Thursday, September 27, 2007

The poets are fighting

A blogger curtsy to my friend Margaret, who sent me this article from the New York Times concerning the big dust-up at the Poetry Society of America. In a nutshell, the PSoA is giving the prestigious Frost medal to John Hollander, an old white guy who has shown a certain lack of appreciation for literature produced by the young and nonwhite. Novelist Walter Mosley has resigned from the society's board, quietly but clearly in protest. The board president, William Louis-Dreyfus, accused Mosley of McCarthyism, and a slew of other prominent board members quit over that. So now Louis-Dreyfus has quit because--well, it's not really clear. Maybe because there's nobody left to fight with. (Hollander, by the way, is not talking. You can read a couple of his poems here.)

The charge of McCarthyism against Mosley and the other writers is ridiculous. McCarthyism looks like this--a school principal smeared as a terrorist sympathizer and forced to resign from her job. (You can read a fuller account of Debbie Almontaser and the controversy over the school here.) Nobody tried to destroy Hollander's career or his reputation as a poet. All Mosley and the other writers did was quit a board. They've been pretty discreet in their public statements, not saying much of anything except to answer Louis-Dreyfus' charges against them.

The article brings up the old question of whether an asshole can be a great artist; or, to put it more politely, whether unsavory personal characteristics of an artist should effect how we evaluate his work. One of Louis-Dreyfus' complaints is that it's "as if you have to approve of the man’s politics before you can praise his poetry.” Generally speaking, I come down firmly on the side of saying the work is unsullied by the foibles of its creator. Edith Wharton was a terrible snob and a pretty vicious anti-Semite, but I still marvel at her genius and think American literature would be much poorer without her. That said, the issue seems like a bit of a red herring here, since Hollander is not being slammed for espousing racism generally, or for some private indiscretion. He's being criticized specifically for aspects of his "service to American poetry," which is supposedly what the prize is about. There's a good argument to be made that he did a disservice to poetry by insulting emerging writers. It doesn't seem unreasonable to bring that up in determining whether he is the right person to get the prize.

Anyway, the next time you're caught up in some idiotic, petty squabble with family or colleagues, console yourself with the knowledge that the big dogs of the literary world are no better than you.

And now, click here to read something fine by Lydia Melvin--just the sort of writer I suspect Mr. Hollander wouldn't much like.


chayaruchama said...

Of course assholes can be great artists !

Look at Picasso... Robert Frost wasn't exactly a sweetheart, by any means.
Ironic, that.

I can't count how many "great people. great minds" are jerks.

leopoldo said...

You two wise women said it all.