In Response to Anis Shivani
I’ve been out of town for a few weeks, and tons of literary stuff has happened, and most of it made me angry, like this. But today I want to talk about an article by the widely hated Anis Shivani, who is by far my least favorite Huffington Post columnist.
I do think that Shivani writes to piss people off, which is pretty obvious if you read more than one of his articles, which I can’t seem to stop going back to. It’s like when I watch FOX News and get pissed and then watch it again in a few days anyway.
The article I read today that I’d like to say a few things about is called “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What it Takes to Ascend to the Poet Laureateship” and you can find it here.
First of all, I’d like to point out how sick and damn tired I am of hearing the word “mediocrity” as applied to popular literature. As a caveat to this statement, I would also like to point out how hilarious it is that I could use the phrase “popular literature” in reference to poetry. Secondly, I would also like to mention that I’m not going to go as in-depth as Shivani about the poets he hates, because to be frank, I’m not familiar with Levine (gasp!); I’m only familiar with the other three (well, four if you count Billy Collins) that he ass-rips.
I would like to make a comment now about how long-winded Shivani is. I also understand that I am pretty long-winded myself, and that is not what makes one hatable. I have several redeemable qualities that I deem Shivani to lack.
And the last comment before I get to the meat of the matter: I actually agree with the majority of what Shivani has to say in this article.
I don’t think it’s the information Shivani presents that makes him ire-inducing. It’s the way that he presents it. And also, some of it is the information he presents (contradictions!). It’s okay to dislike a book or an author. I do it all the time! But to say that the authors you dislike are without skill is a supreme generalization and, in this case, untrue.
Let me start by addressing his comments about Olds:
They were all true. NEXT!
Not really. I mean, Olds does have talent, and to say that she’s worthless as a poet is unfair. What Shivani seems to do in this article is conveniently omit the books and poems that make these poets worth reading. While Olds does seem to have her fair share of poetic obsessions, she can also really pull out a zinger sometimes. In Blood, Tin, Straw (which was a pretty terrible book), she writes in “When it Comes,”: the black-violet, lobed pool, calm/ as a lake on the back of the moon, it is all/ woundless. A moment of unexpected musicality and rhythm like this isn’t written by somebody devoid of skill. But Olds does display a lot of unseemly qualities. Namely:
-Beautiful imagery juxtaposed with coarse colloquialisms in such a way that makes it seem she is struggling hard to produce a startling effect.
- Neverending allusions to her childhood abuse. Oh dear, it’s traumatic, I get it, but ENOUGH.
- Blatant sentimentality that seems to be “okayed” by the disgusting imagery in the rest of the poetry. (I’m looking at the poem “The New Stranger” re: I didn’t exist/ until you smiled at me. Blurg.)
- Contrived metaphors
- The thought of this sixty-some year old woman being so obsessed with the sexual. It makes me feel like I am continually and unexpectedly walking in on my dainty, naked grandmother.
-She is an ardent confessional poet who is running out of things to confess.
Need I go on? Shivani has clearly got this one right, though that doesn’t make him less of a jerkhole.
The next poet he tears into is Jorie Graham. And I’m all, yeah right. He had roughly 750 words to say about Graham, and I don’t even have two paragraphs to type up. I don’t understand Jorie Graham, and anybody who claims to know anything about what she writes is a liar and a cheat. Not to be trusted.
His decimation of Louise Glück is understandable, to an extent, as some of her books do delve into the realms of abstraction and can be platitudinous. However, he conveniently fails to mention the books Averno and The Wild Iris, the latter of which is one of the best books of poetry I have ever read. I don’t feel like I even have to defend The Wild Iris, as you are free to read it yourself and agree with me.
Shivani also mentions, in his seven-paragraph conclusion, that these poets “claim prestigious endowed professorships, the ownership of the lecture and conference circuit, and the privilege to award and recognize other poets from their own writing programs who write poetry just like theirs.” But I wonder whether or not Shivani has read Richard Siken’s Crush, the 2004 winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize, which was chosen by Louise Glück. This book is everything poetry should be: frantic, charged, cinematic, and so good that I reconsidered my future in poetry.
As I mentioned before, I can’t speak on behalf of Philip Levine, but I can say a few more things about Anis Shivani. He induces that all contemporary poetry is bollocks while, at the same time, being a poet. There are few things that Shivani publicly lauds, and the things that he does applaud he has almost nothing bad to say about. He seems harder to please than God. And the thing that bothers me most is that he criticizes Glück for “piling generalization upon generalization,” when this seems to be Shivani’s only trick.
And as my conclusion: I apologize now for how ranty this must seem. It must be telling that even when I mostly agree with Shivani, I am angry. So I have included a picture of an irate gorilla to make me (and you) smile a bit.