In the vast compendium of metaphysical problems, the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin has been at least temporarily supplanted by the question of how bad The New York Times Magazine can get. This problem has less relevance to daily life than the one about angels, but for connoisseurs of fatuousness the spectacle of the Times Magazine imploding does provide a certain grisly fascination. Week in and week out, always a bit worse. How do they do it? Is there a special team of editorial surgeons that goes to work on each article, ruthlessly extracting every trace of intellectual substance before publication? Or is it a technological advance, a new word-processing feature that automatically trivializes whatever “text” is fed into it? In this month’s “Media” column, James Bowman anatomizes the February 12 edition of the Sunday New York Times, paying particular attention to James Atlas’s feeble Magazine article on thirty- and forty-something conservative intellectuals, “The Counter Counterculture.”
Vapid though Mr. Atlas’s foray into alien intellectual territory was, the Times Magazine managed to outdo itself the very next week with an article by the journalist Dinitia Smith on the contemporary poetry scene. Mr. Atlas and his editors may have produced an anemic mess, an article that effectively reduced the whole story of conservative intellectual life in this country to a matter of haberdashery and lifestyle. But Miss Smith went even further, turning out an article of such mind-numbing stupidity that it probably qualifies for some sort of affirmative- action grant. Entitled “The Poet Kings and the Versifying Rabble,” the piece purports to tell the story of how contemporary poetry is being opened up and “democratized” by such pop atavistic phenomena as hip-hop, rap, and MTV. Certainly, Miss Smith’s grammar has been “democratized.” Here she is on poets who win prizes for their poetry: “The most awarded of all is John Ashbery.” And her judgment is not far behind: “Ice Cube [a rapper] and Scarface [ditto] chant modern versions of Homeric odes, heroic tales of romance and men at war.”
This is the purest twaddle, of course, but Miss Smith professes to be made starry-eyed by developments in contemporary poetry. “Never before has poetry seemed to be in such a vital, healthy state,” she enthused. “Never before have so many poetry books been published—1,200 volumes in 1993 alone.” Miss Smith is impressed by big numbers. Many of our readers will have noticed that snatches of poetry now appear on panels in New York City buses and subways. So what? you ask, and rightly. But this cutesy public-relations ploy has set Miss Smith’s heart aflutter: “five million people a day,” she exclaims, “exposed to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost”—as if poetry were a kind of germ that one could catch by careless propinquity. It’s the same sort of logic—if logic is the mot juste—that leads museum curators to salivate over crowds filing past paintings in their blockbuster art exhibitions. In those fleeting seconds, they, too, are “exposed” to art.
Dinitia Smith’s article is worse than a travesty, it is an insult.
Miss Smith’s homage to the muse proceeds with a profile of the poet W. S. Merwin that, considered strictly in terms of sugar content, is a diabetic’s death warrant. “I’d got lost looking for W. S. Merwin’s house on the Hawaiian island of Maui,” Miss Smith begins, following up with a few sentences of “fine writing.” Then this:
It was almost like rain forest here—pink and red hibiscus, ginger flowers filled with rain from the night.
Then, suddenly, there he was, as if he’d somehow materialized out of the rain.
No, the magazine did not come with an air-sickness bag, but just imagine: the Times actually paid to send this woman to Hawaii.
Alas, the very worst part of the article was yet to come. This was a two-page spread called “The Poetry Pantheon: Who’s Who, From Kingmaker to Scold,” text by Dinitia Smith, illustrations by Michael Witte. This little feature was a chart, replete with names and caricatures, purporting to give readers the low-down on such things as “Best-Looking Male Poets,” “Best-Looking Female Poets,” “Top Editors,” and “Big Guns, Kingmakers.” There was also a box listing “Main Groups and Schools of Thought,” which featured such important literary categories as “Earth Mothers,” “Sex, Gender, Politics,” “The Neo-Colonialists,” and “Stones and Bones Poets” (“When they get depressed,” Miss Smith’s “text” informs us parenthetically, “they tend to use a lot of imagery of the above”). But our favorite category was “Scolds” (“Trying to uphold the standards!”), partly, we admit, because Robert Richman, poetry editor of The New Criterion, was included.
Dinitia Smith’s article is worse than a travesty, it is an insult. And quite apart from what it tells us about the nose dive of standards at The New York Times Magazine, we had to wonder about the timing of the article. Anyone with a shred of feeling for literature will be alternately repulsed and enraged by the dim-witted philistinism that the piece exhibits. Yet we note that the Times has just appointed a new daily book critic and a new editor of its Sunday book review. As these gentlemen prepare to take up their posts at our “paper of record,” what can they be thinking about their employer’s commitment to literary or journalistic standards?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 7, on page 1
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