BOOKS DECEMBER 9, 1978
Never have so many written with such technical skill: this remark, as often an expression of frustration and dismay as of admiration, has become a commonplace of poetry criticism in the 1970s. Never, of course, have so many written. And published. And competed for a lamentably small audience: there are perhaps more writers than readers of poetry at the present time.
In so diminished a sphere the consequences have been, and continue to be, predictable. A few—a very few—poets are singled out to be honored, and again honored, and still again honored; it is as if only three or four poets of distinction were among us. Reviewers and critics echo one another, proclaiming Lowell and Dickey and Bishop and, more recently, Ashbery, no matter that their work is quite simply not superior to much that is being written today. Their reputations have been generously inflated (Bishop's and Ashbery's in particular) while gifted contemporaries of theirs pass by in relative neglect. Poets are often criticized for being bitterly jealous of one another, yet how are they to react when the same names are mentioned constantly, the same people singled out for awards? And the irresponsibility of well-intentioned critics: acclaiming Robert Lowell's flaccid, self-indulgent Day By Day and James Dickey's sharply disappointing (and largely derivative) The Zodiac in the most influential journals. In James Atlas's disturbing biography Delmore Schwartz the point is made that Schwartz was called a genius before his talent had developed; and after his precocious success, as his ability to control his poetry (and his life) deteriorated, editors and critics were still saying much the same things—as if they were no longer troubling to really read his work. Strident claims, though made with the best good will, have the inevitable consequence of alienating the general reader. In recent years poetry criticism has acquired some of the self-referential, self-serving and vaporous quality of contemporary art criticism; to the average intelligent reader it is frankly unintelligible. Superlatives and disparagements could very easily be switched from poet to poet, and probably no one, not even the poet, would notice.
If poetry at the present time lacks a wider audience, however, one cannot really blame irresponsible critics; nor can one blame poetry for its willfulness, its intractability, for poetry has always been "difficult." In reading the books under review, and innumerable others, I am struck by a common element of technical accomplishment that is 'sophisticated'—in the best sense of that word—and also by an appeal, a raw and almost frightening appeal, that the reader share in the deepest, most private intimacies of the poet's soul. If prose fiction employs metaphors to present, and perhaps dilute, emotion, poetry speaks directly and frankly of emotion. All poetry is confessional. The poet's self speaks to the reader's self, and though they are often separated by history, geography, and gender, there is no mistaking the pang, the shock, of kinship. I think it is simply the case that most readers, seeking entertainment (and even among serious readers of prose fiction it is often a kind of superior entertainment that is sought), draw back in alarm and something approaching embarrassment from the kinds of emotions, and even from the kinds of ideas, presented by such powerful and unsettling poets as Adrienne Rich, Robert Phillips, David Ignatow, and a number of others writing today. One does not always want to be as moved as, say, the reader of Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language (Norton; $9.95) will be.
And then there is the uneasy relationship between technique and what we might call content. Lyric poetry at its least skillful dissolves into a frail structure upon which, as on a lightweight aluminum rack, fragments of someone's "world" or "experience" have been carelessly hung. Language becomes simply a means, a mechanism, of recording the poet's drifting thoughts; or the poet fashions himself into an eye, an ear, a consciousness undifferentiated and unwilling to judge or impose order upon the external world. In Sandra McPherson's The Year of Our Birth (The Ecco Press; $6.95) beautifully-rendered poems with the lucidity of parables are set beside too many poems that read like facile exercises—virtuoso demonstrations of "leaping" images that might be traced back to, but cannot be blamed upon, Robert Bly's almost too celebrated essay, "Leaping Poetry and Dragon Smoke" (first published in his magazine The Seventies, in Spring 1972). Surrealism, whether Spanish, French, or Midwestern always verges upon the sterile and flatly unconvincing—the poem is a machine (not as Valery spoke of it: a machine for producing a certain poetic state of mind by means of language) composed of technical skills, devoid of psychological or philosophical content. Though Rich, Phillips, Ignatow and Mary Oliver are wonderfully diverse in their voices, and there is no legitimate "common language" among them, they do share the ability, rare and undefinable and yet unmistakable, to fuse content and style; they have managed—who knows with what taxing labor?—to make technique serve art.
