When I was eight years old, and living with my grandmother near Miami, I received a copy of Walter Scott’s book-length poem Marmion for my birthday. Perhaps my grandmother, English-born and raised in Victorian times, remembered the custom she and her sisters had of reading poetry aloud on winter evenings in those distant days when poetry was written to give pleasure; perhaps she even hoped that the book would persuade me to introduce my scruffy pals to the joys of verse. Not likely: this wasn't a gift calculated to thrill a boy already addicted to the pleasures of snake- and turtle-hunting in the Everglades, and tactfully I shunted it to the side. One day not long after, however, perhaps disappointed in my quarry, I picked the book up and began to read, drawn initially by the old steel engravings and the strange ticklish scent of the stiffly glazed pages. To my own considerable surprise I was hooked like one of my own terrapins after a stanza or two and read the verse-saga through from beginning to end. The forceful rhythms of the lines held me at first as much as the stirring tale:
The guards their morrice-pikes advanced,
The trumpets flourished brave,
The cannon from the ramparts glanced,
And thundering welcome gave.
A blithe salute, in martial sort,
The minstrels well might sound,
For, as Lord Marmion crossed the court,
He scattered angels round.
Powerful stuff, this, for an eight-year-old (even now, I confess, quaint and outmoded though Scott’s manner may be, the verses can tingle my blood). For weeks I perched on our balcony in the blazing sun and declaimed whole stanzas to indifferent mockingbirds. I was drunk on the language which struck me then as valorous and charged in a way I couldn't comprehend. Tennyson, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shakespeare, and others, followed soon after, but I have never forgotten that first impression which Scott’s poem made on my childish sensibility. This experience was what I think of as my “Marmion moment,” and it doesn't matter that the poem which inspired it no longer seems to me especially good or even memorable. I was infected, deliciously so, by the poetry bug, and to this day I haven't recovered from its bite.
I mention this because I believe that it is from such early encounters with the magic of words that a sense not merely of the intoxicating effects of language but of the secret power of poetry itself takes root; and furthermore, that the encounter is replicated and repeated in a thousand different guises when we read poetry later in life. It is a sense of privileged intimacy, of delectable secrecy, which everyone who loves to read seeks to recover and prolong. In my own, no doubt partial, view, the experience occurs and recurs in its most concentrated form in the encounter with poetry.
Anyone who comes to love poetry from childhood as a pleasure in itself and who tries later, however hesitantly, to write it—who tries, that is, to recreate that pleasure in others which one received oneself as a reader—knows the strange almost trance-like sense of interior expansiveness which the effort can induce. How harsh then and unsettling the encounter with what is commonly called “the world of poetry” later proves to be! By “world of poetry” I mean the entire edifice of poetry as transaction: the magazines and publishing houses, the foundations, academies, and societies, the prizes and awards and fellowships, the workshops, the conferences, the colloquia, the cabals, and the covens. “The world of poetry is so tiny!” a distinguished editor once exclaimed to me. Not tiny enough, I thought. She meant, of course, that the networks, affiliations, lines of patronage, and so forth, were so closely and jealously monitored by those involved that the faintest ripple of repute in one corner would almost instantaneously produce a bulge of envy in another.
The institutions in North America that seek to sustain and promote poetry strive mainly to buoy up this factitious but not insignificant “world,” however tiny it might be. And the shadows that they cast, while ever lengthening, are neither healing nor apostolic but thin and chill. By this I do not mean that foundations such as the Guggenheim or prizes such as the Pulitzer or any of the sundry emoluments, accolades, or entitlements which they confer are intrinsically, or even wholly, malign; but rather, that they exist to serve poetry as a purely exterior endeavor. They exist principally not to encourage or inspire the composition of great poems but mainly, and unashamedly, to further careers. (I cannot think of a single example of a grant or an award or a prize leading to the creation of a poem, or book of poems, that promises to have lasting value.) There is of course nothing wrong with poetry as a career, except that it rarely has anything to do with poetry as such, in its innermost essence. Poetry that has a chance of lasting arises from a sense of vocation. While a genuine vocation may coincide with a career, and often has (think of Edna St. Vincent Millay or Elizabeth Bishop), it is something quite different from, and fundamentally incompatible with, that “world of poetry” which institutions sustain.
The continuing institutionalization of poetry in North America with its concomitant proliferation of writing workshops, professorial positions, validating agencies, and award-giving bodies, not to mention such pointless offices as that of Poet Laureate, has had a stultifying effect on the creation of good poetry over the last few decades that has often been noted, sometimes by poets themselves. This isn't very surprising. After all, if you're writing in the hope of winning an award, you are liable to tailor your composition to prevailing tastes. This may account at least in part for the weird sameness of tone of so many contemporary poems. If I had to choose a single term to characterize this tone, I would be compelled to identify earnestness as its overriding trait.
