“Call it the backwards-in-heels school of female accomplishment, to adapt the famous Ann Richards quote. We can do everything men do, but we have to do it backwards and in heels. If we are CEOs, we have to give birth to a live human, take maybe six seconds of leave and insist that everything is grand. If we are in politics, we have to have hair and makeup, or ELSE! And if you don’t believe me, look at how Michele Bachmann had to dress on the campaign trail to be taken unseriously as a candidate. We have to work as hard as Michael Jackson and make it look effortless, like Beyonce. Men, we hear, age and become distinguished. Women, to achieve the same effect, have to rub ourselves with bizarre unguents and go in for injections. Or so we hear. But if that is the price of admission, it’s what we’ll do — and we won’t complain. The instant you complain, point out that no one else has to complete this additional series of nine labors, clean out a stable with a river and retrieve a three-headed dog from the underworld to qualify for a directing Oscar nomination, you lose.”—From Alexandra Petri’s ComPost column “The Feminist Mystique”
Open Letter to Alexandra Petri from John Deming
Dear Alexandra Petri,
I am writing in response to your attack on American poetry in your Washington Post blog today. Throughout your piece, you forward assumptions based on your own lack of exposure and allow these to stand as truth. I know it is just an opinion blog, but people have been convinced by less, and despite your “blog voice,” I sense you might really believe what you are saying. I will also assume you are sincere in stating: “I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong.” So I am glad to let you know that poetry is fine. In fact, it is thriving. Let’s look at your charges:
“You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?”
Your generalization does not specify what kind of “change” you mean. Literal political change? That’s what you go on to suggest. Along with “revolution.”
Be serious. Congress can barely do that. Look what hell the president has to go through to do anything. But you attack American poets. You name none of them except the one you happened to see on TV, and you suggest his whole career is irrelevant to everyone because it is irrelevant to you. And apparently it is irrelevant to you because he does not live up to some high school ideal.
A requirement of political change is too much to ask of any artist. Kurt Vonnegut said in 2003: “every respectable artist in this country was against the war [in Vietnam]. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”
There’s also Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky: “Ever since art has existed, mankind has always strived to influence the world through it. But on the whole it has always failed to have much social or political effect. I think now, looking around me and also looking back, art cannot really affect social development. It can only influence the development of minds. It can work on our intelligence and on our spirit. But for changing things, there are greater social forces than art. After all, practically all human endeavor has as its aim the changing of the world.” (thanks Jason Bredle)
You claim poetry isn’t “vital.” I will try to explain. A sponge and dish soap are vital to me because they make change in the kitchen. To me, at least, poetry is vital because it has a similar effect on the life of my mind. Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, once said that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost never enacted legislation. But he continues to provide clarity. Poetry is very helpful to people for whom superstition is not enough.
More than 2,000 books of poetry are published each year in the U.S. But how many of these did you account for before making your harsh judgments? Have you read Timothy Donnelly? Anne Carson? D.A. Powell? Rae Armantrout? Dana Levin? Nathaniel Mackey? That’s off the top of my head. Here are forty from last year alone. And thirty from the year before that. And the year before that. I could go on.
Poetry changes things every day for many thousands of people in this country. (You claim “six.” I guess that is a “joke.”) So many of these poets are devoted not only to their craft, but to publishing magazines, to starting presses, to finding their way in a thriving, diverse, multifaceted, multi-talented, international community. You say contemporary poetry “is a limp and fangless thing.” Have you read Skin Inc.? Our Andromeda? Black Box? Fragment of the Head of a Queen? The Glimmering Room? Angle of Yaw? Unless these are the kinds of fangs you have in mind, in which case, I’m sure I could drum somebody up for that too.
Your most offensive comment, though, is your condescending assertion about Mr. Blanco’s career and claim to be an example of the “American dream”:
“He has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.”
I hope we’ve established that poetry is far from obsolete, and regardless, I know that no reasonable thinker on these matters would conflate popularity and artistic viability. Rejecting a whole genre, too, is critically insolvent unless you’ve experienced it to the point where you distinguish its good parts from its bad. Your complaint isn’t much different from complaints like “I hate hip-hop” or “I hate country”—they are always generalizations, and are almost always made by people who haven’t spent enough time listening. Which makes them irrelevant. Obsolete, even.
Yet you’ve got Mr. Blanco’s picture up on the Post, making him look like a shamed politician for performing an incredible honor—and not one the poet ever would’ve dreamed up for himself.
Lastly, you comment that in poetry these days, “you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks. Or am I being too harsh? Something similar could be said of journalism, after all.” Yes, something very similar could be said for journalism, and I don’t just mean in your piece—provocatively titled “Is poetry dead?”—which, I will reiterate, got a surprising green light despite its failure to include a single contemporary poet other than one who just spoke at a Presidential Inauguration.
But there are many, many more, and a very small percentage receive grants. We are here, and we plate your dinners. We teach your kids. We slave over works we know will receive no wide audience. We shoe your horses. We work in all kinds of offices. We write about all of this and none of it, and some of us do it really, really well. We find ways to make a living and still practice an art form that yields clarity and meaning. How is that not Blanco’s “American dream” in every sense?
