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Michael Robbins on Imagination, Ahoy!
For evidence of what contemporary poetry can do when it’s not content to wallow in competence, I turn to Ange Mlinko’s new collection, “Marvelous Things Overheard” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The merely competent should study Mlinko’s work with envy. It’s as alive to sound as to social complexity. You hear Paul Muldoon, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens in her poems, but as raw material transformed into something more than an amalgam of influence…
Mlinko is often delightful: “You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel, / but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.” But there’s more here than a Rube Goldberg spillage of phonemes modifying one another, irresistible as such sonics are. Contrast the insubstantiality of Fitzgerald’s cloud islands with the sense Mlinko packs into this couplet: the story of Ixion, bound to a spinning wheel by Zeus for betraying a guest, reveals an axiom, a self-evident premise, which in this case is that the weather, in its cycles and revolutions, will always, eventually, manifest itself as a revolving wheel of air, which a hurricane is. And hurricanes arrive ever more frequently, deadly to human life and its built environment: in a reversal of the myth, the revolving planet binds its guests, who have met their host’s hospitality with rapine. A little parable of climate change, then, with none of the didacticism you’d expect…
Mlinko is one of a dozen or two poets writing today whose work exposes the empirical competence of the majority. I might also mention (sticking to a few Americans I’ve managed not to get to know personally despite poetry’s microclimate) Brenda Shaughnessy, Lisa Jarnot, Chelsey Minnis, Mary Ruefle, D.A. Powell, Jon Woodward, Ish Klein and Robyn Schiff.
We don’t lack for denunciations of the state of American poetry. Mark Edmundson wrote an ill-informed essay on the subject in the July issue of Harper’s. To prove his thesis that “contemporary American poets now seem to put all their energy into … the creation of a voice,” and to answer his question “What is a poet now?” Edmundson cites not a single contemporary American poet under the age of 59. Think about that for a second.
I happen to find Edmundson’s essay particularly galling, since every poem I’ve ever written puts the lie to one of his more ignorant claims:
Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours. It is, by and large, pure. It does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing: it gravitates to the obscure, the recondite, the precious, the ancient, trying to get outside the mash of culture that surrounds it.
This is just not true, and it wouldn’t be true even if I’d never written a word. The very opposite is closer to the truth. Edmundson has fallen into the trap of paying attention only to poets whose work lends itself to competent imitation: Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Jorie Graham, Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, W. S. Merwin, and the like. If these folks are American poetry, you can have it.
But they aren’t, not by a long shot. I come to bury not contemporary American poetry, only its competent exemplars. Every age has an inexhaustible supply of these, and ours — to quote my favorite contemporary poet, Frederick Seidel — are “all engine and no art.”
Read more of Michael Robbins’s recent thoughts about contemporary poetry at Chicago Tribune!