Fans of Bob Dylan found it impossible to understand why he would sing a duet with Johnny Cash, at least until they heard “Girl from the North Country.” I recall the kitchen where Nashville Skyline played almost half a century ago, but not who owned the house or even where it was—only that I’d hitchhiked there. That was the year Cash became best known for the chintzy novelty song “A Boy Named Sue.” Still, my ears perk up when “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” or “The Man Comes Around” crackles through my car radio. If there’s an American song book a century from now, they ought to be included.
Cash was a mythic figure in American folk culture long before he died in 2003. He was not the outlaw he pretended to be (he never spent longer than a night in jail), just a hard-working alcoholic country-singer who divorced, tried to commit suicide, and found religion. The movie script could have written itself.
Johnny Cash was a mythic figure in American folk culture long before he died.
Forever Words is part of a cache of lyrics discovered after Cash’s death at seventy-one, lyrics he never turned into songs. Like the bureau drawer of poems left by Emily Dickinson, his papers give a good name to the hoarding instinct. These scraps are no more “unknown poems” than the Man in Black’s grocery lists—they’re just lyrics without his whiskey-tinctured voice or whiskey-fueled guitar. The lightweight introduction provided by the editor, Paul Muldoon, enters with clichés and takes its bow in breathless awe. He’s aware how much of country derives from the Scotch-Irish folk songs of Appalachia and, to a lesser extent, Southern blues (gospel hymns go unmentioned). Cash borrowed the blues’s simplicity, often adding the nightmarish narrative of the border ballads, to make something as close to poetry as lyrics come.
The lights are on past midnite
The curtains closed all day
There’s trouble on the mountain
The valley people say.
Auden mastered that sense of foreboding in the Thirties, and the delicate play of antithesis would have pleased Pope. Or take this:
The war has come
And the growing is hard
The soil is tough
As our front yard.
How different the lyric would be had it ended “In our front yard,” merely pathetic rather than boastful, aggressive. Hard-bitten was the tone Cash aimed for—otherwise his lyrics overdosed on the rancid syrup that makes country difficult to take. He knew that real pathos comes tough. He wasn’t the kind of country singer who resorted to yodeling—except once, badly.
Lyrics without music are no better than dead trout mounted in some yahoo’s man cave. Cash might have felt the influence of tradition had he known nothing about it; but a man can’t write, “I need my biscuit buttered, Babe” or “Who’s gonna grease my skillet/ When you’re gone?” or “You’ve done every dirty thing/ That a woman shouldn’t do” without having the blues growling in his ear. The brutal, the unforgiving, the knife edge of misery—that was where Cash came into his own:
Job was a wealthy man
He had a lot of kids and a lot of land
He had cattle on a thousand hills
He lived every day to do God’s will
Satan came with the sons of men
The Lord said Satan where you been?
Facsimiles of a dozen manuscripts let the reader see Cash in the midst of revision—changing “mystic horseman” to “spirit rider”—but also show what appear to be frequent inaccuracies in the transcriptions. Muldoon admits having used numerous manuscripts to concoct a “finished” version. Lyrics are often fluid from performance to performance; but, much though I sympathize with the editor’s tinkering, there’s a lot of tinkering. A few questions remain. Why arrange the lyrics alphabetically by title when chronologically would have been more telling? Why, in “I’m Comin’, Honey,” does the editor expand “Tenn” to “Tennessee” but not “Penn” to “Pennsylvania,” which fairly wrecks the line’s rhythm and sense?
There aren’t more than three or four good songs here, alas; and too many lyrics collapse into gooey blather (“I would be gentle and I would never hurt you/ And God might send a moonbeam/ And lay us down to pleasant dreams”). Worse, the baldly autobiographic lyrics are excruciating (“I was born to sing/ But not to the wind and space/ But to people’s hearts/ And people’s ears”). Good song-writers don’t need to be considered poets—they’re walking the other side of the street. Words matter there, but they matter more with music.
This unnecessary book has no doubt been pitched as poetry because poetry is rarely so “relatable,” the saddest word in the language. Nick Carraway is relatable, but Gatsby a great novel because Gatsby is unknowable. Hamlet is not relatable. Achilles is not relatable. Sometimes we understand the plight of a character, sometimes the necessity of tragic action—but, if a character is no more than our mirror, there’s nothing left to know. Great fiction depends on the gap of the unknown—the characters we know best often serve as mere comedy. We know Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but we laugh at their deaths.
Good song-writers don’t need to be considered poets.
