness, a flat affect, a self-indulgent contemplation about nothing masked by high-toned literary language: all style, little substance.

The question posed here: "Does the Difficulty of Modern Poetry Mask Its Underlying Superficiality?"

Feel free to comment.


Shepherd, Reginald. The Writer's Chronicle," May/Summer 2008, Vol. 40, Number 6, 8-14.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Forum Thread: Good News and Bragging Rights!

This happy thread is reserved for your good news and bragging rights.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Forum Thread: The Poetry of Atrocity and Bearing Witness

Back in the 1970s, some poets were excoriated because they would dare to write about atrocities that had little or nothing to do with them. For example, how could a non-survivor of the Holocaust bear witness to an atrocity he/she had not experienced?

It is hoped that the literary community has grown beyond the notion that one should be "censored" from discussing topics one has not experienced directly. While we might not be able to understand the nuances of an atrocity totally, writers are naturally sensitive souls who at the very least need to bear witness to crimes against humanity, even if only from the sidelines.

At a 2008 conference, poet William Heyen read his Hiroshima poem-in-progress based on images observed by a Japanese photographer who (just after the bomb exploded) jumped on his bicycle and rode toward ground zero. One of the most shocking images was that of a young mother who was carrying her infant's severed head in a bucket. A similar image can be found in John Hersey's Hiroshima: for days, a young mother carried her swaddled dead baby so that her husband (who was probably already dead) could see the body before burial. Both Heyen and Hersey are bearing witness to horrific events not experienced directly, but as writers have chosen to depict in their poetry and prose.

At the conference, this question was posed: are some atrocities so shocking and horrible that we should never write about them? No clear answer to this question. On one hand, to write about them might be terribly painful to the survivors and sensitive readers. On the other hand, to ignore them might mean forgetting and committing again.

A more interesting question: if an atrocity has been committed for altruistic reasons, as claimed by the Truman administration and other experts of 1945, should the transgressor be forgiven and given a pass? After all, it has been noted, millions of lives were probably saved, justifying sacrificing the 100,000-200,000 lives to save millions of others--the ends justifying the means.

Mr. Heyen offered an interesting answer: "Poetry will decide."

I felt as though my breath had been sucked out of my body. For me, the answer raised more questions than answers: Who or what is Poetry, and why should Poetry hold so much power to decide who is right and who is wrong?

Then I realized I was reacting too literally, that, perhaps, the body of poetry and art could act as judge and jury. But that is not a satisfactory answer either.

So I have attempted my own answer by writing my own atrocity poem--a familiar ethical dilemma rewritten in a loose poetic form.

Also, bear in mind this poem was written between two conference sessions (a session on Holocaust poetry and a poetry reading), thus, a very rough draft.

The Betrayer


in Mother's arms,

swaddled Baby

stretches, kicks.


Father's finger

to mouth--

Mother's offered:

Baby's snuffling.

Silent chorus:

Shush, Baby, shush

Muffled voice:

"Search the house!"

Ten souls

crammed inside.

Windowless passage,

portal obscured

by a cook stove.


Baby-face red,

nine paled faces.

Mother tearing--

cups Baby's mouth.

Footfalls clunk

through the wall.

"They gotta be here."

Vulgar voices,

doors slamming--


Rifle cocking,

"What's that?"

Sixteen glinting eyes

drilled on Mother

and Child:

We will die now.

Mother sucks

in breath.

"It's nothing,

just the wind."

Clanging doors,

slung rifles,



Witness this:


muffles it,

squeezes and--


"Nothing here."

William Heyen said something else: "It's okay to like your own poems."

Maybe so. However, the jury is still out on this one.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Forum Thread: Cynicism and the MFA--Successful vs. Aspiring Writers

TomWest said:

The "aspiring writer" industry has become far bigger than the "successful writer" industry, and the "aspiring writer" industry has taken on a life of its own such that it only connects to the "successful writer" industry in a cynical fashion ("Pay us money! We’ll make you a great writer!")

(TomWest statement originally appeared in the "pruned" thread "The First Amendment & Forums," Wed Mar 19, 2008 4:56 p.m.)

ACommoner replied:

The big problem with this statement is that there are so many "aspiring writer" programs out there that are good, transparent and sincere—in fact, I would say that the majority of poetry programs are pursued with good will and integrity, at least in themselves they are, whatever the management may be doing. Because the abuse lies not in the workshops or in the MFA programs per se, or anywhere specifically, for that matter, but in the SYSTEM that sustains them all, and above all in the mechanisms that award the positions and the prizes to the “successful.” That’s why as soon as anyone begins to discuss the abuses, everyone on the “aspiring” level, students, teachers, critics, and even plain readers, all hooked on legitimate programs, rush in to defend the whole "aspiring writer" movement as if it were some sort of sacred monolith—they value it so highly. OUR SACRED ART OF POETRY, they cry—and that’s the citadel this thread is storming, obviously, and the defense is already bristling with “is this true?” and “what do you mean by successful?” and “how dare you say there’s money in poetry?”

And other such red-herrings.

I put it to you that the Craft of Poetry Movement in America has organized itself into a huge self-interest (N.B. “self-interest” is a neutral qualifier in itself) community which is just as powerful and, yes, as sacred, difficult to enter, self-preserving and self-perpetuating as a Medieval Guild! No one would argue that the Medieval Guilds were bad in themselves, quite the contrary, but they did control the whole process of training in each and every craft, and they did dominate the accreditation process, fiercely and exclusively. And that becomes a real problem for me if there are networks in the poetry community that are doing the same thing with poetry—as if it were some sort of craft!

