15 Reactions to Shivani’s 15 Overrated American Writers

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The fat lady’s still singing.

Reading the reactions to Anis Shivani’s post has been as much fun as the post itself.

The number of comments (at Huffington Post) is already racing toward 2,000. That, in my view, makes Shivani’s criticism a ringing success (despite the tidal wave of indignation and posturing). Any piece of writing that can draw that much attention has done something right – and by right I mean more than opinions.  In reviewing these posts, I’ve noticed a trend. Those who are most offended by Shivani seem to be those most vested in literature, either as writers, academics or critics. Those who approve of Shivani’s comments seem to be the reading public. Just my impression.

Popcorn anyone?


The Rumpus

Yikes! Like a virgin who’s touched the centerfold. Contradicting their namesake, this website backed away from their link to Shivani’s article with unrivaled horror and rectitude!

Exemplary Lines: “Yikes. I was the one who approved the original post. Lapse in judgment there! Sorry everybody.”



The news blog of Publisher’s Weekly uses Shivani’s commentary as a teachable moment. “We need some happy thoughts,” they write; then ask: “Who are the most  underrated writers?” The results turn up in their post: PWxyz’s most Underrated Writers. But Publisher’s Weekly turns out to be a dark, bleak night for poets. Such is the shiny-faced law of unintended consequences. Is there a single poet among the 15 most underrated writers? Not one. Lesson learned. A rising tide does not lift poets.

Examplary Lines: “We need some happy thoughts. Rather than put people down, let’s life a few people up and make a list of underrated writers for a bright new week. “(Unless you’re a poet.)


The Guardian

Bring it on! Alison Flood of the Guardian takes a spectator’s relish in the all-car crash & burn that is turning out to be the literary world’s Indy 500.

Exemplary Lines: “I get the feeling that Shivani has been brewing this piece for some time.”


Ask Parliament

The post that sees both sides of the argument, fair and balanced, right up… almost… just about… to the end.

Exemplary Lines: “To be fair to Shivani, many of the writers he discussed are utter hacks.”


The Missouri Review

Disappointed. Michael Nye, the managing editor of the Missouri Review is, in a word, disappointed — which is not to say he disagrees. First paragraph? He lists the skewered authors, but what about the poets? Look for words like rabid, inflammatory, sour grapes, bully-pulpit.

Exemplary Lines: “Well, okay.”


Jezebel: Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women

Feminism anyone? 9 of the writers on Shivani’s hit list are women – and that might be 9 too many. Still no love for poets.

Exemplary Lines : “Yes, Glück has committed the first deadly sin of the female writer: thinking she’s important.” (Note: the author doesn’t write: Glück has committed the first deadly sin of the poet: thinking she’s important.


The Skeptician

A love/hate relationship? David Hill has tried to bite his tongue, but enough is enough. (Perhaps the first respondent to have actually read Shivani elsewhere.) He’s not impressed but, “to be honest”, Shivani “makes some good points”. Shivani “complains alot”, but “oddly, I think if I met him, I would like him.” Why won’t Shivani back up his criticism?

Exemplary Lines: “…I move at a different pace than many of the blogging elite that manage to fire off their own inflammatory musings every time some drivel like this ruffles enough people’s feathers.” (Moi?)


Cocktail Hour

Ritual purification. Bill Roorbach, like David Hill, just can’t resist the siren call of Shivani’s bonfire of the vanities. Guilt. Pleasure. It’s all there. And a sense of humor. In the comment section, Roorbach adds as an afterthought: “The poets on Mr. Shivani’s list are all interesting, too, but that’s a different discussion.” A different discussion? The has to hurt. No time for poetry on his Rolodex.

Exemplary Lines: “I love them!  I love their books!  Also, they’re friends and acquaintances of mine, and I don’t like to see them hurt.”


Quill & Quire

Shivani is the reincarnation of B.R. Myers. Haven’t read Myers’ article? Then you’re in for another treat – not over-easy but well-done.

Exemplary Lines: “Shivani also broadens the field of his attack, including seven poets and one critic (The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani).” (Finally, poets and novelists in the same paragraph, getting the recognition they… well… deserve?)


Ward Six

This blogger is so offended he refuses to so much as link to Shivani’s article. So, because I’m poet and have a license to practice poetic justice, I am linking to him.

Exemplary Lines: “I wish he could have just said what he thought without first having to invalidate what I think, based upon my status as a college professor in an MFA program.” (Yeah… this is personal.)


