Good poems?

In the weekend’s Book Review, David Orr reviews Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times and recalls August Kleinzahler’s evisceration of Keillor’s first anthology in this vein, Good Poems.

“The most obvious problem with ‘Good Poems for Hard Times,'” says Orr, “is that it proposes that ‘the meaning of poetry is to give courage.’ That is not the meaning of poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch.” Orr also criticizes Keillor’s preference for poems turned out by white manufacturers of the “small-scale epiphany.”

But he contends that the dispute between Keillor and Kleinzahler “isn’t real confrontation,” that Keillor is “playing populist” and Kleinzahler “playing elitist,” while the actual careers of the two men “are mixtures of high and low, lone wolf and average bear.”

I doubt Kleinzahler sees his stance as an elitist one, though. Earlier this year he told Adam Travis in a Bookslut interview that he doesn’t

especially subscribe to the notion of a hierarchy in high and low culture. One nourishes the other. Snobs in this realm are inevitably hoisted with their own snobby petard.

Travis, who works for Poetry magazine, revealed, “to the credit of Mr. Kleinzahler,” that hate mail responding to his Good Poems review “came in at least until late June.”

Rita Dove wrote to express her righteous indignation. Anonymous readers feared for delicacy and decorum. And yet there were others to whom the slash and burn of Kleinzahler’s shock and awe review was a salve to the polite dullness that has corrupted contemporary poetry. For just as long letters of thanks and praise came to the offices of Poetry. Finally, we have a man to burn our old bridges.


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