Earnestness is a splendid virtue; while essential to social workers and scoutmasters, it is, however, of limited value to poets who usually prove to be better writers when they are shifty, unscrupulous, and shamelessly insincere—in matters, that is, unconnected with their craft. Earnestness, by contrast, deadens; it homogenizes the sentiments; it may flirt with irony but never dangerously so; it subordinates magic to agenda; it seeks to please rather than to charm; it hankers after acceptance and respectability, however much it may squawk the opposite—and was any great or good poem ever truly respectable?
It would be easy enough to pack this essay with examples of earnestness in current American verse. When Marilyn Hacker, a fine translator and sometimes quite fine sonneteer, writes, “I need transmission fluid for the brain,” we are in the Land of Dreadful Earnestness. When the former Poet Laureate Robert Hass can begin a poem by writing
You think you've grown up in various ways
and then the elevator door opens and you're standing inside
reaming out your nose
we feel a clammy pall of sincerity settling over our hapless shoulders. Even though Hass wants to be coyly self-deprecating (”What, me, a laureate, picking his nose in public?”), the earnestness bores through. When I read this and similar stuff, I long for the frivolous days of Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker who were as adroit as they were malicious, and funny to boot. If I limit myself to a few such representative instances of poetic asininity, it is not solely to poke fun (though I see nothing wrong with that). Earnestness has other more damaging consequences—a vitiation of language, a renunciation of playfulness, a tinny solemnity—that do not bode well for the future of our verse. “Ogden, thou should’st be living at this hour!”
The Poet Laureateship of the United States —recently rechristened the Poet Laureate/ Consultant for some reason—represents earnestness incarnate. The pay is modest, the duties undefined; even so, there seems to be any number of eager aspirants to this quaintly archaic position, as if the official honor paid to poetry stood in inverse ratio to its actual importance in the world today. We might as well, I suppose, have an official lutenist while we're at it for all the significance poetry possesses for the “U.S. Congress (to whom the laureate is answerable).
Equally puzzling is the ambition recent poets laureate have nourished to evangelize poetry among the populace. With grim determination, like Nurse Ratchets killing with kindness, they have sought to spoon the tonic of poesy down the reluctant throats of the public. One of the kookiest proposals—surely this was not made seriously?—was to distribute collections of poetry to hotels and motels across the land in place of the good old Gideon Bibles. Another was to make books of poems available near the check-out counters of supermarkets and department stores. Now be honest: When faced with the choice between Rita Dove’s On the Bus with Rosa Parks or the latest issue of The Star with its screaming headline “Bat Child Found Living in Cave,” which would you go for?
At least in England, where the laureateship means something, the Queen provides the laureate with a goodly stock of wine once a year; a case of Jim Beam might do wonders for our own laureates, if only to loosen them up a bit. There is something inherently foolish about a kept bard; a court jester without the jokes (or the court). Of course, we cannot expect that our laureates will soon be penning triumphal odes on the entry of the U.S. Army into Baghdad; though minions of the Administration, they are more likely to be picketing their own offices. But couldn't they at least grind out a villanelle or two for the First Lady’s birthday or finesse a limerick for the Speaker of the House? Instead, our laureates seem bent on proving their entrepreneurship in the deluded hope of making poetry genuinely popular. Beyond the implausibility of this project, it strikes me as fundamentally misguided. I find myself, somewhat improbably, in agreement with the poet Richard Howard who noted in a talk, later published as “The Ghettoization of Poetry,” that the reading of poetry is essentially a private and intimate experience. Public events, such as the tiresome “Poetry Month” (April really is the cruellest month), offer little more than lip-service to an art that has no genuine significance in the lives of most Americans.
Given that we're stuck with this odd office, and now that the jocular Billy Collins has been succeeded by the lugubrious Louise Glück, perhaps a more radical approach is finally in order. How astonishing, and genuinely exemplary, it would be, for instance, if the poet laureate were to sit firmly in her office, sustained by her stipend and the uncountable resources of the Library of Congress, and—write poetry? Wouldn't one good poem, or even a single slim book of good poems resulting from a year of subsidized toil, make it all worthwhile and serve as a better example than the ponderous readings and twittering tea parties and marketing campaigns now so much in vogue?
Abizarre corollary of the laureateship is the delusional sense of self-importance the position appears to confer on certain of its occupiers, often long after they have left office. The former laureate Rita Dove offers a cautionary instance of this tendency. Originally a poet of modest promise, whose best collection is still probably Thomas and Beulah (1987), she now produces this kind of stuff:
Joe takes after Mama.
Joe’s Mr. Magoo.
dreaming, if he ever finds
a place where he can think,
he'd stop clowning
and drinking and then that wife
of his would quit
sending prayers through the chimney.
One consequence of her protracted laureateship has been Dove’s exalted view of herself as a “role model” for others. This is a responsibility she claims to take with the utmost earnestness. Thus, in an interview she gave in 2002 to one Earl G. Ingersoll, she remarked:
How does it feel to be a role model? That one’s difficult because I have to build in disclaimers about what people consider role models to be and how I define a role model. Newspapers don't want to hear it; but the fact is, I think one’s role models should be everyday people, the people you see living life minute-by-minute, because that’s how you live your life. You don't live your life in the limelight; you don't live your life in sound bites or a brief interview. But that’s what’s seen when you look at the role models kids have today.