Adam Fitzgerald’s silly, gadabout poems manage to be demented and dorky at the same time. If there’s a notion that ties together all the foolery in George Washington, his second book, it’s the oppressive drivel of American life. “Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, and I’m sure Congress might yet adopt that as our new national motto.
The criticism of excess doesn’t demand excess, however—like the quote, it needs parsimony; but Fitzgerald’s idea of an argument is just to let her rip:
Pharaonic Tarheel Bobbysoxers
cannot undo solace that comes
alone in accusative plural.
Plywood dentures ungulate
trinal outliers. Oceanic
sensibilities edify and expunge
The title is “Big Data,” so the poem must be an example or just what happens when a tsunami of phenomena has no organizing principle. After sixty lines, either a lawsuit or suicide seems required.
Sometimes there’s an idea buried in the rubble. “Leaves of Grass” presents four slices of American life that read like mini-essays cobbled from Wikipedia: “The internet replaced stores owned by men in splotched overalls/ that once inspired Norman Rockwell,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was a 1939 Hollywood/ historical romance,” “Walt Whitman Shops formerly known as Walt Whitman Mall/ is a commercial center located in South Huntington, New York.” The younger poet’s numbed delivery could have been invented by Walmart for uplifting readings in the break room. He makes the mistake of quoting three lines of Whitman that have more life than the four pages of the poem.
Fitzgerald has a taste for the mangled or recycled touchstone: “sufficient/ unto no tomorrow,” “Linoleum not to be remembered if outlived,” or “I contain immortal lodgings,” respectively clumsy, lame, hilarious. His gift for rollicking humor is otherwise rarely in evidence. I thought his early poems showed promise, but not all promises are kept—or, to take a leaf, not all premises are swept, either. The most interesting poem here is the second titled “George Washington,” which comments in sly if slightly plodding fashion on the composition of the first. It’s a meta-poem, but when the meta-poem is more interesting than the poem, you wonder.
When he can’t get the point across about the inner despair of capitalism or the flummery of American culture, Fitzgerald resorts to shouting: “mt dew dank in the mouth/ deadly cockspaniel hedges/ trenchcoats ice cubes suck.” Here sentences and phrases have dissolved into word soup. The trouble with such poems is that the giggling behind the arras turns out to be so dull. When a poet writes lines like “I inject chlorine into my memory-parts with lady satisfaction” or “I short shrift on gummy rafts” or “Slimy stolid parts slither through your airy creases/ while your lemon skull ricochets alien brain patter,” perhaps it’s time to revive the stuffed owl anthology. If there’s anything here not in the Avant-Garde Playbook for 1922, I can’t find it.
Too much of George Washington is third-generation Ashbery—Ashbery the Inimitable, because you can’t fake a faker (a problem the older Ashbery knows too well).
How does one grow the cojones to celebrate a Fudgsicle?
I’ll tell you, and won’t begin by mentioning trellises forsooth.
The items on the register are mechanisms inscrutable, yes.
But they sway in the doubled-up air with a sense of lucidity,
A kind of gong affect that chiggers as it steamrolls forth.
This has all the Great Pretender’s mannerism and none of his lightness of touch. Fitzgerald isn’t the worst Ashbery imitator out there—and he’s a lot better than Conrad Aiken trying to do Eliot. Still, I wish this poet would spend more time trying to be himself.
“Gong affect” must be a mistake—I hope it’s a mistake—for “gong effect,” but there are other lines in this long and wearying book where English seems to go astray. Experimental poetry encourages all sorts of contortions of manner and meaning; but a poet who says, “fdr brandished a Brooks Brothers collared cape and/ fedora,” doesn’t know what “brandished” means. My favorite line comes from the biographical note, “Adam Fitzgerald is the previous author of The Late Parade.” Who the hell is the current one?
The occasional charm of The Late Parade, Fitzgerald’s first book, has been lost here in ideas old in the days of Thorstein Veblen. A death is sometimes mentioned; but it has been forcibly removed from the world of these poems, crowded out by all the dreck that takes the place of feeling. “I say a bunch of shit without thinking,” the poet says. It sounds like an indictment, but it’s the beginning and end of an ars poetica.
The After Party, Jana Prikryl’s canny, knowing first book, seems stateless at times, like a clutter of blue-ribbon translations. Poetry in which different manners clash is not necessarily a mish-mash. Early Eliot found style in mixed styles, as did early Pound (though much less successfully, since one of his manners was cod-medieval).
