Swallow Press. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
There was a time, not so long ago, when the terms “poet” and “critic” weren’t mutually exclusive, and the New Yorker had a poetry reviewer on staff; her name was Louise Bogan, and she held the post for thirty-eight years, retiring in 1969 just months before her death. This book, splendidly edited and introduced by Mary Kinzie, is a selection of Bogan’s short fiction, autobiographical writing, letters, and criticism, as well as some uncollected and unpublished poems. It reveals a writer of wit, eloquence, and masterful self-control. All the writing here—from the learned reviews to the letters with their gems of scandalous repartee—is informed by the unflinching insight of a female artist who utterly suffered, savored, and defied her lot in life. While Bogan once deprecated her own gift, saying that it “depended on the flash—on the aperçu,” the shorts collected here make it clear that her individual works were very ambitious in their depth if not their length.
Bogan was born into a poor, volatile, Irish-Catholic family at the turn of the century, and A Poet’s Prose, insomuch as it documents her inner life, reads like a long, exacting campaign against the untamable nerves and romantic excesses that were her only inheritance. She detested self-pity. The incidents of “turmoil in a disastrous childhood,” she wrote, “...are so vivid and so terrible that to remember them is inadequate: they must be forgotten.” Nevertheless, Bogan was haunted by both painful and tender memories of her mother, a proud, vain, irresponsible woman who sent her off to boarding school at the age of eight. It’s no surprise that stoicism became the ethic that governed her style, which is often mercilessly direct.
There is something muscular, even mannish about Bogan’s prose, yet she was committed to a feminine ideal. In The Heart and the Lyre, a review of female American poets, she disapproved of the “imitation of certain masculine 'trends’ in contemporary poetry.” “The intensity of [women’s] emotions is the key to the treasures of their spirit,” she wrote, asserting “the great importance of keeping the emotional channels of a literature open.” But she hated the image of the swooning poetess, and urged women instead toward a “perfect and poignant song.” Her own poems often feel parched: neat crops that have been burnt in order to get rid of some lush infestation. We get the sense that Bogan went to formal poetry as a means of containing feeling; she knew that over-dramatizing her suffering would have diminished the tragic experience that had led to it. Yet, in all of her work, there remains a sort of adamant vulnerability, a refusal to harden into complaint, to close herself off behind a set of elaborate defenses. Late in life, she wrote, “The poems depended upon the ability to love. (Yeats kept saying this, to the end.) The faculty of loving. A talent. A gift.”
Bogan’s lyrics are more remarkable in light of the fact that, while crafting them, she was establishing herself as a bold poet-critic. Her criticism is clear, brilliant, and often impertinent, even when writing about the poets she most admires. Of Pound’s Cantos LII-LXXI she quipped, “A photograph of Pound, making him look even more scowling than he frequently sounds, embellishes its cover.” Of Marianne Moore: “She does not resemble certain seventeenth-century writers; she might be one of them.” Of Auden: “A stuffy state of mind and a bigwig style will stifle a poem about sharecroppers as quickly as a poem about peacocks in the twilight.”
Bogan’s correspondence rollicks with confidence and censures with impunity. Many of the letters Kinzie has selected are addressed to literary heavyweights like Edmund Wilson, Theodore Roethke, and Allen Tate, who were among Bogan’s closest friends—and sometimes more than friends. “I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rosebush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name,” she wrote to Wilson. And, in a letter to Tate, defending her negative review of his Poems 1928-1931: “In short, these poems struck me as elaborate ruses, as poetic sophistry (in the non-Protagorean sense of the term.)” She had no problem hanging with the boys. Beneath even her sharpest zingers, however, there is a generosity of spirit—a sense of responsibility—that keeps them from being petty or cruel. She managed to remain friends with Roethke and Tate throughout her life, she reserved a good deal of equanimity for her ex-husband, and she even found praise for her mother in the end.
