New York Times
September 27, 2007
Poetry Prize Sets Off Resignations at Society

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The cloistered community of American poetry has, in recent months, become a little less like Yeats’s Land of Faery, where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue, and a little more like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

The board of the 97-year-old Poetry Society of America, whose members have included many of the most august names in verse, has been rocked by a string of resignations and accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism and simple bad management.

The recent turmoil was driven, partly, by fierce discussion among board members earlier this year after they voted to award the Frost Medal, an annual honor given by the society, to John Hollander, a prolific poet and critic. The concern was whether it was proper to take into consideration some past remarks made by Mr. Hollander — remarks that some felt were disturbing — in bestowing the medal. Of course, as with many a board squabble, personality disputes and misunderstandings also played their part in the fracas.

Last Friday, William Louis-Dreyfus, who had been president of the board for the last six years, officially stepped down and quit the board, becoming the fifth person on the 19-member board to resign this year. This spring Walter Mosley, the novelist, resigned, and he was later joined by Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and professor of African-American and American studies at Yale University; Rafael Campo, a poet and professor at Harvard Medical School; and Mary Jo Salter, a poet and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

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.”

Other board members said they felt that such comments were not characteristic of Mr. Hollander’s views or had been misinterpreted. Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said that even if the comments were representative, they were irrelevant criteria for judging the Frost Medal, just as he would argue that Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism should not detract from the literary appreciation of his work.

In some ways the questions about Mr. Hollander’s remarks reflect a broader debate over whether the evaluation of artistic merit should be affected by the sometimes unsavory opinions or actions of the artist. Last year, for example, Germany was stunned when Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize winner, confessed that he had joined the Waffen SS, the military branch of the Nazis, when he was 17. At the time, some people argued that he should renounce his Nobel.

At the Poetry Society the stakes are much lower, and nobody has suggested that Mr. Hollander should be stripped of the Frost Medal, which is given for “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.” Late last year, at the hastily called and poorly attended meeting where the board again discussed him as a finalist for the award, his previous remarks did not come up again.

But when an e-mail message went out to the board announcing that Mr. Hollander had won the vote, Mr. Mosley replied with his own succinct message: “My reaction to this decision is to announce my resignation.”

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who immediately assumed that Mr. Mosley was quitting because of objections to Mr. Hollander’s previous comments, wrote a reply to Mr. Mosley that he copied to all members of the board. In an interview, Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said he objected to Mr. Mosley’s resignation because “it seemed to me to be based on an inappropriate reason that didn’t have anything to do with the quality of Hollander’s work, which is what the Frost Medal is given for.”

In an interview Mr. Mosley declined to comment on whether Mr. Hollander’s remarks had influenced his decision. He said he resigned from the Poetry Society because the decision to give the medal to Mr. Hollander “represents a conservative trend on the board that I don’t think is at all inclusive to all the elements of poetry and all the people of poetry.” Since 1941, out of 38 winners of the Frost medal, only three have been nonwhite.

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.”

Mr. Mosley described Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s use of terms like “McCarthyism” as “ridiculous hyperbole.”

Troubled by Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s tone, Ms. Alexander, Mr. Campo and Ms. Salter wrote their own responses. When Mr. Louis-Dreyfus subsequently accused them of McCarthyism and reactionary behavior, they resigned from the board.

Ms. Alexander declined to comment publicly on the board’s deliberations. But in an e-mailed statement, she wrote: “Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s persistent mischaracterization of the words and intentions of PSA board members including myself surrounding the awarding of the Frost medal and subsequent private board business is disturbing. I resent his inflammatory invective and willful misstatement of events. My own life’s work is guided by and devoted to principles that are utterly anti-‘reactionary’ and counter to anything that might remotely be deemed ‘McCarthyism.’”

Mr. Campo and Ms. Salter declined to comment on the dispute other than to emphasize that they had not resigned because Mr. Hollander won the Frost Medal. “I resigned because of my displeasure at the way Mr. Louis-Dreyfus dealt with people on the board about their conflicting views on this and other matters,” Ms. Salter wrote in an e-mail message.

Similarly, Mr. Campo wrote in an e-mail message that his resignation “had more to do with how our then-President Mr. Louis-Dreyfus handled the concerns of Board members.”

Mr. Hollander could not be reached for comment.

Ruth Kaplan, who was elected board president on Friday, said that “a central part of the Poetry Society of America’s mission is to represent the rich diversity of voices in American poetry.” She added that the society sponsored programs like Poetry in Motion, which places poems in public transit and gives “voice to poets of all backgrounds,” and an annual Festival of New American Poets, which has introduced 60 poets from different cultures in the last five years.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said he regretted the resignations, but said, “I think that new blood is a good thing.” As for his own actions, he said, “I have no regrets, just as I would have none if I’d lived in McCarthy’s days and had not succumbed to that particular hysteria.”