Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Lauren Watel
Dear Editor,

Woe is I! Ange Mlinko uses the "I" as a lens through which to judge the worth of six very different books ["More Than Meets the I," October 2007]. In her opening paragraphs she indicates her criterion for judgment: "language is always larger than the poet." The reviews that ensue are both predictable and programmatic. Mlinko subjects each book to an "I" exam: if the author under consideration does not subjugate the "I" to language in a way that adheres to Mlinko's aesthetic, then he or she is accused of a variety of poetic crimes, namely, a "confessional" voice, anecdotal free verse, epiphanies, or a belief in an "authentic" self. