For Philip Schultz, dogness is no small factor. Photo by Monica Banks
The politics of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in the last decades have tended to favor two groups: either established sophisticates in need of an Oscar-like lifetime-achievement nod, or newish voices embodying various sorts of hermetic intellectualism that fall largely beyond the purview of Mr. and Mrs. Reading-Poetry-for-Pleasure. Perhaps as a co-phenomenon with popular Billy Collins–style humanism, this seems to be changing. Claudia Emerson and Natasha Trethewey, both plain-speaking poets of experience and personal history, won Pulitzers for their third books in 2006 and 2007, respectively. This year the Pulitzers saluted Robert Hass after 35 years of frankly explored internal weather. And co-winning with Hass, in the prize’s first tie, was Philip Schultz, for a volume entitled Failure.
By Philip Schultz
Harcourt, 106 pp., $23.00
Of course, no poet is completely honest in their use of voice – the history of American poetry is filthy with poets who have idealized their own sensitivity and traumas and epiphanies. A poet’s persona is his public personality, the one that finds beauty in an animal’s death or rue in a child’s skip, not the private self that picks her nose and undertips waitresses and resents more successful writers. This goes without saying to a large degree, and for good reason—contemporary poetry, even the so-called confessionalist cataract of Plath, Sexton, Berryman, and the like, grips the mind and the throat when it reaches for the perhaps impossible hope of meaning in human life, not when it carps and bellyaches. With Schultz, we’re shaking hands and standing beside a lovably vain self-effacer, a man who flaunts his modest failings and writes verse simply, as if careful of confounding a single reader, and writes it in an effort to fathom the basic things that bedevil him. Schultz doesn’t seek to impress; he seeks sympathy as modestly as he dishes it out.
Hence, the quotable first lines, endlessly reiterated in the press, of "Failure," a melancholy rumination on Schultz’s unsuccessful father, climaxing after a fashion with these lines:
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember
a nobody’s name, that's why
they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
It can’t get much simpler than that, and yet the Chekhovian acres of unexplained history between the last line and the one that precedes it are enormous. Too much in the prize’s wake was made of “Failure,” and of the idea of a Pulitzer-winning volume being titled Failure, as if in the media’s eyes the prize was awarded only for honest modesty, not for excellence. Far from being mutually exclusive in the modern era, these qualities may be necessary to each other, and may be the truest legacy of the confessionalists. Too often, contemporary poets are praised for elliptical grandiosity, just as Plath and Co. were too rarely commended for their assiduous self-deprecation. The word “failure” is used by Schultz both explicitly and ironically, and runs so thoroughly through the book like a rogue’s yarn that it comes to signify its own antithesis, as in the old-school love poem “Husband,” which considers
. . . the I of me, the she
of her, the us only we know, alone together
all these years. Call it what you like,
happiness or failure, the discreet curl
of her bottom lip, the hesitant green
of her eyes. . . .
Genuinely, Schultz is focused not on “images” as such but on the essence of experience we’re all familiar with. (As Robert Lowell, or perhaps Elizabeth Hardwick, said, why not say what really happened?) His words are tools, and he prefers the old, simply engineered, wood-and-iron variety. This summation of life with his pathetic father in “The Summer People”—
He never cut our grass or knew
what grade I was in. He worked days,
nights, and weekends, but failed anyway.
Late at night, when he was too tired to sleep,
he’d stare out the window so powerfully
the world inside and outside
our house would disappear.
—cuts out moments as if out of weather-toughened oak, in a way that a fifty-dollar word or pungent metaphor might soften. Likewise, in “My Wife,” which recounts Schultz’s wife’s grief over her brother’s death by overdose, plainly sees her in the graveyard “pulling weeds.” It concludes with this bully of a stanza, inconclusive and, like a good husband, present and understanding:
At night she walks in the dark downstairs.
I know what she wants, to go to him the way
she goes to our boys when they’re frightened,
to place herself between him and the pain.
Schultz’s earlier work, naturally, is rangier, more allusive, and both livelier and less concise; his 2004 book-length memoir, Living in the Past, exudes a TV miniseries worth of boisterous tales, ethnic midcentury flavor, and vivid working-class personas, while the poems of The Holy Worm of Praise (2002) tend toward the hyperbolic and furious (the title poem, technically a birthday toast, is a geyser of abstract nouns and maddened millennial confusion). But now, in his 60s, Schultz prefers the present, haunted by the past (often literally; ghosts are ubiquitous, and welcomed) but getting greedy for the warmth of the now.
Dogness is no small factor in this scenario: in Failure Schultz reveals himself to be an unembarrassed dog lover/anthropomorphizer, but while “My Dog” may be the simplest and saddest dog-mourning poem of the modern era (or perhaps since John Gay’s “An Elegy on a Lap-dog”), the book’s climactic epic, the 54-page first-person narrative “The Wandering Wingless,” becomes immersed—fictionally—in the bruised persona of a Manhattan lost man, a dog-walker who can find solace and relief only in the fellowship of canines. Strolling in concentric circles around 9/11, the nameless protagonist (who is, Writers Studio stratagem or not, quite Schultzian in voice) bounces back from a poisoned and violent past to a stricken present filled with selfish dog-owners, the empty shells of dog-walkers, and dogs. They “don’t believe / they’re geniuses,” we’re told, and Schultz’s rhetorical passion issues forth when he’s evoking the habitations and essentialities of dogs, who
don’t withhold judgment,
mobilize their defects,
inside their delirium.
The weather may be a dog-walker’s bane, but it “is never deceitful,” he tells us at one point, limning in a second what might have required scores of wasted pages in a novel. In its entirety, “The Wandering Wingless” accrues a few too many deliberately mundane passages on its way toward dramatic coalescence, but it leaves its bruises, and leaves one reconsidering its titular concept all over again, somewhere beyond Schultz’s princely reappraisal of life and into the region of listless anomie.
Like us all, Schultz can approximate the sound of a deflating balloon when climaxing a poem in the proximity of words such as “forgiveness” or “improbability” or “paradise.” And he falls victim to the inclination to putter out, to shorten a poem’s lines from pentameter-esque to loose dimeters as he heads toward the end, as if in a panic to dramatize what might otherwise get stranded in the longer lines. Sometimes Failure seems to suffer from a lack of adventure, in subject or perspective, as Living in the Past does not, but given Schultz’s creed and temperament, such griping would be like criticizing a man for his morning coffee habit or midlife paunch. Anyway, some kind of idea of Keatsian perfection would never find its way into Schultz’s program; here, poetry is for living, like food, and the basic suchness of poetry, of art, is to fuel the tension between the petty messiness of human existence and the idealized order that creation endeavors to impose upon it. It’s poetry we may have use for, in an age when so much verse strives to erase its own connections to the rest of the world.