Because poetry is simply not a craft, even if it does make good use of craft in some aspects of its production. For even if everyone writes heroic couplets, let's say, or Shakespearean sonnets or haikus, there is that all important SHOCK which makes some of it fly and some of it crawl--that moment of inexplicable and indefinable particularity in saying something which has never been said before, for example, or of saying something which has been said millions of times before but so simply that it’s new again at last, at last, at last! And craft just doesn’t do that—it copies, it reproduces, it’s placed where it belongs on the shelf with the label filled in by the planner. And most of what is coming out of our contemporary Poetry Guild is just craft, make no mistake about it, and not doing anything special or uniquely precious, despite all those oohs and those aahs (see An Interview with Jorie Graham). And the proof is that nobody’s actually reading it! It’s not about poetry anymore, it's about a way of life called poetry, it’s about the pleasure, the security, the sense of meaning in poetry as a livelihood in America, not about writing a poem that actually matters—that lonely, slow, intolerable wrestle with beastly, recalcitrant words, and oneself!

Change gears for a moment. “Aspiring writer" programs today in America are extremely expensive, and I'm not just referring to the MFA programs either. It can cost as much as $900.00 just to get your manuscript read for a few hours by someone who matters with a pencil, for example, or $1300.00 for a single weekend in the country in which the great one blows in for dinner on Saturday evening. And if your whole self-image has been built around yourself as a writer, and particularly as a writer that calls himself or herself a poet, and you have paid a whole lot to lift yourself up a level, so to speak, have paid to meet that editor for the weekend, for example, and have bent your whole book around following his or her instructions and then resubmitted that manuscript to him or her or their friend, then you’re not going to take kindly to the suggestion you've been had.

Which you have and you haven't, of course. The weekend in the country will let you meet some editors and publishers that are as gifted as they are powerful, and charming too, and the food will be excellent, for sure, and the sea air refreshing if it’s the Hamptons, but if those editors and publishers are beginning to support themselves on you as one more "aspiring writer" among a great many others, and I mean 10s of thousands of others just like you (and like me!), and if those editors and publishers have no intention of letting you (or me!) into the Guild ahead of their families, friends, lovers, business partners and colleagues in the queue as they define it, then it's not only like a Guild but a pyramid scheme!

That’s a fairly stark introduction to the issue, but it is an issue that ought to be on every thinking poet's mind today. Because the world has never seen anything like this--there are simply no precedents in the whole history of poetry for this, it's that new.

And make no mistake about it, our poetry is suffering for it. Just look at the reception of what was read in Boston last weekend on the “Jorie Graham Interview” I just mentioned and you’ll see. Or read the NYT Book Review article on the book.

This poetry is nothing but what it says it is itself--which however environmentally friendly and universal, all the way from the short line to the long line, it says, is what's known in the trade as "puff." And what an irony that its author should have given her name to the new rule that is attempting to discipline editors and publishers in America at last, to make them fairer, more ethical, and above all more generous to aspiring writers even as old and as unlikely as me!

A sense of discipline and generosity which James Laughlin and Theodore Weiss would never have needed to be taught!

(ACommoner's response is from this thread)

(Admin. Note: Who says there's no money in Poetry? Tony Hoagland, Poet and University of Houston Professor, has been awarded the $50,000 Jackson Prize. Judges were Ellen Bryant Voigt, Philip Levine, and Robert Pinsky


Friday, April 4, 2008

Forum Thread: What is Cronyism in the Literary Community? (Discussion)

The following in-depth discussion, which discusses cronyism in general terms, is from Wikipedia*, and used in accordance with its GNU Free Documentation License.

Cronyism is partiality to long-standing friends, especially by appointing them to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications. Hence, cronyism is contrary in practice and principle to meritocracy. Cronyism exists when the appointer and the beneficiary are in social contact; often, the appointer is inadequate to hold his or her own job or position of authority, and for this reason the appointer appoints individuals who will not try to weaken him or her, or express views contrary to those of the appointer. Politically, "cronyism" is derogatorily used. The word "crony" first appeared in 18th century London, believed by many to be derived from the Greek word χρόνιος (chronios), meaning "long-term", however, crony appears in the 1811 edition of Grose's Vulgar Tongue with a decidedly non-collegiate definition, placing it firmly in the cant of the underworld.[1] A less likely source for the words etymology is the Irish Language term Comh-Roghna (pron. ko-ronə), which translates to "close pals", or mutual friends.

Governments are particularly susceptible to accusations of cronyism, as they spend public money. Many democratic governments are encouraged to practice administrative transparency in accounting and contracting, however, there often is no clear delineation of when an appointment to government office is "cronyism". It is not unusual for a politician to surround him- or herself with highly-qualified subordinates, and to develop social, business, or political friendships leading to the appointment to office of friends, likewise in granting government contracts. In fact, the counsel of such friends is why the officeholder successfully obtained his or her powerful position — therefore, cronyism usually is easier to perceive than to demonstrate and prove.

The NHS is becomingly increasingly prone to Cronyism, most notably at NHS London, where a female inner circle close to the Chief Executive are favoured and in turn favour their friends. This is in direct opposition to the principles of its Single Equality Scheme.

