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Guys & Dove
On Almost Invisible by Mark Strand, Odi Barbare by Geoffrey Hill, Selected Poems by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Thomas Karshan, and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove.
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Mark Strand’s easy-going charm and labored whimsy have a Seventies feel, as if the Bee Gees had never retired. The prose poems in Almost Invisible tilt toward contrived fables and dopey meditations, at worst self-indulgent musings after the imagination has shut down for the day and at best Kafka lite.1 Strand has always been a misfit in American poetry, his sleight-of-hand surrealism only half embraced, his strongest emotion subject to puckish doubt. He’s a master of the throwaway line (and also the throwaway poem, but I’ve used that joke about Ashbery). A banker walks into a brothel of blind women and claims he is a shepherd:
“I can tell by the way you talk,” said one of the women, “that you are a banker only pretending to be a shepherd and that you want us to pity you, which we do because you have stooped so low as to try to make fools of us.” “My dear,” said the banker to the same woman, “I can tell that you are a rich widow looking for a little excitement and are not blind at all.” “This observation suggests,” said the woman, “that you may be a shepherd after all, for what kind of rich widow would find excitement being a whore only to end up with a banker?” “Exactly,” said the banker.
There’s a darkness to such drollery—the self-delusions of sex, the come-hither playacting (with a little slap at Arcadian fantasies, like those of Marie Antoinette), the comeuppance of love. That the whore might indeed be a rich widow is nicely understated, yet the poem remains utterly trivial.
Strand’s lightly worn panache, like the cocked fedora on the head of Alain Delon, has a certain retro appeal; but, even in a short collection, his feline complacence can prove too much of a good thing—or, rather, too little. One of the unhappy results of the reaction against modernism has been how self-conscious poets have become. Too often they feel it necessary to give the reader a nudge of the elbow, as if to say, “See! It’s only poetry!” Such gestures are gratifying mostly to the author—it’s not just that the suspension of disbelief has been suspended, but that the author has played the reader for a dope.
Strand succumbs so eagerly and so often to sugar-plum guff, his bonhomie seems slightly suspect—you know he’s manipulating you, and you know he knows you know. When he ends a poem, “I might have come to the aid of an echo and made the stars shiver in sunlight,” or “what happened after the home of the troubled heart broke in two would also begin,” you think he can’t be serious; but of course he’s serious—he’s serious about being sentimental.
If the only choices are to believe the poet a callous cynic or a tear-jerked jerk, it’s difficult for the reader to trust his tone. Strand’s early books Reasons for Moving (1968) and Darker (1970) had a pitch-perfect sense of the difference between irritating drollery and dry humor (though even the humor seems a bit dated now). The poetry of his old age has wallowed in plush romanticism, elegiac and nostalgic and sometimes even moving. These new poems have the show-offy intelligence and devil-may-care graces of his early work but are hapless besides, with empty-headed titles (“Futility in Key West,” “Mystery and Solitude in Topeka,” “In the Grand Ballroom of the New Eternity”) purchased in a job lot from John Ashbery—Stevens no doubt deserves to have the stuffing knocked out of him, but in his day such titles took romanticism down a notch.
Strand’s roguish ideas start with pursed lips and a lifted eyebrow, yet even Shirley Temple couldn’t be satisfied with a poet so self-satisfied. A man takes a taxi with a prince he wishes to interview:
“I have no hobbies,” he explained. “My one interest is sex. It can be with a man or a woman, old or young, so long as it produces the desired result, which is to remind me of the odor of white truffles or the taste of candied violets in a floating island. Here, let me show you something.” When I saw it, saw how big it was, and what he’d done to it, I screamed and leaped from the moving cab.
Shades of Huysmans! Despite the slapstick ending, that Proustian perfume takes a long while to dissipate.
Too often Strand, such a natural flâneur, seems so confident in his indolent craft he can’t be bothered to give the poems an actual pulse. You wonder what might have happened had he found his gifts more resistant. Beneath the mugging sub-philosophy, the Zen koans for dummies, often with a dollop of mawkishness laid on, there’s a brooding, a detachment, a nascent melancholy just beyond the poems’ reach.
