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This item is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

At the turn of the millennium, our late lamented friend Charles Simic wrote (PNR 131, 2000) ‘In Praise of Folly’, tipping his hat to Erasmus’s celebrated essay of almost half a millennium before. ‘Folly is in poor repute even among the greatest fools,’ Erasmus said. Simic began by speculating what weird developments we might witness in the new millennium. Then he asked, ‘What will the poets be doing in the next century? You do not have to be a Nostradamus to predict that the poets will be doing exactly what they’ve been doing for the last three thousand years: howling and kicking about how nobody ever appreciates them.’

The story Simic tells us about the beginning of his poet life as an obnoxious adolescent satirist is archetypal. ‘I poked fun at the rich and the powerful, gossiping about their wives and daughters milking cocks while their husbands’ and daddies’ backs were turned. I didn’t even spare the gods. I turned them into a lot of brawling, drunken, revengeful, senile wife swappers.’ He was Ovid himself, and with the Roman poet (metaphorically, at least) ‘the Emperor packed me off to permanent exile in a godforsaken hellhole at the farthest reaches of the empire. His guardians of virtue took the opportunity to warn the populace against lyric poetry – which is nothing more, they said, than a call to debauchery and a brazen mockery of everything ever held sacred.’ Simic’s poet outlived the emperor and exile and, on his return, became a formidable lyric poet and satirist. Even the guardians of virtue had time for him. He was profoundly in love with the timeless reality of poetry – alive to the classics, and true to them and their heirs, to clarity, eloquence, a giving restraint, and also in love with the world he lived in. He rued and cherished it. He laughed.
It’s true. It was the love of that kind of irreverence, as much as anything else, that started me in poetry. The itch to make fun of authority, to break taboos, to celebrate the naked body, to claim that one has seen an angel in the same breath as one shouts that there’s no God, and so forth. The discovery that the tragic and the comic are always entwined made me roll on the floor with happiness. Seduction, too, was always on my mind: if you take off your shirt, my love, and let my tongue get acquainted with yours, I’ll praise your beauty in my poems and your name will live forever. It worked, too. Much of lyric poetry is nothing more than a huge, centuries-old effort to remind our immortal souls of the existence of our genital organs.
In 2023, his is a restless stillness – the writing won’t quite lie down, his voice won’t quite shut up. He can’t help it, he’s a poet. He is at least three thousand years old.

PN Review waves off another rooted original and enters its jubilee year – yes, in 2023 we mark fifty years on the tempestuous journey – with a larger than usual number of obituaries in our News and Notes. Charles Simic survived long enough to see his prediction about the future of poetry (the immediate future, in any event) cast in doubt.

With each issue, PNR editorials become more exacting. After so many efforts I am increasingly in peril of stepping into the same elegiac river twice, and of being heard to have said things I had no intention of saying. The treachery of adjectives and adverbs haunts me: they have their own designs, clichés lie in wait. I just went back and struck five adjectives and adverbs out of one passage above. One can’t be too careful… or can one?

A friend remarked to me the other day that even as our literary milieu becomes increasingly intolerant of criticism – Rebecca Watts’s essay ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ in PNR 239 remains our most-read and provocative archive item (170,120 views recorded) – it welcomes puffery of all sorts. Receiving hundreds of review books for each issue, we have grown over-familiar with the exuberant claims writers make for their friends and the code words used in blurbs that signal the presence of a new breed of guardians of virtue. Most recently, I was struck again by the language that judges use to articulate their verdicts in poetry competitions. It can strike the reader as – disproportionate? ill-informed? ideologically-informed? One judge in a distinguished poetry competition last month celebrated the first prize poem in these terms: ‘This poem ran into me. It is a breathless piece of writing, hard worked, bursting with surprising imagery. The way it negotiates language and pushes meaning; it is a big country at war with itself. Its sudden declarations become legends… […] the poet addresses the self with an uncertain flamboyance that makes this poem a compelling joyride, an unsolvable mystery, and my first place choice…’ The second prize-winner used a language ‘brash, confident, surprising, and lived. There is a violence that stalks the poem, a sense of both defiance and threat. I am particularly drawn to muscular poetry, poems with dirty teeth, that leave the reader panting and unsure of what just walked past them, and this is certainly one of them.’ The third prize-winner was praised for their poem’s ‘deep heart, for its echoing grief, and its call to community. Its content reflects the increasing authoritarianism of our times, particularly with regard to LGBT rights globally, which it explores through the logic of its semi surreal world. […] There are poems submitted by (I think) the same author that might be better written from a technical standpoint, but this one got into my bones.’

There is no doubting the eroticised vehemence of the judge’s response, and it would be presumptuous to doubt its sincerity. Clearly what is said is at least as much about the judge as about the judged, the laying out of the prize-winning poems on a Procrustean bed of dissenting poetics. What do they dissent from? Among other things, Sappho, Ovid, Simic… Many contemporary poets are not doing what they have done for three millennia; and, what is more, they are lavishly appreciated. They are festooned with adjectives and adverbs, they are given awards and accolades. If they allude to Sappho (as Simic does in a traditional way), it is less to her poems than to her presumed sexuality. A fascination with the art of poetry gives way to a fascination with the poet; and the critic? displaced by the puff artist.

This is the no longer so new millenium, a paradigm shift, perhaps. The gifted amateur comes into their own.

This item is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

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