The latest issue of The New Yorker magazine features a poem by Marie Howe entitled "The Star Market". In the poem the omniscient narrator sees numerous disabled people in a supermarket. The poem’s narrator is disgusted by these deformed shoppers and goes on to speculate about the forbearance that Jesus must have owned to live among such people.
You can check out the poem yourself.
I am not an advocate of censorship, and in general I tend to believe that the world isn’t harmed by bad poetry. Howe’s poem is trite, rendered without wit, and though it tries to offer a speculative nod to the trials of Christian compassion, in point of fact the poet misses the mark even with this slow pitch Judeo-Christian theme. In short: the poem is just plain bad.
I don’t know Marie Howe. I do know a good deal about poetry though. Therefore I understand implicitly that the narrator of the poem is not precisely the poet herself.
I "get it". The narrator is a cultural figure just as the lame and the deformed are culturally suggestive figures within the proscenium arch of the poem.
But it’s a stupid poem. There’s an easy decadence about it. Contemporary American poetry is rife with this kind of thing these days. Wallace Stevens once wrote, famously, that "the world is ugly and the people are sad"—but he didn’t mean to suggest that he should earn "Brownie points" because he could see it.
And that’s the problem with Howe’s poem. The narrator thinks she’s smart. The reader is left to interpret that narrator’s degree of discernment and empathy.
At the end of the poem we’re told that Jesus, turning around to see one of these terrible unfortunates from the supermarket would likely have a problem himself.
And so the poem is execrable and it uses disability in all the clichéd ways that bad writing has always employed: these are the stigmatized and ostracized children, these cripples, who haunt the roads outside of Thebes.
I don’t read The New Yorker very often, and I seldom read the poetry there when I do pick it up. The magazine has never been famous for its capacities where poetry is concerned.
But now I will not read it at all.
Shame on them.