On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly –Isms
A Double Dose Of Dismal Donny Dope!
or Carlton Fisk’s Baleful Influence On American Poetry Criticism
by Dan Schneider, 2/1/02
many of my essays I have lambasted both bad poetry & bad criticism
of poetry. My last target was the lightweight vapidity of Carolyn
Kizer’s essays. However, compared to my next target Ms. Kizer is a
genius of unrelenting depths. I have assailed this man’s atrocious
poetry before (click here to see how), so now I will turn to 2
books I have recently had the agony of reading. 1 is a collection of
incredibly vapid, droning, & styleless essays by him called Principal
Products of Portugal. The 2nd is a book of essays edited
by him called Claims for Poetry- it is a 500+ page atrocity that
reveals not only the man’s utter lack of editorial skill, his own
terrible prosifying, but the near total lack of intelligent thinking-
flat out thinking!- about poetry in this country
over the last few decades. The man is, of course, none other than the
comatose & depressingly depressed Donald Hall.
What is mindblowing about DH’s essays is that as dull, witless, lifeless, & totally noncreative his poems are, his prose is even worse- almost unreadable. This is not hyperbole. His topics for essays are bad, his approaches to them cookie-cutter, his conclusions (if any) totally expected. The fact that this man has withdrawn himself from Academia is perhaps the only wise choice he has made in his writing career. It limits the damage his abysmal mouthings can do to younger writers. That said there is really nothing to recommend either book. So, let’s roll up our sleeves & put this shit out of our misery as quickly as possible!
1st off, DH, despite his total lack of writing talent, has made a veritable career of carping about the decline of poetry, the decline of criticism, how there is no point in pursuing poetry unless 1 shoots for greatness- yes, DONALD (&^$#@*%#) HALL has uttered those sentiments!, & a general disgust with all things associated with contemporary poetry. He even gets a plaudit for occasionally citing himself as a prime example of what’s wrong with things literaria. However, that brief prescience is negated by his unrelenting boosterism of his dead doggerelist wife Jane Kenyon- oh well!
For those unfamiliar with DH, the best point of reference might be to compare this Dead White Male (DWM) with a Dead Black Female (DBF) he shares surprisingly alot with- of course, I mean the ubiquitous Oprah-fed Maya Angelou. An odd twosome, you cry? Not really- both are terrible poets- he dull & she dumb. Both are bad prose writers- he dull & she didactic. Both are oddly neglected by their 2 power structures which, while ensuring any drivel these separated at birth hacks produce finds a publisher, has gone out of its way to exclude both from many anthologies of contemporary verse. The reasons are different in each case. DH is excluded because he has never been a radical- poetically or personally; although he worships Thomas Hardy’s bad poetry- not for its failed experimentation but for its trite themes & clichéd word choices. Add to that that DH has never been seen (correctly) as someone who has contributed any ideas or work of import, the way a John Ashbery (rightly) or A.R. Ammons (wrongly) have been seen. Therefore he is at the bottom of both DWM power structure totems (the Academics & the Radicals)- & rarely makes their anthological cuts. Maya Angelou, similarly, is missing from many anthologies of women’s, black, & black women’s poetry anthologies. However, while some of the same reasons apply as in DH’s case (say, resentment from the Nikki Giovannis or Sonia Sanchezes), MA has another reason for her absence- it is well known that she charges outrageously exorbitant (no tautology) reprint fees for each of her poems- upwards of $10,000 per poem have been bandied about. Most anthologies would not pay that, even if they could, even if it were a great poem from a great poet, much less MA- & rightly so!
But, back to DH, & book #1. Let me set the noose firmly around DH’s nape by beginning with the back dust jacket’s blurbs- these, you will see, reveal far more about the state of contemporary literata than anything the essays do. Read these, read my translations of Academese, take an Alka-Seltzer, & continue:
“Principal Products of Portugal is a
vibrant testament to the substance of a writer’s experience….And
what [Hall] has done, and continues doing, enhances the life of his
readers.”- Robert Taylor, Boston Globe
***This is a generic blurb- the 1st part says something that applies to every aspect of every artist’s work- good or bad- so it is beyond question truthfully. The query is really how this dreck enhances anything?; but blurbs are not concerned with such. Part 2 is the ricochet from part 1 which is as descriptive as 1 of Ebert & Roper’s thumbs up for a film.
“Mr. Hall writes with grace and authority.”-
Brooke Allen, New York Times Book Review
***The importance of this blurb is from its source. The New York Times could say this is a pile of rhinoceros shit & it would still be used. The herd mentality of the public looks for where a comment comes from over what it says. The actual blurb is really just the 2nd ½ of blurb #1 without the 1st ½. But you can always count on the New York Times for in-depth analysis- eh?
“[Hall] is a modern Frost whose intelligence
can’t be hidden, no matter how simply he writes….These are essays of
beauty that light the dark recesses of the reader’s mind. Try him.
