The Poetry Society of America has lost five board members in under a year, all around the awarding of the Frost Medal to John Hollander, who has made some questionable (read: boneheaded) extra-poetic comments about race. Who knew things were so exciting there?
Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who runs an international commodities trading and shipping firm and dabbles in writing poetry, said he resigned partly to protest what he regarded as an “exercise of gross reactionary thinking” among the other board members who left in the wake of the award to Mr. Hollander, a retired English professor at Yale.
When Mr. Hollander was considered for the award three years ago, some members raised comments he had made in interviews, reviews and elsewhere that they felt should be examined when judging his candidacy. In one example, Mr. Hollander, writing a rave review in The New York Times Book Review of the collected poems of Jay Wright, an African-American poet, referred to “cultures without literatures — West African, Mexican and Central American.” And in an interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” a reporter paraphrased Mr. Hollander as contending “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.”
Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, however, focused on what he believed were Mr. Mosley’s motives — namely, protesting Mr. Hollander’s extra-poetic remarks. “It’s as if you have to approve of the man’s politics before you can praise his poetry,” Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said. “I am terrified of McCarthyism in whatever clothes it wears.”
Now, I’m just thinking “aloud” here to get at both sides of this, so bear with me, but — while Louis-Dreyfus strikes me as a dink in the way he’s handling this, and I think he’s going about making his point the wrong way (his wide McCarthyism brush is a crutch that appears strikingly similar to Godwin’s Law), I can’t help but agree with him on one thing: look at the poems before the man. Undoubtedly Hollander was being, however intentionally or unintentionally, at least ignorant, at most racist, when he said these things. But did he say them in the poems? And did he say them badly in the poems?
On the other hand, is the award for lifetime achievement in “the field”? That would presumably does include what one says as a critic and pundit. Was Hollander furthering the cause of poetry, whatever the hell that is, by spewing ignorant comments? And surely there were others just as qualified for this award who DIDN’T go around saying Africans, Mexicans and Central Americans have no literatures. Why was he chosen over any number of others who could have had the award.
Interesting, if somewhat depressing, debate.