Prose from Poetry Magazine

Eight Takes: Hoagland, Carruth, Mullen, Robertson, Moss, Edgar, Chiasson, Smith

by D. H. Tracy
Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, by Tony Hoagland.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.

The essays of Real Sofistikashun—and they are essays, not grab bags of pensées—proceed from "a love for the sinuous human voice, for elaborate sentences, and for a certain brashness of imagination." With clarity and without simplification, with orientation and without territoriality, they register developments in American poetry of the last generation or so, remarking on craft and examining poems through the lenses of familiar elements and devices (like metaphor, fragment, and image). Hoagland understands himself (and to some extent his reader) as a centrist poet who must assimilate some tamer avant-garde developments and acknowledge some native limitations in order to stay vital. He points to a generational "metrical ignorance and rhetorical underdevelopment," the dulling of satirical instincts, and "the decay of fierce analytical thinking," which all seem to me on the money. Hoagland has few flags to wave, and waves them very, very gently; his proposed solutions sensibly draw attention away from the ego and toward language (through compositional patterning) or toward the real world (through materialism and narrative). He clarifies, though, that the problem is not self-absorption so much as breeziness and aesthetic complacence, which edit away stylistic effects in the name of proportion and economy. The art he envisions, "more Slinky than Grecian urn," would bring a measure of hedonistic baroqueness and superfluity, and possess "the human value of flamboyance."

On the latter point he would have had an ally in John Crowe Ransom, but Hoagland makes do without much commerce with the rest of criticism, and complicating or interrogating taxonomies is not really his method (as it might be in a more academic effort). There is occasionally that slight textbookish feel of encountering several so-so poems in a row, as the focus on exemplars of this or that canonical trope leads to readings of structurally transparent or lopsided work. The book has a low barrier to entry, but also duplicates effort: his triad of image, diction, and rhetoric resembles Pound's phano-, logo-, and melopoeia; his essay on metaphor would have gotten there faster adopting the terminology of tenor and vehicle. Given its mildness and from-scratch spirit, his theorizing is as persuasive as it can be, but Hoagland perhaps shines best at a practical kind of analysis where he may most fully leverage his insights as a working writer—as on the subject of strategic intelligence, and the perils of negotiating "fixity of character and self-renewal." He is articulate on tone, a subject notoriously resistant to discussion—how in urbane poets it may realize a passion that is "ironized but not discredited." Hoagland consistently puts his finger on a poet's proper peculiarity: the fascination with cultural artifacts in Robert Pinsky, the moralist dying to get out of Robert Hass, the syllogistic structure of the speech act in Louise Glück. Notwithstanding the title, the book isn't comic—typecasting happens very quickly, and it would be unfortunate if Hoagland became known as "that funny guy." In his thinking about the art he's also capable of real sophistication.


Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems, by Hayden Carruth. Edited by Sam Hamill.
Copper Canyon Press. $17.00.

Hoagland makes a distinction between those artists "down in the dirty human valley" and those "removed to some philosophical resort"; you could say one type hates its adversaries and the other has contempt for them. Hayden Carruth is a near-pure example of the former, an earthy gourmand of life and of poetry who gets up to his elbows in whatever technique he happens to be practicing. An array of influences has pulled him in no net direction, and indeed has buttressed him against strong presences, like Frost's, he might otherwise have been susceptible to imitating. He has a physical and—against his better judgment—a metaphysical turn of mind. His radical politics have not sloshed over much into his aesthetics, probably because in labor and handiness he has a vivid analog of writing, an analog that will not admit shortcuts and that insists on the cultivation of technique. Carruth may be the literary version of what John McPhee has called "the man of maximum practical application."

Toward the Distant Islands is by design very slim—Carruth's life has been long, and his art must necessarily seem here shorter than it is. Some collections are represented by a couple of poems, some by none at all (I miss some of the 1989 Sonnets). His extraordinary early poems, "The Buddhist Painter Prepares to Paint" and "Purana, Meaning Once Upon a Time," indict the longing for an eternal world as a lapse of responsibility to this one, and show Carruth's anti-Romantic strain at its most explicit. It is stirring to see the poet holding his hand steady in fires of confusion, and Hamill is correct, I think, to accentuate this strain, which is probably the finest in his work. This strain leads to Carruth's anti-bucolic portraits of hardship-addled New England farmers, like "John Dryden" and "Marshall Washer," and these are also among his best. Although they are not without sentimentality, it is at least the well-lit sentimentality of social realism.