There’s no one better. You will come to cherish Hall’s art as we
do.”- John J. Daly, Sunday Republican
***Here we compare the writer spoken of to another much better writer simply because they have 1 fact in common (in this case both men resided in New Hampshire). Add to that the light/dark cliché motif & the absolutist declaration, & this blurb reeks. By the way, what writer ever tries to consciously hide their intelligence, & since when is Frost not modern? Bonus revelation- when writing is called simple 99% of the time that means dull, trite, & vapid.
“[A] wonderful book.”- Michael Dirda, Washington
Post Book World
***This is the literary equivalent of a film critic’s ‘A non-stop rollercoaster of a thrill ride!’ to describe an action film. What it really says is ‘I’ve seen this type of book before & cannot be bothered to read it- here’s your blurb, now leave me alone!’. Also, the source is important.
“These essays mark a life of pursuing particular
passions, and of sharing them.”- Martin E. Marty, Christian Century
***This blurb is just the 1st ½ of blurb #1 without the 2nd ½. See how easy it is to read between the lines?
sure you know that blurbing long ago became a place for literary head
jobs, & where clichés kill any attempt at insight or wit. Now,
let’s dig into the essays themselves. Warning sign # 1 flashes before
us with the very 1st paragraph in the book’s preface,
penned by DH himself:
‘With modesty’s familiar flamboyance, in a bravado of self-abnegation, in megalomaniacal diffidence, with exhibitionistic reticence- I call this collection Principal Products of Portugal: code for things miscellaneous, unrelated, boring, and probably educational. The title should please not only for its prodigious procession of p’s but for its metrical Longfellowship, bringing back memories of “This is the forest primeval, the mur-”- and rote recitation standing in the third grade doing the multiplication tables, 7s maybe, or maybe the principal products of Portugal.’
In this 1st paragraph we get, unwittingly, a concise distillation of everything wrong with the man’s prose. The 1st 4 nonsequiturs are designed to show off DH’s vocabulary (1), but more importantly his wit (2). It does neither as shorter, more colloquial words could be used to describe the writer’s presumed mood, not to mention that the chosen words are not particularly apt to have 1 run for a Webster’s- these words are merely long, not difficult nor deep. As for wit, the mere act of nonsequitur is meant to show this- that the words are clunky can even be argued as his playing the fool to his readership- ain’t he self-confident? Then we get the title- an old chestnut that needs no explanation; especially not to DH’s intended DWM audience. Yet, ever the pedant, DH needs to justify the already obvious title. We get the alliterative mention of the title in alliteration using the same letter- here is where DH fancies some schlemiel shouting ‘dazzling, brilliantly postmodern!’ in preparation to blurb DH’s next book. Then we get the coinage DH was probably waiting decades to set down on paper: Longfellowship- ah! as in Hank Longfellow! Then we get a quote from 1 of Hank’s classics, even if it is an example which undermines DH’s claim of meter! Then, we end with his use of the title’s phrase to explain itself! Breathe deeply, now, I promise this will not be 1 of my longer essays!
The 1st essay sees DH using Casey At The Bat as a metaphor for life. A bad poem which is a metaphor for a game constantly used as a metaphor for life. [see Costas, Bob: midgets you want to strangle!] This is DH at his contemplative best- truly. The 15 page essay on the poem’s provenance & travails could be summed up in its final paragraph which states exactly what I did 2 sentences ago. Witness:
‘We pretend to forgive failure; really we celebrate it. [Note the collectivization of opinion- critics always do this when thet are unsure of their posit but wanna make their readers feel uppity about challenging it!- DAN] Bonehead Merkle lives forever and Bill Mazerowski’s home run diminishes in memory. We fail, we all fail, we fail all our lives. The best hitters fail, two out of three at-bats. If from time to time we succeed, our success is only a prelude to further failure- and success’s light makes failure darker still. Triumph’s pleasures are intense but brief; failure remains with us forever, a featherbed, a mothering nurturing common humanity. With Casey we all strike out. Although Bill Buckner won a thousand games with his line drives and brilliant fielding, he will endure in our memories in the ninth inning of the sixth game of the World Series, one out to go, as the ball inexplicably, ineluctably, and eternally rolls between his legs.’
I am going to do MY readership a favor, here, & dissect this crap for the express purpose of winning enough of your confidence so that you will understand to trust my curt dismissals of most of the rest of this book. Believe me, these 2 paragraphs I’ve quoted thus far, ARE perfectly representative of the man’s prose horror. When someone has nothing to say there is an old but reliable trick- tautology. Say the same point over & over, word it slightly differently, & hope that no one notices- a bonus is if the repetition subliminally kiboshes the reader’s ability to discern the tautology. Notice that failure is regurged in 1 form or another about 15 times. The memory thema is repeated about 6 times. We get the light/dark axis, again! We then get ‘a mother nurturing’ when ‘mothering’ would have saved 2 words from usage. Add in the collectivization of thought….I can honestly say that the eternally cock-in-the-assed George Will (a political hack columnist of the Millennial years- for ye reading this in dusty archives!), another rawhide & leather fetishist, has written more movingly of America’s Pastime. No, Will has not written movingly at all- only in comparison to the mummified prose of DH.