The density of intelligence in Prikryl is at war with the slackness of architecture, as if the perceptions had been caught on the fly, the poet a Nabokov with a giant butterfly net. (Was that a butterfly or a mot juste floating by?) Whatever the local delights and privileges, they’re diluted by the scattershot lines before or after.
The dwarf maple caught my attention
in an ominous way, its purple,
its deep purple leaves shredded gloves
that gesture “Don’t worry, don’t worry,”
among floating albino basketballs of hydrangea
among other things the people landscaped
like fake lashes.
The angular description of the opening, that hesitant stuttering over color and that not quite believable note of reassurance, is wrecked by the albino basketballs.
Prikryl can channel Paul Muldoon at the drop of a hat:
The city’s an amphora, broken-dishy.
The bits were nicked to model demolition.
Stacked and drowning, stacked and drowning.
The qui vive is the salt spray owning
knowing bunkers defunct since Vichy.
Still, such trivial party-pieces seem beside the point. Her sentences love to balance on tiptoe, the syntax uncoiling like rope; yet their devil-may-care self-indulgence has an inherent modesty, the high spirits never tipping into arrogance or self-regard:
It’s a costume drama of uncertain date; be not too dogmatic
in your visualization but do picture us
Prikryl’s stronger work benefits from focused, even slightly absurd ideas: a package tour with her thirty-two great-great-great-great-grandmothers, romance at the funeral of a young politician, a portrait of the women who distribute fluoride in grade schools. Marianne Moore had the same donation-box sense of what a poem might contain—Prikryl is not afraid of tearing up the rule book. They both possess a poet’s sine qua non, a way of seeing that peers beneath the skin.
Some poems in this grab-bag book are dull, some weightless as meringue, some cunningly original. The latter half is wasted on a loose sequence about a character named Mr. Dialect, who offers little challenge to Berryman’s Henry or Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito. Each mini-section is an island of sorts—perhaps the theme is exile, perhaps what it means to be Canadian. (Prikryl’s family escaped from Czechoslovakia when she was barely of school age.) The collection of jigsaw pieces turns into James’s loose, baggy monster; but the writing can be meticulous and thrilling: “Mr. Dialect pauses on a bluff/ twice pink in the spreading lakes,/ his suit bespoke/ and out of style”:
Compulsive translator, in time he’ll slip
the modesty that’s his;
reaches for effects.
And the other one
who is not upside down
in the lake, rippling,
with almost the same intensity
You know she’s been reading Stevens or Ransom, but not without deliberation or effect.
Prikryl knows to end a poem before she’s said everything.
Prikryl’s strength is putting mismatched parts together. She knows to end a poem before she’s said everything—she’s a specialist in cliffhangers, and even in the dithery pieces her last lines can bring you up short: “I don’t have anywhere/ to be except this unambiguous shore,” “Goodness that shows/ every sign of being also/ resourceful has always been so/ difficult to refuse,” “I was susceptible to the consolations/ of analogy,” “I have a perpetual feeling/ a lake ought not to be this size.” If too much of this book is insouciant, or fey, or simply irritating, if there’s a chilly affectlessness borrowed from Moore and Anne Carson (as if the sentences had been written on Mars), the best poems are intimate, sprightly, and darkly insinuating. This debut seems oddly mature and immature at once. That’s not the worst way for such a shifty and striking intelligence to begin.
Chatterton died at seventeen, Keats at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine. Now a poet may be called young until Social Security kicks in. When he dies in middle age, the Romantic mythos of the poetic life—
burning out with incandescent brilliance, major poems still unwritten—makes it difficult to see the poet plain. Larry Levis died of a heart attack in 1996, months before turning fifty. After his death, Philip Levine and David St. John edited a posthumous book of his poems, Elegy. St. John has now produced a second volume with poems left out or in one case presumed lost.
The Darkening Trapeze inherits the half-visionary, half-kooky flourishes that in the late Sixties and early Seventies defined American poetry. In Merwin, Bly, Kinnell, and James Wright, a deeper strain of imagism found literary form; but at this distance its bardic yawp looks closer to Carl Sandburg and Robinson Jeffers than to Whitman. (The “stones and bones” school was jocularly called “stoners and boners.”) Levis’s poems, though they caught the breeze of the Zeitgeist, were much toned-down versions, though he suffered from the melancholia of poets who overdose on Vallejo, Lorca, Neruda, and Rimbaud. He lived in a world too numinous with meaning:
Before all the trees became bibles,
The forests & fields were pure,
The river sometimes forgot
That it was only a river,
And the tiger sometimes felt
It stood for more than itself,
More than the zoo all around it,
And the stone wished to be more
Than another stone among stones
In a building no longer there,
In a building made of stones.