These are reasonable comments but are belied by Dove’s incessant self-publicity. By her own relentless puffery, and that of others (Helen Vendler in particular), Rita Dove has been transmogrified into a kind of monstrous caricature of a poet. Like La Fontaine’s frog that longed to turn into an ox and ended up by exploding, Dove has been expanding relentlessly until she has reached the limits of what a single fragile human ego can possibly contain. The poetry in the meantime has ended up as the tinsel on the float. Sad to say, the whole ghastly process has been doggedly documented by her own husband, the obscure German novelist Fred Viebahn, who every year issues his notorious Dove-Viebahn Newsletter. “Fred’s Annual Letter,” as he fondly dubs it on the masthead, is one of those embarrassing circular letters self-infatuated families love to send out at Christmas to stupefied friends (”Estelle is starting harp lessons in the fall”), but it is, if I may say so, the Mother of all Holiday Letters.
A monument to what another of its ardent fans terms “gloating self-regard,” the newsletter, replete with publicity photos and side-bars, positively brims with braggadocio, not solely about Rita and Fred but about their strenuously over-achieving daughter, Aviva. Significantly, the many pages of self-praise never turn on poetry which is rarely mentioned except as the occasion for some accolade, however minor. Instead, the names of celebrities, or would-be ones, are dropped with dogged abandon, as when Rita is summoned—”yet again!”—to trip the cha-cha with “Bill” on the presidential patio. (”'Well,' a Washington establishment lady at the next table said to Rita with ill-concealed cattiness, 'I guess you must be somebody!'”For once the intrepid Fred fails to get her name. Quandoque bonus dormitat Viebahnus!) At the same time, no distinction is too trifling to escape mention. Thus, Rita is inducted into the American Academy of Achievement, whatever that is, or attends the “Poetry Africa” festival “in the province of KwaZulu-Natal on the Indian Ocean,” and still manages to fit in “a splendid Argentinean tango-paso doble combination at the local medal ball.” Wherever he travels, Fred is like a celebrity-seeking missile and rarely hits a name he cannot drop. Viebahn may know the German proverb Selbstlob stinkt (”Self-praise stinks”) but clearly he doesn't subscribe to it.
I'm all for poets tripping the light fantastic, even at the White House (and have been known to foot a mean cha-cha myself, albeit in less august surroundings), and I don't in the slightest begrudge this merry couple their social whirl. Nevertheless, the obsessive detail and wide distribution of the newsletter—it is sent not solely to family and friends but to literary magazines nationwide—say something alarming about what a very visible poet considers important in the end. How does this square with Dove’s commitment to poetry, to which she presumably still pays lip-service, and how can it be reconciled with her solemn sense of herself as a role model? I have a pretty good idea of what “the kids” for whom she professes such concern will think when they witness the disparity between her formal pronouncements and “Fred’s Annual Letter.” In the end, the newsletter is not merely a laughable if unwitting exposé of the perils of self-importance, it also illustrates, better than anything I could invent, that externalized, transactional “world of poetry” which is the diametric opposite of everything genuine that poetry, and an authentic life in poetry, stands for.
Herbert Morris is not, thank God, a celebrity; the dust jackets of his four books of poetry carry neither photo nor biography. Whether this is from modesty or reclusiveness I have no idea, and yet he is writing some of the best work to emerge in North America in recent decades. His most recent collection, What Was Lost (Counterpoint), contains fifteen poems, every one of which merits reading and re-reading. I have admired his work since Peru, his first book, appeared in 1983, and while not all his books are of equal strength, he remains one of the subtlest and most original of poets. Though he favors the dramatic or interior monologue, Morris is difficult to categorize. Eschewing rhyme and metaphor, his verse gives an unadorned impression; at the same time, it is musical and densely textured. His true Penelope, we might say, is Henry James, and, like James, he accumulates clauses within clauses, like some sly lasso virtuoso, to achieve his unusual effects, at once Ciceronian and Prufrockian. Overlapping repetitions, variations on phrases, spilling rivulets of hesitancy and asseveration, lend serpentine momentum to his lines. The result is a kind of verbal impasto which, fused with an uncanny ear for cadences, creates an incantatory, rather mesmerizing pattern.
In What Was Lost, there are at least two masterpieces, the opening poem, “House of Words,” in Henry James’s voice, and “To Baden,” a long, strange, hypnotic poem in thirty-eight strict five-line stanzas. The first of these traces what the speaker calls “intimations of extreme dislocation,” arising from a dreamed visit to James at Lamb House, his residence in Rye, by the “handsome, stylish” portrait photographer Alvin Landon Coburn (one of whose beautiful prints adorns the dust jacket). These intimations are of words not spoken or spoken wrongly, of gestures too ambiguous or hesitant, of vacillations and second-thoughts, of what-might-have-been or still-might-be, that whole restless penumbra of an exquisitely questioning and baffled consciousness which James himself was so skilled at adumbrating. The poem is full of what James termed “glimmerings,” as in the following passage:
I, who had always held himself apart,
had cause to hold himself apart, from crowds,
others en masse, I who had found himself
never less than reluctant to plunge in,
to brave the onslaught of that tide, that wave,
more than hesitant to immerse oneself
in currents likely to sweep one far out,
that turbulence which raged past one’s control,
that chaos from which there seems no way back;
I, finder of refuge, maker of refuge,
in words, whose life, indeed, was spun of words,
spun and respun, spun once more, then respun,
a life which has itself become a refuge
(words, in a world bordered by blood, on one side,
by the tumult of passion on the other;
the thinness, yes, the thinness of one’s life:
what has one built if not a house of words?;
what can one’s life have been said to have come to?).
