Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Robert Lowell and the "Great" Debate

Noting this date (March 1) that marks the birth of Robert Lowell in 1917 and begins a month signaling 50 years since the publication of Lowell’s landmark work, Life Studies, in the spring of 1959, the current debate continuing across the Internet over “greatness” and contemporary poetry suddenly seems even more appropriate. During the past week much has been written online in response to David Orr’s recent New York Times article, “The Great(ness) Game,” which some found insightful and which simply incited others, in either case causing many replies at blogs and on writers’ email lists.

In my own observations, “Rating Great Poets and Considering Contemporary Concerns,” posted one week ago and quoted a number of times at various sites online, including at the Poetry Foundation’s “Harriet” blog, I expressed ambivalent reactions toward Orr’s essay, agreeing with a couple of its conclusions about the current condition of poetry, but wondering about the usefulness of applying past standards on a new and evolving situation for contemporary poets or readers of poetry.

I also questioned the wisdom of critics declaring any contemporary poet great before his or her work has been tested by time. I suggested readers ought to assess concerns today’s poets and critics might hold, “the uneasy relationship a number of them recognize between concepts of greatness or ambition and the current distrust by some for such labels, at least as they have been seen employed in the past.” As I stated then: “today’s readers also ought to consider it a bit risky to regard greatness in any specific contemporary poet since, as we all know, such a judgment is tenuous at best until tested by the passage of time and critically attested by forthcoming generations of readers as worthy of acclaim.”

Conveniently, David Orr seems to support my point about the fragility of a poet’s stature in his essay when he describes the arc of influence and esteem evident in readers’ respect for the poetry of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop during the last half of the twentieth century. As Orr indicates, not too long ago almost nobody doubted Lowell as the premier poet of his time: “Lowell had the style: his poetry is bursting with vast claims, sparkling abstractions and vehement denunciations of the servility of the age. And Lowell had the persona: he was a thunderbolt-chucking wild man from one of America’s most famous Bostonian lineages.”

The magnitude of Robert Lowell’s production of poetry became apparent in the trumpeted appearance of a hefty posthumous volume of nearly 1200 pages containing the poet’s lifetime of poems, Collected Poems (edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter), released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2003. Despite receiving a great deal of attention when published, much of the reporting in reviews remarked upon the apparent steady decline of Lowell’s reputation since his death about a quarter-century before.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Bishop produced a slim body of work over her career, which she quietly pursued. In fact, articles containing debate and strong criticism, led by Helen Vendler, focused upon the release of uncollected poems by Elizabeth Bishop in an anthology, Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2006), edited by Alice Quinn. Many felt the rough drafts and unfinished poems would harm Bishop’s reputation. However, others suggested the volume admirably emphasized Bishop’s reticence to publish unpolished poems. Still, as Orr reports: “she’s invariably described by critics as ‘shy,’ ‘modest,’ ‘charming’ and so forth. Yet it’s Bishop’s writing, not Lowell’s, that matters more in the poetry world today.”

Although one might legitimately argue that final evaluation by David Orr about the relative greatness of the poetry written by Lowell or Bishop, and I could make a case for both poets, Orr’s reference to the changing status in the minds of readers and the writings of critics concerning Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop in recent decades ought to serve as a caution against pronouncements of greatness about anybody, even those we may believe worthy and whom we widely admire among present-day poets, including a designation of John Ashbery as great by David Orr or the Library of America.

Indeed, as I was reconsidering Robert Lowell on this weekend of his birthday for an essay I am writing about the fiftieth anniversary of Life Studies, my research brought me back again to a familiar and intriguing piece of criticism, “The Vagaries of a Literary Reputation,” regarding Robert Lowell and written by Richard Tillinghast. This commentary first appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of Gettysburg Review and was reprinted as a chapter in Tillinghast’s fine book, Robert Lowell’s Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur (University of Michigan Press, 1995).

The critique begins with words about Lowell that once reflected conventional wisdom: “If any midcentury American poet seemed in the estimation of his contemporaries certain to be read and admired by posterity, surely that poet was Robert Lowell.” Tillinghast quotes critical evaluations of Lowell’s greatness, including one by Elizabeth Bishop, and he credits Lowell as a poet whose work in the forties, fifties, and sixties overshadowed everyone around him. In fact, describing a June 1967 issue of Time (pictured above), “featuring on its cover a hideous Sidney Nolan portrait of Lowell, laurels crayoned over his troubled brow,” Tillinghast acknowledges how the magazine, “reflecting prevailing critical opinion, sounded overwhelmed by Lowell’s scope and achievement.”

However, by the time of his article in the early 1990s Tillinghast already had detected a transition in the attitudes among current readers toward Robert Lowell and his work: “Lowell straddled the poetry scene of his day like a colossus—perhaps, in retrospect, to use one of his own favorite adjectives, a ‘top-heavy’ colossus, ripe for a fall. The decline in his reputation since his death from a heart attack in 1977 has been dramatic.” In a passage that seems similar to David Orr’s thoughts on the subject and also perceives change in the poetic community to which I had alluded in my previous post on this topic, Tillinghast declares:

Today no American poet occupies the preeminent position Lowell held in the fifties and sixties. His friend and contemporary Elizabeth Bishop, who died two years after he did, is the admired poet of their generation, while the two most highly thought-of living poets are Seamus Heaney, an Irishman, and Derek Walcott, of Afro-Caribbean extraction. American poetry itself has been gerrymandered into constituencies—reflective of a national trend toward compartmentalization by gender, ethnic group, and life-style.