Adrienne Rich has published eight books of poetry before The Dream of a Common Language, including her Selected and New Poems 1950-1974: and the highly controversial Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. She is also the author of what must be a masterpiece in the art of the essay, and certainly one of the finest essays on Emily Dickinson, "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" (originally published in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 1977). Her early books—The Diamond Cutters, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law—were conspicuously written poems, elegantly crafted, bearing echoes of her elders' voices (elders who were all male) and exhibiting, rather like Sylvia Plath's Colossus poems, the passion of restraint, the beauty of a foot-binding era in poetry; they were certainly deserving of the praise they evoked from Auden and Jarrell and innumerable others.
Rich's more recent books, especially The Will to Change and Diving Into the Wreck (with that bewildering angry feminist outcry, "The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message") have been intensely personal, and intensely unsettling, expressions of many emotions—despair, rage, resignation, sensual fulfillment, joy. In "Transcendental Etude" (in the present volume) Rich speaks with contempt of virtuosity:
We aren't virtuosi
or child prodigies, there are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are—
even when all the texts describe it differently.
And we're not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
What makes a virtuoso?—Competitiveness.)
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
Rich's ambitions are many in The Dream of a Common Language, and it is ameasure of her visionary energies thatthe majority of the poems succeed sopowerfully. For her theme is not simplythat of a contemplation of "the truenature of poetry" (which she sees as thedrive to "connect," to find a commonground in our "acute particularity"—see"Origins and History of Consciousness");it is also a violent rejectionof the "patriarchal" culture and itsassessments of women. Rich is nottheatrical or self-pitying or coy; she issimply very angry. In one of the longerpoems, "Natural Resources," she saysbluntly: "I am tired of faintheartedness,/their having to be exceptional/ to do whatan ordinary woman/ does in the courseof things/ I am tired of women stoopingto half our height…." In an elegiacpoem to her sister, "Sibling Mysteries,"she speaks of her estrangement not onlyfrom her sister but from their mother aswell. The mother's flesh, the woman'sflesh, is "made taboo" to women, whoare delivered over to the masculinestate, to be the possessions and servantsof men. Remind me, Rich pleads, howbeneath
the strange male bodies
we sank in terror or in resignation
and how we taught them tenderness—
And how we ate and drank
their leavings, how we served them
in silence, how we told
among ourselves our secrets…
how we dwelt in two worlds
the daughters and the mothers
in the kingdom of the sons
The Twenty-One Love Poems at the heart of the book are sonnet-like meditations on Rich's love for another woman, which is bound up passionately with her acceptance of herself as a woman. "The rules break like a thermometer,/quicksilver spills across the charted systems,/we're out in a country that has no language/no laws" (XIII). She looks back upon an earlier self, a woman who cherished her suffering, now dead: "I am her descendant./I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me/but I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain" (VIII). All of the poems are about women, and usually about women as victims, but the love poems transcend a narrowly feminist bias by focusing upon the ineffable consequences of love itself. Quite simply, "The more I live the more 1 think/ two people together is a miracle." "Power," the first poem in the volume, is a meditation upon Marie Curie who, suffering from radiation sickness, refused to acknowledge the source of her agony. The analogy with the poet is a poignant one:
She died a famous woman
her wounds came from the
same source as her power
There are, of course, weaker poems; occasionally there is a strained, rather desperate tone to Rich's voice, as if she were seeking to convince herself. Feminism is far more than a political attitude, it is a religious commitment as well. One must occasionally overstate in order to believe—
Something that kills us or leaves us half-alive
is raging under the name of an "act of god"
in Chad, in Niger, in the Upper Volta—
yes, that male god that acts on us and on our children,
that male State that acts on us and on our children
till our brains are blunted by malnutrition….
Too often, as in the most strident poems of Diving into the Wreck, the human predicament itself—war, famine, loss, sorrow, aggression—is attributed to the "male god." Rich fantasizes in rhetoric that is not only unconvincing but unpoetic as well: "We shrink from touching/ our power/ … we're scared … / of what it could be to take and use our love,/ hose it on a city, on a world,/ to wield and guide its spray, destroying/ poisons, parasites, rats, viruses—/ like the terrible mothers we long and dread to be." Yet it is her belief that a "whole new poetry" will begin out of the recognition of sisterhood, and of the passionate love that only women can bear for women.