The trouble with such a poetic stance is that it doesn’t leave much room for anything else—every dead flower, every broken wine-glass, every passing cow must be given a coat of romantic varnish, the thicker the better. Every incident must be honeyed with regret—or, worse, remorse. The subject is the aftermath of a bombing; but we get no closer to terror in the next lines, “In the bomb-magnified quiet,/ Their flesh spilled out of their gowns.” The only horror lies in the preciousness of artistic detachment. The poem ends with a line indebted to Auden, but Auden wrote about war with a chilling moral savagery. With Levis, detachment seems the cocoon in which the poems have wrapped themselves.
Much of this uncollected work feeds on the sorrows of ordinary life, but the ordinary life is given a sugary glaze that makes it unbearable:
Who reads beside the faint hymn
Of seven flies clustering
Over her bowl of overcast
Soup gone cold by now?
Faint hymn of seven flies? Bowl of overcast soup? This is studied without being sad, saccharine where it might have been bitter. Levis’s poems are too often drenched in a morbid sentimentality that afflicts and flattens every contour of emotion. Only a reader with amd (Acute Mawkishness Deficiency) could be moved by one more lyric poem about the fellowship of alcohol, the glory of women, or the wretched despair of even the overpaid and overfed. The poems possess what he calls the “overcast melancholy of a cheap/ Utrillo print.” They have written their own epitaph.
I prefer the Levis who surprised himself, who could write a disturbing whimsy about Van Gogh’s ear or a slightly creepy erotic fantasy about Wallace Stevens and a manicurist:
she dusted his nails & blew
Hot little breaths on each one of them,
“So you wanna floor show with your manicure.”
The next time she undid a button on her blouse.
Levis could end a poem with a bizarrely cheerful shrug, “Well,/ It seemed quite funny to us at the time,” or “Chin up? Ready?” or “No? No hunh? No.” He could bring all the winsomeness to an abrupt halt: “She moves her hips forward until/ They touch the sink, withdraws them slowly, pushes them/ Close again. Some enchanted fuckin’ evening, she says.” The wryness succeeded where the manner did not. Unhappily, the breast-baring, the romantic guff, the shambling and monotonous talk usually got the better of him. Edward Hopper could have done the illustrations, but one Hopper is company and two is a crowd. With their free-floating lugubriousness, these are the poems young Werther might have written, though it’s surprising how rarely you find this tone among the true Romantics.
Detachment seems the cocoon in which the poems have wrapped themselves.
I knew Levis a little at Iowa, forty years ago. Stocky, a heavy smoker with wide-set eyes, he had a more than passing resemblance to Ernie Kovacs. His sad-sack manner belied a sardonic, dark intelligence—he moved in chiaroscuro with slothlike deliberation. The poems have been made no better by the hyperkinetic blurbs pasted to the book: “In poem after thrilling poem, Levis manifests . . . the pity and the penetration that made him of such consequence,” “The work of Larry Levis has steadily gathered a kind of literary cult,” “He was our Whitman for the late twentieth century.” The editor calls him “one of the truly major American poets of his time.” Levis has suffered what is not the worst memorial, to be overrated by his friends.
What scientist wouldn’t give his eye teeth for a longitudinal study of Sharon Olds’s sex life? Over the past four decades, her books have made a start; but in Odes she presents the forensic version, an encyclopedia of the body. After the odes to the clitoris, the penis, the condom, the tampon, to withered cleavage and menstrual blood, to the blow job and the douche bag, and of course to the vagina, there’s little left to the imagination.
We live in an age when Whitman’s paeans to the body electric would not raise an eyebrow, much less cost him his government job. Olds has long been praised for her unashamed nakedness, her unsparing examination of the body sexual. She has decorated her clean, prosaic line—the kind cats and dogs used to read—with the confetti of metaphor, like sequins on a mourning dress. Here’s the clitoris:
flower-girl basket of soft thorn
and petal, near the entry of the satin
column of the inner aisle;
scout in the wilderness; wild ear
which perks up; tender dowser, which points;
imp; shape-shifter; bench-pressing biceps of a
teeny goddess who is buff,
and so on. And on. Odes is as choked with metaphor as a Christmas goose with stuffing; but there’s a despairing emptiness to these endless Circean transformations, rarely the exaction or rightness images demand. Then there’s the Shirley Temple baby talk—here the “teeny goddess,” there the “teentsy hymens,” over yonder a “weentsy Minerva.” (Note to her publisher: please fire the copy editor who let “miniscule” slip by, twice—or is that Shirley Temple-ish, too?)