The next piece is called ‘Trees’- no, not on Joyce Kilmer. The 1 good passage in the book is this- from midway in the 3½ page piece: ‘how in spring erectile buds engorge at the branches tip’. Not great prose, but even this triteness showing a hint of literary breath on the mirror is worth something- wanna bet Janey was wet reading it? Of course he continues into drone: ‘as evidential as snowdrops and greater in consequence, signal of the sun’s approach and the relenting year; how edges of pale green uncurl from the natal wrap, loosen, loom, and shake out tentative wild pennants of May- ’ It goes on for another 36 words & assorted punctuation, but you see the thing about gold & certain pond flowers never- let me stop. Henry Adams is next- note my kind omission of any comment; trust me. It is a 29 page essay. Next is a piece on therapeutic reading aloud. Trust me. We then get pieces on darkened parlors & graveyards. That a piece on Robert Francis follows is mere happenstance. Another inane plea for arts funding is summed up in the title: Art For Life For Art; or as DH cleverly tautologizes it in his penultimate paragraph: ‘Life is for art is for life.’ Put down that knife- NOW! The next piece is a clichéd title & sentiment: The Unsayable Said. The only thing of note is that he quotes from an uncredited Robert Creeley poem [The Rain]- ain’t it funny how often Minimalists are quoted?:
‘Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.
When we read these lines with the slow attention
we give Whitman or Hill, this rain sinks in.’
This selection & its commentary, especially, makes me dream of a Parris Island drill instructor, chanting, ‘Hmm, good- Feels good- A gimme some’ as he pistol whips a laggard. A 15 page essay on Andrew Marvell ends with this Shaker-of-Worlds: ‘Poetry’s thinking consoles us.’ Edwin Arlington Robinson is the next essay’s….trust me. A 21 page essay praises the poets born in the 1920s [Hall, Donald; American poetaster, b. 1928, d. ____]; is it too cruel to hope for an emergent past tense to enter all discussions of DH? Death & dread draw essays from DH- I will not elaborate. OK, I must- only because page 150 contains this gem of a paragraph- utterly void of irony:
‘Depressed over my probable brevity, I find my reading mocked by my own acquisitiveness. Part of my pleasure in reading has always been pride in accumulation. I read to use what I read, for understanding and for writing; take away that future use, and my reading mocks me: If I am not to live more than a wretched year or two- I think at a low point- what am I reading for? When I should be able to read for the joy of a book’s beauty, I cannot. For the first time in my life, reading depresses me; the old comforts fall away; I might as well feel miserable watching Vanna White spin a wheel.’ Let me show solidarity with DH’s reading by offering this bon mot: ‘Jane’s waiting!’ We get assorted pieces to fill out the book- a couple on Boston Celtics’ greats Bob Cousy & Red Auerbach- the only thing to say here, is that if these dull, insightless pieces were not bad enough, we again are pilloried with DH’s Boston Red Sox fandom. That this artistic failure worships pro sports’ most pathetic losers (sorry, but the Cubbies & Wrigley Field have a certain cuddliness about them) is not a coincidence. Know this, just as most of the nation outside of New England joys in every Red Sox failure, so too do I in the sundry ways DH’s writing dies. The Red Sox?- is there any other reason needed to mark this man’s life a total failure?
Yes. He decided to append an Afterword to the book. Damn him! These 2 snippets sum up DH’s failure. This from mid-Afterword: ‘Although my poems have become more inclusive in later years, still they seek intensity by diminishing qualification and reducing detail.
Certainly my poetry is harsher than my prose.’
He’s either senile or deluded. This is the book’s last sentence: ‘Fretted by anxiety and dread, I take comfort for a few hours a day in resuming old habits; I take sentences apart and put them together again.’ Has there ever been a more laconic or sonorous (read: BORING) poet or writer than DH? He truly is oblivious to the world as it is- there’s Donny’s world, & the world the rest of us know. Unfortunately, DH was paid to try to craft others’ view of this world. Let’s go from DH’s failed essays to his failed editorship.