Carissa Halston

Shivani has a point, says Carissa. We can all improve, right?

Exemplary Lines: “Unless you’re incredibly well-versed in contemporary American literature, at least one of those names will make you ask, ‘Who?'”


Rachel Inez Lane

Her gripe? What a sexist prude!

Exemplary Lines: “And since when were these women ever even roped in with John Ashbery or Billy Collins.” (Ouch.)


The Faster Times

Overrated overrated lists. Lincoln Michel asks: Overrated by who? Any love for poets? Michel calls Shivani’s critique of Ashbery several decades too late. Translation: He’s beating a dead horse. Ouch. What about the other poets?  Don’t ask. Let’s talk about those novelists.

Exemplary Lines: “Is it a list of writers that MFA students overrate? Mainstream literary awards? Small magazines? The reading public? It is like making a list of overrated musicians and putting Lada Gaga and Drake next to John Cale and Children of Bodom.”


The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog

The post that finally demolishes Shivani with, among other things, a devastating critique of his poor grammar. Cortnee Howard proves why she’s Editor-in-Chief.

Exemplary Lines: “There is a semi-colon in the first sentence, but the first clause doesn’t have a subject, which is both wrong and generally confusing.”



Into the fire. This website only provided a link to Shivani’s article but offered up lots and lots of indignant comments. But, finally, someone defends the poets… sort of… in a way… as it were … kinda’… Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire.

Exemplary Lines: “Why are there even poets on that list at all? Nobody is out there rating poets. No poets are getting rich off of being overrated. Leave the poor poets to bitch at each other about who’s winning what contest and who was whose student and all that mess. Jesus.” (Never mind.)

(G)reatness): Orr and his Respondents

It’s been about two and a half weeks since Orr’s article appeared.

The implicit question in Orr’s article remains: What’s (G)reatness?

But Orr studiously avoids answering the question and for obvious reason: It’s not for the critic to answer. It’s for the next Great Poet. And that leads to the next series of questions: Where’s the ambition? Where’s the Great Poetry? Where are the Great Poets?

My apologies to Bloggers if I haven’t picked your choice passage – it wasn’t intentional.

In no particular order (and not including my own responses), here are some of  Orr’s Respondents:

  • Click on the images to visit the blogs.

Collin Kelly on OrrCollin Kelly questions whether Orr’s article isn’t Word Vomit.

He writes: “If you haven’t read it and can manage to get through it without vomiting a little in your mouth… If you don’t feel like tasting your own bile, let me just boil it down for you: Orr contends that John Ashbery is the last “great” poet, then writes nearly 3,000 words wondering if any of today’s contemporary poets can be “great.” Collin then goes on to call it “introspective masturbation.”

HG Poetics & OrrHG Poetics tries to pick up where Orr left off, seeking to define Greatness.

It seems to me there are 3 characteristics, displayed by the great poet, which determine this unusual situation :

1) A powerful, synthetic intellect, able to grasp wide spheres of life & discourse, and translate them into a new, unique order.
2) A strong will, determined to engage with the world, with its most difficult practical, moral & theoretical cruxes, riddles, problems. A dramatically-engaged personality.
3) An original, masterful combination of artistic talent and sensibility.

digital-emunctionDigital Emunction offers up a youtube link with a clip from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006): “I wake up in the morning and piss excellence!” – as a way to satirize the kind of poet Orr is accused of looking for.

This clip is followed by seven good comments, including one by Robert P. Baird: I guess I should say, too, that I think it’s a splen­did thing for poets to have world-​eating ambi­tion–as Jack says, why not?–but I also think that Orr is flat wrong to follow Hall in blam­ing the lack of self-​consciously great work on a lack of ambi­tion. Sim­i­larly it seems pretty dumb to say that poetry can’t or won’t sur­vive with­out a ready font of great­ness in its midst. What Orr is really com­plain­ing about–and I can’t quite figure out if he rec­og­nizes it or not, though he prob­a­bly does–is not the absence of poetic great­ness but the gen­eral culture’s indif­fer­ence to poetic great­ness.

clusterflock Clusterflock.Org (I suppose [Orr] can’t imagine there’s another Dickinson lurking around right now who hasn’t been noticed.) Nor does he seem to acknowledge that Dickinson’s poems do not ‘look’ great–they’re short, personal and often obscure–nor that a poet like Sappho has endured more than 2000 years on likewise tiny poems. To me, Orr’s questions seem too utterly American and far too narrow, though I won’t deny that he makes some astute observations.