And here is Robert Phillips in his idiosyncratic, rather wildly inventive The Pregnant Man (Doubleday; $4.95)—by far the most imaginative of the books under review—speaking with a wry, sad humor of the sort of pregnancy a man must endure. "Afternoon in Public Landing" begins with the statement:
Being a man is harder
than being a woman, because
a man must deal with women.
A man is not the man he thinks
he is, only the man he is
in the eyes of a woman.
And in "The Tenant," in the fey disingenuous voice Phillips has mastered to disguise—but not entirely disguise—his genuine alarm and sorrow at the way love seems to have gone:
the world's largest foetus! See
the world's first pregnant man!
Every bite I eat nourishes you,
you funnel off every drink.
In"The Married Man," "The Cultivated Man" ("Come, we can dance in the furrows. We can hop/ like two rain toads. Hop is a word like Hope,/ only more immediate."), "The Invisible Man," and "Hand Poem" Phillips presents a compelling alternative vision to Rich's oppressive "male god"; feminists should read The Pregnant Man if for no other reason than to see, to be forced to see, that "feminine" sensitivity (and, indeed, suffering) is hardly the exclusive lot of women. In a fantasy, "The Skin Game," the poet acquires a wet-suit to protect him—"It's like zipping myself inside/ a deboned black man's hide./ It's being Huckleberry Finn/ inside strong Nigger Jim"—and in "The Stone Crab: A Love Poem," he establishes a rather frightful identity with a creature whose giant claw is broken from him to be eaten (the crab itself is thrown back into the sea so that he can grow another claw). How many losses can he endure?, Phillips inquires.
The first section of The Pregnant Man is called "Body Icons," and is prefaced by a statement by Dylan Thomas: "All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells, or senses." Phillips's poems on various body organs or bodily predicaments—poems on the skin, on the heart, on the head, the penis, the hand, the foot, and on the recurring metaphor of male pregnancy—are wittily accomplished, and might be misread as satirical verse just as Steinberg's art is often misread as cartoon art. Elsewhere in the volume Phillips is more conventionally "serious": his poems on Picasso, Giacometti, Burchfield ("God is what you find under a rock, God/ is the face of a hollyhock/in the late great paintings of Burchfield"), Carson McCullers, Delmore Schwartz, and Shirley Jackson are simply very good poems. The Pregnant Man seems a slimmer volume than it really is, perhaps because one wishes it longer.
Tread the Dark (Atlantic-Little Brown; $7.95), David Ignatow's 11th book, contains some of the best work of his that I have seen. Ignatow, like Rich, is contemptuous of "perfect form": in Poem 88 he mocks, in one of his few explicitly angry statements, the American poetry establishment which at one time made a virtue of well-groomed, fastidiously-wrought incapacity. It is hardly a revelation to say that Ignatow writes in the tradition of Whitman and Williams, and that he has developed a conversational, understated tone that would make a poem of his immediately recognizable anywhere. Yet in Tread the Dark, in the parable-like prose poems especially, there is a quizzical, highly intellectual consciousness at work, an intelligence that hides itself, paradoxically, behind what might be called the "simple speech" of everyday life. Ignatow's art isn't simple, however, any more than Williams's was. One encounters in their poetry the casual ease of common speech employed to record distinctly uncommon states of mind and the effect, when most successful, is far more striking than a well-wrought infinitely self-conscious poem of Wallace Stevens's. Whitman wrote very little about the act of writing; Williams is famous for his "no ideas but in things" though he does propound aesthetic theories in his poetry; but Ignatow's poems in Tread the Dark seem to be almost exclusively about poetry, even when they deal, metaphorically, with images far removed from the poetic consciousness. (What is the poet's mind, Ignatow wonders, that it "seeks to replace the real with its own version.")
Ignatow always reads like a confessional poet, which is one of the disguises he takes; he sounds defiantly personal, yet the reader comes away with almost no knowledge of his personal life. His vision is austere, as well as ironic and frequently self-deprecatory: you may think he is speaking of Ignatow, but how can he speak of Ignatow since his very identity is a mystery to him? There are many "I's" in Tread the Dark and they are all convincing. One contemplates suicide; another knows himself an "unfinished" human being; still another is perfectly at home in the world, knowing himself an "affectionate" man in love with the very contradictions that compose him. "Is identity necessary?" Ignatow asks in one of his enigmatic little prose poems ("Is There a Value to Life?").