Morris’s qualities cannot be captured in excerpts, but this one does at least demonstrate how accurately he catches James’s voice, as well as the cumulative force his variations weave. For all its understatement, the poem is piercing and vastly sad.
“To Baden” is quite another matter. In contradistinction to “House of Words” with its anguished, almost paralyzed meditation, this is a racehorse of a poem and never stops (Marmion certainly never hit these speeds). Drawn from a whimsical subject—the nineteenth-century aristocratic habit of sending servants out at night on horseback to bring back Spanischbrotli, a “butter-rich pastry,” from Baden—the poem proceeds at a breathless and terrifying gallop from start to finish. Here’s how it begins:
Into the dark to Baden, then, if need be,
now, or the moment just before, but hurry,
lest mood shift, need diminish, alteration
insinuate its presence, light change, time pass,
education, somewhere, at last, begin,
never looking back, never asking why—>
and to what avail, what, to look, to ask,
to know, or hope to know, initiate
an approach to some fixed, ultimate knowledge,
hard-won, if won at all, of what it was.
There is something at once ludicrous and desperate in this urge for pastry at midnight, but it gives the poem its compelling drive:
Marta, time, it is time, such longing flays us
as one cannot depict, and all for pastry;
but be warned, take fair caution: each step, misstep,
skirts disaster, ground shifts, the route meanders
footing turns treacherous, in due course, worse,
and the delicate, hand-turned crusts, their perfume
carrying through the depths of unmapped woods,
break at a touch, less than that, crumble, shatter.
Anyone who has ever yearned to live next to an all-night Konditerei will savor this poem which is, of course, about much more than Spanischbrotli, those “infinite kneadings, rich drenched butterings” (though, to Morris’s credit, it is very much about them too). The poem is about seizing an instant, or an impulse (already forever lost); it is about seizing life itself, at the apogee of its intensity, as opposed to “the long, slow settling in, the making do.”
Morris has the rare knack of making a tour de force such as “To Baden” more than a mere display of ingenuity; its absurd momentum grips us even as we acknowledge the absurdity, for it is the momentum of all our longings.
In his Poetics, Aristotle identified a gift for metaphor as the defining mark of a poet of genius. But metaphor demands a certain playfulness, and for the over-earnest, the ludic is a mode to be strenuously avoided. Nevertheless, when such figures do crop up in contemporary American poetry, they are often manhandled for lack of exactitude. A successful metaphor works or flops in accord with the precision of its affinity. This is not to invoke some hidebound set of rules. It’s simply how metaphor operates. Two entities are brought into unexpected but just collocation on the basis of a quality, hidden or unsuspected, which they share. When Shakespeare writes “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” we respond to it because of a hitherto unnoticed common element—the famous tertium quid, or “third thing” of the rhetoricians—between winter trees and devastated chapels; call it songlessness or what you will.
Of course, a metaphor may consciously subvert its purpose. When André Breton says of his wife (in “L'Union libre”)
Ma femme au sexe de placer et d'ornithorynque
(My wife with the sex of a vein of ore and a platypus)
we will not expect to find monotreme anatomy—or a gold mine—under Mme. Breton’s svelte Chanel tailleur. That is the point: The tertium quid has been deliberately abolished to confound and startle our expectations. Such effects once seemed daring but have by now (I hope) run their course.
What I have in mind is something different and which seems alarmingly like a tendency: The proliferation not simply of bad images but of pseudo-metaphors, metaphors that through carelessness or imprecision miss the mark. My card-file runneth over, but I have space for two examples of such misfired metaphor. The first is, again, by Robert Hass, whose debut collection, Field Guide, still in print and still much admired, has exerted considerable influence since its publication in 1973. In a poem to his wife from that collection, Hass attempts a rare apostrophe that strains to be at once earnest and erotic (a combination without a future, I'd say). He exclaims, “O spider cunt, O raw devourer!” Now the phrase “spider cunt” does have a certain phonic piquancy with that long i arrested abruptly by the blunt u of “cunt.” (We can ignore “O raw devourer” as a bit of sheer pubic persiflage.) But consider the comparison that is implicitly being made. Is there anything in common between a vagina and an arachnid? Eight legs? Multiple eyes? Are we witnessing here the rebirth of the long-discredited vagina dentata? Is his wife what the comic books call “a webslinger?” The verbal combination initially startles but ultimately fails because there is no affinity, however covert, between the two items brought into conjunction.