Throughout her career, Bogan was plagued by paranoia and doubt about her accomplishments. Twice she suffered nervous breakdowns that caused her to be hospitalized. In a snippet from 1936 she wrote, “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre.” Perhaps her self-recriminations weren’t entirely irrational; in reading A Poet’s Prose, one is struck by a forcefulness of character that rarely comes across in the poems. In Bogan’s lyrics, as stirring and beautiful as they can be, we’re often moved more by the enormity of what’s being held back than by what’s actually on the page. We have to wonder if this woman who had established herself as a public figure, a critic of fierce intelligence, and a gifted lyricist suffered the “mistaken self-consciousness” that she warned other female poets against, and if she therefore restrained a voice that, unleashed, would have proven itself overwhelmingly feminine. On the other hand, as a self-styled “minor poet” and critic, Bogan took on a role that men have filled comfortably for centuries, and produced a compelling, durable body of work. Regardless of whether or not we consider it an oeuvre, her work should remain of much interest to us—especially to young, female poets who shudder at the term “poetess” and who find a dearth of examples on which to model their careers.
Wedding Day, Dana Levin.
Copper Canyon Press. $14.00.
Thank God for Sylvia Plath. Because of “the girl who wanted to be God,” as Plath once called herself, a poet like Dana Levin knows the risk of giving free reign to an inward imagination. In her first book, In the Surgical Theatre, Levin used a grisly procedure that she underwent as a baby “to remove a gangrenous ileum” to represent the poetic process. At times, this symbol became explicit, macabre, grotesque, not to mention solipsistic, but the boldness of her vision and the immediacy of her language could not be denied. She often reminded one of Plath. The difference was that Levin was self-conscious about her self-interest; she realized that, in the wake of the Confessionals, evidence of personal suffering was expected in order to establish authenticity, yet she also recognized that there was something perverse about making one person’s pain appear mythical. In The Wedding Day Levin shows not only that she’s developed her own technique but that, unlike Plath, she’s able to represent the world’s suffering alongside her own.
This book is no less ruthless than Levin’s first—the “wedding” of the title refers to that between the poet and the loveless light of inspiration, the sun “without hands”—but its style is much more mature. By nature, Levin is an aesthete, a painter of words, prone to escape into language, to dally among the sounds and images she’s capable of producing. She often begins a poem with ginger brushstrokes, providing “A little visual valium,” before the inner psychotherapist—Levin’s stern mistress—arrives to lacerate with questions. Sometimes this probing goes too far, revealing emotional pain that is positively gothic, as when Levin refers to her own body as the “Head Bobbing on a Font of Blood” or suffering as the “Red worm called I breathe I suck.” At her best, though, she delivers images that are lonely, beautiful, and controlled:
Sails bunched in the harbor, blooming and contracting
like a slovenly heart,
all seventeen in an unruly mass, some
trying to pull away.
Levin’s attention to her own technique can become tedious at times, as in “Working Method,” which reads like a creative writing blog, complete with advice on how doodling around phrases like “Isolato with a crown .../Isolato with a barge” can lead to ideas for a poem. (The poem “Isolato” follows a few pages later.) This self-consciousness about process, which enters many of her poems, distracts from—and occasionally weakens—the real work. While Levin has interesting things to say about art, one wishes she would put them into critical prose. When she allows her poems to breathe, they can be quite astonishing.
Crush, by Richard Siken.
Yale University Press. $26.00 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).
It’s a road movie,From Driving, Not Washing
a double-feature, two boys striking out across America, while desire,
like a monster, crawls up out of the lake
with all of us watching, with all of us wondering if these two boys will
find a way to figure it out.
This is the PG-rated synopsis of the X-rated plot that Siken tells and retells in Crush, a story that begins with a lust for adventure, then leads into episodes of hustling, drugs, rough sex, and fantasies of suicide and murder. The book’s climactic scenes are comprised of lines that you can imagine Billy Bob Thornton hollering in front of an abandoned dockyard: “I will turn myself into a gun, because I’m hungry/and hollow and just want something to call my own. I’ll be your/slaughterhouse, your killing floor, your morgue.” Sometimes Siken seems aware of how frantic he sounds and detaches himself enough to achieve a controlled, noir sort of tone. Usually, though, the pathos here is so visceral—and in places sounds so authentic—that a reader might find herself wondering if she should alert law enforcement authorities.
