It operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism
On The Word on the Street by Paul Muldoon, Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman, Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield, Quick Question by John Ashbery, The Late Parade by Adam Fitzgerald, and Red Doc> by Anne Carson.
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If a poet sidles up to you and whispers that he’s been writing song lyrics, take my advice and run like hell! You might be fleeing the next Irving Berlin; but odds are the fellow’s one more deluded soul who thinks lyrics and poetry have something to do with each other. Paul Muldoon is a man of many hats—Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, poetry editor of The New Yorker, president of the Poetry Society in Britain, professor at Princeton, and author of some of the quirkiest, most devious, crossword-puzzle-complicated, head-turningest poems of the past thirty years. He’s clever in ways that almost give clever a good name. Still, a few years back, at about the time that middle-aged gents go nuts over Miatas and flock to high bridges where they tie themselves to bungee cords, he started a rock band and began scribbling lyrics. A small volume called The Word on the Street is the result, and his publishers have thought it wise to inflict it upon the unwary.1
Muldoon rarely does things by halves. He’ll write twenty-one poems on old record albums or “90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore” and look as if he’s just warming up. This isn’t a poet’s natural competitiveness gone awry; it’s something darker, like a need to beat all comers in a dozen different events in The Guinness World Records. That this book of lyrics is as skinny as a kid with rickets suggests that the poet feels he’s trespassing on dangerous ground—if so, he should have obeyed his instincts.
Muldoon has perhaps the most capacious imagination of any poet living—he thrives on challenge, and his poems have secretive forms that spur him to great (if sometimes pointless) acts of invention. Yet he can’t seem to write with the ease a song requires, to write as if the words had an emotional gravity that drew them together. At best they possess a mocking cynicism that compliments the reader who gets the point:
This is simple, elegant, and savage. The anachronism of “people person” suggests all the ways the present tries to interpret the past, while concealing a judgment that irony isn’t deep enough to cover. Auden would have been delighted. (If you like your highbrow references mixed with camp, Muldoon will give them to you in spades—Blade Runner, Elizabeth Bowen, Antabuse, Johnny Depp, the Big Bopper, Oedipus at Colonus, Botticelli, and Clint Eastwood don’t even begin to exhaust them.)
The vivid or striking moments in these lyrics are so rare, however, it’s almost useless to look for them. When he’s not offering doggerel of a depressing sort (“The men who dreamed up the airplane/ We know they were next of kin/ Wilbur Wright rounded out Orville/ They came through thick and thin”) or bludgeoning rhymes (“We know behind the wolf bully/ Is a sheep with a pulley/ And its arguments get woolly”), Muldoon is noodling about like a man on an air guitar:
Its desk’s a lot less laden! Tennyson would have wept. (“A mule’s a team player” is a joke, but not a good joke.) The poet’s Rubik’s Cube—ingenuity is not the main problem here, but it’s a problem—Muldoon simply can’t help adding the filigrees and furbelows that in Cole Porter’s hands would have been droller than droll. Instead we get “I flagged behind my flagon” and “it’s kinda inconvenient/ To meet in a convenience store” and “She put her horse/ Before the cartel.” Sidesplitting. These seem less those acts of genius in the language that the poet happens upon than simply muscling the words with a schoolboy smirk.
Song lyrics and poems work in such divergent ways, it’s not surprising that a man might be the master of one and the fool of the other. We don’t expect that Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein could have written good poetry; and there’s no reason to suppose that Wallace Stevens or Ezra Pound or Marianne Moore could have supplemented their incomes by dashing off Tin Pan Alley tunes. Miracles happen; but it’s a lot more likely that a man will write a good poem than a good lyric, even if he has an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters behind him.
