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The Poets Light…’: An Exchange

In response to:

'A Powerful, Strong Torrent' from the June 12, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

Helen Vendler, reviewing Jorie Graham in your June 12 issue, writes that Graham, “unlike such Language Poets as Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe (whose moment seems to have expired), always rewardingly makes sense.” Tastes of course vary, but are poets like yogurt, with an expiration date? Does poetry have a shelf life? Susan Howe, moreover, is not a Language Poet, though friends with some of them. Her major mode is not postmodernist irony, nor is she particularly informed by French theory. Unlike any of the Language Poets, she belongs to the American documentary “poem with history” tradition of Pound, Williams, and Olson. (And although it is hard to say what “expired” means when speaking of poetry, in terms of academic panels, critical articles, and books, much more is said and written of the Language Poets than, say, Jorie Graham.) What passes as critical discourse in Vendler’s review is just an assertion of preference for poetry which “always rewardingly makes sense,” as Vendler puts it; poetry which, no matter how self-explanatory, some critics enjoy explaining.

Barbara Epler

Editor in Chief, New Directions

New York City

Helen Vendler replies:

As Dickinson says, “The Poets light but Lamps—/Themselves—go out—“ But she adds that if vital light, like that of suns, inhere in their poems, “Each Age [is] a Lens/ Disseminating their/Circumference—“ The expiration of most poems is attested to by history. Exactly when the moment of a particular school expires is a matter of judgment; one’s critical judgment may or not be ratified by the future, but that fact does not exempt one from making a judgment. Howe is frequently grouped with the loosely conjoined (but differing from each other) poets referred to as the Language Poets; I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to place her in their company. She may not like that linkage; she may think it incorrect. Time will tell.

As for judging poetic worth by quantity of commentary, it can’t be done; and I am surprised that an editor should invoke such a standard.

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