Claims for Poetry is a university press book- released in 1982. This immediately means 2 things- on the pro side it means no blurbs. On the con side it means the publisher has turned over near full editorial control to the selected editor- this usually results in a god-awfully long book lacking any reasonable editorial pruning- sho’nuff this travesty clocks in at 502 pages. There are over 40 poets represented & about 60 essays. DWMs predominate (shocker, I know, especially from DH!), although some females & minorities have a say. A few are well-known essays: Bubby Bly’s ‘A Wrong Turning in American Poetry’, Robert Duncan’s ‘Ideas of the Meaning of Form’, Frank O’Hara’s ‘Personism: A Manifesto’, Ron Silliman’s ‘The New Sentence’, & William Stafford’s ‘A Way of Writing’. But none are really good, virtually all are too long, & DH copped out of ‘real editing’ by relying on virtually all re-published pieces; therefore he could retain the ‘integrity of the poet’s words’, & play mere anthologist. It also makes for an easy paycheck- give me a grab-bag of 120-150 poems, & despite the quality (or lack) I could craft a more interesting & dynamic BOOK (a real entity) than this alphabetized drone. That most of the poets are merely alibiing for their own work’s failure is a given. To save time, & you & I heartache (or headache), I will skim only the most egregious pieces, & focus on the lone pretty good essay & 2 essays by that old Black Dog of Bardism- Robert Bly- that are SO BAD that they are actually helpful for they point out exactly what NOT to do as a poet.
Before I hit those 2 poets let us go through the rest of the chaff- I will point out a bad point or quality by the writer & then explain what a good editor would have done. A.R. Ammons & Marvin Bell do the old Truman Capote quote about Mickey Spillane- they type some ideas but say nothing. Wendell Berry’s contribution is a proem- nice idea, but in need of trimming. Hayden Carruth is excerpted from a longer treatise- as usual, his self-indulgence is prolix & flat-out wrong & dull- trust me. Robert Creeley has several small pieces & an homage to- of course- the Beatniks. Thus far only Berry’s contribution would have been noteworthy, but for its form. Duncan’s famous piece probably also is worthy, if only for its influence, although it is massively afflicted with namedropping & bigwordthrowingarounding, while being short on any originality. Russell Edson & Tess Gallagher- trust me. Then we get a terribly thought out piece that unfortunately was big in the FemiNazi crowd: Sandra Gilbert’s ‘”My Name is Darkness”, The Poetry of Self-Definition’. This piece is so turgid, so larded with the usual suspects- Plath, Rich, Rukeyser, Wakoski, Sexton, etc.- & Gilbert’s heroine-worship, that it’s enough to cause someone less impervious than me to blush. Gilbert’s understanding of life & poetry is so dim, & her writing so generically juvenile that, despite its cultural place, no editor of intellect should have included it. & unlike Bly’s pieces, this piece is ‘so serious’ that she doesn’t make as big a horse’s ass of herself as he does, thereby making her piece worthy for the camp factor.
John Haines- pass. Then DH has 2 pieces- I will not make fun of them here- this is about his editing; however it does bespeak a certain hubris to include oneself in an anthology one is editing. Robert Hass- he has a nice smile, doesn’t he? Dick Higgins- who? Seriously, though, this is another essay (Seen, Heard, and Understood) that would make the cut- it’s little over 4 pages & runs over some tired themes about art in general. But it does make a few good points: 1) ‘The best of art (visual and plastic, I mean) is really about seeing, not about looking at. Music is about hearing, not about listening to….literature is about understanding, not about mere words….’, 2) ‘It’s only when you have real interplay between understanding and the mechanical means- words, grammar, heard and seen elements- that literature can begin.’, & the ending, 3) ‘Literature is the act of thought, call it the lowest common denominator or the highest acting principle: without it, the other arts are trivial.’ The rest of the piece’s flaws (mostly overstatement) are worth getting to that last point- a statement so bald that it’s no wonder it was written in 1972- now, Higgins would have his gonads bronzed & hanging above Nikki Giovanni’s mantel. His 2nd essay is more abstruse & derivative in its excuse-making for assorted –isms. John Hollander, Richard Hugo, David Ignatow, Donald Justice, X.J. Kennedy- repeat after me: ‘Dead----White----Males’. That’s all. Bliem Kern annoys with a bad concrete visual poem. After that we get another DWM- Galway Kinnell- oddly trying to be a Postmodern critic with ‘Poetry, Personality, and Death’- he elevates ‘truth’ as a standard- although he lacks the balls to say it- in fact, he lets Poetry’s Court Jester, Bly, act as his beard. Regarding poetic personae Kinnell says:
‘The problem is similar in James Dickey’s “The Firebombing”, the most famous persona poem of recent years [GK said this in 1971- today Dickey is barely recalled as a poet- mediocre at that!]. In his attack on the poem- an attack almost as famous as the poem- Robert Bly says:
If the anguish in this poem were real, we would feel terrible remorse as we read, we
would stop what we were doing, we would break the television set with an axe, we
would throw ourselves on the ground sobbing.’
