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Bad Writing + Umbrage = Bad Outcome

Scathing Online Schoolmarm has told you and told you and told you that good writers have their prose and their emotions under control. Helen Vendler cites Yeats:

Yeats, in “The Fisherman,” thought a poem should be “cold/And passionate as the dawn” — that it should embody, along with the rising passion of inception, the cold inquisition of detached self-critique.

Passion and chill: You might say this about any good piece of writing, as in, most lately, this consideration of body radiation by Christopher Hitchens.

But I do remember lying there and looking down at my naked torso, which was covered almost from throat to navel by a vivid red radiation rash. This was the product of a month-long bombardment with protons which had burned away all of the cancer in my clavicular and paratracheal nodes, as well as the original tumor in the esophagus. This put me in a rare class of patients who could claim to have received the highly advanced expertise uniquely available at the stellar Zip Code of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

Hitchens learned how to write from the master, George Orwell, here describing his own encounter with pain:

[T]he doctor and the student came across to my bed, hoisted me upright and without a word began applying [a] set of [cupping] glasses, which had not been sterilized in any way. A few feeble protests that I uttered got no more response than if I had been an animal. I was very much impressed by the impersonal way in which the two men started on me. I had never been in the public ward of a hospital before, and it was my first experience of doctors who handle you without speaking to you or, in a human sense, taking any notice of you. They only put on six glasses in my case, but after doing so they scarified the blisters and applied the glasses again. Each glass now drew about a dessert-spoonful of dark-coloured blood. As I lay down again, humiliated, disgusted and frightened by the thing that had been done to me, I reflected that now at least they would leave me alone. But no, not a bit of it. There was another treatment coming, the mustard poultice, seemingly a matter of routine like the hot bath. Two slatternly nurses had already got the poultice ready, and they lashed it round my chest as tight as a strait-jacket while some men who were wandering about the ward in shirt and trousers began to collect round my bed with half-sympathetic grins. I learned later that watching a patient have a mustard poultice was a favourite pastime in the ward. These things are normally applied for a quarter of an hour and certainly they are funny enough if you don’t happen to be the person inside. For the first five minutes the pain is severe, but you believe you can bear it. During the second five minutes this belief evaporates, but the poultice is buckled at the back and you can’t get it off. This is the period the onlookers enjoy most. During the last five minutes, I noted, a sort of numbness supervenes. After the poultice had been removed a waterproof pillow packed with ice was thrust beneath my head and I was left alone. I did not sleep, and to the best of my knowledge this was the only night of my life — I mean the only night spent in bed — in which I have not slept at all, not even a minute.

Do ye nae see that great writing – prose or poetry – is not the shriek, but the shriek mediated by consciousness? The mind at the same time registering and reflecting on experience? Compiling the metaphors and physical details that will generate in the reader the mood of the writer — the world of the writer? Not simply shrieking I HURT MAN but patiently, perceptively, gathering in the details of the material and social and psychological world in which consciousness moves?

I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed…and there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.

The late Tony Judt, describing the bondage of his last illness.

I could go on. But note in all of these great writers a sedate, almost stately, pace; an embroilment in the world around them rather than in their feelings; a stoical disposition that takes anguish for granted and sets about getting some leverage over it by thinking and writing about it…

One may be tired of the world — tired of the prayer-makers, the poem-makers, whose rituals are distracting and human and pleasant but worse than irritating because they have no reality — while reality itself remains very dear. One wants glimpses of the real. God is an immensity, while this disease, this death, which is in me, this small, tightly defined pedestrian event, is merely and perfectly real, without miracle — or instruction. I am standing on an unmoored raft, a punt moving on the flexing, flowing face of a river. It is precarious. I don’t know what I am doing. The unknowing, the taut balance, the jolts and the instability spread in widening ripples through all my thoughts. Peace? There was never any in the world. But in the pliable water, under the sky, unmoored, I am traveling now and hearing myself laugh, at first with nerves and then with genuine amazement. It is all around me.

Yes, yes, I’ll stop. I wanted to toss Harold Brodkey into the mix. This was written days before he died.


In the recent dust-up between Rita Dove and Helen Vendler over what good poetry is, we see what happens when you go with the shriek rather than the mediated shriek. In choosing poems with lines like

We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews. Black poems to
smear on girdlemamma mulatto bitches
whose brains are red jelly stuck
between ‘lizabeth taylor’s toes. Stinking
Setting fire and death to
whities ass.

for the poetry anthology she’s edited, Dove prompts the question of poetic standards. In including this poem, she has given me access to an angry consciousness. Poems should be blades and fists with which to kill people; but they are also smears, which confuses me. The enemy is smears – red jelly, slime. To call the poem also a smear is to mix up the low sliminess of the enemy with your side’s high slashing quality. You’re hard; they’re soft. If you’re also a smear, the sides get mixed up.

This isn’t a surprising outcome, because when your writing is a spew, it’s likely to be a mess. Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man is equally rageful, but the writer chills the passion with his prose… which has the effect of making Ellison’s rage far more powerful and disclosing than Baraka’s. The very fact that Ellison has gone to the trouble of removing the rage from one singular consciousness, and placing it a larger, accessible world, makes his writing ramify out to an audience in a way Baraka’s simply cannot.

So this, Vendler points out, is a bad poem, and there are too many others like it in Dove’s anthology – flat, propositional, linguistically dull statements of rage and suffering and celebration and love.