In the private sector, cronyism exists in organizations, often termed 'the old boys club' or 'the golden circle', again the boundary between cronyism and 'networking' is difficult to delineate.

Moreover, cronyism describes relationships existing among mutual acquaintances private organizations where business, business information, and social interaction are exchanged among influential personnel. This is termed crony capitalism, and is an ethical breach of the principles of the market economy; in advanced societies, crony capitalism is a breach of market regulations, e.g. the Enron fraud is an extreme example of crony capitalism.

Given crony capitalism's nature, these dishonest business practices are frequently (yet not exclusively) found in societies with ineffective legal systems. Resultantly, there is an impetus upon the legislative branch of a government to ensure enforcement of the legal code capable of addressing and redressing private party manipulation of the economy by the involved businessmen and their government cronies.

The economic and social costs of cronyism are paid by society. In the form of reduced business opportunity for the majority of the population, reduced competition in the market place, inflated consumer goods prices, decreased economic performance, inefficient business investment cycles, reduced motivation in affected organizations, and the diminution of economically productive activity. A practical cost of cronyism is manifest in the bad workmanship of public and private community projects. Cronyism is self-generating, cronyism then begets a culture of cronyism. This can only be apprehended by a comprehensive, effective, and enforced legal code, and empowered government agencies who can effect prosecutions in the courts.

All appointments that are suspected of being cronyism are controversial. The appointed party may choose to either suppress disquiet or ignore it, depending upon the society's level of freedom of expression and individual personal liberty.

Some instances of cronyism are readily transparent. As to others, it is only in hindsight that the qualifications of the alleged "crony" must be evaluated.

Cronyism can exist anywhere, in both free and not-so-free states. In general, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are more vulnerable to acts of cronyism simply because the officeholders are not accountable, and all office holders generally come from a similar background (e.g. all members of the ruling party).

Some situations and examples include:

-----George Washington was criticized for appointing Alexander Hamilton as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury after Hamilton had served as Washington's aide during the American Revolutionary War. Nonetheless, the contributions Hamilton made to stabilizing the currency and securing outside capital for the fledgling democracy are well known. Referring to Hamilton's appointment as cronyism seems particularly disputable in retrospect, although it is only after looking at his accomplishments that this determination can be made.

-----Appointing cronies to positions can also be used to advance the agenda of the person making the appointment. And it can also spectacularly fail to do so. In medieval England, King Henry II arranged the appointment of his good friend Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry believed that Becket would promote the king's agenda but was dismayed to see Becket adhere to his own conscience. Becket eventually excommunicated the king and the king allegedly incited three knights to murder Becket in response.

-----Examples of cronyism can be found in a number of current and former communist states. The cultural revolution in China was initially popular due to the perception that Mao Zedong was ridding the state of a number of officials who had obtained their positions by dint of friendship with communist authorities. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has gone after a number of former communist officials who held office through their connections to party officials.[1]

-----Independent of the world of politics, the business and labor community have also seen charges of cronyism. President Theodore Roosevelt led an attack on the cronyism against the oil, steel, banking and other businesses that had conspired to set prices by maintaining virtual monopolies through cronyism. Through interlocking directorates it was not uncommon to see various corporate boards share members among each other.

-----One of the most severe cases of cronyism occurred during the Kennedy administration in the United States. Robert S. McNamara was appointed by President John F. Kennedy without any experience, a point that McNamara made clear in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War. McNamara's role in the disastrous Vietnam War was crucial and he is often considered "the architect of the Vietnam War". Kennedy originally offered him a job as United States Secretary of Treasury and when McNamara admitted to having no experience he gave him Secretary of Defense. Even though McNamara confessed no experience in defense, Kennedy insisted he accept the position.

-----Most recently, US President George W. Bush was accused of cronyism after the nomination of Harriet Miers to the US Supreme Court.[2] Miers had no previous judicial experience and demonstrated little knowledge of constitutional law, and her selection was rejected by many conservatives and liberals. The appointment of Michael D. Brown to the head of FEMA could also be considered a case of cronyism as Brown had no experience pertaining to his job.[3] [4] The administration has also been accused of cronyism for reducing Scooter Libby's sentence in the Plame Affair.[5]

-----An example of cronyism, with devastating effects, is seen in present day South Africa: The appointment of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as the country's minister of health. Thabo Mbeki, widely known as an AIDS dissident, practices cronyism by keeping her in her position. She was widely seen as following an AIDS policy in line with the ideas of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who for a time expressed public doubts about whether HIV caused AIDS. In 2002, the South African Cabinet affirmed the policy that "HIV causes AIDS" which as an official statement silenced any further speculation on this topic by Cabinet members, including the President. In August of 2003 the cabinet also voted to make anti-retrovirals available in the public sector, and instructed Tshabalala-Msimang to carry out the policy. South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infections in the world. Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, on the other hand was fired from her position as deputy minister of health. She expressed long-term disharmony and disagreement on HIV/AIDS and other issues between herself and the Minister of Health (Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang)[9];

-----Paul Wolfowitz was mentioned[6] in connection with cronyism after the World Bank committee charged him with violation of ethical and governance rules as bank president by showing favoritism to his companion in 2005. The report noted that Mr Wolfowitz broke bank rules and the ethical obligations in his contract, and that he tried to hide the salary and promotion package awarded to Shaha Riza, his companion and a bank employee, from top legal and ethics officials in the months after he became bank president in 2005.