Too many of these odes remind me of eighth-grade health class, the overworked bespectacled teacher slamming her pointer into the blackboard, raising a cloud of chalk dust as she explains “vestibular bulb” and “alveolar valve,” “Malpighi’s layer” and “fimbrial fringe.” All appear in poems here, yet despite Olds’s suburban smugness and endless shopping lists of metaphor, the dark mysteries of sex are missing, along with any visceral sense of longing, compassion, compulsion, or lust. Some of her biology is bizarre or pre-adolescent—does she really believe her eggs had “teentsy hymens” in them?
The relentlessness of these poems could have been devastating or ennobling—instead, they’re just exhausting. For all their overeager metaphors and tabloid sensibility, with a how-to guide for good sex added, the poems seem to have been thrown together by a junior accountant. Then come the fantasies:
Once, in a dream, I wandered in one,
my oldest home, my hobo-sack home,
I underwater-breaststroked through
the dessert of it, like the inside
of a tongue, and light came through into the pink
male sewing reticule.
Olds is dreaming of her father’s balls. I like the primness of “male sewing reticule,” but isn’t her vision a bit too close to Raquel Welch floating through the arteries in Fantastic Voyage?
The poet doesn’t flinch from the effects of age; and many of these odes are odes to loss, especially loss of beauty: in addition to her withered cleavage (“the snakes,/ the ripples, the nest of nestlings’s necks!”), she writes to her wattles, her stretch marks, her hip replacement, and her cellulite. Olds is now seventy-four, but the geriatric poems are surprisingly girlish, and more than a little vengeful. How else explain, when she recalls her mother’s douche bag, “I’d been some kind of catsup Halloween/ costume in her, almost before I was/ bipedal”?
Olds is a poet of the shallows.
Olds has always been a confessional poet, specializing in confession lite. She’s not afraid of thoughts that might embarrass others, not afraid to mention the unmentionables; but Lowell revealed something crippled in the least gesture of expression, and Plath’s every metaphor was a quiet act of psychosis. Olds’s reports on her safari-park tour through the body have a monotonous sameness—knowledge of the mechanics is not the same as knowledge of self. Some poets are all surface, and some have depths where you never hit bottom. Olds is a poet of the shallows.
She has been doing this sort of thing a long time. The writing is as always professional, slightly aloof, antiseptic; but where it goes wrong it’s hilarious. Olds is addicted to ridiculous euphemism: blood becomes the “bright arterial/ ingredient,” the vagina variously the “nether pate,” the “nether face,” the “between-my-legs,” and “my/ there.” (How oddly prudish these seem.) Her metaphors at their worst are revved a little high—“each nipple . . . like a/ rose-red eraser come alive and starvacious,” (of her cleavage) “now my own declivity is/ arroyoing,” “blobulettes/ of fat,” “they creatored my spirit,” “he did not uncare for/ his eyes in me.” Then there’s the romantic gush hurled at the poor reader. After a good douche:
Lo!, you are
a night clearing, in which a fountain
of Aphrodite leaps up, and cascades
down, making her notes, her brine
sea chanty, her sparkling douche-bag song.
These odes would have benefited from an index, with entries like “blow job, Deep Throat technique for, 56”; and “mother, seeing pubic hair of, 62.” Very little of the outside world seeps in, except when the poet mentions ash trees, the baseball bats made from them—and then, in a dumbfounding non sequitur, the “ashes” of the dead at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The unfathomed neediness of these poems, their hunger never assuaged, makes it easy to mistake self-obsession for bravery, desperation for risk. “I love to be a little/ disgusting,” Olds declares, and it’s hard not to agree.
The market for devotional poets may be at an all-time low. Apart from Hopkins, in the past century or more the flares of Christianity have produced little devotional beyond Eliot’s devious religious poems and Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses,” written during his late access to faith. Devotion is not a mode harmonious with poetic scepticism—in the quarrel with the nature and conscription of the profane, there seems no room for theology.