Another example of inaccuracy in metaphoric language occurs in the work of the much-ballyhooed Anne Carson, a poet whose figurative imprecision is virtually the signature of her work. Whenever I try out the “Larkin Test” on her admirers, I always receive the same response. (The Larkin Test refers to the occasion when Margaret Thatcher told Philip Larkin how much she admired his verse and he responded, “Can you quote three lines?” She couldn't, but then the Iron Lady had other things on her mind.) Two examples are regularly adduced to illustrate Carson’s lyric brilliance; one of these is the poem in which she repeats the word “river,” and nothing else, some fifteen times—at least that’s where I stopped counting—and the other is, without fail, “Praguing the eye.” The use of a proper name in a verbal mode is nothing new in English poetry, of course, but it still elicits a mild surprise. What though does the phrase mean? Does it refer to the golden towers of the Prague skyline and the fabled splendor of an ancient city which illumines the gaze? Could it allude to the ubiquitous air pollution of Prague that stings the eye of every visitor? The answer, I suspect, is that it refers to all of these and to none of them. It’s an ersatz metaphor without a third referent, not because the poet, in Surrealist fashion, wishes to jostle our expectations but, instead, because she means only to gauze them in shallow and gratuitous vagueness. It is both an ugly phrase to the ear and one that can denote anything you want while meaning nothing at all. When I asked a sophisticated friend what he made of it, he responded by asking, “What is progging?”
Earnestness can run amok at times and give way to zealotry. Poets Against the War (Thunder Mouth Press) may not be the worst collection of poems I have ever read—competitors abound—but it’s definitely a top contender. It is edited by Sam Hamill, the poet, publisher, and translator who was instrumental last year in torpedoing a White House symposium, sponsored by the First Lady, to which a sampling of American poets had been invited. Hamill declined his invitation, patterning himself on Robert Lowell who refused to attend a similar White House event during the Vietnam War. Hamill’s reasoning seems to have been that if he cannot hope to write like Robert Lowell, he can at least behave as badly. Lowell’s refusal took no great courage and Hamill’s took none. In a gratuitously churlish note he dedicates his anthology “For Laura Bush.”
The present confection is a perfect illustration of André Gide’s dictum that “it is with fine sentiments that bad literature is made.” The collection offers not a single worthwhile poem; the only poems that stick in the mind do so because they are too fatuous to forget. But this is not merely bad poetry. It is bad poetry that positively suppurates self-righteousness. Worse, it is a deeply dishonest book.
Hamill affects a specious populism in his selections. The bulk of the anthology consists of work by unknown poets from all regions of the country. Hamill tells us that his website was deluged with 13,000 poems from 11,000 poets (ghastly statistic: I didn't know there were that many poets in world history, let alone in the U.S.). Out of these he selected just under 200; nevertheless, as he assures us, “there are, no doubt, innumerable jewels still to be found in the vaults of poetsagainstthewar.org.” His reluctance to explore “the vaults” further is understandable, given what he has dragged out so far.
Each poet is furnished with a prefatory blurb indicating what part of America he or she hails from; the age of many is given, for reasons that escape me. Should we overlook the lame lines and spavined stanzas of Patricia Ikeda, forty-nine years old, and “a socially engaged Buddhist activist in the Bay Area” because she is over the hill? Or the appalling ear of William Irwin Thompson, a “semi-finalist for the National Book Award in 1972” (what is a “semi-finalist” anyway?), because he has reached the threshold of his dotage at sixty-seven? At least the seven-year-old second-grader Wilden McIntosh-Round can write a serviceable, if banal, declarative sentence: “Our earth was created for us to live in peace on,” but who would call it poetry?
There are plenty of well-known names too, most of whom contribute utterly egregious twaddle (and all of whom withhold their ages). Thus, Robert Bly writes:
We will have to call especially to reach
Our angels, who are hard of hearing.
I suspect that at Bly’s approach the “angels” switch off their hearing aids. Rita Dove treats us to lamely jogging doggerel: “One lay slathered in garlands, one left only a smear.” Tess Gallagher maunders on for three long pages, mostly about attending a parade when she was in pigtails, and offers this trenchant quibble:
What about a manual exhorting the patriotic
Duty of pushing doll buggies?
Even worse is Lucille Clifton, who can perpetrate the Technicolor lines:
Our ears bleed
Red white and blue
The level of passion in these poems is so low as to be insulting. There is a lot of rant but no real feeling here. Their words betray the poets; even the outrage is recycled, drawing on mildewed slogans tucked in some mental attic since Vietnam. If I were an Iraqi, I wouldn't be comforted by the poem by Pamela Hale, “35 years old” from Houston, that begins with less pathos than a Hallmark card:
I'm sorry that your mom was killed
When a missile struck your home.
The editor himself chimes in with “Sheepherder’s Coffee,” though what it has to do with the war eludes me (do we get coffee—or sheep—from Iraq?); one line stands out, because it manages to be both asinine and untrue in equal measure:
There are fewer names for coffee
Than for love.
