It would be an understatement to say that poetry is considerably less than central to the contemporary literary experience of the English-speaking world. This has been true since before Auden breathed his last. It has been a long time since Wordsworth was “trailing clouds of glory” to the delight of Brits across the island. By the 1970s, it seems the only person interested in reading and reciting poetry was Horace Rumpole. (And didn’t Horace/Leo McKern do a fine job of reciting?)
But just because hardly anyone outside the boundaries of the hundred thousand or so campuses that infest the USA reads poetry anymore, this appears to be no reason for university poetry workshops and MFA (master of fine arts) programs, poetry division, to stop churning out poet-wannabes by the thousands. This upside down state of affairs had led editors of the few remaining poetry journals to complain — not in jest — that they have more contributors than subscribers.
One such wannabe is forty-something-looking white guy Michael Derrick Hudson. Breitbart reports that Hudson had been committing what he considers to be poetry for a long time without being published. One of Hudson’s favorite poems, traveling under the barely digestible name of “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was rejected by 40 poetry journals and magazines.
Considering perhaps it was his white-bread name that was holding him back, the clever Hudson decided to play the identity politics game and adopted the ethnic-sounding pseudonym of Yi-Fen Chou. (In the Breitbart clip above, one can read “The Bees,” etc., though I don’t recommend it. If one does so, it will be no challenge to imagine another reason why Hudson’s magnum opus had such difficulty being published).
In short order, the Asian-sounding Hudson found a home for “The Bees” in Prairie Schooner, a venerable literary quarterly published by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Schooner put up Hudson’s poem for something called The Best American Poetry 2015, in which anthology Hudson owned up to the pseudonym. It didn’t take long for the indignation industry to start hamming it up.
Before one could say iambic pentameter, Hudson/Chou was being called racist. A blogger with the call sign “Angry Asian Man” said Hudson was putting on “yellow face,” which is more creative than Hudson’s poem. Others banged on about “white privilege.”
Oddly, or maybe not so oddly to those who understand the identity politics crowd, while Hudson got worked over for using an Asian pseudonym, there was little criticism of the journal for printing the poem of a poet thought to be Asian when they wouldn’t print the same poem by a white poet. This even though the editor of the anthology, who is American Indian, said he was “more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese-American.” He insisted though, that he really liked the poem. (There’s no accounting for taste.)
This silly little episode makes it pretty easy to understand why poetry is considerably less than central to the contemporary literary experience of the English-speaking world. And why perhaps we should try to trade the Chinese 10,000 MFA-trained poets for 10 good engineers.