Career Limiting Moves & OrrZachariah Wells writes: Orr’s piece reminds me of another favourite poet of Ashbery’s–and of mine–John Clare, a poet in many ways similar in sensibility to Elizabeth Bishop: a poet who values a close look at a small thing more than the windy effusions of ego favoured by his elder contemporary, Wordsworth the Great. (Not that Clare couldn’t turn on the rhetoric when he wanted to.) The ambition is more humble, and for a long time Clare’s work was neglected and ignored, or dismissed as quirky.

html-giantHTMLGIANT writes: Anyway, despite the basic dopiness of claiming that poetry must at all times seek to obtain capital-i Immortality, and at that only by first obtaining to the status of High Art (whatever that is), Orr actually has some real points to make, and I can’t stay quite as annoyed as I’d like to. For one thing, he busts out this Donald Hall quote from 1983, where Hall, writing in the Kenyon Review, accused “contemporary American poetry” of being “afflicted by modesty of ambition.” I’m with Hall on this one, and with Orr for being with Hall–the fact that a full generation later (Taylor, Justin: b. 1982) nothing much has changed actually lends a lot of credence to Orr’s basic–yet still irritating–claim that perhaps the Poetical Climate Change is in fact irreversible…

amy-kingAmy King writes On Greatness and them that do it: There is no set goal in the “game” of poetry, though Orr’s comparison sets the terms as such (i.e. John Ashbery’s Library of America collection).  How do sports metaphors of the competitive masculine variety so often wiggle their way into measuring poetry and her cultural cache?   What team am I playing for again?  Where’s the goal line?  Who do I have to smear to get there?   Are my subjects suitably dainty as I take up the stick?

When Falls & OrrOn When Falls the Coliseum Christopher Guerin writes: David Orr’s recent New York Times Book Review essay on greatness in poetry is a bland bit of punting. I’ve read it twice and I still don’t understand what he’s trying to say. The main thesis, that defining greatness in poetry is very difficult to do, is obvious enough, but he never makes the attempt himself. Taking John Ashbery as his last great poet — apparently just because the Library of America has chosen to release his collected works — sets the essay off on the wrong course from the beginning. Richard Wilbur, anyone?

One Poet's Notes & OrrEdward Byrne at One Poet’s Notes writes: Much has been made this weekend on writers’ individual blogs or email literary lists about the content and tenor of David Orr’s valuable and thought-provoking article in the New York Times, “The Great(ness) Game.” Some of the online commentary has focused upon questioning ambiguous definitions of “greatness” or the accuracy in Orr’s portrait of contemporary poetry, particularly his perceptions of college writing programs and a tendency toward careerism evident among those in the current community of authors. As with Orr’s essay, all of the opinions I have seen online so far have been interesting and insightful, have engendered discussion or debate, and have initiated some serious reflection.

getting-something-readNeal Whitman at Getting Something Read writes:  Here at Getting Something Read, I am guessing that readers do not expect greatness in the short poems they find here. But, consider this: poetry is not in the words written, but in the mind of the poet. Donald Hall, who wowed a full house in Monterey, California, two evenings ago, challenged poets, in an essay that is at the center of Orr’s NYT article, to be ambitious, to reach for the stars. In the minds of the poets out there, are any of you aiming, to paraphrase (dare I say it?) a GREAT poet, Carl Sandburg, to write explanations of Life swiftly fading without explanation into the horizons?

compulsive-readerAt A Compulsive Reader an NYTBR Reader Responses to ‘Greatness’: A wide range of interesting responses, similar to the wide ranging immediate blog-responses.  These letters represent a markedly different response than it seemed many of the blog responses that I came across.  Reeve in particular I think hits on an interesting notion that has been danced around to some extent on this page.  The idea of the conglomeration-publishing-house not allowing interesting, unique voices to rise to the fore.  And I think it is a good point.  It is virtually impossible for one single voice to cause enough of a disruption to shake such the massive structures that these publishing companies have become.

best-american-poetryAt The Best American Poetry John Emil Vincent writes: Orr blames this on postmodernism’s questioning of “Truth, Beauty, [and] Justice.” But simple sense might tell us that as history progresses, we have fewer and fewer filters (years, critics, just plain old historic contingency) through which poetry must pass to get to us eager readers. Contemporary poetry is precisely that, contemporary, these poems haven’t been around long enough to have dependable gauges of “greatness”