That these idiotic sentiments come from Bly is bad enough, that DH lets GK get away with silent assent only shows that DH a) never really read the piece or b) doesn’t care if his essayists openly crib each others’ absurdities. The whole piece is laden with GK cribbing from poems & essays of others. Meta-criticism, you say? Bullshit!- laziness in thought & typing finger- on GK’s part! Ditto DH!
Richard Kostelanetz follows with another pretty well-known piece ‘Avant-Garde’- sort of a booyah to the spirit of the term. A problem arises for me in any comment I make because I have posted a piece by RK on Cosmoetica. If I damn it I’m being extra-critical to overcompensate to not appear an ass-kisser, if I don’t my tongue is brown, & if I come down in the middle I wimp out. A few months back I caught flak from Clayton Eshleman because I refused to review his book on Aimé Cesairé, as I could not escape the apparent taint of favoritism (or its opposite) after posting some of his work on Cosmoetica. I passed it on to Art Durkee (still waiting Arturo!). Would that more poets followed that example & flat out refuse to publish reviews of friends, lovers, students, or teachers, we might get some of the needed viciousness back in criticism. That said- I disagree strongly with some of his overblown assertions on the quality of some of his examples (in particular Dick Higgins’ Structure), & he delves into a lot of the pseudo-scientific realms (& nonsense) that bespeak the artist’s eternal envy of the ‘hard scientist’ (see any of the Frederick Turner essays on the Bylines pages), but he does cover a lot of ground & at 12 pages is a lot more concise than, say, Turner. I’m about 50-50 (sorry!) on what is said, but it is said pretty well; but more importantly- with unapologetic force- as he apparently took his end sentence to heart: ‘As Baudelaire said, the chief task of artistic genius is the invention of a paradigm.’ Oddly, this is a trait that only RK & Poetry’s Pagliacci- Robert ‘Weary Willie’ Bly- share, at least in this volume.
John Logan- pass. Then Audre Lorde debases poetry with her ridiculously PC essay ‘Poems are Not Luxuries’. Witness:
‘For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.’
DH, I know, disagrees with all of this- this tripe is not an art statement but a political screed. DH fears being called a racist or misogynist- I don’t. Here’s to Audre’s toasting marshmallows with Janey at that great campfire in the sky! Tom McGrath, Jackson Mac Low, W.S. Merwin- dull, duller, & pass the razor blades. Frank O’Hara’s humorous piece gets inclusion- it’s witty, brief, & well-known- if a bit pallid. Alicia Ostriker- this is my backhand. Backhand- this is Alicia Ostriker. Ron Padgett has 3 bad poems- go ahead, laugh. Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich- go ahead, vomit. Michael Ryan, Ron Silliman- was DH supposed to do ANY editing? Louis Simpson ballockses himself by 1st really ripping Confessionalists for self-indulgence, lack of objectivity, & lack of art, then turns around & rips James Merrill for the exact opposite & then unwittingly aligns himself with the Confessionalists he ripped:
‘When I was a young man I wrote a poem in which I said that poetry had made me “nearly poor”. I showed this to a friend, himself a writer, and he advised me to change “nearly poor” to “poor”- it would be more striking. I kept the line as it was, and never again did I pay attention to anything this critic had to say. A man who does not know the difference between being nearly poor and being poor, or who is willing to disregard it in order to make a better-sounding line, is not to be trusted. A man like that would say anything.’
That the last 2 sentences are the sine qua non of Confessionalism is manifest to you, me, & the pimple I just popped on my ass. That LS misses it, & no doubt DH does, well- folks- NEVER say I do not back up my arguments. I do not know if LS is still alive. I can only hope….you know what I mean.
W.D. Snodgrass essays tact & makes a very good point by quoting Randall Jarrell’s Holocaust poem ‘The Protocols’ & opines: ‘How many poets tried to write this poem and failed? How many could not resist saying that this is evil- that it is wrong to kill children. That it is not worth saying. If the reader doesn’t know that by now, there is no use your telling him.’
Yet, a few pages later WDS shows his stolidity by quoting from a Kenneth Rexroth poem (The Dragon and the Unicorn), & really fucks up:
‘Sitting there, reading this in your
Psychoanalysts’s waiting room,
Thirty-five years old, faintly
Perfumed, expensively dressed,
Sheer nylons strapped to freezing thighs,
Brain removed at Bennington
Or Sarah Lawrence,…
Think this is all just Art- contrast-
Naples- New York. It is not. Every time
You open your frigidaire
a dead Neapolitan baby
This is probably the most significant of ideas
for us- that our prosperity is based on the poverty, even the
starvation, of others....What does Rexroth offer in voice and
detail….? Only the most blatant hyperbole, whose purpose clearly is
not to introduce people to a reality they want to ignore, but rather to
impress upon them his moral superiority. This amounts to a spiritual act
of violence intended to dominate the reader and force his acceptance.’