*External Link

SuperNews: Hurricane Katrina - A political flash cartoon about the cronyism surrounding Michael D. Brown and Hurricane Katrina.


^ "Crony: An intimate companion, a comrade; also a confederate in a robbery" - Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785 [1811]. Grose

^ The O'Reilly Factor Flash

^ Cronyism

^ Adam Bellow on Nepotism, Cronyism & Harriet Miers on National Review Online

^ BBC NEWS Americas Bush not ruling out Libby pardon

^ The Guardian - Wolfowitz under fire after partner receives promotion and pay rise
Retrieved from ""


*Wikipedia Bibliographic details for this version of "Cronyism"

Page name: Cronyism

Author: Wikipedia contributors

Publisher: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Date of last revision: 26 March 2008 07:20 UTC

Date retrieved: 4 April 2008 16:07 UTC

Permanent link:

Page Version ID: 201008294


For discussion:

-----Does cronyism exist in the literary community?

-----Do you feel that you have been discriminated against due to cronyism? If so, how?

-----Is cronyism in the literary community institutionalized (at least to a certain extent)?

-----Are outsider poets and writers punished, shunned, and silenced if they disagree with the majority viewpoint? If so, how?

-----Are MFA programs hotbeds of cronyism? Examples?

You may post your viewpoints anonymously; access to visitor stats (other than number of clicks to the site) is not public.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Forum Thread: What is the Public Forum Doctrine? (Discussion)

(What a webmaster and users discover after registrar and webhost GoDaddy disables a domain name and website.)


Although the Public Forum Doctrine has more to do with protected speech during government-sponsored events and on government property (both real and virtual), this is a topic worth discussing because it isn't clear (at least in my mind) how the internet is defined as a forum space, for example, private vs. public. The Public Forum Doctrine defines the Open Public Forum as "State property that has traditionally been open to the public for speech, assembly and debate. Public forum property has traditionally included public streets, sidewalks, parks and city squares."

Does this apply to the virtual world as well, at least on U.S. soil?

In essence, who "owns" the internet? No one, supposedly. Yes, a governing body called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Names) develops policy and guidelines regarding the sale and use of domain names (such as, which one must have in order to set up a website (even that free blogger url is considered a subdomain, for example, the blogspot address for is ICANN is an international governing body that is supposed to set policy regarding domain aftermarket sales, the domain deletion process and cycle, and trademark and cybersquatting issues, among other things. In my opinion, ICANN doesn't always enforce its own rules, often resulting in confusion and, yes, cronyism among some board members and backroom deals--another story altogether.

In any case, the U.S. government can only enforce Freedom of Speech issues as it pertains to internet activities on U.S. soil. The U.S. also has jurisdiction over VeriSign, the company that manages the .com and .net extensions (known as Top Level Domains or TLDs) and NeuStar, the company that manages .us. So if a crook from Asia uses a domain with a .com extension to rip off a U.S. citizen or national on U.S. territory, the government can file an injunction to order VeriSign and the actual registrar to disable that spammer's domain name, which, in effect, disables the website.

So, theoretically, the U.S. Government can exercise significant power over the majority of domain names (.com being the most popular, .net the second).

Which brings me to On its website, Rate My Cop has posted its purpose: is a privately-held company based in Los Angeles. The website allows registered users to leave written feedback about their interactions with police officers, and rank the officer's service based on three criteria: Professionalism, Fairness and Satisfaction.

Although a poetry and a cop rating website may seem to have little in common, just hang with me for a bit.

In early March, GoDaddy, the registrar and hosting company for the domain name, decided to shut the site down. According to Wired, Rate My Cop went dark "after hosting company GoDaddy unceremonious[ly] pulled-the-plug on the site in the wake of outrage from criticism-leery cops."

No warning.

When the website owner called GoDaddy's Support Center, he was told that the site was shut down for "suspicious activity." Later the registrar backtracked and said that Rate My Cop went over its three terabyte bandwidth limit.

Yeah, right.

What really happened is that several police organizations had filed their complaints directly to GoDaddy, who then unilaterally decided to shut the site down, never mind freedom of speech issues, which (the last time I looked) includes the right to offer opinions, both good and bad, about cops and any other public officials charged with serving the public.

No injunctions, no legal process at all, just Bob Parsons, the owner of GoDaddy, deciding that he was all nine judges on the Supreme Court.

Rate My Cop is back up and running, but what about the small-website owner who doesn't have the deep pockets to fight the moneyed domain registrars and the powerful police lobby?

Fortunately, the outcry over this illegal act was loud and clear. Members of, a free-speech forum that focuses on the foibles and missteps of GoDaddy, and others posted about about's plight.

As I see it, the owners of Rate My Cop have set up a Public Forum, much like Rate My Professors, reviled by college faculty all over, and no one seems to call for its banning (nor should they). The police lobby argues that placing generally public information (name, badge and home phone numbers, and even home addresses) places police officers in clear and present danger. While it might be a good idea for the owners to nix posting police officers' addresses and phone numbers from being plastered on the web, they are not obligated to do so.

Right now, is in its infancy, so very few people are paying us much heed. But what happens when we become really noticed and the powers in the literary community start complaining about our great big loud voice to our registrar and host? Will (the current registrar of this domain) and Google, the owner of blogger, simply cave and disconnect us without due process?

I don't know about, but Google is well-known for its sometimes heavy-handed style of dealing with its publishers and pretty much hides behind its Terms Of Service (TOS) when dealing with cranky sites.

