It is difficult to argue with Noah Berlatsky’s skewering review of Mark Strand’s latest collection [“Pulitzer vs. Penguins,” October 20], partially because I am not familiar with that text and partially because he raises some points. Drinking whiskey at dusk is something of a cliche, but no more than claiming that an art form is dying or dead. Referring to Strand’s book as “another nail in the coffin of contemporary poetry” is about as cliched a thing as one can write, and far less interesting than the idea of being drunk at sunset.
When Berlatsky writes, “The one saving grace of contemporary poetry is that virtually nobody–hoofed or otherwise–reads the stuff,” I have to wonder why he feels he can claim the authority to relay this as fact. I am always suspicious of statements that boast such authority, especially when they come from a writer who is considerably less read than, say, Mark Strand. Not that I think Berlatsky imagines that he is well-known or widely read, nor would I assume he feels that is the issue. But the truth be told, contemporary poetry has a wider audience than Berlatsky can imagine, perhaps because Berlatsky cannot imagine readers outside of those who half-attentively breeze past his columns on the way to Savage Love and phone-sex ads.
The examples of better writing which Berlatsky offers to support his position are major names like Eliot, Blake, Christina Rossetti, and Roald Dahl–interestingly, all canonical writers. I suppose his aim is to demonstrate how fun they can be in comparison to academic writers, but while invoking these names he is also ignoring work by Strand and others of his generation that provides a similar kind of enjoyment. Has Berlatsky read Strand’s famous “Eating Poetry” or Paul Muldoon’s punning verse or Ciaran Carson’s playful metaphors? Apparently not.
It is easy to sense that Berlatsky is happy wearing his lack of pretension on his sleeve (Look, I read kids’ books and prefer them to contemporary poetry!), so much so that it smacks of pretension. But as anti-
snobbish as he tries to seem, invoking those before-mentioned canonized poets makes him appear to be a former English major, familiar enough with the big names, who feels it his duty to report that poetry is dead because it doesn’t look like the poetry he studied as an undergrad. I mean, Strand’s verse contains no alliteration or rhyme, and that’s what all good poetry is made of, right? And besides, as he says, no one reads it anyway. If a poet writes alone in the woods and no one reads it, is it still poetry?
I could be wrong. Berlatsky might be a well-read chap quite familiar with artists outside the canon. He may have impeccable taste. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but my concern will vanish the moment this letter is written and sent. After all, there is far more interesting writing to consider, like writing that seeks to create something more ambitious than scathing book reviews pretending to know more than they do. But it’s so much easier to be snarky, isn’t it?
Noah Berlatsky replies:
The cliche you pointed out was in the headline, which was written by the Reader’s editors, not by me. To read some painful statistics on poetry’s market share, or lack thereof, you can check out this article: artscouncil.org.uk/documents/publications/371.pdf. And I’ve always found “Eating Poetry” to be one of Strand’s most annoying efforts, though I know many people like it.