This is almost as bad as Audre Lorde’s tripe! 1st off- hyperbole is blatant or it would NOT BE HYPERBOLE- it would just be bole! Without hyperbole tact does not exist. WDS misses this point. The assertion of moral superiority is not supported by the excerpt since it is so small- but if we grant that it is, & WDS is correct in nailing Rexroth for it, he commits the exact same SIN by calling Rexroth’s sin- hyperbolically- ‘a spiritual act of violence intended to dominate the reader and force his acceptance.’ But, given that Rexroth addresses someone in a shrink’s office, a female grad of chi-chi schooling, it’s hard to dismiss satire as a reason for writing- even granting that it was written by KR! But, the more important point, & why I quoted these 2 selections from WDS is this- there is no guiding dicta that he, or virtually any critic, follows. THIS is central to why criticism is so dismal. When good points are made they are the 10,000 Monkeys Syndrome, not the product of keenly focused minds that know what the fuck they are talking about! Proof is found a page later when WDS misinterprets Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’- trust me, not now! That DH does not, in his role as ‘editor’, feel fit to address some of these obvious screwjobs speaks for itself. Gary Snyder masturbates, William Stafford somnambulates, Mark Strand & Alice Walker say nothing of interest to anyone but themselves & their fingers on a lonely night, & Richard Wilbur- you know, trust me.
I promised, earlier, to address a good essay from Denise Levertov (say what?) & explain why, although his criticism is generally terrible, Robert Bly is invaluable to contemporary poetry as the poster boy for everything to avoid! 1st the good- DL actually has 3 pieces, only 1 worth anything- 1979’s ‘On The Function Of The Line’. Its being good stems from, in part, it’s the only essay that really addresses technical aspects of poetry with any intelligence. Given that DL’s poetry is rather banal & snooze-inducing, this is a nice surprise. DL goes on about enjambment & makes some really good points: 1) ‘Enjambment is useful in preventing the monotony of too many end-stopped lines in a metrical poem, but the desired variety can be attained by various other means in contemporary open forms; and to take away from the contemporary line its fractional pause….is to rob a precision tool of its principle use.’ An excellent point. 2) ‘One of the important virtues of comprehending the function of the line-break, that is, of the line itself, is that such comprehension, by no means causes poets to write like one another. It is a tool, not a style.’ A point so obvious that most poets miss it. Most free verse lacks both music & good enjambment- ask a poet why the line is broken there, & not 2 words back- & the noise you don’t hear will….well, you get it. & 3) the best point, which ends the essay: ‘Only if writers agree about the nature and function of this tool can readers fully cooperate, so that the poem shall have the fullest degree of autonomous life.’ Whether or not DL knew it, this cuts directly to the core of why most ‘jazz’ or ‘blues’ poems are ridiculously bad. A reader of the usual tercet form is stopping at each brief line’s end, & doubly stopping at each tercet’s stanza break, yet the poetry reader inevitably reads the ‘poem’ as prose. Only the early Quincy Troupe seemed to understand that ‘jazz’ poetry fundamentally is jazz ‘prosetry’. How this concise (6½ pages), utile essay actually slipped by DH’s gaze & was not cut only proves that those 10,000 Monkeys scored another one. But, now, let’s get on to what you know you’ve been waiting for! The essays of- that Harlequin of Hate, that Fool of Flippancy, your hero & mine- Robert Bly.
Bly’s 2 pieces are ‘A Wrong Turning in American Poetry’ from 1963, & ‘What the Image Can Do’ from 1981. In my earlier essay on Bly I ended all serious argument for the man’s import as a translator, & showed the manifest slide his poetry took following celebrity’s arc. Anyone who’s met the man knows he’s rude, arrogant, condescending, & closed-minded. What most don’t realize is that these negative qualities are SO EXTREME that they actually serve a VERY positive purpose: unlike the many bad poets in this book, who whimper their way to a point, so much so that you cannot recall what they are arguing- or which side, Bly’s internal scorn for the masses lends him to such blustery condescension that you remember almost all of the things he says. That almost all of it is easily demonstrably wrong is no matter, because discerning its stupidity is so easy that it’s the act of raising the point which has value. That Bly’s intellectual buffoonery entertains IS A PLUS!
The 1st essay’s ‘wrong turn’ is Bly’s deriding the High Modernist’s penchant for obscurity, & objectivity. Not a bad point to posit, nor area to stake out. Bly sees this as a rushing outward from the self- he believes in feelings- a ‘turning inward’. That this belief includes such a disparate & incompatible group as himself, Sylvia Plath, Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico Lorca, & W.B. Yeats- well, Bly’s never been big on details. Of the Moderns?: ‘It is first of all a poetry without spiritual life.’ Perhaps? But how does Bly support this? He quotes his translation of Juan Ramon Jimenez’s poem ‘Oceans’:
I have a feeling that my boat
Has struck, down there in the depths,
Against a great thing.