Hamill provides an introduction that is nonpareil for sheer boastfulness. Thus, he writes that “never before in recorded history have so many poets spoken in a single chorus; never before has a single-theme anthology of this proportion been assembled.” It is daunting when you think about it: a chorus of 13,000 poets all chanting in unison. Shipped to Baghdad and set asinging, their combined verses would reduce the most hardened Baathist to gibbering capitulation.
Of course, such a book is all too easy to ridicule, but there is a deeper moral that I feel obliged to note, which is the patent dishonesty of the whole endeavor. Not once in this wretched assemblage is there any hint that Iraqi Kurds or Shi'ites or Chaldean Christians ever suffered the least harm under Saddam Hussein, nor is that brute once mentioned. But even Hamill cannot completely hide the truth. In the note to a poem by an Iraqi poet named Salam al-Asadi, who died in 1994, we are told that he was “an eyewitness to the bombing of his hometown in southern Iraq.” If Salam died in 1994, it must have been under the savage reprisals set loose by Saddam Hussein against the Shi'ites of the south, and the bombing he witnessed must have been at the hands of the regime. This is left unmentioned. It is misleading, if not downright mendacious, to oppose the war in Iraq without at least hinting that there may have been plausible and defensible reasons for it.
Lovers of verse at its worst, and whose grimed copies of The Stuffed Owl are collapsing at the seams, will find much to rejoice in here. If truth, in the old adage, is the first casualty of war, poetry, on the evidence of this farrago, must be the second.
Poets often complain that good critics of poetry are essential to the furtherance of good poetry but that nowadays such critics are dangerously rare, and the names of Randall Jarrell and R. P. Blackmur, among others, are usually invoked in this lament. I doubt the truth both of the proposition and of the supposed scarcity. Most of the outstanding critics we still read, from Aristotle and Longinus to Johnson, Hazlitt, Coleridge and the rest, have at best a retrospective value as arbiters; their marvelous prose is of course another matter. Their judgments on their contemporaries were often dead wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. And we do have brilliant critics at work today, such as Christopher Ricks or the indispensable poet and critic William Logan (who, of course, writes regularly for these pages). When poets utter this complaint, what they really mean is that there are no influential critics who support their work, and while this may be understandable, it is blinkered.
The problem that does arise, however, is not that we lack good critics but that we have a profusion of gatekeepers. The gatekeeper is not interested in winnowing out what is good from what is bad in contemporary poetry; the gatekeeper is at once a shill and a bouncer, admitting those he or she favors while excluding or ejecting others who can do nothing for the gatekeeper’s own interests.
Our two most prominent gatekeepers are Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, both of whom exercise their self-conferred prerogatives with freewheeling abandon. By dint of vociferous patronage and bullying admonishment, these two professors of literature, pontificating ex cathedra from Yale and Harvard, respectively, are reputed to “make or break” the reputations of aspiring poets. The fact that neither professor displays any notable fund of either taste or judgment whenever they stray from their well-demarcated areas of expertise apparently makes no difference to the influence they wield.
Bloom need not detain us unduly. When he is not churning out another fat door-stopper on some well-trodden topic, he is furiously composing blurbs for books by cronies and colleagues; in this compulsive endeavor he is rivaled only by Richard Howard, another blurboholic whose puffery at least has the virtue of being largely unintelligible and, so, harmless. There is also, I must admit, something faintly endearing in Bloom’s literary buffoonery; the same cannot be said, alas, of Professor Vendler, who brandishes her laurels, and her secateurs, with appalling earnestness.
No poet I have ever met takes Professor Vendler’s judgments seriously, but by the same token, no poet I know will venture to challenge her in print. The usual demurral I hear is that “she’s good on Shakespeare.” And it is true: Point her in the right direction, towards such established poets as Keats or Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens, and she does have, on occasion, interesting and perceptive comments; left to her own devices, however, she goes sadly, and often embarrassingly, astray. Her enthusiastic espousal of such nugatory poets as Rita Dove or Jorie Graham or August Kleinzahler—at best, poets of only passing interest; at worst, boring and unreadable—confounds even her most craven acolytes.
I never considered Professor Vendler’s opinions of any great moment, except as flagrant instances of the captious taste that reigns in the academy, until I read an article by Dinitia Smith in The New York Times of November 22, 1997, entitled “A Woman of Power in the Ivory Tower.” There I learned, for the first time, and to my considerable amazement, that other people heeded her pronouncements and, in fact, that poets in particular cowered before her like eunuchs at the court of some unstable potentate. After reading the article I began to notice that whenever Professor Vendler’s name came up in conversation with other poets, the chat grew conspicuously guarded; though all agreed, when pressed, that she was fundamentally clueless, not one would deliver an opinion that was not evasive in the end.