The appeal of this voice is that it can be resoundingly clear and eerily intimate, implicating us in the drama as it unfolds. Siken has successfully captured the patterns of a desperate, obsessive mind, both in the circularity of his language and in the long, ranging, unstoppable look of his lines; he simply can’t stop talking, and he expects the reader to be kind enough to listen. Ultimately, though, it’s not compassion that gets us to go along with Crush; it’s hard to sympathize with someone so consumed in his own drama. We listen to Siken just as we might watch a salacious Hollywood movie, knowing that when it’s all over we’ll be left with nothing but inchoate intensity and fear, but temporarily too titillated to care. This may be the raw material for poetry like Dana Levin’s, but, at this point at least, Siken lacks the technique to transform it into art.
Pax Atomica, by Campbell McGrath.
Ecco Press. $23.95.
These poems, chock-full of graffiti-scrawled water towers, tanning booths, rest stops, and chain restaurants, often seem to recreate the empty world that we ask poetry to relieve. But McGrath wants no relief. He sees suburban America as his Whitmanian inheritance, and he intends to celebrate it, no matter how crazy you think he is for doing so. “Train Journal,” the central poem in this collection, sings of everything McGrath sees, from the majestic to the ugly to the vacuous. A “Song of seedpods in cottony eruption” turns into a song of the “Grey despairing factory buildings, the lashing out in anger,” which turns into a “Song of the absolute/rock bottom price guarantee./Song of the real/24-HOUR XXX GIRLS./Song of the concrete/backyard gnome.” The poem allows McGrath to list a bunch of word-objects, and his omnivorous eye offers us many unexpected pleasures. But the poem’s most poignant moment is when he recognizes the terrible homogenization of this infinite variety:
Boulevards, fast-food mansards, the Greyhound depot in ruins.
Shells of displaced meaning, crushed hulls I’ve seen before,
but not here.
If not here, then
What other world than this?
Unfortunately, the tenor of “Train Journal” can’t be held. The rest of Pax Atomica is a nostalgic, pop-culture-fueled orgy, indiscriminately celebrating every TV show, movie, rock anthem, or icon that the poet has ever encountered, from “WKRP in Cincinnati” to Tony the Tiger to Xena the Warrior Princess to the headbanger Axl Rose. It doesn’t help when McGrath corrals all of this feverish name-dropping and cultural pontificating into loose terza rima. It still sounds like he’s trying to convince the kid at the comic book store how cool he is.
elegy on toy piano, by Dean Young.
University of Pittsburgh Press. $12.95.
How often does one come across a book of poems that’s actually hilarious? While elegy on toy piano bursts with intelligence and compassion, it’s most remarkable for the fact that, in addition to being real poetry, it’s so entertaining. Considering the dismal bogs that most readers of contemporary poetry are used to slogging through, Young’s comic quality can be overwhelming at first; his poems often seem like a manic stream of brilliant one-liners:
It’s eschatology kegger night
and some guy in an Abort the Pope tee shirt
says the gum left behind when a bandaid’s
ripped off holds the cosmos together.
—From Ghost Grease
These poems are far from being merely funny though. Their motivating energy is an anxiety about the disintegration of culture and human relationships. When Young says, “Feeling, you’ll never stop bush-whacking me/unsyntactically like crows flying from a tree,” he’s not kidding. Conversation is his way of avoiding heartbreak, and he uses his command of every area of learning, from art history to politics to science to pop culture to cocktail party gossip, to amuse and distract us. Young’s technique is that of the perpetual undercut. He offers a perception only to skeptically deny it, denies it only to dream up something weirder to replace it, sustains the tension long enough so that, when he finally gives in to emotion, the reader is moved not necessarily by the sentiment, but by the feat of getting to it.
Young is obsessed with America’s freakish beauty, though he’s not enamored by it in the way that McGrath is. He’s more Melville than Whitman, more Jerry Springer than Oprah. His humans are sad, inept creatures, desperate to turn on the TV and catch their fifteen minutes of fame, but unable to work the remote control. The only appropriate way to celebrate them is colorful satire, as in “Lives of the Mortals,” where Young laments, “You try to protect your sister/and she shacks up with Queequeg.”