-Nothing happens? Or has everything happened
And are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
is renowned for raping translations of all music so this flat poem may
be Bly’s doing. But its content is abysmally trite & mundane. The
whole ‘episode’ has been said before- & better- count the clichés,
please. Yet, this is what the Dunce of the Deep Image longs for in
verse! Does DH call him on this? No. Yet, DH has often staked out his
opposition to Bly’s spiritual nonsense in interviews, essays, &
the like. Here is an example of Bly conflating metaphor with reality:
‘In the poems of Neruda, Vallejo, Jimenez, Machado, Rilke, the poem
is an extension of the substance of the man, no different from his skin
or his hands. The substance of the man who wrote the poem reaches far
out into the darkness and the poem is his whole body, seeing with his
ears and his fingers and his hair.’ But he’s allowed hyperbole,
no? Sure, except Bly IS NOT being hyperbolic- he believes this inanity.
But even were he being hyperbolic he’s flat-out wrong- 1 need only
re-read Levertov’s common sensible points to see Bly’s folly. A last
point is, even were Bly 100% intellectually correct- WHY does he rely on
such dull, clichéd writing to make his point- c’mon, I mean, ‘the
substance of the man’, ‘reaches far out’, ‘into the darkness’,
the whole synaesthesia trope. Oy! Where was DH the editor? Stroking
himself with the memory of Carlton Fisk’s home run that won Game 6 of
the ’75 Series?
Bly also falls into the trap of poor selection. He quotes an Antonio Machado poem because its import is that ‘the ‘I’ is the poet.’:
the door sill of a dream they called my name…
It was the good voice, the voice I loved so much.
-Listen. Will you go with me to visit the soul?
A soft stroke reached up to my heart.
you always…And in my dream I walked
Down a long and solitary corridor,
Aware of the touching of the pure robe,
And the soft beating of blood in the hand that loved me.
are not told if this poem has a title, nor if the ellipses are part of
the poem or Bly omissions. 2) Machado is not nearly as bad a poet as
this selection shows- so why use it? 3) 15 year old girls who dream of
lovers-to-be write these types of poems- except better! COUNT THE
FUCKING CLICHÉS, DIPSHIT! 4) Carlton Fisk, again? The only thing worse
than selecting a bad poem to quote from is selecting 2, comparing them,
or making an inapt comparison of 2 poems that have no connection in any
way- or 3! Here:
‘And Jarrell, for example, opens a poem:
One looks from the train
Almost as one looked as a child. In the sunlight
What I see still seems to me plain.
is almost no contrast inside the line. A poet who has higher standards
in language can put together inside a line words that have different
natures- like strange animals together in a wood. Mallarmé uses this
kind of contrast as a foundation for his poems. Awareness of the
different kinds of fur that words have is instantly apparent in
The horses will live in the saloons
And the enraged ants
Will throw themselves on the yellow skies that
have taken refuge in the eyes of cows.
Compare this with a typical stanza of ours:
Youth comes to jingle nickels and crack wise;
The baseball scores are his, the magazines
Devoted to lust, the jazz, the Coca-Cola,
The lending library of love’s latest.
Karl Shapiro, “The Drug Store”
In Shapiro’s stanza all the words have the
same spirit: gray.’
Bly then digresses abruptly. He is obviously utterly oblivious to the fact that the 3 quotes all have differing intent & none is bad writing- Jarrell’s opening seems to be the start of a meditation, whereas Lorca’s quote (an opening, ending, mid-stanza- what?) is an obvious attempt at Surrealism, & an interesting image. But the best line quoted is Shapiro’s last- & why does Bly refuse to give the names of the poems he quotes so often? Does he fear a discerning reader will see how obviously wrong he is, & how poor his selections are? Probably. But look at his reasoning. Jarrell is bad because there is no ‘contrast’ in a line- why would a probable meditation need 1? Not that it need NOT have 1- but since he’s pointing this out as a flaw he has to back it up- he doesn’t. Lorca has contrast in his selection- but even with its brevity we can see different aims for the 2 pieces. & just how is the Shapiro quote gray? Again, Bly need not bother with the details- who are YOU to question his judgment? &, in all of this, where is DH?- Carlton Fisk.
Perhaps the nadir of Bly’s 'instructive stupidity' is this contrast:
‘Here is an entire poem [Unnamed!- Dan] by Juan Ramon Jimenez which has an inner intensity.
Running mad through the pure night!
And here are lines in which the intensity is all
on the surface:
Would you perhaps consent to be
The very rack and crucifix of winter, winter’s wild
Knife-edged, continuing and unreleasing
Intent and stripping, ice-caressing wind?
