Sunday, June 18, 2006


I had to turn that "Word Verification" feature on again for the comments. I don't like it either, but the site has been getting hit by those "Great site! Check out this link!" robo-spammers lately. If anyone has an idea for a better solution, I'm all ears.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The 10 Most Overrated Poets

Everybody loves a top-ten list. Here, in reverse order, are Poetry Snark's ten most overrated poets.

I'm limiting these to Anglophones (living or dead), as I don't trust translations, and the only other language I can read is French. Obviously, this list is biased toward the living, as time has a way of doing its own job on puffed-up hacks. Also, these are overrated poets, not the worst ones. For example, I actually think that Bukowski could be pretty funny at times, but the fact that in Europe he is often considered America's best of the 20th-century requires that he be on this list.

Oh, and this is based on how I perceive their stature from today's point-of-view, so it doesn't include poets like Longfellow, Southey, or Amy Lowell, who were overrated during their time, but aren't taken seriously today. So without further ado, the most overrated English-language poets of all time:

10. Ted Kooser

He's only here because he's Poet Laureate. He's really just a blandly inoffensive barns and farms poet, suitable for use in seducing blue-haired old ladies. His inclusion here is certainly contestable, as I’m not sure that he’s held in high enough esteem to be considered “overrated.”

9. Charles Bukowski

This is the poet boys love when they are in high school. I'll say this for him--he wasn't a fake (I met him once briefly). I wouldn't even put him here if he wasn't the all-time favorite of so many, even when they should have outgrown him and should know better.

8. Bob Perelman

Does anyone really like his poems?

7. Billy Collins

Who would argue with this choice? Well, not too many from the States, anyway. Has anyone heard of this guy in the U.K.? Canada?

6. Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott won both the Nobel and the McArthur “genius” grant. It's not that he's that awful, but he is profoundly overrated.

5. Robert Pinsky

Another poet here primarily because he was a Laureate, but unlike Kooser, who is rejected by the intelligentsia, Pinsky has fans in high places. He has detractors too. I love what Jim Galvin once said about him: "Pinsky wants to dance with his poems. The problem is, he has a lead ass."

4. Mary Oliver

She may be the worst poet on the list, but her reputation has suffered as the fad for ultra-flat "prose-like" lines has waned as of late, and her most recent book, has been roundly panned, even by mainstream reviewers, who usually don't have the guts to go negative. Still, she is worshipped by many, and she is so very awful

3. Ted Hughes

I could care less what he did to Sylvia Plath. Maybe we should be grateful to him, since I suspect his infidelity resulted in some of her finest work. But Hughes was the U.K.'s Poet Laureate for fourteen years, despite the fact that the only reason he was appointed in the first place is because a far superior poet, Philip Larkin, turned it down (as any self-respecting poet should). Surrealism and being a Brit don't mix, and it's hard to say what's worse, his milquetoast attempts at "the uncanny" in his profoundly overrated "crow" poems, or his tepid early nature poems. Brother should have stuck to children's books. At least The Iron Man made for a decent children's animated film (“The Iron Giant”).

2. Lord Alfred Tennyson

Another mildly competent versifier who is here primarily because of his puffed rep. But oh how puffed it is. Tennyson is still the most widely taught Victorian poet (the fact he is still more read than Browning is one of poetry's great scandals). And yes, it's easy--and fun--to pick on Poet Laureates, but this guy's most famous poem is "The Lady of Shallot," which rivals even "The Raven" as most overrated poem of all time. One of my former teachers in Nebraska said it best: "Tennyson is like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep."

1. Edgar Allen Poe

You probably saw this coming. The jingle-jangle man was always a hack with a tin ear, yet even today, he is considered the most influential American poet on the French, and he is the third most studied American poet of the 19th century. His sense of “music” makes Tennyson look like Keats, and his verse is best suited to frightening six year olds. It should have been forgotten long ago.


So what do you think? These kinds of lists almost always create arguments, and I'm sure you have your own nominees who you would put on this list if you were making it yourself. Use this thread to call me on my bullshit or add your own hacks to the pile.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Get yer Whitman love jelly right here folks!

Walt Whitman sells shit.

Monday, June 05, 2006

On Stanley Kunitz and Michael Riffaterre

In the last few weeks, we've lost two major voices in their respective fields, Stanley Kunitz, poet, and Michael Riffaterre, critic.

Now I'm going to break one of the rules I set for myself at this site--I'm going to say something nice about a poet. Stanley Kunitz was the real deal. His poems were more stylistically conservative than I usually like, but it didn't matter because he had a pitch-perfect ear, an eye for detail that rivaled Elizabeth Bishop's, and, most importantly, a vision of the world that was inspiring and rare. He was one of those few poets who saw the world in a way that was utterly different than the way I do, and who convinced me that his way of seeing the world was something I needed to learn from--something that improved my life by occupying it for the brief but intense time spent reading his poems. His poems of sympathy for the natural world--such as "The Wellfleet Whale" and the two silkworm poems he wrote late in his life--are imprinted in my mind and always will be.

From everything I've heard and read, Michael Riffaterre was an admirable man, who fought with the French Resistance in World War II, but his attitude toward literature was deeply misguided. Often associated with French Structuralism, he was one of those critics that worked to detach the human element of writing from the writing itself, arguing that authors themselves have nothing to do with the meaning created by their art (except Riffaterre would have used the clinical term, "text"). As a scholar and critic, he expressed no desire to perform the useful work that critics can do: help other readers. Rather, he wanted to tell us that the way we read is wrong and that we needed to justify meaning against a pseudo-scientific model, based on a newly-invented and highly suspect discipline: semiotics.

Riffaterre hardly started this type of thinking, but as university professor emeritus at Columbia, where he had spent his entire academic career and exerted considerable influence on American attitudes, he was one of the movement's prime enablers. We've seen the results of structuralism: a jealous search for a kind of scientific model for reading, an even more odious movement toward "post-structuralism," and ultimately a disengagement of literary scholarship from literature itself. Luckily for us, that wave has long since shored itself against these ruins, as has its post-structuralist afterthought, and only po-mo apologists and "Language Poets" find this stuff in any way relevant.

Riffaterre and his cohorts' approach denied everything that's valuable about a poet like Stanley Kunitz--or, for that matter, like Blake, Whitman, Yeats, or even Stevens... any poet for whom individual vision was important. Let's hope this kind of thinking can finally be put to rest.