The brutish labors of Geoffrey Hill’s later books recall, not King Sisyphus condemned to working-class servitude, like Wilde at oakum-picking, but Giles Corey pressed to death during the witch trials, his last words “More weight! More weight!” Odi Barbare (Barbaric Odes) is a crabbed sequence of outbursts and meditations, fifty-two sections cast in Sapphic quatrains.2 These valedictions have the earned grace and over-earnest gravity of a poet long used to the edge of darkness.
It is not our
Time that bends so beautifully around things;
Sidney’s Sapphics are nimble and darting, Hill’s club-footed and leaden—and yet how lovely these sutured lines are, with their winking enjambment on “dying/ Time.” To announce at the outset that you are driven to “Measure loss re-cadencing Sidney’s sapphics/ Not as words fall but as they rise to meaning” suggests a problem of choreography—unless loss of grace is part of the punishment.
Hill has tortured his line to meet the meter (“ev’ry” is not the last concession), but the result is a syntax in which words seem to have been mislaid or marched off the premises.
Recognition turning upon cognition,
Bifold lamentation embarked on lamely.
The Leonati appear briefly and mutely in Cymbeline. It isn’t that the passage makes no sense; it’s that the sense requires a fair amount of spackling and makework. Faced with this poet’s more mulish allusions, a reader used to strolling through the stacks might once have felt prepared. Knowledge is no longer enough. What are we to make of the sentence “Nonsense too deep meaning a derogation”? Is the verb missing? Should there be a hyphen after “deep”—or a semi-colon? (Very Coleridgian, then.) Or should you just throw commas at the thing until you get “Nonsense, too deep, meaning a derogation”? Hill’s willful obscurity long ago became a niggardly revenge upon readers.
The poet’s recent books, those palimpsests of Masonic learning and arcane grievance (a palimpsest is twice lost), are like the carbonized scrolls of Herculaneum. You hope for a lost play by Aeschylus, but you’re more likely to get some minor rhetorician’s treatise on prepositions. To ask the reader to pore over words that yield so little is a convenient way to separate the sheepish from the goatish; but it beckons to Hill’s religiose masochism, his howls of pain, and the occult theocracy he seems to bar at the front door only to smuggle in the back. God, so Hill says, “Worries his self-satisfied bulk, the indis-/ Criminate vengeance of the Flood, and blithely/ Switches the Rainbow”—yet there’s more than a little of the bullying Jehovah in the poet.
Even to begin the long course of learning required here, the reader must be prepared to work up Carducci (the Italian poet who provides the title), Aula Regis, Abram Chaldee, hymns to Mathesis, clarimote, Rattus rattus, Quaderni, Igboland, Poggio, Didone trionfante, Ghelderode, Ensor, Shantineketan, spieltrieb, illth, Gwalia, Hendre Fechan, dyscracy, Nitro Glisserinski, and much else. (“Clarimote” so far defeats definition.) The poems make most headway against the barbaric, however, when most simple.
Mirrors fading where the bright-brutish roses
Still suffices language its constitution;
Here is my good voice; you may well remember
The language here takes its cue from cadence, pulling the sapphics through the line, supporting but enticing, eliding but forgiving. Passages freed from adamantine obduracy—that is, Hill’s Patent Cement—are rare. Meaning in this poem is fiercely guarded; but the text is not entirely resistant, and with patience some of the fog begins to clear. (You feel that Hill’s long ambition has been a poem that on first reading is perfectly impenetrable, a mirror of ignorance.) There is a difficulty in literature that is enlivening and ennobling—that of Moby-Dick or The Waste Land—and a difficulty that suffocates. Though Hill too often now succumbs to the latter, somehow, by fits and starts, his verse struggles toward clarity, freeing his words despite himself.
