April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
Calvin Trillin’s poem in the April 4 issue of The New Yorker, titled “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” did not go over well on the Internet. It is a strange attempt at light verse expressing an elder person’s bafflement with modern food trends and a culture that refuses to cooperate with one’s western sensibilities by remaining comfortably static. Trillin is a house name at The New Yorker, and indeed the poem reads like something the magazine would only publish because it refused to turn down one of its own. Defenders say it’s making fun of foodies, but to our sensitive cosmopolitan ears, it doesn’t warp itself enough for satire. It’s racist, the kind of racism we too often ignore because it comes out of the mouths of our uncles, whom we don’t expect to know better. In The New Republic, Timothy Yu writes that the poem “comes out of a long tradition of white writers praising Chinese culture while ignoring Chinese people.”
Another aspect that seems to be generating resentment is Trillin’s use of rhyme, which sounds like something more likely to be found in the older version of The Baffler (“Then respect was a fraction of meagre / For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.”)
If there is a place for rhyme in twenty-first century poetry, this piece of crap didn’t do anything to help carve out the real estate. The practice does have its defenders. I think back to the earnest laments of Nicholson Baker, in the voice of his protagonist Paul Chowder, in The Anthologist:
Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. We’ve got to face that. And if that’s true, do we want to give drugs so that people won’t weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die. The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. All these poets, when they begin to feel that they are descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it. Rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next. It’s like chain-smoking—you light one line with the glowing ember of the last. You set up a call, and you want a response. You posit a pling, and you want a fring. You propose a plong, and you want a frong. You’re in suspense. You are solving a puzzle.
Rhyming in the genius’s version of the crossword puzzle—when it’s good. When it’s bad it’s intolerable dogwaste and you wish it had never been invented. But when it’s good, it’s great. It’s no coincidence that Auden was a compulsive doer of crossword puzzles, and a rhymer, and a depressive, and a smoker, and a drinker, and a man who shuffled into Louise Bogan’s memorial service in his bedroom slippers.