Such inventiveness has led reviewers to describe Young as a surrealist, though if he is one, he’s not the French kind. Consider his own snide definitions of the term: “All nonmigrating butterflies are surrealists, ditto third graders./If the fox of your heart keeps biting the eye of your hand,/you too are a surrealist.” Young may be apt to portray himself as a drunk zebra with wings, a “walking talking eclipse,” as he does in the poem “Multi-Tasking,” but his weirdness isn’t random or pretentious; it’s meant to show how lonely, how confusing, how ridiculous it is to be an imaginative creature in an ever-streamlining culture. This poem eases into an ending of moving lyric subtlety, the sound of an idiosyncratic mind that can’t help trying to synthesize itself with the rush-hour world around it:
I thought the worst grief was no grief at all.
Remember honking in the tunnel?
A small abyss yet everyone fits.
But I digress.
My god is a zebra after all,
imparting high-speed reversals to the swing shift.
Our camouflage works best
galloping en masse in discotheques.
We are very gentle with our young.
For a surrealist, Young has an uncanny sense of proportion.
The Shout, by Simon Armitage.
Simon Armitage seems like an awfully nice bloke. He enjoys yard work, he gets into the spirit of Christmas, he regularly makes love to his wife (sometimes in the yard). He’s moved by snow angels and wounded birdies and junkies and cripples and dwarfs. He writes in clever forms like the sestina. He rhymes “heart” with “heart.” But don’t be deceived; Armitage has a dark side. In one poem he imagines murdering a hitchhiker just for the hell of it. In another he drowns a houseguest in the bathtub for outstaying his welcome. In several he imagines being peevish and poor. Then there’s the slang—“Main man,” “Sod it,” “slipped me the dose,” “down and out,”—and the references to drugs and drinking and nightclubs. And the light verse about wrist-slitting: “Anyone here had a go at themselves/for a laugh?” In the end, it’s hard to know which of these personas you’re supposed to believe in—and, alas, even harder to care.
The publicity materials for this book declare Armitage to be the successor to Phillip Larkin, England’s most offensive modern genius, “in both the easy brilliance of his verse and the national acclaim he has received.” Here’s Bogan on Larkin: “He is able to use [his formal] gifts as they are seldom used, to describe the tough realities of his time—those sometimes major and sometimes marginal uglinesses that seem unassimilable in art unless they are caricatured: the hideous, the cheap, the wrecked object; the desolate, the devastated locale.” Larkin’s edge derives from the shocking contrasts in his work, the way in which melancholy and disgust can expand into unlikely seriousness, even approaching rapture at times. Armitage, on the other hand, seems hardly to distinguish misery from joy; both are equally dandy reasons to dash off—as he himself calls it—some “innocent,/everyday, effortless verse.” The Shout isn’t Larkin-like, it’s Larkin Lite.
Bosh and Flapdoodle, by A.R. Ammons.
W.W. Norton. $22.95.
A.R. Ammons’s soaring ambition often produced stunning poems, poems of radiant magnitude and intricate beauty. They reveal a poetic mind of immense power, a mind that could praise the details of the natural world while penetrating the abstractions of infinite space and time. They are poems of great confidence; at their heart is an abiding belief in their own genius, and in places they read like a flow chart of that genius. This method became tedious in Garbage, but the range of that poem—its sheer audacity—kept it compelling. Ammons was always threatening to make some wild, inspired leap, to break into a space just beyond the edge of ordinary comprehension, and therefore demanded our attention. It’s the memory of that confidence and praise that makes the disillusionment of Bosh and Flapdoodle, which was written at the end of Ammons’s life, so dispiriting.
All the poems in this book are relatively short, often exactly two pages, written in meandering couplets that move, with intentional lack of compression, from one tangent to the next. As in Garbage, their occasions are typically a poetic thought which the poet has had, accompanied by his own parenthetical comments on his method, usually ironic and self-deprecating, but sometimes outlandishly self-important—as if he is writing the footnotes for his own critical editions. Ammons’s primary subject is being old, a state he does not relish, but to which he has relinquished himself. There’s a good deal here about aches and pains, dying friends, decreased sex drive; more often, though, the focus is the deterioration of Ammons’s faculties as a poet. By turns, he stubbornly insists on the value of his late, loose style, which he calls “prosetry,” then points out how bad—indeed unreadable—it is, berating himself for being unable to think or write as he once did. Most distressing are the thoughts that seem like those of an infirm mind, of an id no longer under control: the lint-in-the-belly-button thoughts and even, unfortunately, the turd-in-the-toilet thoughts. It’s not the subject matter that’s objectionable; after all, Ammons was the poet who was once able to illuminate:
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way [wince] from its storms of generosity:
—From The City Limits
The real problem is that Ammons had seemingly lost the strength, or the will, to suppress his most banal thoughts. Though the inclination towards praise still exists here, it leads only to frustration, even rage, and the scatological ruminations seem like expressions of that rage, as if he intended them to deface the page that no longer welcomed him. It’s harrowing to see how Ammons’s restless need to produce—however uncertainly—kept him from perceiving the magnitude of his earlier accomplishments, or taking solace in them. And while we can understand how a poet who sought greatness as fiercely as Ammons did would react this way to the diminishment of his gift, it doesn’t make it any less painful to watch.