Song lyrics can be entirely artless or devilishly contrived, composed by some magician of the word or just some putz; but whatever they are they need music to make them art, and without music they’re just love without money. “Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na” and “Do-wah-diddy-diddy-dum-diddy-do” and “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da” make perfectly wonderful lyrics, but on the page they look like gibberish. Cut out the tune, and lyrics are just words that look annoyed. With the exception of the blues—highly charged by image and wit, with a sprinkle of salaciousness added—I’d rather read the Des Moines phone book.
You’d like to think that Muldoon’s lyrics could be redeemed by music; but I’ve listened to his old band, Rackett (which he dryly calls a “three-car-garage band”), and Wayside Shrines, his newer one. Alas, on stage the songs are almost unsingable. It’s no use telling Muldoon that he’s tone deaf—what boy in the past fifty years hasn’t wanted to pick up a guitar and join a rock band? Being good at it isn’t the point.
Matthew Dickman’s poems go off like a bottle rocket. Mayakovsky’s Revolver is stuffed with hyperactive lines, unrelenting trivia, and a devil-may-care manner that’s better at the rueful absurdities of life than at the tragedy to which he’s drawn.2 Dickman has become a master of Frank O’Hara lite (he shares O’Hara’s ADHD, and little else)—gorging on the detritus of modern culture, cheerful in their buffoonery, his poems are sweetly unserious and often out of their depth:
Dickman has charm to spare, and a teasing cheekiness that’s hard to dislike—yet you wonder if life should be as dull as this. When I’ve read too much of such vacant mental stock-taking, I remember what Coleridge did one afternoon when he was bored—he wrote “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”
Even when Dickman stumbles upon an interesting idea—say, a man building an effigy of his absent lover out of her clothes—he tends to overwhelm it by jabbering on like O’Hara in his worst poems, and even some of his better. The title (“Weird Science”) cheerfully refers to John Hughes’s wet-dream movie of the Eighties, and the ending (“I will hold you up and kiss you/ where your mouth hurts because it’s new and was only a handkerchief”) almost redeems the junk it took to get there. Still, if all a poet wants is to be as good as Billy Collins, he has rather limited ambitions.
Dickman is capable of poems far more devastating, but he can’t go at them without dropping some of his illusions. Occasionally there’s a density of reference and invention, a little blizzard of off-beat observations; and suddenly the poem moves into a higher gear. Such passages reveal the poet he might be if he weren’t in the grip of some hipster method of throwing lines together. (Has no one yet called this the Brooklyn School?) Dickman’s a sophisticate who plays dumb, which is never very appealing—it’s too much like slumming.
When he doesn’t try so hard to come off as a feckless dope, Dickman can give a terrifying picture of modern life (modern love seems beyond him). The long elegy for his older brother is mostly a failure (dragging in Mayakovsky, or his revolver, doesn’t help much), but one scene is worthy of Pinter. The boy’s father
I can’t help but sympathize with the man in his need for chitchat, his beautiful use of the word “pumpkiny,” his wish to deflect attention from the horror of his son’s cremation, only to make it more horrible. His nervous remarks raise the ghosts of the Holocaust. These lines bear all the longing, the regret, the impossibility of communication in a family that has suffered.
Dickman is elsewhere never quite as confident, or confiding. He has a taste for freakish similes and mischief-making metaphors, and he’s not at all bad at them: “the blue smoke/ crawling out like a skinny ghost from between my lips,” “She carried her hands around/ like two terrible letters of introduction,” “the way/ blackberries will make the mouth/ of an eight-year-old look like he’s a ghost/ that’s been shot in the face.” They’re a showoff stunt, more often than not, and a license for the goofiness that doesn’t serve the poet particularly well. I’d like to think that he’s paying homage to the Auden of the Thirties, but mostly these seem like half-price Raymond Chandler. Some are simply tasteless (“my tongue/ like a monk in wartime, awash in orange silk and flames”), and one or two probably violate the law in some states (“Your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas,/ a holy place . . . ./ Your ass is a string quartet”).