Hill makes the familiar obeisance to familiar themes, jawing on about our barbaric day, the old wounds of World Wars I (“Passchendaele’s chill mud at a gulp engorging/ Men and redhot rashers of sizzling metal”) and II (“I recall those fifty/ Spavined destroyers”), as well as the artists ruined by time (“Blazoned EP also sent in credentials”) or the survivors of time’s humiliations (“so maybe Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider/ Probably not Polish, not Rembrandt even”). This frustrating, bedeviling book, its lines too often hobbled, has the rare graces that make even a few lines by Hill a specific in a time bad for verse. If this is not a Paradiso, it is a Purgatorio in sight of an ending.
Vladimir Nabokov was a poet before he became a novelist. As with Joyce and Faulkner, the vices of his poetry became the virtues of prose. How fortunate the exile from poetry was: Had their reputations rested on verse, three of the great novelists of the twentieth century would have remained unknown. Nabokov was a young man when his family fled the Russian Revolution, and his poems often look back on the heritage and patrimony stolen from him. He was winningly modest about his verse, but his art was both conscious and compelled. Nabokov’s own selection, published in Poems and Problems (1970), has been supplemented in Selected Poems by two dozen or so poems from Russian previously untranslated and some uncollected poems in English.3 “Pale Fire” and other poems in his fiction have been excluded on unconvincing grounds.
The Russian poems have been rendered into a kind of mock Victorian by the novelist’s late son, Dmitri. What are we to make of stanzas like “Undisturbed the dragonflies hover,/ like diamonds sparkle their wings,/ encircled by snowy-white roses/ that follow the font as it sings” or “Across the basin’s water/ the magic flame will float;/ accoasts in rapid order/ the little nutshell boat”? Accoast, so far as I can discover, has not been much used since the day of Spenser. When the father writes a panegyric to Shakespeare (about whose identity Nabokov seems to have had doubts), the son can do no more than turn the lines into monstrosities like “Thus was enfolded/ your godlike thunder in a succinct cape” and “Reveal yourself, god of iambic thunder,/ you hundred-mouthed, unthinkably great bard!” The subject might be some Mitteleuropa dictator, the translation done by his worst enemy.
It’s no use suggesting that the sins of the son have been visited upon the father. Nabokov’s own translations are better, but not much better. A man may have many gifts, yet not the gift for poetry:
What bliss it is, in this world full of song,
The introduction by the Nabokov scholar Thomas Karshan makes heavy weather of Nabokov’s verse, which is just the wrong weather to make of it. The poems have a few virtues, but almost everything the novelist did in verse he could do far better in prose. The infant Nabokov read English before he read Russian (he was famously trilingual from childhood, speaking French as well); but if he had an English ear for prose, more or less, he had only a Russian ear for verse. His contributions to the New Yorker seem to have been written with clenched teeth (a bumbling, unfunny “ballad”; an ode to a model; a portrait of a literary dinner that turns into a cannibal feast) and were perhaps mistaken for being congruent with the then celebrated New Yorker wit.
The poems have aged badly, like the attitudes in them. A man finds himself in what he thinks must be heaven, where he meets a beautiful, naked little girl. The nymphet seems willing:
With a wild
Ah, those days when pedophilia was innocent. (The man’s in hell, of course.) This might be called porn for Victorian translators—it’s the sort of thing that used to be left in footnotes, and in Latin. I have forgotten to mention that in the middle of the vision the girl vanishes and the man complains that “obscenely bleating youngsters/ were staring at my pommeled lust.” Pommeled lust! You can’t get phrases like that at Wal-Mart.
