I agree with Sharon Bryan that Albert Goldbarth, both in Budget Travel through Space and Time and in his work generally, is funny, generous, and (after a fashion) wise. Her characterization of the poet, though, as it emerges in her two principal objections to points in the review, diverges from my accumulated impressions. Bryan would make a case for Goldbarth as a portraitist of the subtleties of our inner lives, one whose metaphorical imagination operates carefully, deliberately, and precisely. This composition makes him sound like a descendant of Henry James, when it seems to me that Goldbarth is the last man you would call to sort out the emotional undercurrents in the drawing room. Goldbarth’s virtues, like Whitman’s, are exuberance, abundance, and the audacity to make a mess. It is in the limitations of these virtues, in their failure at certain extremities, that I found reason to hesitate.
It is certainly true that the connections Goldbarth draws between disparate elements are surprising; it may also be true that they are neither random nor arbitrary. What is most characteristic about them, however, is that they are not content with a given level of inventionthe greater the disparity they overleap, the prouder they are of themselves. They have something of the stunt about them. Stunts are by nature escalatory, and, after repeated exposure to them, one may feel that the need to surprise is taking the place of the metaphorical vision that Bryan refers to.
“Poetry of lists” is a category which Bryan regards as pejorative. I do not, or not to the same degree. Whitman’s poetry, which I treasure, is also one of lists. However I adore it, though, an honest appraisal of it must reckon with its limitations, among which is that a wide-ranging attention has the counterintuitive effect of flattening one’s subjects. Yvor Winters raised this concern with regard to Whitman; in Thomas Parkinson’s paraphrase, “Whitman had no way of discriminating between one type and quality of human experience and another,” so he can attain, at best, “an indiscriminate celebration of energy.” It is this indiscriminate celebration in Budget Travel in Space and Time, and the continuing danger of it, that I wished to draw attention to. These problems having beset great poets, their mention in reference to Goldbarth’s work is not to be regarded as dismissive, glib, or unduly deprecating.
Enid Shomer and Lee Robinson take to task my review of Maxine Kumin’s Jack and Other New Poems for resting on guesswork, poor assumptions, and sophistry. The review pivots on the idea of psychic resistance, and both Shomer and Robinson believe, I gather, that the concept is drivel. This sort of makes further argument moot, but I will do what I can to answer their objections and clarify matters. It is my hope that nothing in the review be construed as an attack.
I confess I cannot find in Enid Shomer’s comments the circular reasoning mentioned. And, for the record, the review does not call Kumin a widow. Shomer states that I conclude that Kumin has not brushed close enough to madness to write great poetry, but this reading is not quite correct. Kumin has not brushed close enough to madness or other dislocating crisis (it appears, that is, on the evidence of her body of work) to lend force to the gestures of affirmation and repudiation in the book. If, in fact, she has struggled mightily, this does not enervate the argument, as the struggle finds no enactment I can discern, in Jack or out of it.
Robinson finds in Jack significant consideration of aging, death, and darkness, unattended by self-pity, culminating in the poet’s understanding of her place in the natural world. Jack seems to me to be at least as concerned with its place in the moral and historical worlds, but apart from this I do not contest the summary. But just as Kumin’s industriousness is not in question, neither is the presence of darkness or suffering in the book. What is missing is the traversal of that darkness that gives us some approximation, as readers, of experience. What is missing is the danger.
The rub in Jack is subtle, or at any rate unusual. Articulating it requires making inferencesnot guesswork or assumptions, but educated inferences, based on close readingabout the poet’s state of mind. Robinson and Shomer have bridled at these inferences, but to disallow them, to censure their application when they prove inconvenient, is to bore a rather large hole in the ship that all of uswriters, readers, criticsare standing on. One cannot simultaneously claim that the poems “tell the truth about her life” and dismiss the interrogation of that truthunderstanding its formulation, its applicability, its underpinnings, and validity. I have no desire to make the point autocratically or presumptuously, but the point needs to be made: an art that announces its arrival at Point B not having conducted us from Point A, an art that declares victory without having enacted strugglenot mentioned struggle, but enacted ithas come up short.