Because the U.S. has jurisdiction over .net and .com, does the First Amendment preclude an internet company's TOS? On the other hand, given that these are private companies, are they obligated to allow webmasters to incorporate the Public Forum Doctrine, even if aspects of the doctrine may violate a company's TOS?

My primary questions, then: do only the rich enjoy true freedom of speech on the web, money and connections trumping all? Or is the internet supposed to be a venue for unfettered, serious and trivial, discussion by everyone, even if we might personally find some of the content highly offensive, such as the content in, no matter who manages the domain name and hosting?

Here are some links to discussions about the Public Forum Doctrine:

Freedom Forum

In The Public Forum Doctrine and Its Possible Application to the Internet, author Angioletta Sperti, LL.M., UCLA School of Law, says, "It is ... necessary to clarify to what extent the Internet may be considered public and if private entities must be included in the Internet as a public forum and assimilated to the State for constitutional purposes or if a distinction is more appropriate."

This relevant article, certainly for this forum, is well worth reading.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book Review Thread: Drama/Playscripts

Have you recently read a playscript that you absolutely loved or hated?

Here's the thread for you.

This thread is open to those of you who want to review the written version of plays (in other words, no reviews of performances), traditional or experimental.

The first signed (not anonymous) and quality review (negative or positive), will be elevated into this post.

Some Guidelines and Caveats:

  • No Self-Promotion. There is another thread for self-promoting your work. However, you may add an link to where one can buy and/or see more information about and other reviews of the book.

  • You may use this thread only; book reviews in other comment or incorrect genre threads will be moved or deleted.

  • By posting a negative or even neutral review, you do leave yourself open to attack by unhappy and angry authors about your review, and these comments will not be deleted.

  • Anyone may comment on your review, including reviewed authors. If you are an author, you are welcome to respond to the review, but you may not self-promote in this thread. Instead, go to the self-promotion thread. Self-promoting comments will be deleted from this thread.

Questions? Email me

Book Review Thread: Academic non-fiction (Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Textbooks)

Have you recently read compelling or just plain silly academic non-fiction?

Here's the thread for you.

This thread is open to those of you who want to review academic non-fiction: literary criticism, literary theory, even textbooks.

The first signed (not anonymous) and quality review (negative or positive), will be elevated into this post.

Some Guidelines and Caveats:

  • No Self-Promotion. There is another thread for self-promoting your work. However, you may add an link to where one can buy and/or see more information about and other reviews of the book.

  • You may use this thread only; book reviews in other comment or incorrect genre threads will be moved or deleted.

  • By posting a negative or even neutral review, you do leave yourself open to attack by unhappy and angry authors about your review, and these comments will not be deleted.

  • Anyone may comment on your review, including reviewed authors. If you are an author, you are welcome to respond to the review, but you may not self-promote in this thread. Instead, go to the self-promotion thread. Self-promoting comments will be deleted from this thread.

Questions? Email me

Book Review Thread: General non-fiction (Autobiography, Biography, How-to, Informational, Political, etc.)

Have you recently read general non-fiction that you absolutely loved or hated?

Here's the thread for you.

This thread is open to those of you who want to review non-fiction targeted to a general audience: autobiography, biography, how-to, informational, political etc.).

Academic non-fiction has its own thread.

The first signed (not anonymous) and quality review (negative or positive), will be elevated into this post.

Some Guidelines and Caveats:

  • No Self-Promotion. There is another thread for self-promoting your work. However, you may add an link to where one can buy and/or see more information about and other reviews of the book.

  • You may use this thread only; book reviews in other comment or incorrect genre threads will be moved or deleted.

  • By posting a negative or even neutral review, you do leave yourself open to attack by unhappy and angry authors about your review, and these comments will not be deleted.

  • Anyone may comment on your review, including reviewed authors. If you are an author, you are welcome to respond to the review, but you may not self-promote in this thread. Instead, go to the self-promotion thread. Self-promoting comments will be deleted from this thread.

Questions? Email me

Book Review Thread: Memoir (non-fiction)

Have you recently read a memoir that you absolutely loved or hated?

Here's the thread for you.

This thread is open to those of you who want to review memoirs.

The first signed (not anonymous) and quality review (negative or positive), will be elevated into this post.

Some Guidelines and Caveats:

  • No Self-Promotion. There is another thread for self-promoting your work. However, you may add an link to where one can buy and/or see more information about and other reviews of the book.

  • You may use this thread only; book reviews in other comment or incorrect genre threads will be moved or deleted.

  • By posting a negative or even neutral review, you do leave yourself open to attack by unhappy and angry authors about your review, and these comments will not be deleted.

  • Anyone may comment on your review, including reviewed authors. If you are an author, you are welcome to respond to the review, but you may not self-promote in this thread. Instead, go to the self-promotion thread. Self-promoting comments will be deleted from this thread.

Questions? Email me

Book Review Thread: Poetry

Have you recently read a poetry collection that you absolutely loved or hated?

Here's the thread for you.

This thread is open to those of you who want to review poetry of all kinds: free verse, form, experimental, LangPo, etc.

The first signed (not anonymous) and quality review (negative or positive), will be elevated into this post.

Some Guidelines and Caveats:

  • No Self-Promotion. There is another thread for self-promoting your work. However, you may add an link to where one can buy and/or see more information about and other reviews of the book.

