on 28 April 2013
Contemporary American poetry arose a half century ago out of the confluence of a number of social and literary trends. The first was the rise of the confessional school of poets, associated especially with Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman: poets who attempted to make poems out of their lives, frankly using their most intimate real life experiences as subject matter. At the same time, poetry rather suddenly went from being something which ordinary people at least occasionally would read - many old enough will remember a time when the typical household had at least a few poetry books around, even if they were old chestnuts like the Oxford Book of English Verse, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and The Complete Poems of Keats and Shelley - to something which virtually no one except poets, critics, and a few college students paid any attention to. Both as cause and effect of this disregard, poets quickly moved into the ivory tower, with the great majority of persons claiming the title poet actually making their living as academics. This migration of poets to the academy was simultaneous with the creative writing movement, in which professors believed any student could be taught to be a poet by being inculcated with the movement's trinity of principles - "Find Your Voice," "Show, Don't Tell," and "Write What You Know," and mastering a toolkit of specialized literary devices.
One of the most pernicious effects of these developments was the evolution of confessional poetry into poetry as therapy. Those original confessionalists were fine poets, but their successors adopted the same frankness without the same talent, learning, or discipline. The idea seems to have been, "Hey, those people wrote with agonized honesty about the most intimate experiences of their own lives and the result was good poetry, so if I write with agonized honesty about the most intimate experiences of my own life, it will be good poetry, right?" Today it's reached the point where the prevalent type of mainstream American poetry, almost the only one which is taken seriously any more, resembles a rambling transcript of what one might say to one's therapist. It's as if the only poetic persona now considered acceptable were that of St. Sebastian. And such deeply felt, courageously honest expression of course demands a moral exemption from criticism, literary or otherwise: this is my LIFE, this is my PAIN - how can you "not like it?"
It's against this background that one needs to understand why Stag's Leap has been greeted with near universal admiration. On its appearance, it was praised in terms gushing even for our notoriously adulatory poetry critics. Reviews from major magazines and literary web sites have described it as "moving," "insightful," "remarkable," and "breathtaking." Carol Ann Duffy, perhaps the most prominent current British poet, remarked on the "grace and gallantry" of a "world-class poet."
Stag's Leap immediately won the prestigious British T. S. Eliot poetry prize and now, more recently, the Pulitzer.
The book is indeed the summation of the creative writing poetry which has come to dominate contemporary verse- so it's not surprising that it's a summary of everything which is wrong, false, and disappointing about American poetry today. It's a landmark in what has to be one of the dreariest, most uninspired, and least creative (surely there has never been a less creative literary movement than Creative Writing) periods of poetry in history.
The cliché starts with the subject matter: family dysfunction, specifically divorce. This is certainly a legitimate subject for literature, but it's not a promising one - it's been done so many times lately that any book that wants to do it again should really do it differently than any other book has. This book doesn't. Cliché continues with the title, which like too many recent verse collections uses a coyly clever pun (Stag's Leap - the favorite wine of a couple - of whom the husband is the stag who "leaps" free by divorce - get it?) to place a friendly arm over the reader's shoulder: "I'm smart enough to make the pun, and you're smart enough to understand it, so off we go together!"
Opening the book, we find a series of poems each running, as most creative writing verse is supposed to, one or a little more than one standard poetry magazine page in length, divided, as so many creative writing poetry volumes nowadays are, into four or five high-level sections. On this solid basis of bromide is erected a superstructure of verse that chugs through a series of remarkably unappetizing vignettes of domestic discord.
As we read on, we find that tired old creative writing workshop gimmicks are rife. For instance, the contemporary obsession with line breaks becomes almost maniacal in such passages as:
Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I'm not
standing in its light. I want to ask my
almost-no-longer husband what it's like to not
I find this sort of thing as distracting and irritating as the sort of person? who in talking? to you puts a rising inflection? every few syllables? so it sounds? like they are always asking you questions?
As to the subject matter, the personal agonies of the speaker are, to be sure, presented with the painful honesty which is held nowadays to ensure poetic quality. I don't believe it ever does, but to say anything disapproving about such sincere disclosures of anguish would leave me open to the accusation of not being a warm, caring human being, a charge which I would find so woundingly hurtful that I feel I have no choice but passively to allow emotional honesty to fulfill its role of forestalling criticism, and be silent. About the style of this verse, however, I feel no such reticence.