Dickman is happy taking a subject and simply riffing on it: Pavese, a dead goldfish, King George III, canopic jars. Then he slaps on a cutesy title. (He deserves a copy editor who would teach him the difference between “O” and “oh,” and rap his knuckles when he writes “they have swam” or “shinning stars.”) If you were kind, you’d say he pursues relevance through irrelevance—and perhaps he does, or perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn.
Jane Hirshfield’s soft-hearted, soft-headed poems are just the thing for readers scared off by that grim, insensible thing, modern poetry. (That would mean most readers not of a flinty sort.) Hirshfield has her fans. I missed Come, Thief when it first appeared and am glad to catch up with the paperback.3 If The New York Times calls the book a “deep well full of strength and wisdom,” heck, it must be some pumpkins.
Hirshfield writes as if all the world were an allegory waiting to happen. Take her thoughts on Sappho:
It’s hard to see why Sappho’s lost poems would be imperfect and extreme—or fiercer than the fragments we possess (some are a touch acidic). The comparison to love looks more inflated and ponderous the longer you linger, yet you can’t say there’s nothing to it—like mountain climbers, lovers take foolish risks, long for new passion out of reach, suffer desire meaningless when fulfilled (“enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,” someone or other wrote). The first lines, then, are less a statement than the delusion of a lover never satisfied.
Hirshfield is clever to have packed so much into so little, to have such deft control of modest resources. Still, in its plain-clothed diction, its tidy summary, its highflown thoughts on descent, the poem seems too pat. Hirshfield writes in shorthand, in sentence fragments that sometimes deliver more than they promise, in a soothing babble both heartfelt and irritating. She loves abstractions, but they’re never blooded—they’re just loose baggy monsters wetted down with tears.
I like her flow chart of fate, her invocation of the Greek notion of Anangke (Necessity), her recognition of the occasional inconsequence of courage (it’s a notion out of Montaigne); but the argument is as subtle as a dump truck. Hirshfield tries to sound profound without bothering to work for it. You might say her mind is more discriminating than her poems.
Come, Thief comes larded with Zen wisdom hardly worth queueing for (“Call one thing another’s name long enough,/ it will answer,” “A window is only a window when stepped away from”), often with a lethal coat of sappiness: “Your ordinary loneliness I recognize too as my own,” “I don’t know what time is.// You can’t ever find it./ But you can lose it.” The inner gimbals of Hirshfield’s poems have been heavily influenced by the balance and weight, the Balanchine choreography, of haiku; yet, like so much haiku in English, her imitations sound precious: “On the dark road, only the weight of the rope./ Yet the horse is there.” (Hirshfield has more animals under contract than Aesop—in the opening poems, there are squirrels, jays, a hummingbird, an ant, a donkey, a horse, a dog, a billy goat—then I lost track.)
You sense her affinity with Sharon Olds and Louise Glück, poets who have carved out fiefdoms in that great realm of the damaged, the one a scenery-chewing diva and the other a poster child for wounded souls—but, where Olds’s poems are brazen as billboard advertisements, Glück’s are tough-minded and darkly narcissistic. Hirshfield is, by contrast, just a mild, touchy-feely poet with an occasional gift for wry humor:
Perhaps this friend also appears in the poem about Alzheimer’s that follows. (“ ‘How are you,’ I asked,/ not knowing what to expect./ ‘Contrary to Keatsian joy,’ he replied.”) The guy should do stand-up.
Hirshfield takes seriously the minor business of life; but she wants to browbeat the poor reader, reminding him that torture is very, very bad, and the Holocaust positively wicked (“anything becomes familiar,/ though the Yiddish jokes of Auschwitz/ stumbled and failed outside the barbed wire”). Whenever she starts talking like an adjunct lecturer in semiotics, you feel sorry for all the cats and dogs and billy goats that have to listen. Someone somewhere is always getting injured by philosophy. The animals are just collateral damage.
