Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behold the Lillies of the Field

I've been reading a lot about books that are up for some kind of award, and while that's occasionally an indication of quality, just as often I don't think it's much worth my notice. The really good books will sort themselves out in the next hundred years, and I think it's a peculiar kind of hurry and hubris to try to sort them out in our lifetime.

So last night I was sitting in the Writing Center reading poems--having just met a famous science fiction editor at the house of an author friend of mine--and waiting for students to come in to ask for help on what they're writing, and I found this poem by David Donnell, Behold the Lillies of the Field:

Seamus Heaney not
the greatest Irish writer I've ever read
the Nobel Award last year for his general achievement
in such books as Signals.
He's a pleasant mild-mannered
born in the north, I believe, in Belfast
called Ulster by the Protestants
& of course there are 2 wildly different lobbies
one says a true Irishman is good-natured & a hell of a drunk
& by the Lord Jesus he has to be a Catholic
but of course he never goes to Church
they only go to Church in the pubs--publican publican can you be
hoisting or toasting me another pint of the common plain over here?
The other lobby is obviously smaller
since it's entirely in the north but it would include people
like Brian Friel who is one hell of a playwright for suuuure.

Awards are getting commoner & commoner.
Everybody wants to jump into the act & wave their fist around.
It's getting just a little teensy weensy bit ridiculous.
Did James Joyce ever win the Nobel Award?
No, no he didn't. Did Henry Miller ever win the Nobel?
You've got to be joking, Harry. Did D.H. Lawrence ever win the Booker?
Let's say for a gorgeous book like Women in Love.
O well, different time period, different customs.

But in general I don't think literary critics can afford to
get involved in discussing every award winner that turns up.
Renata Adler, for example, didn't she win a National Book Award?
Whereas Wm. Gaddis & John Barth, I don't think they've ever won an
award for any of their novels. They're not couch potato writers.
Or, on the other hand, how do you know they're any good?

Oh David Donnell, I'm pretty sure you're trying to remind me of the hippie style of a poet like Gregory Corso, especially with that lame ending. I don't believe you actually care to know who's "any good"; I think you're implicitly arguing that each of us should make up her own mind. At least that's the way I read you, looking for someone who agrees with me.


Harriet M. Welsch said...

I have to say, I am not wild about this beyond the title. It's the kind of thing about which my husband would ask, "Why is this a poem?" His view of poetry is more conservative than mine, but I think I'd come down on his side here. It reads more like an exercise in style -- disingenuous. Which is too bad, because it's kind of an interesting subject for a poem. How *do* you tell if it's any good?

kittiesx3 said...

Wait -- you wrote having just met a famous science fiction editor at the house of an author friend of mine

Who did you meet???

FreshHell said...

I agree with Harriet. You know I'm not much for poetry in general and don't really know enough about it to harbor an intelligent opinion but this one just makes me crazy. It's more like whining than anything else.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, it certainly is disingenuous, which is why I call it a Corso-imitating hippie poem. My clunky text editor doesn't allow me to accurately reproduce the way the first stanza appears on the page, but I'll argue that what makes this a poem are the line breaks. I do think history will sort it all out.

Elizabeth, I got to meet David Hartwell at Joan Slonczewski's house.

FreshHell, it is kind of whiny, which I am distracted from by the way it goes into tangents!
I feel whiny about how much attention some people--book bloggers--have been paying to books that are up for various book awards.

Anonymous said...

I agree -- it's not really a poem. I do like the tangents, I guess. I'm distracted, too. I hate Henry Miller, for instance (there's the hippy theme again), and when I think of Women in Love I think of the oddly named women and their lovely colored stockings. I'll have to read that again some day.

Jeanne said...

ReadersGuide, I wrote an entire paper in grad school about the colored stockings in Women in Love!

Care said...

I'll agree with you.

and thank you for the reminder to read more DHL

Jeanne said...

Care, see, that's all I'm looking for ;-)

Anonymous said...

Really!!! I really couldn't pay much attention to anything else! Also, I was mystified about what "clocks" were. (In stockings.) But also, why were they named so oddly?

Jeanne said...

ReadersGuide, I guess I had the vague idea they were from Scandanavian stock or something!