The Wounded Surgeon, by Adam Kirsch.
W.W. Norton. $24.95.
“O why can’t I write psychotic verse!” Louise Bogan wrote to her friend Ruth Limmer in reference to Sexton and Plath, who were enjoying critical success at the time. The Confessionals, those grown-up child-geniuses, with their maddening, occasionally compelling demands for attention, are still enough to send a temperamental reader into alternating paroxysms of adoration and rage. But in this survey of Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath (Bishop and Jarrell are used more as foils than examples), Adam Kirsch exhibits an extraordinary patience. His role is that of the sensible, disinterested son of terribly fucked-up parents. With preternaturally calm authority, he directs us back to the work again and again, away from the troubling, often salacious details of the poets’ lives. In Kirsch’s even-tempered reckoning, the only legitimate ethical concern is the aesthetic one.
The image of the wounded surgeon comes from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” and Eliot’s ghost looms over this book, poised to receive the apology that Kirsch offers on behalf of his rebellious forbears. He reminds us that it was Modernism that spawned the Confessionals; all the poets here were deeply influenced by Eliot and his peers and, in fact, highly contemptuous of writing that sought to reveal the author’s life. They believed that the act of confession, inasmuch as it was meant to relieve suffering or purge guilt, was useless; they turned to their lives only to find an outward manifestation of inner experience, to discover the symbol for representing emotion that Eliot called the “objective correlative.” So “confession,” in Kirsch’s analysis, while it may have seemed like an act of rebellion against Eliot’s theory of impersonality, was actually just an innovation of it; thus these early “Confessionals” can be judged favorably by Eliot’s standard.
Insisting that an artist’s only moral obligation is faithfulness to his or her artistic vision, Kirsch gives a “brief biography of [the] poetry” of each of these poets. He shows how in order to write his most wrenching poems Lowell had to indulge his “piratical” sensibility, that violent daring that had earned him the nickname Cal (short for Caligula) as a boy. Bishop, on the other hand, had to employ her powers of observation to contain a suicidal intensity. Berryman’s guilt and self-hatred about his infidelities, as he himself boasted, helped him develop “a style now pared straight to the bone [that] can make the reader’s nerves jump by moving my little finger.” It’s the case of Sylvia Plath, though, that best illustrates just how radical Kirsch’s notion of impersonality is; by accepting the terms that Plath set for her self-making myth, he casts her suicide as the ultimate success of a savage, solipsistic aesthetic.
There’s both sense and power in Kirsch’s arguments. He skillfully distinguishes the poems that use life as material for poetry from those that use poetry in order to justify or condemn the poet’s real-life behavior. He convinces us that the former are art while the latter are exhibitions of narcissism, self-pity, and sentimentality; that a poem succeeds, no matter how brutal or amoral it may be, as long as it retains the integrity of its artifice; that a poem fails when the poet abandons the imaginative work of completing it in order to solicit the reader’s sympathy or reproach. What Kirsch doesn’t convince us of is his cold-blooded bottom line, which is that if art is to be great, it often must take precedence over life, regardless of the costs. This, of course, is exactly what the Confessionals believed, and we know where it got them; most of these poets either killed themselves, or invited their own tragic ends. Knowing this, shouldn’t we find some flaw in their process? Can we accept a poetics that is, by definition, not only self-destructive but self-annihilating? Kirsch does nothing to persuade us that these poems were good enough to die for, nor that any of them will survive unshadowed by the deaths they hastened.