To name only three contemporary American poets: John Ashbery is admired by readers with a mandarin sensibility who are drawn to the method of elevating indeterminacy of meaning to an aesthetic all its own, which makes him attractive to academic champions of deconstructionism. James Merrill, the most fluent verse-writer of our time, has his own champions, especially among those who enjoy the gossipy dramas of the Ouija-board epic, The Changing Light at Sandovar. Many feminists revere Adrienne Rich, who strikes other readers as being more arresting as polemicist than as a poet. Others might dismiss Rich, Merrill, and Ashbery all three as East Coast elitist. Or as “Eurocentric,” in which case one reads Maya Angelou, Ai, Yusef Komunyaka, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Garrett Hongo, Gary Soto, or Rita Dove. Because no poet today stands out above the crowd, no poet is able to use whatever prestige poetry might have in the service of public issues. Robert Lowell’s assurance, the ease with which he assumed a place for poetry in the councils of power, seems unthinkable today.

By the close of Tillinghast’s essay, he determines that in his opinion Lowell’s status really hasn’t been altered: “Despite the shifting winds of critical fashion, Lowell remains the greatest American poet of the midcentury. One need not draw invidious comparisons with other poets to make this claim. The immense variety of our poetry is part of its appeal. But no one has filled—no one has had the ambition to fill—the void left by Lowell’s death.”

David Orr’s article on “greatness” has provided those who value poetry, and who carefully evaluate contemporary poets and poems, with an opportunity to deliberate and discuss this issue, a chance for the kind of healthy exchange of ideas we should welcome. I’ve enjoyed most of the conversation I have viewed online in posts and their accompanying comments by readers, though I confess I felt disheartened when I detected personal jabs and ad hominem attacks at Orr by a couple of commentators.

Nevertheless, as the example of Robert Lowell demonstrates, reputations of contemporary poets likely will remain flexible for the foreseeable future, and any estimation of greatness today may be part of a futile exercise. Even Lowell testified to this during a Paris Review interview with Frederick Seidel in 1961. Lowell confided: “When I began writing most of the great writers were quite unpopular. They hadn’t reached the universities yet, and their circulation was small. Even Eliot wasn’t very popular then. But life seemed to be there. It seemed to be one of those periods when the lid was still being blown. The great period of blowing the lid was the time of Schönberg and Picasso and Joyce and the early Eliot, where a power came into the arts which we perhaps haven’t seen since.”

* * * * *

For previous commentary about Robert Lowell on “One Poet’s Notes” and links to audio presentations of his poetry, I invite readers to visit the following posts: “Robert Lowell’s Legacy: Life Studies,” “Robert Lowell’s Voice,” “Robert Lowell: ‘New Year’s Day,’” and “Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick.”


Ernie said...

It's worth remembering that in the 1960s Lowell and Dickey were widely regarded as the two most prominent American poets.

See Peter Davison's "The Difficulties of Being Major," which as published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967.


Alfred Corn said...

In a collection of essays titled =Atlas=, published last November, I raised the question of Walcott's possible greatness but remarked that contemporary taste is pretty well opposed to "greatness." In an essay on Polish poetry in the Winter =Hudson Review=, I raised the possbility of Adam Zagajewski's "greatness" (and Milosz's), and advanced some reasons why today's readership might resist the concept or fact of "greatness." Both essays appeared before Orr's article.

Because the connotations of "greatness" displease today's readership, we might consider substituting for it a purely operational method of determining importance--which will be gauged simply by noting which poets continue to be read and discussed. Sappho survives in only brief, fragmentary form, yet her poetry is still read, discussed, and admired. So she passes the test.

But it may take time to sort out the question. There was no consensus that either Whitman or Dickinson was great during their lives. In fact, by most lights, they were considered laughably inferior to, say, Longfellow and Whittier. And Dickinson barely missed being consigned to oblivion for all time. So we should allow for the possibility that there are "great" poets out there who have never been published at all, or only barely.

David Graham said...

Your commentaries are always lucid and full of matter, Ed. This one was particularly fine. Thanks!

Unknown said...

how long did they take to do that Lowell Collected? Why was it so delayed?
didn't the decades-long interim between his death and the Collected Poems

help create this lack of interest?

and where the hell is his Collected Verse Plays? and his Collected Verse Translations (Imitations)?

where are those books? why haven't they all been published by now?