The most astonishing comment in the Times article came from a poet who wanted to say “something nice” about Professor Vendler but was fearful that she might misconstrue his praise and punish him for it later. A textual authority on Shakespeare’s Sonnets might misinterpret a word of praise? Extraordinary. Of course, this says more about the cowardice of poets than about Professor Vendler, and yet, how did such a grotesque state of affairs arise in the first place? Have our poets been reduced to the status of curs who flinch in anticipation of a blow? Even allowing for the sort of mischievous exaggeration that The New York Times, for all its own overweening earnestness, occasionally indulges in, the situation as described would be comical if it were not so pitiful.
Despite my early reading, I'm no Marmion “whose steady heart and eye/ Ne'er changed in worst extremity,” and so I won't risk incurring Professor Vendler’s ire by saying “something nice” about her critical endeavors. On matters relating to contemporary poetry, though I agree with some of her opinions and respect her passion in advancing them, I believe that she is more often wrong than not; this wouldn't matter much if she were not a gatekeeper of such influence. Like some self-elected dog-catcher she strews the tainted kibble of her patronage in every direction in the hope of luring new lap-dogs to her gilded kennels; never mind if they later turn out to be sidewalk terriers rather than pedigreed hounds, Professor Vendler will champion them at every show in town. And, to be honest, who wouldn't be tempted? Pulitzer Prizes, MacArthur Awards, tenured jobs at Harvard, fulsome reviews in widely read magazines—all these, if Dinitia Smith is to be believed, flow from her favor.
Of Jorie Graham, her most fervently championed protégé Vendler can write, with regard to such lank and gelatinous lines as the following,
the start of a story, the mind trying to fasten
and fasten, the mind feeling it like a sickness this wanting
to snag, catch hold, begin, the mind crawling out to the edge of the cliff
and feeling the body as if for the first time— how it cannot follow, cannot love.
”the dizzying extension of the mind, as it crawls out to the edge of the cliff of the conceptual, presses Graham to her long lines and to their 'outrides'—small piece-lines dropping down at the right margin of their precursor-line.” In my view, Graham long since fell over the edge of the cliff, but never mind; does this sentence say anything that can be meaningfully elucidated or even parsed? Again, from the same passage: “Graham redefines the human aim of verse as an earthly, terrain-oriented lateral search (which can reach even the epic dimensions of the Columbian voyage) rather than a vertical Signorelli-like descent into depth.” Come again? What is or could be a “terrain-oriented lateral search”? Is there any other kind of descent than “into depth”? Is Vendler writing about a poem or about spelunking? And earlier in the same volume (her 1995 study of Hopkins, Heaney, and Graham entitled The Breaking of Style), she confides that she found Graham’s early poems “so seductive that one’s heart, reproducing those poems, almost found a new way to beat,” a symptom that would send most of us to the nearest cardiac unit.
Well, leaving aside the pretentious and vapid prose and the misplaced praise, what is really wrong with all this? Though it may seem a volte-face, I would say, not much. Though I disagree with Vendler’s patronage of Graham and her other sycophants, though I wish she would lend her support to the many worthier poets who might benefit from it, I believe that she is doing exactly what she has been paid to do, that is, pressing her advocacy, with whatever means are at her disposal, to further what she so earnestly believes is good and castigate, with equal earnestness, what she thinks is bad. True, nothing is more galling or more redolent of injustice than to see the dimly gifted or the patently fraudulent hyped out of all proportion to their true merits, but this is how the “world of poetry” functions, after all; you or I, given her opportunities, would be tempted to do the same, though (we like to hope) with happier results.
The problem lies, alas, not with Professor Vendler or Professor Bloom or any other panjandrum of contemporary verse, nor does it lie, I believe, with a dearth of good critics, but rather, with poets themselves. “The fault, dear Brutus . . . “ Why do so few poets, and especially those with some reputation, shrink from speaking up? Why does no one (with the admirable exception of William Logan) challenge Professor Vendler and her cronies by rebutting their judgments and questioning their taste? Most urgently, why is there almost no critical discourse worthy of the name in the current “world of poetry?” In my exasperation I am forced back on Marmion (indulge me!):
Thus oft it haps, that when within
They shrink at sense of secret sin,
A feather daunts the brave;
A fool’s wild speech confounds the wise,
And proudest princes veil their eyes
Before their meanest slave.
There are, of course, poets whose work I admire as much as Professor Vendler does, and particularly, Seamus Heaney, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Charles Wright, to name but these. In fact, the Tennessee-born Charles Wright strikes me as one of the most original and profoundly impressive American poets now active. He is also one of the most ambitious, though his ambition is directed to the growing body of his work rather than to the ephemera drifting from the world of poetry. His Negative Blue (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000), which gathers up the last of his three sets of trilogies, composed over many years, does not constitute an epic—or if so, only in the sense that Hart Crane’s The Bridge is one—but is a persuasive sequence of lyrics in which all the finest qualities of a master poet are conspicuous: a gift for metaphor, an intense musicality, a sense of form uniquely his own, and a kind of unmistakable suavity of voice capable of evoking tenderness as well as rage, despair as well as a credible ecstasy.