Editor in Chief Coldfront
MFA Poetry The New School
BA Journalism University of New Hampshire
(via Coldfront Magazine)
“We try, these days, to reconcile religious differences. ‘Well, it all comes down to love,’ we mutter. ‘If you don’t think so, you’re doing it wrong.’ And that’s what I think. But I recognize that freedom of religion by definition is the freedom for you to disagree with me on this. ‘No,’ you can hiss, ‘I believe that it all comes down to hate!’ And then I can get up and sit somewhere else. But I will defend forever your right to believe I am wrong.”
— Alexandra Petri, After Louie Giglio, maybe we should rethink the inaugural benediction, ComPost (The Washington Post)
“3) When you hit a certain point in your 20s, everyone around you starts to get married, for no apparent reason and without any warning. This is first cute, then alarming, like Justin Bieber. First you go to one wedding. “This is nice,” you say to yourself. “Open bar!” Then suddenly it’s like popcorn kernels. Several start popping at once. Poofy white things surround you, along with the vague smell of burning. “This is fine,” you say to yourself. “They are my friends and I am happy for them! Open bar!” Then by your sixth or seventh you become the disgruntled person wandering from table to table in unsteady new heels muttering that “You know, all relationships end in break-ups or in death.” On the bright side you stop being invited shortly after that. ”—
10 things they really don’t tell you at graduation by Alexandra Petri
Washington Post 3 May 2012
People you'd like to punch
This Washington Post pundit thinks she’s edgy, but she’s about as tolerable as a sarcastic prom queen.
(Apologizes to Ms. Petri if she is actually a sarcastic prom queen.)
“Religious tolerance means that you accept people who believe what you do not believe — people, in fact, who believe that what you believe is deeply and fundamentally wrong.”
— Alexandra Petri, After Louie Giglio, maybe we should rethink the inaugural benediction, ComPost (The Washington Post)
“All you can do is cling to the knowledge that It’s March, And Anything Can Happen. Just ask Julius Caesar, who picked all number-one seeds.”—Alexandra Petri sums up what I did in my office pool for The Washington Post
What a Washington Post apology reveals
A Washington Post columnist, Alexandra Petri, apparently sensing the slay-Rush-Limbaugh bandwagon was not quite full, wrote a piece last Wednesday designed as a lethal solar-plexus strike. The ill-conceived result spoke loudly about how the venerable paper views conservatives.
The piece breathlessly informed readers of some very juicy facts about Mr. Limbaugh’s well-documented advertiser problems. To wit, in an effort to replace the fleeing erstwhile respectable advertisers, Mr. Limbaugh had resorted to accepting dollars from a couple unseemly websites: one that acts as a conduit for extramarital affairs and another that matches “sugar daddies” with young paramours.
The piece jabbed at Mr. Limbaugh on two obvious levels: in the present controversy, it provided ammunition to the meme of Limbaugh as a radioactive and desperate; and secondly it yielded further proof of what liberals have been saying all along—the guy is a scoundrel.
But Ms. Petri sensed something else in Mr. Limbaugh’s advertising choices, something deeper. This was not only about a loud-mouth multimillionaire, but about the people who enable him to spew his vile commentary 15 hours a week—his audience. According to Ms. Petri, savvy advertisers know a potential gold mine when they see one. And they hit pay dirt in Mr. Limbaugh’s audience, which largely consists of hypocritical moralists seeking decadent earthly pleasures. In a word, Mr. Limbaugh’s listeners are a bunch of “jerks.”
It was a perfect narrative, aligning ever so neatly with Ms. Petri’s apparent worldview, there was only one problem: it was completely false.
To her credit Ms. Petri did apologize, if smugly—she starts off weirdly regurgitating Mr. Limbaugh’s apology, doesn’t get to her own transgressions until the seventh text break (and only then after a self-indulgent pity party), and alas concludes—surprise!—the listeners really are jerks.
The larger insight, however, is what Ms. Petri’s column says about the Washington Post newsroom or perhaps its editorial staff. That she could so blithely spew invective on millions of loyal Limbaugh listeners (of which this writer is not one) speaks to the lens in which the Post staff views conservatives.
It is quite easy to dislike Rush Limbaugh, he is brash, arrogant, and as everyone has seen can be downright loutish. But it is quite another to project those characteristics, or others equally distasteful, on the people who daily tune him in. The Post doesn’t seem to view these people as part of their audience or even their potential audience. And that is the real problem.
Rush Limbaugh’s listeners, given their numbers, almost certainly span the range of the conservative movement: fiscal, social, and foreign policy. Many of these people feel traditional media outlets like the Post are hostile to their point of view and, intentionally or not, skew the news leftward. The Post confirms these suspicions by allowing Ms. Petri’s venomous conjecture to go to print.
To be sure, Ms. Petri, as a columnist, speaks more for herself than the entire newspaper. But this is not an isolated incident and instead reflects a pattern of discernible bias. In fact, former Post ombudsman Deborah Howell admitted as much in the aftermath of the of the 2008 campaign cycle. More recently, current ombudsman Patrick Pexton lamented the Post’s coverage of the annual March for Life rally as “incomplete.” And of course, Post columnist Eugene Robinson infamously scribed a vile, viscous personal attack on Rick Santorum, lampooning how he and his wife “weirdly” grieved the premature death of their two-hour-old baby.
Does it have to be this way? Certainly not, but if the Post would like to have its credibility held in esteem on both sides of the political spectrum—and sadly that may not be the case—the powers that be would be wise to take seriously complaints of newsroom ideological homogeneity. And offer solutions in staffing, not just merely a few ombudsman comments.
UPDATE! Ms. Petri has written a follow up complaining that she is just too darn nice, seriously.