I have never been a great fan of Nabokov’s fiction, which reads as if composed by an eighteenth-century automaton with only a flywheel for a heart. I make a partial exception for Lolita, but only partial—its set pieces are outrageous and surprisingly sad, but the deserts of prose between defeat me. (That the tale can no longer be read so blithely will remain as much of a problem as the use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn. We are no longer in a century when sex with twelve-year-olds is considered amusing. That does not mean that we stop reading, merely that there is resistance to overcome.) Nabokov was often afflicted with a hyper-aestheticism that makes his verse at times cold meats from Ronald Firbank’s table (the verse reveals the underbelly of Nabokov’s prose): the poems are fatty with words like “semi-pavonian,” “lyriform,” “macules,” “marron,” “cacodemons” and such, with lines like “she took me by my emberhead” or “They burn the likes of me for wizard wiles/ and as of poison in a hollow smaragd/ of my art die.” The problem is not that Nabokov the poet doesn’t write half so well as Nabokov the novelist; the problem is that he doesn’t write half so well as Lolita.
Many of the poems look back on that lost youth and childhood in Russia, where Nabokov’s family was wealthy and where at seventeen he inherited a riverside mansion and its estate. There’s an ode to the dead country, and a striking dream (not lost but spoiled in translation) in which the speaker is taken out to be executed but finds himself rapturous over flowers blooming in the death ravine. O Russia! The pains of exile come through, no less painful if sometimes ridiculed. Subjects make a personality, or a king—other poems consider Jesus; Joan of Arc; appearing in someone else’s snapshot; the discovery of a new butterfly (Nabokov’s papers on lepidoptera are now recognized as groundbreaking); and what becomes of an amateur naturalist in heaven, where there are no animals to describe, just angels.
It’s hard to be fair to Nabokov’s poetry, just as it would be hard to be fair to Marx’s, or the Queen of Sheba’s. They would be out of their depth—that is to say, into their shallowness. Nabokov worried that after death his books would vanish. In all the wretched verse dragged forth here from Russian emigré magazines of the twenties and rotting files of the New Yorker, there’s a single stanza that suggests the odd, cloistered magic of this author. A class of college students asks a visiting Russian poet, “Is your prosody like ours?” He answers:
The rhyme is the line’s birthday, as you know,
Though the English is no doubt a muffled version of the Russian, you hear the intelligence of aspect, the dark love of language, that Nabokov brought into exile. Selected Poems otherwise succeeds in a Nabokovian irony—by destroying the poet’s reputation completely. You can learn from Nabokov a hundred ways to write poetry badly, but not a single way of writing it well.
The critical reaction to The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, has been violent, silly, depressing, and symptomatic—and it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.4 A long head-shaking, well-mannered evisceration by Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books was followed by Dove’s cri de coeur in a letter to the editor. (Vendler had been chair of the jury that nominated Dove for the Pulitzer Prize a quarter-century ago.) This bewildering and myopic book is not an adequate portrait of American poetry of the late century. It might instead be called an expression of contemporary anxieties about poetry.
All anthologies suffer the prejudices of their making, just as period films filter past mores and manners through the bias of the present. In one recent blockbuster, World War II fighter pilots never smoked a cigarette—it was like watching a western where the cowboys always politely refuse a shot of whiskey. An editor afraid to challenge the hidebound notions of the day is not of much use.
Dove’s anthology superficially resembles many others in this crowded field. It starts with Edgar Lee Masters, continuing through the great modernists into the varied generations after, down to poets who have just turned forty. Yet how ghostly this vision of the great poets seems! Robert Frost is represented by five short poems and one longer; Stevens by the same number, none of any great length; Williams by four poems and an excerpt; Pound by “Mauberly,” three short poems, and a fragment from one Canto; Eliot by The Waste Land, “Prufrock,” and “Preludes”; and poor Marianne Moore only by “The Fish” and two of the many versions of “Poetry.” A college student would have little idea why these half-dozen poets have been the subject of continual study since they revolutionized American verse almost a century ago. Gwendolyn Brooks gets three times as much space as Moore; Melvin B. Tolson more space than Frost, Williams, or Pound; Robert Pinsky more than Stevens, Moore, Cummings, Crane, Auden, Roethke, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, or Lowell.