Though not really religious, Carruth does have a sort of martyr complex for the poet's role (he can say things like "And who/is the Christ now, who//if not I?") and can be free with words like "beauty," "faith," and "love." In the dozen-odd new poems here he still desires the serene withdrawal that these abstractions promise, but he is pleased to be bawdy as well, and shows himself a more jarring centaur than he has heretofore been (haiku: "One thing is certain./When Tu Fu got drunk his balls/swung low, just like mine"). Some of these poems reach terminal crotchetiness, as when a warm winter heralds "the beginning of cataclysmic GLOBAL/WARMING." The book won't sell itself on the strength of the new poems, and isn't the most economical way to obtain the old ones (for the price of this book you can get used copies of both the Collected Shorter Poems and the Collected Longer Poems). But the old ones are, one way or another, worth obtaining.


Recyclopedia, by Harryette Mullen.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.

The three books collected in this volume—Trimmings, S*PeRM-**K*T, and Muse & Drudge, all published in the nineties—each exemplify in one way or another Mullen's model of poetry as a recycler of the language-junk strewn around by politics, mass advertising, and our civilizational background hum. The books' ambition is "transforming surplus cultural information into something unexpected." Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T are in dialogue with Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, and run on nonstop punning and a mild, very general merchandise fetish. Roughly, Trimmings is looking for an answer to the question, "What to wear?" and S*PeRM**K*T, "What to eat?" Muse & Drudge, the richest of the three and the only one not in prose, is a sequence of four-quatrain wranglings between Sappho, who represents uplift and lyricism (the muse), and Sapphire, who represents gravity and the blues (the drudge). The poems are more or less recognizable as speech acts: there is an ad for skin lightener, an ode to the moon, a trip to Haiti, a backhanded paean to the northern migration. Sometimes they dissolve into demented doggerel, sometimes they are "just exercising/her right to bare attitude": "she gave him lemons to suck/told him please dear/improve your embouchure."

Like Stein, much of Mullen here seems to me rigorously pleasureless, like playtime overseen by an educational theorist. Her strophes are not without possible readings; when you come across "Garters garnish daughters partner what mothers they gather they tether," you can consider the various ways to punctuate or tweak this and the resulting divergent meanings. But it's a lonely game, by yourself in a big sandbox. Mullen is ever foregrounding verbal slippages and ambiguities that would, in better poetry, be inflecting the poem rather than trying to carry it—Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, especially, evince the thinness of attitudinizing in a void. In the strongest passages, the language-play achieves enough density that it becomes its own sort of content, and locomotes; Mullen's best puns follow through in both valences ("Individually wrapped singles," "I'd be Dogon," "shuffle off/this mortal coffle"). The run of them, though, is in one half gratuitous or forced ("déja voodoo," "pillow talk-show," "Semi-automatic ruffle"). The net effect, across all three books, is of a tireless dry wit that is only sporadically nourishing. Mullen is better before this period and is better after it, when she gives more to the page—when there is less, to use her phrase, "soulless divaism," and there is a presiding affect for vamping to interrupt.


Swithering, by Robin Robertson.
Harcourt. $16.00.

Shortly into Swithering you intuit you're in grown-up hands, and that the poet is writing from a set of concerns thought hard about before the poems were even begun. To "swither" means to fret or worry—what, exactly, is Robertson in a swither about? About the human fitin nature, is one answer; about the soul's fit in the body, is another. Behind both of these lies a parent agitation about the mutual insufficiency of spirit and matter. In maintaining an inconclusive pseudo-animism, the book is a powerful exercise of a variety of negative capability—only Robertson does not so much resist reaching after fact as lunge at it enraged, which both abases it and exalts it with attention. Animals and ruins, where human qualities are present but dilute, are the natural symbols of his poetry, and there are lots of each: creatures hunting and hunted, overgrown tool sheds, abandoned crofts, the deserted batteries at a seaside priory. Robertson flaunts the pathetic fallacy in the usual sense—the sea "sleeps," stones "dance," the wind "loots," and so on—but the poems are further filled with more active and charged transactions between the human and natural worlds, like a poorly-trained hawk, a selkie, and indeed Proteus himself.