John Ashbery celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday last year, but he’s still cranking out poems like a combine harvester that turns, not straw into gold, but wheat into Wheaties, or wimples, or whales.4 Few poets have possessed such facile invention or bizarre imagination—either Ashbery is extraordinary (as in some ways he is), or he’s hit upon a magic formula that will let him toss off poems long into his dotage. Hardy would have been jealous.
You have to love a poem that starts like this, with its diligent jostlings of language, its pinball-carom images, its humble-jumble diction. Ashbery loves American English as much as Whitman did, and his lines shift from Goths to Gothic in a flash. The first sentence might be his ars poetica.
The poems in Quick Question look lazy—the sentences are alert but arthritic, often ending with a flat-footed turn. Yet there’s almost always more going on beneath the surface—I suppose tumbleweeds can scud, but what’s important is the unstated alliance between the tumbleweeds present and the clouds absent (tumbleweeds are far more comical). Ashbery is rewriting Romantic puffery for the depressive modern. The half-overdressed season might be Keats’s Autumn, now a woman who has changed her mind and stands there, unable to stay or go.
Ashbery is cleverer than he seems, but his critics are too clever by half, or three-quarters. He has attracted more willful and perverse scholarship than almost any modern poet, while readers—those who don’t simply throw brickbats—remain delighted by a language that doesn’t behave as it should. (The trouble with most other avant-garde poets is that they have no sense of humor—or, worse, that they think they’re funny.) Ashbery’s poems often suffer from a rare neurological disorder, able to recall the sentence just written, but not the one before that. They live on, almost making sense; and readers return for the promise of meaning infinitely delayed.
I love the abstract platonic Ashbery more than the real thing. His last dozen books have been more or less the same—he could write this stuff till doomsday, much of it guff, but some pinched with the sorrows of age:
Is this about a holiday no longer much celebrated or the writing of poems? Perhaps it’s a little of both. (Ashbery’s most memorable poetry has often been about poetry.) His poems are now infused with an ubi sunt melancholia made no more comforting by his wry little touches. He’s a poet the way Frank Gehry is an architect—he prefers that poems look like twisted wreckage, twisted but beautiful. Ashbery has always been an aesthete (therefore suspicious to an avant garde that thinks aesthetics toxic), but of a peculiar kind. His poems live on ruin, busted memory, and the vague sense of an apocalypse soon to arrive, or perhaps already here—it’s not surprising that Auden chose his first book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
There’s nothing in these poems that Ashbery readers haven’t seen a dozen times over. He’s an old stager, taking one more turn—reading Quick Question is like seeing Sarah Bernhardt in her great age, a ghost of herself and yet still Bernhardt. His patter has become a bit leaden (“In my mature moments I was robotic like you”), his turns of phrase creaky (“Because if it’s boring/ in a different way, that’ll be interesting too”), and his titles have, as usual, been tacked on apparently at random. Still, he makes me laugh when he refers to the Rake’s Progress Administration or claims that something has been “stepfathered in.” “Is it all doggerel and folderol?” he asks. The question confesses nothing and confesses all.
A lot of young poets write as if they didn’t want to think very hard—Ashbery has made not thinking an art. (A minor poet is a major poet with something major missing.) The new poems have a subdued moral edge, half joked away; but some of his valedictory remarks now sound like valedictions, not just whistling in the dark. In an alternate universe, subject to a different physics, Ashbery might make perfect sense, his every lacuna a rift of ore (literary critics there would scratch their heads over the unaccountable nonsense of Lowell and Bishop). Few American poets have rendered American life so richly, or done it more ridiculously. Ashbery ought to be declared a national treasure, like baseball cards, or Edsels, or Oreos.
Adam Fitzgerald’s messy first book is full of flash turns, a few extraordinary phrases, and a lot of blather. A poet who titles his book The Late Parade labels himself a Johnny Come Lately, while mocking his tardiness a little.5
You must know about fencing, presumably, because you’ll be stumbling around in the permanent dark. Any poet who can write a phrase like the “rotund ministries of . . . moonlight,” however off the point his poems, is worth watching. There are phrases elsewhere that display this complicated imagination to advantage, whenever he stops trying to be John Ashbery, Jr.
