Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The pit of what has been said

"And yet if you go back and look at old editions of The Nation or The New Republic, which published a lot of poetry back in the day — or if you go farther back, to Reedy's Mirror or The Century magazine — and if you hunt around for a while in some of those periodicals, you'll find that most of the poetry in them is just there as decoration. It's a form of ornament, like a printer's dingbat. A little acorn with a curlicue. Or the scrollwork on a beaux-arts capital. It's just a way of creating a different look on the page, and creating the sense on the part of the reader that he's holding something that is a real Kellogg's variety pack.

"The magazine is going to have some kind of big thoughtful political piece about Teddy Roosevelt, say, and then it's going to have a bit of serialized fiction, and it's going to have some 'cuts' — that is, some art — and a few color pages tipped in, maybe, if it's The Century magazine, maybe by Maxfield Parrish, and it's going to have some poems. The long nonfiction piece comes to an end, and it's about being a stevedore in Baltimore, something like that. And then at the bottom of the page is this poem in two columns, with six stanzas, and each stanza has indentations, and the conventionality and vapidity of it will stun you. 'The shades of summer's bosky hue, o'erlie thy modest floobie doo.' The editors of The Century didn't expect you to read that poem with your full mind. They knew it was just some rhymes thrown pell-mell together with cornstarch. They knew full well, because this is America, land of bad poetry. Yes, sir! Bad poetry, sir! Loads of it in the back, sir! Just keeps coming. Tipped in. The shovel eases the soft tonnage of poetry over the rim, and it just pours into the pit, pluth. The pit of what has been said. And the lost gulls are flapping and calling — peer! peer!"

— Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, 70-71