Robertson's retelling of "The Death of Actaeon" is the first time in a decade I have cared about a Greek myth (Actaeon the hunter happens on Artemis naked, she turns him into a stag, and his own dogs run him down). If Robertson has a divinity, it is the dying Actaeon, an ephemeral compound of reflection and natural force, a mind expiring in comprehension of an immensity in which it has no part:

Drowning now,
his horned head reared, streaming, from the ruck,
as if a god was being born
—not a mortal soul transformed and torn apart.
The huntsmen looked around for Actaeon: calling
—each louder than the one before—for Actaeon,
as if he weren't there.
Should he not share this unexpected gift?


Heart trouble as a young man seems to have brought mortality home to Robertson (he writes about his operation for a replacement valve in "A Seagull Murmur," which will make you clutch your chest). He shows a sensitivity born of experiencing bodily fragility and a savagery born of rage at that fragility. These interact effectively throughout the poems, in part because the savagery does not let the sensitivity settle into a serene contemplation of the durable; they are not the same thing. His sense of human relationships is thereby harrowed, and in "Leavings" and "Donegal" he has written the best poems of fatherhood I have ever read.

Robertson shares with many Scottish poets the tendency to write at the same altitude, no matter the subject—cursing your neighbor and cursing god are essentially the same activity. This tendency has a salutary moderating effect, and weaves a poem about the death of Actaeon and (for instance) a poem about asparagus into a fabric of sensibility, where they might otherwise have drifted towards the overblown and the trivial. Hounded, and in a state of extreme self-alienation, Robertson has nevertheless found a way to write levelly, with concentration and without dissipation, coming away poem after poem with forceful answers for his predicament. Swithering is at root a book of existential weariness, but there is intense vitality in its endurance.


Tokyo Butter, by Thylias Moss.
Persea Books. $24.00.

The occasion of Tokyo Butter is an elegy for Moss's cousin, but you might be forgiven for not picking up on this immediately. The tone certainly isn't grievous. The overwhelming first impression is of an avalanche of stuff, as in Richard Kenney or in the kind of poetry Neal Stephenson might write: Japanese dairy industry scandal—funnel cake—ethos of head wraps—in vitro fertilization—arachibutyrophobia—spontaneous generation—obsolescence of the Y chromosome—Chernobyl—trigonometry. Moss gets onto butter by following a link in her cousin's last e-mail to a dairy development program in Guinea, and her aleatory instincts take over from there. The index she includes (a poem in itself) has two entries for morphometry, three for phosphorous, ten for believe(r), nine for crystal. Web surfing seems to be the paradigm for the context shifts and clinical eclecticism, which have the jerking energy and preposterousness of a juicy conspiracy theory. As in Slave Moth (2004), there is a certain preoccupation with freaks and freakishness. Moss fixates too on contamination, in its literal sense and in an emotional one, as that state one is led to by the entanglements of love. Her expositions are roundabout and skittish, sometimes spinning off semi-independent voices offset in various ways from their parents, arrangements that seem to me potentially fertile but often weakened by simple opacity (it is a bad sign when the press material feels it necessary to point out that a book is "unwaveringly coherent"). I cannot tell, in general, if she is ordering her grief or giving herself over to chaos and despair.

Moss might argue that these are the same thing, or can be accomplished at the same time. In a formidable, Yeatsian afterword, she describes the "Limited Fork Poetics (LFP)" that inform the book and structure its abundance:

The landscape of a single poem can include multiple areas of constituents of the poem taking shape in multiple forms (including sonic, aural, and visual forms besides/in addition to/instead of text) simultaneously, in varying degrees of stability (forms of accessibility/coherence) and instability (forms of inaccessibility/incoherence)....Metaphor is a tool of navigation that can enable instantaneous access to other event locations on any scale—akin to navigating wormholes.