It would seem almost inarguable that an anthology ought to gather the best poems of the period, even if you have to include fifty poems by Frost before you even think of Angelina Weld Grimké. That’s the radical and austere aesthetic position; but even a mild version would separate more clearly the great from the not so great, and the not so great from the actively dull. Dove’s anthology is so inclusive you’re surprised everyone’s second cousin isn’t here. Yet among the poets missing from the first half of the century are Vachel Lindsay, Eleanor Wylie, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, Ogden Nash, Lorine Niedecker, Richard Eberhart, Robert Penn Warren, George Oppen, and J. V. Cunningham—and, later, Donald Justice, Louise Glück, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. I might have dumped a few of these myself; but it’s painful to find these poets missing and yet a horde of mediocre poets crowding the pages at the end of the book.
Dove’s rule is that poets had to live in America and write in English. She doesn’t set a term for residence, but presumably it had to be longer than a two-week vacation. Auden is in, meagerly, but not Joseph Brodsky; Paul Muldoon, but not Anne Carson. It’s to Dove’s credit that she presents poets often ignored because of race or gender—she’s far more generous to black poets than most anthologists, and among younger poets the minorities have almost become a majority (helped by the apparent die-off of white male poets some years ago). Even here Dove is not without editorial judgment—among the poets she leaves out are W. E. B. Du Bois, Sterling A. Brown, and Richard Wright. Younger black poets write so well, however (four Pulitzers in the past two-dozen years), that they do not need condescending favors; and white poets do not write so badly that they can be roundly ignored.
If some of this is due to “representation,” representation can be a very sharp knife. When sociology masquerades as aesthetics, your fairness seems immediately unfair to everyone left out (there’s a point where “balance” is prejudice by another name). The blogs have been alight with rage over the absence of Appalachian poets, disabled poets, cyber poets, performance poets, avant-gardists of every stripe, and many other groups implicitly maligned. Once you establish “representation” as a shibboleth, there’s no stopping. Pity the poets of Hoboken, who get nary a look-in here. Where are the transgender poets? Where have the fetishists gone? Is there even a single pre-pubertal poet? Ubi sunt the poets of the VFW, the afl-cio, and the Daughters of the American Revolution? No art is an equal-opportunity art. Talent is always asymmetrically distributed. It’s an injustice, to be sure, that most of the great modernists went to Harvard or the University of Pennsylvania, just as it’s an injustice that more presidents were born in Virginia than in any other state.
The anthology has learned little from the sins of anthologies past—it’s bottom-heavy with the poetry of our moment (ninety-nine poets born from 1868 to 1939; seventy-seven from 1940 to 1971). No anthology can dispassionately represent the present: the sensible anthologist would choose a dozen poets born from 1940 to 1955, half a dozen thereafter, and call it a day. Those would be his bet on the future—Dove has cast a massive seine and caught a lot of flotsam and jetsam. She has made matters worse by adding four poems by herself, when most of her contemporaries are limited to one or two. To think yourself twice as good as almost every poet of your generation suggests a species of self-delusion common in poets but rare in anthologists, because an anthologist without modesty can’t be taken seriously.
Dove’s problems were compounded by a quarrel over permissions. As the production deadline neared, negotiations between her publisher and HarperCollins broke down. Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and other poets were removed. Though somewhat coy in her introduction, Dove has been more forthcoming in interviews. Given the absence of a statement to the contrary, it seems that HarperCollins demanded permissions fees so out of line with those of other publishers that agreement became impossible (under the common “most favored nations” clause, if one publisher receives a higher fee, so must the others). Penguin chose to go forward without two poets crucial to any sense of the late century. There has been a howl over Howl, and accusations that Dove secretly loathes Sylvia Plath. Defending her decision not to abandon the project, Dove claims that these poets “are widely available . . . in your local public library”—but then why bother with the anthology at all? Just hammer a list to your front door and be done with it. Though Dove does not mention which contemporary poets were affected, the disagreement probably accounts for the absence of Louise Glück, among others.