Wright would be easy to parody, the sure sign of a strong style; there are far too many poems that bear titles such as “After Reading Chuang Tzu I Step out on the Veranda to Eat a Bowl of Weetabix and Contemplate Orion.” But this is a minor fault, if fault it is, as opposed to idiosyncracy. His is also a forcefully spiritual poetry in a very American mode; there is a constant awareness of the holy as manifested in the natural world (an awareness without any of the gush of such worshipful contemporaries of his as, say, Mary Oliver). Drawn by this mystical bent he often resorts to abstractions but these are always counterfoiled by the touched, the smelled, the seen, as well as nuanced by his wry sense of himself as an imperfect observer. Notice how in the first section of “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (from Black Zodiac of 1997) Wright begins with a grand abstraction which he then narrows relentlessly down to the tiniest actualities:
Time is the source of all good,
time the engenderer
Of entropy and decay,
Time the destroyer, our only-begetter and advocate.
For instance, my fingernail,
so pink, so amplified,
In the half-dark, for instance,
These force-fed dogwood blossoms, green-leafed, defused,
limp on their long branches.
St. Stone, say a little prayer for me,
grackles and jay in the black gum,
Drowse of the peony head,
Dandelion globes luminous in the last light, more work to be done.
But Wright can be quite directly religious in an uncommon way and some of his poems read like prayers—prayers mediated, it must be said, not only through Dante but through Montale and Paul Celan—as in his variation on the old Salve Regina in “Winter-Worship:”
Mother of Darkness, Our Lady,
Suffer our supplications,
our hurts come unto you.
Hear us from absence your dwelling place,
Whose ear we plead for.
End us our outstay.
Wright is also a sensible and edifying commenter on poetry, his own and that of others; from his interviews, moreover, it is clear that he is quite aware of what he himself is trying to accomplish, though, thankfully, not overly so. Hence he can remark, “Mostly, it has to do with the 'music' of poems, whatever that is. Everyone hears it differently, of course. I tend to work in stress groups. I am, like most people who write poems, inordinately fond of my own ear, and trust my ear maybe more than I should. As Woody Allen says, 'It’s my second favorite organ.' I'm a primitive poet, I think. I trust my ear, I trust my instincts.” Every practiced poet will recognize the truth of this; where the critic spots calculation and intentionality, always after the fact, the poet proceeds by instinct and by ear.
Though Wright is anything but a “confessional” poet, his poems constitute a kind of diary of his sensibility over a span of decades; the record is rarely self-indulgent, however, because each lyric in the several sequences is guided by a shaping will. All his poems, and not only the threefold trilogy that culminates in Negative Blue, possess a densely layered texture woven of the spontaneous and the recollected; if some, or even much, of it appears inconsequential—those small, personal, quotidian details of life as it is lived, day after day—the successive force of the ensemble has an irresistible power. It is the magical, in nature and in history, in words, in the individual consciousness, that Wright incessantly seeks and listens for, and it is astonishing how often he succeeds in summoning intimations of pure magic from the most improbable provocations, not only the “wonderful in the ordinary” (tired trope!), but the odd, unfolding wonder of being here and now, at this time and in this place, wherever it may be, Italy or the Appalachians or under the night sky of Charlottesville. “What I remember redeems me,” he writes, but also:
My life, like others' lives, has been circumscribed by stars.
O vaghe stelle dell'orso,
Beautiful stars of the Bear,
I took, one time, from a book.
Tonight, I take it again, that I, like Leopardi, might
One day immerse myself in its cold, Lethean shine.
In her earlier, longer version of “Poetry,” Marianne Moore wrote, “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” By “this fiddle” she meant all the trappings that surround the writing of verse, the hoopla as well as the exaggerated hush. Against this she invoked “the raw material of poetry in/ all its rawness” and “that which is on the other hand/ genuine.” Her own fastidious reluctance to publish, her drastic later revisions, her extreme scrupulosity with words, her fidelity to the factual, bear witness to the justice of her “perfect contempt” for poetry, a contempt which was her ultimate integrity. Such a posture with respect to what mattered most to her kept her sense of the genuine intact and alive, but it isn't a posture likely to bring down the usual rewards on its holder’s head from the various institutions that take an interest in poetry. I'd argue, however, that it is an essential posture. After all, it is from life that poetry draws its importance, and not the other way around, that is, from what Henry James once called “felt life,” and certainly not from workshops or MFA programs or foundations or academies, however useful these may be along the way.
When I read poems that move me by virtue of their authenticity of word and image and music, I'm not “transported to a better world,” but returned to this one with enhanced senses, to a world, that is, which is infinitely more particular, more specific, more once-and-for-all-time than my habitual world. I was lucky, I think, to experience it as a kid in however clumsy a form in the stanzas of Marmion, a poem I now find pretty much unreadable. What remained wasn't the shape or sound of the lines themselves but a sensation of unlimited and unanticipated possibility confined to a discrete but strangely malleable instant of time. To recover that instant—call it one of enchantment or imaginative liberation or sudden vision, whatever you will—is what counts for both the poet who writes and the lover of poetry who reads. “Et tout le reste est littérature,” as Verlaine said; or, in other words, the rest is pure gravy.