Unknown said...

how soon after Bishop's death did her Collected appear? not long, as I remember . . .

but it took them a quarter century to do a Lowell Collected?

it's three decades since his death and they can't do a Collected Verse Translations, a Collected Verse Plays?

what are they waiting for——his centenary?!

did his estate delay everything to extend the length of the copyrights with the hope of garnering more royalties? (is that legally possible?) if so, they got hoist on their own greedpetard, because the time-lag in making his work available has contributed not just to this lack of attention and interest in his work, but surely to decreased sales of it, right ?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this piece, Ed. I refuse to give up the category "great" because, well, I think I know what is and isn't. Self-delusion, perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. As for what will last--much more than greatness is involved in that. Luck, for one small instance. Do I agree with others' assessments of current poets? More often than not, no. But I'm always interested in the poets under discussion.

Anonymous said...

//Because the connotations of "greatness" displease today's readership//

Hello Alfred,

I don't know where you come up with this generalization. What readership are you talking about? Where is the evidence for your assertion? The evidence *I see* is in the marketplace and the marketplace clearly contradicts you. Today's readership is hardly displeased by greatness, but embraces it. How else does one explain the continuing demand for poets like Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson? Publishers at least, and booksellers have a very keen understanding of what today's readership considers to be great.

But, as I commented at Edward's previous post, I'm always looking to put my assertions to the test.

Kelly wrote:

//I refuse to give up the category "great" because, well, I think I know what is and isn't.//

I'm with Kelly.

When I read great poetry, I know it. I have a good fix on what makes great poetry.

Edward Byrne said...


As I replied in the previous post you mention, the "marketplace" cannot be used to judge literary value, especially when considering contemporary poets or novelists.

You mention Dickinson above as an example: how many books did Dickinson sell during her life? None. At the same time, Longfellow was so popular that he reportedly sold 10,000 copies of one volume in a single day. Which do you regard as a great poet?

Anonymous said...

//As I replied in the previous post you mention, the "marketplace" cannot be used to judge literary value, especially when considering contemporary poets or novelists.//

And as I replied in the previous post, yes you can, *especially* when considering poets and novelists. I'm not just making a bald assertion. If you want to follow this debate through to its logical conclusion, we can look, artist by artist (those considered Great) and test my assertion (as to their popular appeal during their own lifetime). There is, indisputably, a correlation.

Obscurity and Greatness is the exception, not the rule.

//You mention Dickinson above as an example: how many books did Dickinson sell during her life? None.//

Right, and how many books did she *try* to sell during her lifetime? None.

//At the same time, Longfellow was so popular that he reportedly sold 10,000 copies of one volume in a single day. //

As I replied in your previous post, your anecdote is a red herring. The question is not: How many mediocre literary artists have *also* been popular (which is the usual riposte). The question is: How many great artists *weren't* popular?

Whitman achieved fame and was well on his way toward international recognition before died. So... a rhetorical question for you: Do you therefore regard Whitman in the same light as Longfellow?


Alfred Corn said...

I wish blog comments were easier to manage. I posted a response to Patrick seveal days ago, but aparently it didn't go through. In brief: Of course the giants of the past are eagerly read now and accorded the honorific of "greatness." But when it comes to contemporary taste, there is a strong bias against any poem tackling major cultural themes in an idiom more elevated than conversational tone and speech. If Yeats published "Sailing to Byzantium" today, it would be derided as pretentious, beginning with the title. In fact, derision bagan some time back. Auden said of the poem, "Yeats lied. No one wants to be a golden bird."

Pivotal in the evolution of taste I'm describing are Jarrell's criticism and Bishop's poetry. In a letter to Anne Stevenson, she said: "I don't care much for grand, all-out efforts--but on the other hand, I sometimes do. I admire Robert Lowell's poetry very much, and much of =Lord Weary's Castle= couldn't be more all-out." The afterthought seems rather dutiful, and there are warmer verbs than "admire." The fact is that contemporary taste is much closer to Bishop's aesthetic values than those evident in =Lord Weary's Castle=. He began moving toward her more personal mode in the late 1950s, along with American poetry at large. No one now wants to be Lord Weary or live in a castle across the Atlantic, and certainly not in Byzantium. When in the mood for that kind of grandeur, we go to poems from earlier decades or centuries. American poets want to be the guy next door talking things over in ordinary speech "that cats and dogs can read," as Marianne Moore put it. Which is comfortable, yeah, for sure; but "greatness" wouldn't work in that context.

Anonymous said...

//But when it comes to contemporary taste, there is a strong bias against any poem tackling major cultural themes in an idiom more elevated than conversational tone and speech.//

Right, but what or who are you referring to by "contemporary taste"? I think your term is too broad. Fact is, contemporary taste for poetry is on the bookstore shelves everywhere. Multiple copies of Robert Frost, E.B. Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, etc...

If by "contemporary taste" you are referring to poets, critics, and editors, then yes, there is "a strong bias against any poem tackling major cultural themes". I am tempted to posit that this group is standing between poets who *want* to tackle the big themes and a wider audience who still wants to read them. Clearly, the audience is out there. I think that's where I would disagree with you, *if* I have read your assertion correctly.

As to your Auden quote... How many read Auden and how many read Yeats. I'm willing to *bet* that Yeats sells far better off the average book-store shelf. Auden was wrong.