Fitzgerald has a devilish way of throwing a poem together, modulating from the colloquial to the preciously poetic and tossing in Victorian poeticisms along the way (“o’er,” “fore’er,” “ ’tis”—metrical makeweights rescued from the grave). I’m not sure how much irony is attached. Fitzgerald is a magpie, as Lowell often was, willing to take his influences broadly; yet something is lost as well as gained—the poems have a fatal lack of character and a strangely manic style.
That’s a fair portrait of Naples, but the frivolities of “zoneless” and “millioned” and “shroomed” and much else overwhelm the rest. I like “shroomed,” a reminder that American towns sprouting up overnight along the transcontinental railroad were called mushroom towns—I like it, but it’s distracting. The stiff swim trunks are harder to parse; but I suspect he’s slipping the drying trunks of modern summers (stiff from salt water) onto the Naples of two millennia ago, a playground for the Roman rich—Pliny the Elder had a villa nearby and died in the explosion of Vesuvius.
If Fitzgerald never learns to underplay his effects, the reader will starve to death chewing wood pulp. The poet is full of phenomenological doubt inherited, or thieved, from Ashbery, and is infatuated by what sound like off-cuts from The Bridge—“the pedal-steel graves covered in nosegays and eelskin,” “those dental waters/ oft-ringing.” It’s not that you can’t make sense of such lines; it’s that the labor is scarcely worth the reward.
The reader has to work his way through the occasional nod to the OED (“hypethral”) and a lot of language too hip for its own good (“a tad ghetto,” “goof magentas,” “bake-a-thon,” “mojo,” “gulag-y years,” “can-opened night”). Still, I love a “flossy shiv of sea-holly,” am glad to know “tombstress” (a cemetery sculpture of an angel or goddess), and pledge to use “über-mundanity” with only a trace of embarrassment. I’m grateful to Fitzgerald for The National Museum of Vastness, for “remorse code,” for “a boy in jockstraps is a joy forever” (though why is he wearing more than one?). For the rest—the sentences that outstay their welcome, the lines easy to write and impossible to speak (“like a gilt slit/ on bodily macadam where cockscombs spill.// The sun pronates to my left, akimbo”)—I hope he doesn’t get praised too highly, because it’s easy to be seduced into repeating your flaws. The best poems arrive early in the book; once the poet is infected by Ashbery, it’s Ashbery all the way down.
Fitzgerald with a dose of tranks is better—there’s a touching pantoum that begins all ajumble but comes to a confident and compelling close. When he’s not shooting off flare guns, he gets to the business of writing without so much mannerism.
The poem is cheerfully titled “Vowels and Continents.” The Fitzgerald lurking in the shadows, more conventional but not shy of feeling, giddy but not bouncing off the walls, doesn’t grandstand so furiously, or wearyingly.
This turbocharged book is full of arrogant charm, but it’s disappointing that the poet has done so little with so much—it’s easy to quote his bad lines, there are so many of them, and tough to find his good ones. He’s already been compared to Hart Crane by that dashing old blowhard, Harold Bloom, who will compare anyone to Crane at the drop of a hat. If Adam Fitzgerald now seems like another Ashbery clone or Crane wannabe, that’s no mean accomplishment, but it’s hardly enough.
Anne Carson has revisited the characters in her most idiosyncratic book, Autobiography of Red (1998), a portrait of the boyhood of Geryon, a red-winged monster with issues. Though the monster appears briefly in the Inferno as a puddle-jumper ferrying Dante and Virgil downward to the Circle of Fraud, he has little role in postclassical literature. In Red Doc>, Geryon is simply called G.6 His sometime lover Herakles, recently discharged from the army and suffering a bad case of PTSD, is now known as Sad But Great, or simply Sad.