Space doesn't allow me to quote as much from Tread the Dark as I would like. Several of the prose poems are perfect miniatures—"The Suicide," "I'm a Depressed Poem," Poem 59, "This False Desire," which speaks of the poet's temptation to become a "chanter of life, a bard who calls on others to live for the glory of living"—and the longer poems demand to be quoted in their entirety. Also, the book is constructed like a journal: one has the impression of reading the poet's thoughts as they move, and change, from day to day. Images of death, pain, and despair appear to be transformed gradually into images of acceptance, even pleasure, but the transformation is certainly not a mechanical one, and it is not without that quirky reasonableness in the face of the unbearable that is a characteristic of Ignatow's poetry.
Here is one for Robert Lowell:
I sit here thinking I should write,
in dread of stepping outside
the room to find nothing exists.
Here I can make something exist.
There I find myself non-existent
in doubt in empty space. Poem in hand
I can walk out of the room in safety.
I tack it upon a wall.
The emptiness gathers around it
and begins to read.
And "The Vase":
See how tall and straight I stand
with blossoms above me. Could anything
be more beautiful than I who am nothing
but an enclosure upon emptiness?
In Ignatow's world, as in Williams's, "to look for meaning is as foolish as to find it." Tread the Dark ends with a note of humility, reverence:
The trees are tall gods
commanding a view
of my study. I bow
my head over my typewriter
and start the ceremony
of a prayer
Mary Oliver's The Night Traveler (Bits Press; $2.00), published in chapbook form by a small press, is far more conventional in style and vision than the other books under review. Judging from the rhythms of "Blackleaf Swamp" ("I'm going to Blackleaf Swamp./ I'll be back tomorrow,/ Maybe.") she has read, and learned from, Frost; each of the 26 poems is carefully, beautifully, constructed around an image or event out of nature, or out of the poet's family life. The Night Traveler proposes that one lives in two worlds, that of the personal and familial, and that of the impersonal and inhuman. One is lonely in both. Relatives age, sink into senility, die; the "kingdom" of nature is finally inaccessible: "The dream of my life/ Is to lie down by a slow river/ And stare at the light in the trees—/ To learn something by being nothing/ A little while but the rich/ Lens of attention" but consciousness itself does not belong in such a world.
If Oliver's vision is more conventional than Adrienne Rich's, it is also, perhaps, more convincing. She sees the true "terror" of the country as nature's pitiless disregard for the individual, whether prey or predator; she cannot divide the world into victim and oppressor. "Beasts of all marvelous feature,/ Of vibrant hoof and wing,/ Watch the white hands of winter/ Undoing everything,/ And do not cry or argue./ The starvlings of the day/ Never dreamt of better./ Nibbling, they fall away" ("Winter in the Country"). And the poet takes her place in this unsentimental, unpoliticized world:
I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.
Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.
I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out
In the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn,
I have entered
The hen house.
Twenty-six meticulously and lovingly imagined poems: yet while our two or three "famous" poets can expect reviews everywhere, I rather doubt that the gifted Mary Oliver will be reviewed at all.
The Year of Our Birth is Sandra McPherson's third book. (The year happens to be 1943.) Her voice is cool, unhurried, precise, at times touchingly and bravely sardonic, as in "An Anonymous Pornographic Valentine" ("You were expecting something a little more sentimental perhaps?"). Behind the surface deftness, the oblique dream-like languorously "surreal" texture of the poems, there are a child's landscapes—visions of parents, the elderly, an open casket; there are quietly-expressed yearnings for "hometown streets" while the poet disciplines herself in the "imaginary." One of the finest poems, "Centerfold Reflected in a Jet Window" focuses upon the bizarre image of a naked woman "flying alongside the airplane" in which the poet rides, along with her daughter. (The man in the seat in front of her is reading a magazine.) Another powerful poem, "The Mouse," meditates upon "the small meats" of mice bodies and then makes the leap to the poet's mother, who has entered a hospital to die, "then didn't die and even began to eat." Coming home, she sees "the earth… strung and tied/ with cold-faded grass. Squirrels flock/ and smarten in the short sunlight./ The owl appears by day. She fears forgetting."