  • You may use this thread only; book reviews in other comment or incorrect genre threads will be moved or deleted.

  • By posting a negative or even neutral review, you do leave yourself open to attack by unhappy and angry authors about your review, and these comments will not be deleted.

  • Anyone may comment on your review, including reviewed authors. If you are an author, you are welcome to respond to the review, but you may not self-promote in this thread. Instead, go to the self-promotion thread. Self-promoting comments will be deleted from this thread.

Questions? Email me

Book Review Thread: Fiction

Have you recently read fiction that you absolutely loved or hated?

Here's the thread for you.

This thread is open to those of you who want to review fiction of all kinds: novels, short stories/fiction, and novellas.

The first signed (not anonymous) and quality review (negative or positive), will be elevated into this post.

Some Guidelines and Caveats:

  • No Self-Promotion. There is another thread for self-promoting your work. However, you may add an link to where one can buy and/or see more information about and other reviews of the book.

  • You may use this thread only; book reviews in other comment or incorrect genre threads will be moved or deleted.

  • By posting a negative or even neutral review, you do leave yourself open to attack by unhappy and angry authors about your review, and these comments will not be deleted.

  • Anyone may comment on your review, including reviewed authors. If you are an author, you are welcome to respond to the review, but you may not self-promote in this thread. Instead, go to the self-promotion thread. Self-promoting comments will be deleted from this thread.

Questions? Email me

Forum Thread: Self-Promoting Your Books Here

This thread is open to those of you who want to plug your books or the books of your friends. Creative writers don't have a lot of opportunities to blurb about their efforts, so I thought I'd offer. This is a genuine offer, BUT...

There are some caveats:

  • No book reviews. Just the title, author, a short blurb, and link to where one can buy and/or see more information/review about the book. (Book reviews are separate threads).

  • You may use this thread only; blurbs in other comment sections will be deleted.

  • By posting your blurb, you do leave yourself open to comments about your work, and these comments, as protected speech, will not be deleted.

If you wish to review a book, click on one of the following threads:

Monday, March 31, 2008

Forum Thread: Silencing Writers in the Corporate Nation (Anca Vlasopolos)

(The following article has been reposted--with permission from its author--from Post Foetry.

In this article, the author discusses the systemic silencing of writers by corporate America.

As writers, both published and unpublished, think about the ways you and your works have been silenced by corporate America and academic presses.

Feel free to post your comments.)

I come by my interest in silence and silencing honestly—I grew up in Communist Romania, where the price for speaking out, as my father found out, was imprisonment without the right of habeas corpus. In fact, I know specifically where the U. S. sent the "extreme rendition" prisoners when it sent them to Romania. But that’s not the silencing I will be discussing. For a long time during my academic career I pondered the meaning of silence and silencing in women’s writing, not just in the case working-class writers or writers of color, where the problem was exacerbated by class and race, but in women’s writing precisely because that silencing cut across color and class lines, and the most aristocratic women were in many instances as definitively silenced as the milkmaids walking up the path of the estate. But since stellar scholars and writers, whom we in our general cultural amnesia now neglect, such as Joanna Russ (How to Suppress Women’s Writing) and Tillie Olsen (Silences), have brilliantly examined the subject, I will not be discussing that either.

The subject of my essay is the corporation-owned publishing media and the non-free-market economy that govern the present silencing of writers. I also want to address how academia, itself increasingly a corporate mimic, furthers the aims of the manacled and gagged market place. This paper is not a social-science analysis. I do not profess to practice social science without having been trained in its disciplines. But I am a writer and continue to be a voracious and eclectic reader, so I hope to entertain while edifying you, in the ancient manner, with lots of anecdotes and observations.

The most effective way of silencing a writer is not giving him or her an outlet. I’m not talking about the necessary winnowing that goes on constantly in a culture in which many more people write and submit their writing for publication than read and have any appreciation for literature. I’m talking about people who are experienced, published writers, for whom each new book presents the same dilemmas, problems, and humiliations as the first, each time without the hope that one still clings to in one’s writerly youth. We know that publishers commit colossal mistakes; this is not a recent phenomenon. We need only mention James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was rejected multiple times before it rose to become a classic. Proust’s first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu was rejected so many times that he ended up publishing it himself. And I could go on to myriad examples.

What I’m addressing here is the systematic, systemic silencing that goes on in what has become the ultra-capitalist business of publishing. About ten years ago, The Nation magazine did a feature on the remaining handful of independent presses in the country, small presses that were not subsidiaries of the petroleum industry or the Disney or Warner entertainment empires. Of those presses, fewer remain today. Picador has been swallowed. Dalkey Press has bit the dust. Coffee House, Milkweed, and Graywolf still limp on, they too trying so hard to find the best seller that they rarely publish the distinguished books that used to make their fame—if not their fortune, and there’s the rub. In the days of independent presses, when the Penguin "group," for instance, didn’t stand for a huge multi-national conglomerate, presses expected to make 8% profits on successful publications. Today, anything less than 25% is considered a marketing failure, and the writer whose book doesn’t see those profits can kiss his/her next advance goodbye and can go back to the starting line in terms of getting a publisher for the next manuscript.

