[The following essay was published in 2010, on the now-defunct blog Digital Emunction. John Barr resigned from the Poetry Foundation in 2012, after a controversial tenure as its first President. Shortly after the publication of this article, the Poetry Foundation attempted to incarcerate a number of young poets who peacefully gathered at the new $22 million Foundation headquarters to protest what they felt to be an unjustified use of the $100 million bequest provided to Poetry Magazine by Ruth Lilly, the pharmaceutical heiress. The young poets also passed out leaflets asking why an energy-industry financier who had published a work of unadulterated blackface was the organization’s President and leading spokesperson. To this day, American poets, many of them self-identified “progressives” and “anti-racists,” flock to the magazine, seeking the cultural gold-dust of its imprimatur. –Kent Johnson]
“…[John Barr] is in fact an extraordinary man, both a poet of passion and the most delicate workmanship, and a man of the material world, especially the world of finance and diplomacy–where, I dare say, passion and delicate workmanship are also necessities. We, who honor literature, also live in this world [sic]… thus he renders the world good service, including in his poems for sure, good thought, and happiness.” [Mary Oliver, from a blurb on the jacket of Grace]
John Barr does indeed appear to be quite a man, widely admired for his financial and interpersonal skills, as Mary Oliver proclaims in the blurb above. There is no reason to doubt that good character and intention have played important roles in his success.
But what I wish to focus on in this post are matters pertaining to some of his writing, especially that found in Grace: An Epic Poem, his most recent book of poetry. And it is a bit amazing to me that this book (available now for ten years) appears to have received only two small notices so far: an enthusiastic paragraph in Library Journal in 1999, wherein Barr is likened to James Joyce, and a somewhat indifferent squib in an amusing 2007 New Yorker article about the Poetry Foundation, by Dana Goodyear, wherein it is revealed that the work was “inspired by family sailing trips around the Windwards and the British Virgin Islands,” back during the Dot-com Bubble years. It could be there are some reviews of the book I haven’t seen, of course.
Most readers of Digital Emunction will know that Barr, a multimillionaire investment banker, was named President of the Poetry Foundation in 2004, charged with managing Poetry magazine’s $100 million gift from Ruth Lilly, the late and eccentric pharmaceutical industry heiress. He has also been, according to biographical information on the web, the President of the Poetry Society of America, Chairman of the Board of Bennington College, member of the Board at Yaddo, founder of the country’s largest natural gas marketing company, and head of a “prominent investment-banking boutique,” later to become the major broker in the utilities merger craze some years back.
Well, it is perhaps the most idiosyncratic Poet bio since the aviator-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s. And the résumé, of course, helps explain how the Barr family has managed all that fortunate sailing about the Windwards and other locales, where exotic peoples abound.
To make things even more unusual and interesting, perhaps, Barr is also, with Grace, the author of what some may judge to be, to put it somewhat euphemistically, the most racially outré work of poetic literature published in the United States since Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.”
I know the matter of the “Other” is a complicated thing (I’ve been involved myself in some of those discussions). But it’s not my point to engage with any identity theory or postcolonial analysis here, useful though such approaches often are. I’m not going to talk about the different and often complex ways otherness might be channeled, nor about how those channelings might be poetically deployed in ethically and politically worthwhile ways. I’m not going to talk about Lindsay, Stephen Foster, John Berryman, William Styron, or Araki Yasusada, for example, very different and interesting cases, each, I believe. In any discussion that may ensue from this post, I certainly think it would be valuable to consider these and numerous other historical instances for purposes of comparison and contrast. For now, I’m merely going to make some framing comments, offer a couple of excerpts from Barr’s epic-length poem, and (though without in any way hiding my own stance and attitude) let people judge for themselves. Then I’ll conclude with a few questions, openly posed. The book is readily available, through Amazon, for those wishing to read more.
Barr, as most readers of this blog will remember, probably made his biggest splash in the poetry world heretofore with an essay in Poetry magazine a few years back, titled, grandly enough, “American Poetry in the New Century.” In reprise of themes found in Dana Gioia’s now-classic “Can Poetry Matter?” he excoriates academic poets out of touch with the real “reading public,” scolding them for their comfortable and complaisant in-house, hermetic styles– sub-cultural careerists, that is, sadly reduced to writing for each other, composing and theorizing ethereal stuff that “both starves and flourishes on academic subsidies.” (The essay, of course, was written before investment boutiques made away with a few of their own “subsidies” from the public treasury last year, but some of what Barr says about U.S. poetry’s escalating ties to the academic Ideological State Apparatus is actually quite accurate, IMHO. An angry response to Barr’s polemic, by Steve Evans, can be found here.) http://chicagopoetry.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=1342
4. The company Barr founded, Dynergy, frequently likened in business columns to Enron, paid out a $3 million fine for accounting fraud (after Barr left as an executive) and a US Attorney said in a letter “We have become increasingly concerned that Dynegy’s `cooperation’ is more apparent than real.”
5. John Barr donated the maximum to Rudolph Giuliani in early 2007, a month after Giuliani declared his candidacy. Giuliani’s accomplishments as mayor of NYC including a smear campaign against contemporary artists and the Brooklyn Museum that displayed them, attempting to defund the institution. Soon after Barr’s donation, Giuliani named as his foreign policy adviser Norman Podhoretz right after he published the book World War III which advocated a global war, who in a previous life as a literary editor engaged in critical attacks against Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
6. Barr’s current company is lobbying foreign governments, mostly Spanish speaking countries in the hemisphere, to privatize their natural resources on behalf of his clients.
7. Robert Pinsky takes credit for selecting Barr for his position.