Criticizing Dwight Garner’s reviews of poets is nothing new at Big Other. Two days ago on Elizabeth Bishop’s 100th Birthday, the New York Times ran his review of her correspondence with the New Yorker. It is a lukewarm take stating the book is more for completists–understandably so. I do find issue with Garner’s gloss on the supra-popular reducer–she or he is the BLANK of BLANKETY BLANK:
Since her death, though, she’s become the Tupac Shakur of American poets, with a fat new remixed volume of her fragments or letters seemingly issued every five years.
Who is Dwight Garner appealing to? Does Elizabeth Bishop need to be propped up by a better known name in order to remain cool? Elizabeth Bishop lives on because her poetry continues to speak. In proving a point, it seems Garner only proves how silly this type of hammy superlative is.
Still, there are a few nice lessons for those currently writing and/or publishing.
This book presents a master class in all the effortlessly cordial ways The New Yorker had (and has) to say no to things it doesn’t want. Bishop’s work was returned to her with comments including: “a little too remote”; “doesn’t seem right to us”; “far too special — or perhaps I should say personal”; “a bit too long”; “doesn’t seem quite precise enough”; “we can’t help feeling it is more suitable for a literary magazine”; “in a mixed vote here on your two latest poems, the ‘no’s’ have it”; “too difficult for our readers”; and (my favorite) “it may be our denseness, rather than a real ambiguity in the poem, that led to a negative vote.”
This is The New Yorker speaking about a poet whose work is in the canon. It only reinforces the incredible barriers to getting a story or poem out there. Can you imagine conferences at Agni or Gettysburg Review, to name two journals, about your own work? About someone they probably hardly know. What if you wrote a story about a father/son relationship but there is already one accepted for the issue? Sorry. What if you wrote about a character named Patti but one of the editors just broke up with someone named Patti? Sorry.
Finally, a nugget, as Bishop said:
I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it.