The dominant presses, themselves subsidiaries of larger global corporations, control the market in various other ways that make it difficult for all but the most persistent and informed readers to be exposed to any books but those the publicity departments of these presses want them to see. The presses control the display at your local Borders, Barnes and Noble, and even independent bookstores. They pay for shelf space, so that their books will occupy prime space near the entrance to the bookstore, in the most eye-catching location, and that their books be placed with the cover rather than the spine in the shelves facing the browser. These presses control signings and readings. The pressure has become so great that even independent bookstores are reluctant to set up signings and readings for any but the major presses, even for such presses as Archipelago, with its high-quality and well-regarded international list. So, basically, unless you walk into your local bookstore determined to order the book you want even if it’s not on the shelf, you’re going to buy something on display that catches your eye. Even when you order a book, as I’ve done many times, the bookstore personnel forget to notify you that the book has arrived. They send it back to the publisher, who then charges the author for returned books against royalties, so that through creative accounting, such as that practiced by one of my presses—Columbia University Press, a writer is always in deficit; this despite my memoir having been kept in print for the last seven years (thus clearly making money for CUP).

In addition to the raw rapacity of the multi-corporate presses that dominate the market, the process of publishing with the multis as well as with the independents who fashion themselves in the image of the multis, such the venerable Knopf and Farrar Strauss (the latter no longer an independent), silences writers. No major, and a good deal of minor, presses will look at unagented manuscripts. This barrier between writers and presses sets up yet another profit-making enterprise that depends on the generation of capital, not on literary excellence and lasting power. Agents become agents to make money. They will represent writers who write what’s been written, published, and proved successful. They do not seek fresh, original voices and authors who may create a "market" for their work over time. Agents look for works that fit present, proven, money-making niches. So, apart from the rapaciousness of the corporate publishers, writers have to deal with the cupidity of agents, some of whom moreover have the arrogance to regard themselves as literary critics and to force writers to make major changes in order to make a sale. I had an agent tell me that the political content of my detective novel was too disturbing and that I should make it into a screenplay, which he offered to represent, because he felt the political content would be muted in such a treatment. A famous agent told me that my most recently published book, The New Bedford Samurai (from the small, independent press Twilight Times Books), which she received in manuscript, was a "deliberately noncommercial" production and that I should bide my time and wait for her to read it when she had time because, she said, she was in the business to make money. On one occasion, when my colleague Christopher Leland and I participated as invited speakers at a writers’ conference at Oakland University, we sat at the same table for lunch as other invited speakers, among them two agents from New York. While it’s indisputable that at my age young people look very young, these two were, by their own admission, in their early and mid-twenties. Chris and I asked them what they were looking for when they shopped for manuscripts, and they said: "Edgy young fiction." The publishing industry, like others, depends on the wisdom of people who have hardly lived long enough to have read the literary masterpieces and the discovered treasures that make up expanding canons. They are the gatekeepers.

In the same crass and often ignorant way in which agents manipulate writers toward commercial success, editors at presses regard themselves as great stylists in the mode of Ezra Pound and Toni Morrison, to name but two illustrious editors. With a handful of exceptions, they are not. They’re people whose jobs and renewals in those jobs depend on their finding, the same as the agents, works that fit an already fabricated and commercially developed niche into which they snugly fit, without disturbing readers or upsetting reviewers or making trouble for the bookstores. The phenomenon of Harry Potter, a series that is at least well written and imaginative, nevertheless is exemplary of a book piggybacking on many equally inventive and well-written fantasy novels that made the niche for Harry and were not even mentioned as predecessors by reviewers largely ignorant of a genre they generally treat with contempt.

Which brings me to the reviewers: It is as rare to have a major newspaper review a book by an independent press as it is to spot a wild orchid in Michigan. Local papers will review books by writers who live in the area, thereby bringing the book to the attention of at best 5,000 readers, and major metropolitan newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News no longer even have local reviewers—they pay for syndicated reviews from national sources, like the Associated Press. A half a page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review section costs over $22,000 for a single time, so no independent press can afford to advertise the books it publishes in venues where the reviews make or unmake a book. A review in The NY Times Book Review does in fact make or break a book in terms of the agent’s interest and the next publishing contract. The definitive biography of the poet Rilke, for instance, published by Farrar Strauss, had a lukewarm review in the Times Book Review, and although it received a glowing review in The Nation, neither publisher nor agent accepted the writer’s next project, original fiction. This despite translation rights FS sold to Germany, France, and China. In Germany, the book became a best seller, and the writer was invited (travel and honorarium) to present in Europe, repeatedly, for this book as well as for his critical work and translations of Hesse; clearly, the European market is still more inclined toward writing of substance than the American, but our multi-corporate practices are beginning to take hold overseas as well. Shopping for a new agent and publisher in one’s late seventies had effectively silenced this writer for several years.

As for me, I engaged in an email exchange that got increasingly more acrimonious with the book editor of the Seattle Times. I had a limited number of review copies that my publisher expected me to send out—she dutifully sent out her copies to the biggies—and I sent queries as to whether papers such as the Seattle Times or The Providence Journal would be interested in seeing the book because of its Pacific- and Atlantic-rim subject matter. The Seattle Times editor objected to my calling my book a nonfiction novel. I told him that the genre had been so dubbed by Truman Capote for In Cold Blood, and that, if anything, my book as even more of a hybrid than Capote’s. He then riposted that he knew about Capote, which I doubt, but that it was the kiss of death to call a book a nonfiction novel because it would confuse readers as to whether it was fiction or not. I explained to him that parts of my book were fiction and others were research and meditative essays based on science, cultural anthropology, and the most recent ecological data about the Pacific Rim. He, however, got to have the last word. My book has not been reviewed by the Seattle Times. It has a snowball’s chance of being reviewed by any of the well-known newspapers in the U. S., even though it got a great review in the Cape Cod Chronicle and in the Grosse Pointe News.

