“Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities”: Does the Huffington Post Hate Poetry?
by Brent Calderwood (republished by permission from LambdaLiterary)
Last Wednesday it was announced that Philip Levine will be the next U.S. Poet Laureate. The following Saturday, presumably acting on the assumption that working-class poets, or poets in general, enjoy too much popularity and unchecked power, the Huffington Post issued what looked at first glance like a call for impeachment.
But “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What It Takes to Ascend to the Poet Laureateship,” by writer and critic Anis Shivani, is really just a well-written lie. Purporting to excoriate Levine, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, and a handful of other U.S. and state poets laureate, it actually performs a neat trick, introducing their poetry—and Mr. Shivani’s vitriol—to a wider audience of newsreaders.
And it’s interesting vitriol. But after several well-articulated attacks, Shivani wraps up with a random assault on Billy Collins—and what could be more facile and cliche than attacking one of the most popular and accessible contemporary poets in the country? Shivani even uses hackneyed, throwaway phrasing to describe Collins’ poetry as ”intellectual masturbation of a sort, imaginative game-playing for its own sake”; but isn’t that exactly what Mr. Shivani’s article is? Just a big tease, an excuse to get readers and ratings, an exercise in tagging and search-engine optimization?
All of the poets mentioned in the article, including Levine and Collins, use their laurels and their teaching positions to promote work by poets both more and less canonized than themselves. What is Shivani using his talent for, besides self-promotion masquerading as outrage?
For reviewers, teachers and critics concerned with aerating the poetic landscape and turning readers on to new, exciting work, it’s imperative to name and laud those unsung writers—help Americans to know them—rather than simply attacking, in the most obvious terms possible, the few living poets that most Americans are likely to know.