Delmore Schwartz, “Will You Perhaps”’
assume naming the poem quoted from by only an occasional American is
what amounts to a Blyvian diss. Now, Schwartz’s lines are not
particularly good, but compared to Jimenez (& unlike Machado, he IS
that bad!) they are fabulous. Reread the Jimenez- 3 lines, 9 words, 12
syllables, 44 letters- & 4 FUCKING clichés! If you don’t
see that, please, call up Bly & ask how long the waiting list is to
get in line to his daisy chain of acolytes! DH?- Carlton ‘Fuckin'’
Bly ends his terrible essay with this laughable contradiction of everything he’s spent 20 pages droning on: ‘Inward poetry deepens all life around it. Other poets have given their countries this gift. If we fail in this, of what use is our life? As Lorca says, life is not a dream.’ But, Bubby, what in life is more inward than dream? & you spend this essay damning poets who deal with the ‘machinery’ of living- no contradiction. No- but only if you’re willing to believe Bly already went senile by age 37.
His 2nd essay is not nearly as ponderous as his more famous piece, but 18 years had no intellectual effect on Bly: ‘I like intelligence when it debates, expansively, both sides of a question in the meditative or discursive poem, and I also like intelligence when it appears, concentratedly, in the image.’ Recall the shiver of intellect you got reading ‘Music-/Naked Woman/Running mad through the pure night!’? Save for droning on, again, on his narrow ideas of imagery & its ‘depth’, this essay has no other purpose than the drone.
But enough of Bly, this essay is about DH's bad criticism, & his Carlton Fisking of his editorial duties. Let’s wrap this up by reiterating that Bly, at least, is so bad a critic of poetry, & so strident in it, that he forces most intelligent discerners of verse to see the truth in the opposite of his claims. This is a good- although unintended. What good, however is served by the terrible critical writing we have seen from DH? I say none. What good is served by DH’s even worse ability to corral others’ bad criticisms into an even readable ‘book’?- by that I mean something that flows & is not just a hodgepodge for a paycheck (the only possible good- for DH, at least- 1 can posit?). Absolutely none.
DH serves no real purpose in American letters, save perhaps as an example of all that’s wrong with contemporary poetical Academia; even more so than his noted bung-buddy from Minnesota, because at least excess can move people! Well, perhaps I am now engaging in excess- if Bly is Poetry’s Court Jester then DH is, by extension, Poetry’s….um, er, hmm….Poetry’s- uh….Ah! Donald Hall is Poetry’s Pizza Boy: generic, servile, beaten-down, & whose irresponsible inability to deal with life makes all his deliveries late & cold. I only ask you, dear reader, don’t tip the bum! %#*!~+%$@ Carlton Fisk!
Bonus Donny Diss!:
an interview with Martin Lammon (Kestral, 1993)
poets don't revise enough. Most poems that I see--in the mail and in
print--have not been gone over thoroughly enough, and include dead
metaphors and redundancies and other errors that ought to expose
themselves to the inquiring or depressive intellect. I've said it
before: You should stare at a poem long enough so that you have one
hundred reasons for using every comma, one hundred reasons for every
linebreak, one hundred reasons for every and and or. Reasons include
rhythm, the emphasis that rhythm bestows, consonants and vowels, and the
mouth-joy or dance-movement that enforces a line or activates the
metaphorical workings of the brain. Reasons can be visual, how the poem
looks on the page; reasons can be semantic or formal or the two
together. The point is: Try to be every bit as conscious as you can
possibly be. And all the time you have to know: As conscious as you are,
you cannot know everything. If you are lucky, something good may happen
in your poem of which you are not aware.’
to read me vivisect DH’s most notorious bad poem. Then re-read this
incredible statement. He is truly psychotic- he has lost touch with
reality. Oh, Jane!]
interview with David McDonald (American Poetry Review, 2002)
‘DH: As you know, I am
bored by being interviewed! I don't mean that you are boring, but the
form is boring . . . I say no to many requests....As I get older, I
think I become more and more naked....Because Without was
constructed out of wild loss and screaming, and because I knew it had to
be made into art if it were to reach anyone else, I felt more than ever
that I needed the help of others. I was systematic about it. I sent it
first (when I had first assembled it) to ten readers. When their
comments came back, I revised it. Then I sent it to ten different
readers, so that their eyes could see the poems as they were now,
without remembering earlier versions. After they responded I worked on
it a hell of a lot again and sent it again to many of the twenty, those
who had been most helpful.
DM: How, specifically, do your friends help you with your poems? How do they help you edit your work?
DH: My friends help me by showing me some of the idiocies that I have permitted to remain in my poems. Cliches, dead metaphors, redundancies. Or they show me implications or suggestions that I did not know that I had made. Often I learn things about the poem, even good things, that I did not know I had done....There's a section of them in my next book, The Painted Bed, with an epigraph from Hardy--just so that people will know I damn well know what I am doing. I use refrain, sometimes, but the diction is not Hardy's. Hardy does not use the word "fucking."’
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