Three best-selling novelists who moonlight as poets came under review in The New York Times Book Review this past weekend. Since poetry is my thing, I like to check in to see who merits the occasional poetry review in that publication.
The reviewer gives Margaret Atwood, of Handmaid’s Tale fame, a glowing writeup. She’s praised for her theme of “ecology,” focusing on “our planet’s ponderous apocalypse,” and in particular for a poem with a “literally man-eating” image expressed with “relish.”
But Barbara Kingsolver and Joyce Carol Oates are not so lucky. In fact, these two prominent figures on the American literary scene are hauled before the court of the NYT on charges of attempted wokeness, or failure to turn sufficiently left by the standards of Times-approved social justice.
Kingsolver, the reviewer charges, “bungles the representation of nonwhite people, usually because her approach is overwrought in its attempt to mean well.” Thus, in a poem that earnestly instructs us in “How to Love Your Neighbor” — we are told to love “all of them” — the poet’s offense is to urge us to broadcast neighborly love not just to the people “presumed to be white” (that is the reviewer’s presumption — the word “white” is nowhere in the poem) but to “a woman / wrapping her hijab” as she prepares to go out. The poem can fairly be accused of the banality of virtue-signaling. But for the reviewer, to simply mention a hijab-wearing woman (whom the reviewer herself assumes to be “nonwhite”) is to be guilty of misrepresenting her.
The poet is reprimanded for another poem that ends on an oddly conceived metaphor appearing to compare a racehorse with a slave. The metaphor is not deployed successfully and does make one cringe. Literary judgments aside, though, to accuse Kingsolver of thereby misrepresenting “nonwhite people” is prosecutorial overreach.
As for Oates, she runs into trouble in the legal gray area of — I think? — cultural appropriation. The reviewer writes: “Her poem ‘Bloodline, Elegy: Su Qijian Family, Beijing’ ignominiously constructs a singular voice for an entire Chinese family and portrays a whole nation as a homogeneous mass.” Ignominiously! The poem is a lament for the countless infant girls killed because of China’s one-child policy. The poet — whether successfully or not is a separate question — imaginatively inhabits the collective voice of a family to convey a historical horror inflicted on females. The reviewer ends her review with the suggestion that Oates should simply not speak. There’s an odd sort of wokeness game going on here. Speak up for females: sorry, no points awarded. Use imagination in unapproved ways: points deducted, penalty applied, do not pass go.
What’s weird for me is that I found the poems under review ripe for criticism — but it should be honest, perceptive literary criticism. What we have here is competitive moral preening.