George Herbert was reluctant to choose the religious vocation. At Cambridge, he was known as a wit with an unusually keen intellect. Izaac Walton, in his life of the poet, says that the Bishop of Winchester, the formidable Lancelot Andrewes, debated predestination with Herbert, receiving “some safe and useful aphorisms in a long letter written in Greek . . . so remarkable for the language and reason of it that after reading it, the Bishop put it into his bosom and did often show it to many scholars, . . . but did always return it back to the place where he first lodged it and continued it so near his heart till the last day of his life.” This was no mean compliment—Andrewes was one of the most brilliant men of the day.
Seemingly destined for great things, Herbert sought preferment at the court of James I. No doubt wit came at a premium there—and the poet loved fine clothes. He did not take holy orders until he was thirty-one. (Donne, whose career bears some relation, was not ordained until his early forties.) Herbert in time became rector of a small parish church at Lower Bemerton, near Salisbury. Gathering his poems shortly before his death (tuberculosis, thirty-nine), he called them “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could submit mine to the will of Jesus.” His sole volume of poetry, The Temple, was published posthumously.
100 Poems is part of a series presenting poets too little read, at least beyond the scattered works that have taken root in anthologies—like Herbert’s two shaped poems, “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.” He does not have the density, the erotic darkness, the impacted wordplay of Donne. Herbert worked a thinner vein, but with delicious wit and a delicacy that give domestic character to the privacies of seventeenth-century faith.
Herbert could rise to Donne’s manner when he wished:
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear.
Usually, however, he preferred to borrow images from the rural landscape or the flotsam and jetsam of the household: “We are the trees, whom shaking fastens more,/ While blustring windes destroy the wanton bowres”; “My thoughts are all a case of knives”; “Parrats may thank us, if they are not mute”; “we can go die as sleep . . . / Making our pillows either down, or dust.” In The Country Parson, his handbook for rural clergy, he advised taking spiritual lessons from everyday objects: “things of ordinary use are not only to serve in the way of drudgery, but to . . . serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.”
Herbert’s snapshots of private life are like Rembrandt’s little sketchbooks of the passing scene.
Though Herbert was a more restricted poet than Donne, he possessed greater sweetness of character. He was deeply conscientious as a rector, where his radiant humor must have been welcome. The conflicts of faith recorded in the poems may have come before ordination, as he claimed; but there’s no reason to think his faith was always easy. The poems are sometimes playful, and for that we sacrifice the violent dramatics and superb arrogance of Donne. Herbert’s snapshots of private life are like Rembrandt’s little sketchbooks of the passing scene.
The nimble Diver with his side
Cuts through the working waves, that he may fetch
His dearely-earned pearl, which God did hide
On purpose from the ventrous wretch;
That he might save his life, and also hers,
Who with excessive pride
Her own destruction and his danger wears.
Pearls then were still drawn from British waters.
The editor of this edition, Helen Wilcox, has unforgivably chosen to produce Herbert’s poems in old spelling and without notes. Spelling and meaning have changed enough in four centuries to make his poems a thicket of barbed wire. The casual reader is unlikely to know that “Ieat” is “jet”; “sent,” “scent”; “owes,” “owns”; “cares cops,” “care’s copse.” Herbert’s vocabulary is scarcely less obscure: “relishes” means “musical embellishments”; “curling,” “hairdressing”; “outlandish,” “foreign”; and “pull’st the rug,” “pulls the blanket over his head.” Old spelling is admirably stringent and pure, but as much practical help as a blindfold. (If you’re going to be pure, bring back the long s.) No one would think of presenting a popular edition of Shakespeare this way.
Herbert loved complex stanzas, varying line lengths, poems that rang virtuoso changes on form and expectation—some of his forms have never found a name. His sensibility was that of a man who likes to juggle chainsaws while doing crossword puzzles—the bravura display was almost his only vanity (there were those clothes at court), but his hard honesty makes human a style often crotchety and fidgety. The poet, all too aware of the brevity of life, seems grateful to be alive, grateful and good humored. “Let a bleak palenesse chalk the doore,” he wrote, “So all within be livelier then before.”
1 Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, by Johnny Cash, edited by Paul Muldoon; Blue Rider, 135 pages, $25.
2 George Washington, by Adam Fitzgerald; Liveright, 105 pages, $25.95.
3 The After Party, by Jana Prikryl; Tim Duggan, 112 pages, $15 (paper).
4 The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis; Graywolf, 104 pages, $16 (paper).
5 Odes, by Sharon Olds; Knopf, 113 pages, $26.95; $16.95 (paper).
6 100 Poems, by George Herbert , edited by Helen Wilcox; Cambridge University Press, 169 pages, $19.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4 , on page 81
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