These poetics might function more happily in a multimedia format—perhaps on the Web that is so much of the book's implicit setting—by nature better suited to polyphony and the literal coexistence of sonic, aural, and visual forms. Moss says, "Some poems will inhabit places for which there is not yet means of detection or interpretation," which taken literally is a get-out-of-criticism-free card. All right: perhaps this is a poetry we are not yet ready for, and in time some ardent glossers will blaze a path. Moss has done good work in the past, though, and one would not want her to follow a wrong turning too far.


Other Summers, by Stephen Edgar.
Black Pepper. $23.95.

Of Australia, David Malouf writes:

Its English was not the seventeenth-century English of the United States, with its roots in Evangelical dissent and the revolutionary idealism of the Quakers....It was the sober, serviceable language fashioned by writers like Addison and Steele and others to purge English of the violent and extreme expression, and political and sectarian hostilities, that had led to the Civil War....This was the language Australia inherited. The language of reasonable argument. Of balance. Of compromise.


Impossible to say whether a given author is subject to such forces, but Australian poet Stephen Edgar has developed a quiet, nonvolatile rhetoric of such balance and reason, and has reached such a level of syntactical control in this mode that he can write well about, and is at his best writing about, next to nothing: a woman lounging alone in a house on a hot day, some birds walking up the beach. Actors in these poems are frustrated from acting by futility, apathy, or anomie, and are thrown back variously onto what they see and what they remember, which may bring misery or happiness. The poetry therefore gravitates towards the action of the mind, and fits most comfortably into the uncomfortable gap between the senses and sensation:

The optic nerve still lives in paradise
And hankers to admit
Its innocent improbabilities.
The mind has paid that price
And always seems to see through seeing's wit
What was observed by Mephistopheles:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
—From Optical Illusions


Life, especially at its quietest, is a brandy that must be sipped, even if it doesn't taste good.

Like Thomas Hardy, Edgar derives considerable impulse from the stanza form, and adapts to it a Latinate syntax that artfully defers and paces meaning. He gives image and metaphor limited play, because these devices are liable to run away with a thought he has other plans for. The poetry is under high compression, to be sure, and occasionally something leaks out the side: metrical considerations lead to a few stiff word choices (like "begem," "conflagrate," and "empetalled"), all the more evident because the diction is generally mellow.

Edgar is a bit too angular for his translations of Baudelaire, and an attempt to locate the metaphysics of two laboring porn actors topples over into decadence. Though not invulnerable to the rococo dangers of the style, he achieves, overall, a supple classicism that earns him a place next to the best twentieth-century American formalists. Nor is he in their image: more exposed than Hecht, more troubled than Wilbur, more Horatian than Merrill, he is as capable as all of these poets of weaving out of verse that fine grade of mesh that sifts from experience grains of meaning otherwise lost.


Natural History, by Dan Chiasson.
Alfred A. Knopf. $23.00.

Chiasson's first book, The Afterlife of Objects (2002), was confessional in its ancestry but already well-differentiated. Natural History is similar, but makes some effort to permute the formula, pairing speech acts with mismatched affects to produce a result that is slightly programmatic, but fresh and not heavy. If a love song, then sheepishly; if a pastoral, then ironically; if a romance, then resignedly. You learn quickly that everything Chiasson utters is figurative first and literal second, or not literal at all: a poem about elephants is about everything but elephants. As the layers of indirection amass ("your voice says my poem says my voice/doesn't say a thing"), you might be torn between wanting to see how long he can keep it up, and wanting him to pop the clutch already. Yet however the poems refuse to witness normal, sequentially experienced life, they are permeable to all of its components, which include everything from brand names to celebrities to, crucially, real emotions.

