Attacks on contemporary poetry in general as too obscure, too private, and in thrall to specialists — attacks such as Mark Edmundson’s essay in the July issue [“Poetry Slam”] — have been made for centuries. As I recently wrote in the Boston Review, these screeds create an opportunity for those of us who read a lot of poetry to recommend individual poets as we come to poetry-in-general’s defense. I can say till I’m blue that Joseph Massey’s short poems are the best thing to happen for vision since the invention of photography, that Angie Estes has created some of the most beautiful verbal objects on the planet, and that Allan Peterson’s meditations on domestic tranquillity are so smart that they could make you smarter; and debates like the one Edmundson prompts make it much easier for me to bring up their names.
Edmundson believes that contemporary poets don’t speak to and for a large public. He wants poets to address a collective, an “us all,” but he demands that it be the right collective: not an ethnic group or an interest group but a nation. “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” the linguist Max Weinreich once said; a public poem, in Edmundson’s view, might be an interest-group poem whose collective has a flag. There is something bullying in his call for a particular kind of poetry, as if it could rule over the rest. Some American poets today are indeed difficult, idiosyncratic, private, or just weird, as Edmundson complains, but they are often trying hard to make a common language in which to say “we,” and to sing of what we might share. Edmundson ends by quoting Shelley, who wrote that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” W. H. Auden quipped that the unacknowledged legislators, if there are any, are the secret police; poets have better things to do.
Professor, Harvard University
I sympathize with Edmundson’s plea for taking risks, boldly confronting our historical moment, and speaking with decisiveness, but in dismissing certain poems as mere “droplets shimmering beautifully on a pane of glass,” he ignores the fact that poems taking a microscopic view of experience still present an essential view of humanity. His entreaty to the next generation of poets to confront materialism and capitalism promotes the fundamentally materialist view that bigger is better. Moreover, Edmundson focuses almost exclusively on white male poets in his critique. He demands that American poetry adopt a global view, but fails to contend with its breadth.
It’s disheartening that Edmundson neglects the largest body of lyric verse produced by Americans over the past thirty years: hip-hop. While Edmundson’s mythmakers became music makers, music makers became our mythmakers.
Hip-hop artists provide a vision of “sex, politics, money, childhood,” not to mention death, religion, crime, racism, loss, and hope. America is not “too much” for these lyricists, and they do not write as if “the great public crises were over.” Before they are introduced to Ashbery and Heaney, today’s budding poets are likely first to be inspired by Kendrick Lamar and Nas.
New York City
Despite Russell Mokhiber’s insinuations [“Plaque Ops,” Annotation, July], Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations remains committed to our founding mission of improving labor–management relations and workers’ rights while supporting labor programs and education. For example, just last year we launched the Worker Institute at Cornell, which emphasizes labor education and research into policies that will revitalize workers’ rights and collective representation. Indeed, the ILR School has evolved in response to changes in the nature of work. We offer our students opportunities not just in labor but in business, law, and many other fields.
Regarding corporate support, the ILR School is not unlike most higher-education institutions, which often benefit from the generosity of businesses and other external partners. But most gifts to the school come from individuals — our alumni. The additional gifts from corporations and unions help us provide students with internships and fund research and outreach activities. They, too, help to keep labor education and programs that advance workers’ rights alive and well.
Harry C. Katz
Dean, Cornell University ILR School
In “The Separating Sickness” [Miscellany, June], Rebecca Solnit states that the leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii, closed in 1969. In fact, although the colony stopped accepting new patients that year and longtime residents were free to leave, many chose to stay, and the colony effectively remained open.
I was traveling in Hawaii in the summer of 1972, and being a naïve twentysomething who thought she could do whatever she wanted, I hiked across Molokai intending to climb down to the colony. I couldn’t find the trailhead, so I hitched a ride with a man who told me the only way to visit was to take a four-seater plane approved by the state health department. I flew down and took a closely guided tour of the colony, where about a hundred people with leprosy were still living. The only other scheduled visitor that day was an elderly gentleman, who had a medical emergency while we were on the tour and was admitted to the colony’s hospital. He was treated by a young Irish physician who became quite taken with me and arranged with a reluctant administration to house me for a few days. One evening I visited the colony’s bar, where state-subsidized Primo beer cost only five cents; I wasn’t allowed to purchase it myself, but a resident bought me a bottle. Ah, to be young and blonde and beautiful again!
Kansas City, Mo.