The poem begins with dialogue deliciously in medias res:
This description of the young Sad has the right-angled turns and deadpan humor of Beckett. Carson is a take-no-prisoners kind of poet. She loves finding a breach in the classics that lets her imagine worlds that are a mash-up of ancient Greece and the present day.
The Herakles of myth stole the cattle of Geryon as one of his labors, in the version of Apollodorus going as far west as the straits of Gibralter. Carson’s poem is cast mostly in long narrow columns—if these are meant to remind us of the Pillars of Herakles (as the arms guarding the straits are still known), it’s a fairly dopey idea; but some of Carson’s best ideas sound dopey. The slightly disjoint narrative is occasionally interrupted by passages labeled “Wife of Brain,” seemingly by the author’s alter ego. The poem judders along in fits and starts, its flat-bottomed prose helter skelter, studded with far too many references to Proust and the Russian surrealist poet Daniil Kharms. The minor characters include Ida (part of an odd threesome with G and Sad), Io, Lt. M’hek, CMO (a chief medical officer), and 4NO (Air Force code for medic), with high-minded dross thrown in, like a play titled Prometheus Rebound.
Carson’s poems rarely seem calculated or designed—they’re slapped together by whim, or what passes for whim. About halfway through Red Doc> you realize that, like Autobiography of Red, the poem will be much less than the sum of its parts—but then the parts aren’t much to begin with. Autobiography was suggestive in exploring the adolescence of an outsider—it was hard not to see Geryon as the late embodiment of a long list of teenage loners, a Holden Caulfield for the age of video games. Red Doc> (the computer designation for her text file) has much less reason to exist.
The trouble with sequels is that they’re sequels. The Purgatorio and the Paradiso are brilliant poems, but no more than Dante’s versions of Die Hard 2 and 3 (same hero, different adventures). Who has ever fallen in love with Paradise Regained, when Milton has killed off everything appealing about his antihero, Satan? When Carson gives way to her inner lecturer, the poem takes a little nap:
This is riveting enough, but her disquisition on the mechanics of Geryon’s flight would have stopped the Trojan War cold. At one point we get six pages on rations—an interminable list of the things followed by more than you need to know on the subject. Too much of the poem is just Carsonian stratigraphy, grinding down through private musings too often dull as dirt. There’s no subject so interesting she can’t make you sorry.
Where Autobiography of Red used a volcano as its centerpiece, Red Doc> meanders toward a glacier (later there’s a volcano, too) where Carson finds her inner Pynchon—there’s a colony of ice bats as well as an ice garage called Batcatraz. This homage half to Batman, half to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (she must also have read a few issues of Hellboy) is the most exhilarating and inventive in an otherwise leaden book. Eventually the poem comes to the hospital where G’s mother is dying. Red Doc> might have been titled The Hardy Boys and the Secret of the Glacier.
This sequel is not so much a tale as a series of blackout sketches. English poetry has probably not had since Pope—and certainly not since Eliot—a poet so drenched in the classics or so capable of breathing the musty air of ancient texts as if it were the pure serene. Unfortunately, Carson’s full of dippy, adolescent notions that probably go down better from the podium, where being inert with your own fancy is not a disadvantage. Her characters have all the emotional range of department-store mannequins, and not intelligent mannequins at that.
I read this disturbing poet, with her original and disconcerting mind, with the same unease as I read late Geoffrey Hill, or minor
1 The Word on the Street, by Paul Muldoon; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 76 pages, $23.
2 Mayakovsky’s Revolver, by Matthew Dickman; W. W. Norton, 93 pages, $25.95.
3 Come, Thief, by Jane Hirshfield; Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages, $25, $16 (paper).
4 Quick Question, by John Ashbery; Ecco, 110 pages, $24.99.
5 The Late Parade, by Adam Fitzgerald; Liveright, 112 pages, $23.95.
6 Red Doc>, by Anne Carson; Alfred A. Knopf, 171 pages, $24.95
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 June 2013, on page 61
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