The Year of Our Birth is certainly a respectable collection, yet it falls short of expectations; other, earlier work of McPherson's is much more deeply felt, and there is a poem, "The Steps," in the current issue of Antaeus, that is better than most of the poems here. "Wearing White," for instance, is very nearly a parody of American surrealistic poetry (indeed, it sounds like James Dickey's cruel parody of Robert Bly): "The old dogged ways of writing poems/ cover with snow. Juncos, bodied like lynx tails,/ fly out of the empty prison." And on through images of taxidermy, a frozen wasp, maple trees, a pocket watch, the poet's white clothing, a seamstress with a headache, cold hands that must keep cold, "like milk." "The Gun Is Such a Horse" makes such "provocative" statements as "The gun is such a horse/ people are thrown around by it/ it eats carrots and sugarcane/ it has an iron shoe for defense and games…. / The gun is such a mosquito/ thin for any target" and so on, and so on. One can imagine a writing workshop inventing such a poem, each student contributing an unlikely metaphor. (Ironically, a poem about senility is quite successful because the associative method does suggest, and perhaps even imitate, the mind's "leaps" in such a state of reduced consciousness.)
Alfred Corn is another young poet (born in 1943) who has written promising work; his first book was All Roads at Once (1976). But A Call in the Midst of the Crowd (Viking; $8.95) is sharply disappointing. Its center is a very long poem about New York City that is not only unfortunately reminiscent of Williams's Paterson, but seems to possess no distinctive poetic voice of its own. So much of it is excerpts from other writers—among them Henry James, Hart Crane, Samuel Gompers, Tocqueville, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton—that it is hardly more than a sort of commonplace book; and not all of the excerpts are really very interesting. There are paragraphs about New York from the Encyclopedia Americana, a pedestrian guide to the "Empire State," an advertising brochure, threaded in with Corn's own extremely minimal thoughts on the subject: "The Hudson yields unpalatable eels/ And shad that some people fish for and eat./ Of the common animal species, many/ Live in the parks: frogs, a few fish,/ Earthworms, beetles, chipmunks, snakes." He tries to write about the bombing of historic Fraunces Tavern by a Puerto Rican nationalist group, in which four people were killed and 44 injured, but speaks stumblingly of "mangled/ Bodies; bloody rags; something smeared on the walls./ (This is too hot to handle, can't be done,/ Or done well.)." There are awkward figures of speech ("the grass by magic has/ Communicated a wet coolness/ To the seat of my pants"), and lapses of taste that are dreadful even if deliberate ("It seemed a certain stiffness/ Was de rigueur among the dead"). Robert Phillips can handle witty asides, puns that undercut a poem's seriousness or pretentiousness; but it is difficult to do this sort of thing gracefully, and Corn's talent seems to be for the purely lyric, the emotional. Indeed, he confesses that he has "moods—often mistaken for morals or philosophy."
From time to time personalities emerge in A Call in the Midst of the Crowd, but they are disappointingly anemic. The poet, evidently accompanied by another man, takes a ferry ride on a day that "prosiness feels right"; what might have been a poignant and dramatic poem if written by Adrienne Rich sinks into banalities as the issue of the men's relationship is raised, and feebly dropped: "By the way,"/ (We're climbing stairs), "what about Thanksgiving?"/ You don't know, no special plans." The poet wonders whether they are wasting time.
When lyric poetry is not imaginatively written its most fundamental (perhaps its basest) motive becomes painfully clear: it is a record of thinking and doing, a way of making the temporary appear to be permanent. But the desultory jottings of a diary cannot be transposed into poetry, especially when the poet's ostensible subject is so large as New York City, and his viewpoint fragmented and superficial. Other work of Corn's, though reminiscent of the brooding, meditative poetry of Stevens, Wilbur, and Nemerov, is at least more rigorously shaped and more deserving of the accolade art—if we mean by "art" that which can interest people beyond the artist and his intimate circle.
This article originally ran in the December 9, 1978, issue of the magazine.