So, writers battle demographics ("edgy young fiction"), genre (call it something we can easily place on a labeled shelf), agents, who nowadays regard themselves as literary critics, editors at presses who do the same with generally few qualifications other than an M.A. in English, to the corporate structure whose whole interest in literature is to make its 25% or more, to the bookstores that are being owned by the corporate structures in the way that they display, advertise, and order books. In addition to all these modes of silencing, writers must confront academia.

I’ll begin this section of this "j’accuse" by quoting Flannery O’Connor, who, when asked if academia silenced creative writers, responded, "not enough of them." It may seem paradoxical that a writer delineating modes of silencing would side with the need to silence others. However, the problem with creative writing in the academy is two-fold: creative writers who have jobs in universities and colleges become the "wives" of the publishing world, that is, they put out without having to be paid. Forgive the vulgar analogy, but I’m following Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s examination of wives versus prostitutes in her Women and Economics, where she states that wives cheapen and undermine the labor of the sex workers, who at least have the freedom to choose and to be paid piecemeal, so to speak, as opposed to the wives who have been sold or have sold themselves to a single master. So, to some extent, the writers in academia, only in the sense that they have a master—the university, which exacts publications for tenure, promotion, contract renewal, and salary raises. The writers, in turn, can offer their wares for free to the market and generally do. If anyone here takes offence, do please remember that I number myself in this category. The condemnation includes me. I have published over two hundred poems and short stories, two chapbooks of poetry, a collection of poems, a detective novel, a memoir, and a nonfiction novel. The only advance I ever received was so small that I was barely able to cover the upgrade to a newer computer.

If I added up my income from my writing, I’d have made perhaps $5,000 over a lifetime of writing. I’m not counting, of course, the salary increases and the promotion, which are vastly greater than the direct earnings. But what does this practice do? It offers yet another subsidy to the corporate publishing world. Excellent work for free—can anyone get a better deal?

To go back to O’Connor’s quotation: while writers in the academy cheapen the labor of writers who should be able to support themselves through their writing, academics also depend on attracting and retaining students and on getting good evaluations from them. Consequently, professors of creative writing encourage students to submit for publication even when these students have not lived enough to have much to say, have not had time to think enough to have anything worth saying, and have not read enough to have developed skills that outshine or at least rival their predecessors. Thus the market is flooded with free work by a huge amount of scribblers whose white noise drowns out the few genuine talents and the occasional genius. Add to that the fly-by-night or fly-by-screen journals run by equally unformed and uninformed "editors," and the possibility of true talent to be heard becomes more and more remote.

Unlike the corporate publishing world, however, which pays no mind to where a person has published, only to how much, academia worships addresses. Not content, not style, not the felicitous merging of the two, but merely addresses, and this form of worship applies to scholarly as well as to creative endeavors, but I am convinced that the system of peer review that to some extent justifies, though only in part, address worship for scholarship has no counterpart in the world of creative writing. It’s not other fine writers who judge a dossier of a novelist or a poet to say how s/he is doing—it’s the address, and the prize. We know from scandals such as the one that led to the website that contests in creative writing harbor outrageous examples of corruption and nepotism. Grant giving at the NIH, while subject to fads in science, has never approached the utter cynicism of the giving of prizes in creative writing.

The corporate market silences creative writers by looking, always, not at plot, characterization, formal structure, etc., but at the bottom line, which rhymes only with excessive profit. It surrounds itself with safeguards for the production of successful sameness, with agents at one end and influence buying at the distribution end. Independent presses mirror the corporate publishers because the weak desire to emulate the strong. Academia provides shelter for writers who in turn through their own labor and their unwise encouragement of fetal writing from students flood the market with free labor, thereby exacerbating the economic difficulties of any writer of genuine power to be able to count on his/her literary talent to make a living. The result, ladies, gentlemen, and scholars, is the dross we find on the tables of our local branches of the Exxon Mobil bookstore and the mute inglorious Miltons and Jane Austens who write deliberately noncommercial books that remain forever silenced in some hard disk or flash drive or, even in our day, yellowing somewhere in an attic trunk. The system should be a public scandal, but for that to happen we would have to have non-corporate, independent press and media in this great country of ours.

This essay has been posted here with the writer's permission.
Copyright 2007 by Anca Vlasopolos.
Guest writer Anca Vlasopolos was born in 1948 in Bucharest, Rumania. Her father, a political prisoner of the Communist regime in Rumania, died when Anca was eight. After a sojourn in Paris and Brussels, at fourteen she immigrated to the United States with her mother, a prominent Rumanian intellectual and a survivor of Auschwitz. Anca is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She is married to Anthony Ambrogio, a writer and editor; they have a biological daughter, Olivia (a graduate of Oberlin College and a PhD candidate at Tufts University), and an adopted daughter, Beatriz, who came to them from Guatemala in 2000, when she was 10.
Her publications include Missing Members (1991), a police procedural; No Return Address (2000), memoir; Penguins in a Warming World (2007), poetry; The New Bedford Samurai (2007), non-fiction novel.
Professor Vlasopolos presented this essay at a symposium on Silence and Silencing at her university.

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