The XX Factor

New York Times Columnist Shocked by Poetesses Wearing Clothes

In poetry, a refrain can be an anchor against a tide of anguish and disbelief, allowing a dreadful truth to sink in. Think of Dylan Thomas’ “death shall have no dominion,” or Whitman’s dear Captain. In his latest column for the New York Times Book Review , David Orr adds to this tradition:

The signs of the coming apocalypse are many, but none are starker than this Web headline in the April issue of O: The Oprah Magazine : ‘Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Younger Poets.’ Yes. Spring fashion. Modeled. By rising young poets.

A few paragraphs later, Orr is still aghast:

And yet. ‘Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Younger Poets.’ The words are heart-sinking.

How have eight lady poets and their outfits managed to put Orr in such a despondent frame of mind? (Full disclosure: I was until recently an editor at O , but I was not involved with the April poetry issue.) You have to hack through a thicket of qualifiers and asides to reach Orr’s thesis, but the path starts to clear about here:

[I]t’s all too easy for Important Literary Folk to sneer at anything involving fashion.

So it’s a sarcastic apocalypse. Orr concedes that the featured writers “certainly look poetic” (a phrase typical of the untethered snideness that floats through much of his piece), but as he continues, pretending to channel  these “Important Literary Folk,” he is more blunt:

It’s so girly, you know, and real writers are never girl - ah.

If a culture-defining, trillion-dollar global industry is widely perceived in 2011 as “girly,” then maybe “girly” doesn’t mean what Orr thinks it does.

So the lingering gender biases of the literary world are often at play when readers cringe at the pairing of poetry with the stuff of women’s magazines.

This sentence is stunning enough that one is tempted to resort to Orr’s technique of copying and pasting the words a few times and calling it a day. But let’s parse: According to Orr, “readers” are, at this very moment, flinching from their April issue of O because they have internalized the misogyny of a shadowy literary cabal. Though it’s just as well, because “readers” can’t understand poetry anyway:

When Terrell Owens holds forth on poetry in O (yes, he does), much of the audience knows that Owens is a football player, and has at least a vague idea of what football is. … But poets and poetry readers … we can’t bring our context with us.

Notice how he defines Owens (favorite poem: “Choices” by Nikki Giovanni) as “a football player” but not “a poetry reader.” Orr makes a similar distinction with O editor Susan Casey, whose profile of poet laureate W.S. Merwin inspires this hiccup of condescension:

Casey obviously likes Merwin, has read him and makes a genuine effort to talk about one of his poems despite her lack of expertise.

As a quick Google hit will tell you, Casey has a degree in French literature and multiple National Magazine Awards-yet she doesn’t get to join Orr’s exclusive club of “poetry readers.” It’s tough to discern who would:

For an overwhelming majority of the culture, almost every poem has an inscrutable ending, even the ones that aren’t actually inscrutable.

Here Orr reiterates his basic point: Almost all readers can’t comprehend almost all poetry. (And if we’re talking O subscribers, forget it-“the chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast.”) So it’s not that poets wearing clothes in a magazine cheapens the art form. It’s that any effort to expose a large-and in this case, overwhelmingly female-audience to poetry is a doomed bit of wishful thinking. It’s Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. It’s trying to teach your dog to play the flute. But even if Orr thinks that poetry and girly girls make a bad match, can he really find no harmonics in that cognitive dissonance? If Oprah turned your mom on to Zbigniew Herbert, would Important Literary Folk (David Orr) not find that even remotely cool? “Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t add up,” says one of O ’s April poet-models, Anna Moschovakis. One might even call it negative capability, and Orr should try it sometime. It would be rather poetic of him.