“One wants the contemporary poets of Dove’s collection to ask more of their language, to embody more planes of existence,” writes Vendler; and this is because readers of poetry want the same “more capacious regard for the world” that everyone engaged in aesthetic experience wants, not an encounter with a singular shriek.


What about the umbrage in this post’s title?

That’s Dove’s, in her unfortunate response to Vender’s dislike of her anthology.

See, raw emotion doesn’t cut it. Writing is a cool medium, and if you can’t be cool, you make a hash of things.

Margaret Soltan, December 9, 2011 12:10PM
Posted in: Scathing Online Schoolmarm

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15 Responses to “Bad Writing + Umbrage = Bad Outcome”

  1. theprofessor Says:

    Dove says that Vender is “misreading intent again and again.”

    Geez, I thought that misreading and especially misreading intent was all we COULD do.

  2. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    I think Dove’s writing is very dispassionate compared to Vendler’s:

    “The amount of vitriol in Helen Vendler’s review betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics. As a result, she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again. Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew—how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.”

    I wish I could write that well. It is Vendler, in my opinion, who loses her cool, not Dove.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jonathan: Why is this paragraph good writing?

  4. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    I in particular like “but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again.” I like the choice of verbs, the sinuous movement of the sentence, the artful concession to Vendler’s reputation. And, yes, I find it coolly collected and controlled in tone. It does take umbrage, but does so with dignity (in my opinion at least).

    Of course, I would separate the issue of whose side I take in the debate from that of the prose style of the two writers. I find Vendler the more vitriolic, the less controlled, in this instance.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Here’s my reading of the same bit of prose:

    “but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance [Its elegance only in theory? Or the elegant way in which it makes theoretical points? Neither of these makes sense to me. The first would be a kind of put-down, but a clumsy one; the second describes Vendler – an intense anti-theorist — as a theoretical writer, which suggests that Dove hasn’t read her.], snarls and grouses, sidles and roars [A strange and ugly list. Snarl, grouse, and roar at least have in common the fact that they are all sounds; sidles, as an act, fits very clumsily here, giving the sentence the feel of a rant rather than a coherent statement. More broadly, nothing in Vendler’s piece feels like a … what? A crazy lion’s casting about? It’s clearly written by a thoughtful human being, not a wild animal. So this comes across as an effort to belittle Vendler which goes nowhere because it isn’t based on anything real.] as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again.”

    The sentence after this one attempts to deepen the characterization of Vendler as a wild animal, a lioness once queen of the world and now moaning insanely over her loss of dominance:

    “Whether propelled by academic outrage or the wild sorrow of someone who feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew—how sad to witness a formidable intelligence ravished in such a clumsy performance.”

    This is bad prose studded with bad poetry. The bad poetry words – wild, ravished – with their sentimental 19th century Romantic associations – jar with the “hard” modern terms of the sentence: propelled, witness, performance. This is someone who wants to kickbox her way to polemical dominance over an adversary, but who also seems to dwell Down in Dingley Dell.

  6. MattF Says:

    I’m not so sure… A well-done rant can be a great thing. And literature (including Great Literature) has many of them. Dove may well have bad taste in rants– but if so you ought to be able to say why the rants she likes are bad rather than indulge in umbrage umbrage.

  7. Quid plura? | “I was dreaming like a Texan girl…” Says:

    […] “Do ye nae see that great writing–prose or poetry–is not the shriek, but the shriek mediated by consciousness?” University Diaries shows why writing is a cool medium. […]

  8. Shane Street Says:

    UD, as much as I love a good Python reference, I don’t get that one. Are you saying Dove is trying to sell contraceptives?

    You know what I took away from all this? Even the cat fights among modern poets and those who love them are boring. Where is Pope when you need him?

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Shane: LOL. No – I didn’t have in mind the contraceptive part of the tale. Rather, the treacly sentimentality of the reader of the tale.

  10. Jonathan Says:

    UD, I like this post a lot, but I really love your comment #5. That’s the kind of dissection at which SOS really shines.

  11. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jonathan: Many thanks.

  12. TAFKAU Says:

    Dove’s response to Vendler crackles with indignation, some it perhaps over the top, but she has every reason to be indignant. Vendler wrote not just a negative review, but a gratuitously vitriolic and deeply personal one. Consider just this one passage:

    “The members (whoever they are) of this so-called ‘establishment’ ‘entrench’ themselves (as in a war) and, implicitly racist, appear ‘whitewashed’ like the ‘whited sepulchres’ denounced by Jesus. How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?”

    That is one nasty question mark. What does Vendler expect us to take away from this last sentence? That Rita Dove is an ingrate? That, perhaps, her deficient prose calls into question just how and why she earned all those honors? Given that one main theme of Vendler’s essay is that Dove has sacrificed quality for multicultural inclusiveness, this rather direct attack on Dove herself is…well…at least a little troubling.

  13. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: I agree Vendler’s nasty, but no more nasty than many such exchanges in the NYRB over the decades. I don’t think she’s arguing that Dove doesn’t deserve her honors. On the contrary, I think Vendler’s pissed that someone of Dove’s obvious intellect and subtlety produced a substandard introduction to her anthology.

  14. University Diaries » First Vendler v. … Says:

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  15. University Diaries » Strange. I quoted him just hours ago… Says:

    […] through the passage is exciting to us — it’s what we go to the best prose for, as in George Orwell’s essay about charity hospitals, and Hitchens’ and Tony Judt’s essa… You want the writerly control of the language; you also, just as intensely, want the honest, […]

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