Chiasson's model for a long sequence at the book's center is Pliny, who in his own Natural History is engaged with apparent seriousness in telling tall tales, or perhaps with apparent facetiousness in a branch of philosophy that is indifferent to evidence. Skeptical of observation ("voyeur voyeur/pants on fire"), and believing with some justice that fish stories are better left unquestioned, Chiasson wants to ornament truths we already know intuitively and can't really be talked out of. In divorcing autobiography from authenticity, Chiasson is looking for a way through the self and out the other side; he is by no means the only writer trying to do this, but he is good at it, and understands he must not arrive at the bloodlessness confession was responding to in the first place. His recourse to language-games and masquerades is therefore limited, but this leaves him very few points of fiducial contact with the reader, and Natural History has to rely a lot on literature—not just being inspired by a line of Frost, or even channeling Horace to talk about yourself in the third person, but such habituation to the backstage view that phrases like "headlights were a hard metaphor" begin to seem normal. There is a poem about ("about") Randall Jarrell I need like a solar-powered flashlight. I suppose one can be grateful for the signposts; real life is hard enough, Chiasson says:

Perhaps words should be a shield, rather than
a mirror; and maybe poems should be
an ornamented shield, like the shields

gods made for their favorite soldiers,
sons and lovers. Poems should be
like people's faces by firelight:
a little true, for verification's sake,
but primarily beautiful.—From "Scared by the Smallest Shriek of a Pig, and When Wounded, Always Give Ground."


The promise of this proposal has for the moment put Chiasson's art in peculiar straits; it will be interesting to see where he emerges.


Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry, by Dave Smith.
Louisiana State university Press. $25.00.

In one of his longer poems, Hayden Carruth calls Vermonters "the last true regionalists." Smith doesn't like the term regionalist, but he would certainly have a bone to pick: the essays in Hunting Men consider a number of southern poets qua southern poets, and the book is also a eulogy for a mid-century Tidewater Virginia swallowed over the decades by greater Washington DC. Smith being occupied with the dead center of the oppressor-class demographic, the stage is set for a prickly evening. "I am," says Smith, "ambivalent, reductive, nervous, defensive, and didactic." But there is a sense in which the identities at issue are inevitable, not chosen, and this mitigates their import. When an interviewer asked Robert Penn Warren if he considered himself a southern poet, he answered, "What else can I be?" That response carries some mix of bewilderment and petulance, and that mood accrues to Smith as well. He is not really out to prove a thesis: he finds his poets interesting because, in the context of his development, they are the case.

His poets include Warren, James Dickey, John Crowe Ransom, and Edgar Allan Poe (not to mention several non-southerners, like Richard Hugo and Larry Levis), and there is considerable hand-wringing about what to label the box that holds them all. Smith bats around the idea of a narrative sensibility as a defining trait, but finds it a bad cliché (though he is haunted by the ending of Warren's Audubon: "Tell me a story of deep delight"). Smith's readings have a sharp sense of nearby events, persons, and publications, as if of the locations of players on a field. He is good at sorting Dickey's various, uneven styles, and on that quality of Ransom that insists on decorum even when all evidence points to its pointlessness. Smith's wariness stiffens the prose some, and in the final chapters, about the connections between place, writing, and hunting, he falls prey to the one danger—swagger—ostensibly easy to see coming ("In them, maybe, there was yet a little edge of the wild that shines from a man's eyes when he is pushed more than he likes"). The connection of hunting to writing is finally loose and implicit: "Manners had something to do with hunting"; in absorbing those manners there is an intergenerational transfer of an ethic; this transfer heightens one's awareness of the past; this awareness is in turn central to the outlook of poets such as Warren and Ransom.

Smith never attempts a systematic analysis of his subject the way Ransom does in "The Aesthetic of Regionalism," and so leaves the big question—where should a writer spend his attention?—on the table. Provincialism certainly exists, but so does the texture of place, which it is a kind of illiteracy to ignore. Cosmopolitanism certainly exists, but so does a specious and sterile sophistication that is blind to its elisions of human detail. Warren would seem to be the model of a writer able to approach such issues with the mind rather than the temperament. Smith is, in the end, content to equivocate: "Were one reader to ask of another what I think," he says, "I should be pleased to hear, he thinks this, he thinks that, he thinks maybe." Well, so it is: he thinks this, he thinks that, he thinks maybe.
Originally Published: March 2, 2007

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This prose originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2007

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D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

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