Friday, June 23, 2006

Literary controversies, like literature, don't always hold up.

Take the recent issue of Poetry Magazine, which revisits the 1953 fracas surrounding Edward Dahlberg's controversial and supposedly "withering" review of Conrad Aiken's Ushant.

Having been totally unaware of this battle, the lowdown on it was that Dahlberg gave Aiken a royal pasting, and that it brought in so many offended letters that editor Karl Shapiro had to address it in the next issue, that Aiken considered charging Dahlberg with slander, and that it ended Aiken's friendship with editor Karl Shapiro.

Boy -- talk about much ado about nothing. To read Dahlberg's review today is to find yourself thinking not how harsh it is, but how such a laughably bad, atrociously-written review wound up being published anywhere. Just how low were the literary standards at Poetry in 1953? Was it routine for such pretentious, puffed-up, preening piffle to be taken seriously? Did Aiken really consider a slander case -- or is that just what people thought they heard him say as he rolled on the floor laughing like a hyena?

And how is it that an editor such as Shapiro could read a sentence like the following --

The scatalogical in Ushant is aprioristic word sport, or logomachy, and is as much the toy and triffle of an idle brain as the phlegm of frogs and the spittle of newts, which are factitious and not riggish.

-- and not send it back with "Once again, in English" scribbled in the margin?

If this damn thing is all Dahlberg is known for, then I'd say Aiken wound up with the last laugh.

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