To give an overview of the century’s American verse would have been a difficult task for a poet of critical sophistication, much less one who thinks in platitudes and writes in clichés. Dove’s introduction (which she also calls a foreword, apparently not knowing the difference) must have a place in any future anthology of stuffed-owl prose. She views American poetry as a pop-up book:
Open to the first page, and up would pop a forest: a triangle of birches labeled Robert Frost, a solitary Great Oak for Wallace Stevens, a patch of quirky sycamores tagged William Carlos Williams, and a Dutch Elm for Hart Crane, with a double lane of poplars for Elizabeth Bishop.
I understand the birches, but Stevens wrote no poem about a great oak (I know, I know—she’s being “metaphorical”). I’m sure the editor doesn’t mean to suggest that homosexuality is like Dutch Elm disease, but she might have chosen her symbols more carefully. We’re fortunate Williams isn’t represented by a heap of old wheelbarrows and Bishop by a barrel of dead fish.
Dove gushes with fresh-minted platitudes (“Every soup gets cold”) as well as fatuous bromides (the “past is never more truly the past than now”), her images rising from the charmingly wacky (the “brittle glee of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s flaring candle”) to the slightly deranged (“Berryman . . . could no longer resist the Grim Reaper he had carried inside for so long”). There are metaphors clumsy (“inserting special clumpings into the chronological mix”), and gruesome (the “last living witnesses were buried under the poet’s allegorical earth”), and sweetly surreal (an “attempt to corral poets into historical arenas”). Or just goofy drivel (“Terrance Hayes latched onto the thick coiled tubers of Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell”).
Then there are the literary judgments: Frost “produced a cadre of pieces geared toward dispensing wisdom.” Cummings “treated language as a malleable, evolving ectoplasm”; and Wallace Stevens’s poems, it’s important to know, “were unlike anyone else’s.” (Dove apparently believes he was married before he entered Harvard.) The woman in an Amy Lowell poem is a “dichotomy that presented a volatile package.” Does the editor really think that Pound’s “immersion in many traditions . . . perhaps later contributed to his mounting irrationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-American rants”? Can it be that “his argument, essentially, was that nothing—no thing—is absolute”? (If any poet believed in verities, it was Pound.) And was Eliot just a “sourpuss retreating behind the weathered marble of the Church”? (Eliot was the only true wit among the moderns, as his letters will eventually show.) These smug, idiotically phrased judgments—with their evolving ectoplasms, volatile-package-wielding dichotomies, Grim Reapers like a prize in a Cracker Jack box, and all the rest—wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman lit course.
What can you say when one of the most honored contemporary poets can’t write a sentence that sounds literate? All you can do is quote until you cry.
Artists shake off complacency to tackle the dreaded monster of mortality with an exalted sense of purpose and doom.
A pity that never occurred to Shakespeare. After we’re told that “several women breached the ramparts of male power and self-importance,” that “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a “take on haiku,” that Ginsberg’s “‘I’ opened the floodgates to a host of literary spin-offs,” that Kenneth Koch “led generations to the pools of creativity and bid them drink,” it’s hard not to get a little dizzy. Here, “introspective black poets . . . were swept under the steamroller”; there, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War “precipitated a social and interpretive sea change”; somewhere else, “America was licking its self-inflicted Vietnam War wounds.”
This cliché-addled, Time-magazine-style rush to literary judgment is dispiriting but hilarious. Matters are made no better by an alarming number of textual errors and the complete lack of notes in what seems meant as a college textbook. Dove has built a Temple of Mediocrity, scarcely glancing at the century’s best poets while lavishing space on the harmless, the hackneyed, the humdrum. The opportunity to provide an original and convincing vision of the last century has been squandered.
1 Almost Invisible, by Mark Strand; Knopf, 52 pages, $26.
2 Odi Barbare, Geoffrey Hill; Clutag Press, 60 pages, £15.
3 Selected Poems, by Vladimir Nabokov, ed. Thomas Karshan; Alfred A. Knopf, 240 pages, $30.
4 The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove.; Penguin, 599 pages, $40.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 June 2012, on page 67
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