For a book so widely praised for its poetical accomplishment, the verse here at points actually seems startlingly sloppy, factually, stylistically, and even grammatically. For instance, grammatically:
where what cannot
be seen is inferred by what the visible
This is simply bad English: you infer from; you imply by. The fact that these words are confused by many people doesn't make the confusion sound any less inept and vulgar in a supposedly serious piece of literature. Or, factually:
Meanwhile the planets
orbited each other, the morning and the evening came.
No doubt the morning and the evening came, but we may be sure the planets did not orbit each other.
Another standard creative writing gimmick used here, one seen regularly in recent academic poetry, is the sprinkling of deliberately obscure words: "stallor, tomentose, surcingle, ligate, latchet, slub ..." (this last, I'm afraid, being a term more likely to be familiar, to youthful readers at least, in its currency as an internet slang insult than in its formal meaning of a thick spot in yarn.) Another usage I had to blink at was:
... a flurry
of tears like a wirra of knives ...
Maybe there is more than one word wirra, but the only one I know is an old-fashioned Irish exclamation of woe which, while no doubt originally Irish, has for at least a century and a half been used in English almost exclusively in the popularized dialect of sentimental stereotyped Irish songs and novels, giving the word in English contexts an ineluctable connotation of "stage Irish:" to my ear, comparing tears to "a wirra of knives" sounds as bizarre as describing surprise as "a begorrah of eyebrows." For some reason, though, several reviewers have quoted the phrase admiringly as an example of bold poetic creativity. Well, there's no accounting for tastes.
There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with a poet using an obscure word, but it's a matter of why. So far as I can see, in these poems this eccentric diction rarely adds vividness to the images or depth to the connotations. But if a poem is going to send most of its readers off to the dictionary, it had better have a good reason for doing so. The only reason I can see for doing so in books like this is showing off: "See I'm a poet, so I'm using the FULL RESOURCES OF THE LANGUAGE!" (Professor, will these words be on the exam?)
More evidence of shallowness of technique is provided by the throwaway allusions scattered throughout the book. Literary allusions are supposed to give depth and resonance to a present work by invoking the light of tradition to cast multiple shadows from it. But the allusions in these poems seemed to me, like the obscure words, usually just there for the sake of show, or, like the punning title, to give the reader a chance to feel clever. They take the most famous bits of great works (presumably on the assumption that those are the only bits today's readers will know or remember) and simply paste them into the verse, without much attention being paid to whether the allusions really resonate in their context. For instance, in "Material Ode" (page 7, also may be viewable in the amazon preview), we have two allusions to the famous beginning lines of Vergil's Aeneid, "of arms and the man I sing," and one to the most famous lines penned by a woman novelist, Jane Eyre's, "Reader, I married him." But these quotes have only a vague relation to the situation in the poem: all right, the poem, like The Aeneid, sings of a man, but that's as far as it goes (except for a rather inept pun on "arms" as an embrace), and the poem, like the Jane Eyre quote, is about a marriage, but that's as far as that goes.
To give examples of how it could be done better, a poet who knew how to use allusion effectively could have brought in a different famous line from Vergil, copied later by Dante, "I recognize the tokens of the ancient flame," which would have connected the present situation with a classic story of an abandoned woman as well as setting up suggestions of working through a purgatorial emotional state, and maybe also ironically invoking an image of redemption through love. Or if such a poem wants to bring in a great woman novelist, the three syllables "badly done" would suggest to anyone familiar with Jane Austen's work a complex of reproach, regret, and emotional misstep which could resonate with the poem's situation. Such subtleties of allusion seem beyond this book. But given the current state of literacy in America, they would probably be beyond most of the book's audience too.
As another example of careless technique, consider the lines from "Years Later" (p. 85):
like the face of a creature looking out
from inside its Knox...
The problem here is that this statement is likely to be incomprehensible to anyone who hears it rather than reads it: is the creature somehow inside "knocks?" or inside the Latin word for night, "nox?" Relying on the capital letter to clarify a meaning (which is presumably "fortress") which wouldn't come across orally is technically careless. (Though as a matter of fact even with the capital letter the phrase is a little confusing: the first time I read it, I thought the creature was in a bowl of gelatin.) This may seem like a small point, but false notes in poetry are as egregious as they are in music, at least they are if the poetry is seriously trying to be any good.
Should anyone object that my comments are harsh, my defense is to point out that the reputation of a book which has won the accolades mentioned above will hardly be impaired by the opinion of a nobody like myself. But though my opinion may not be significant, I, like everyone, have a right to it, and my opinion is that this is a bad book, and that the fact that it's been received as such a good one is shocking and discouraging evidence of the abysmal state to which the professors have reduced both our poetry and our taste.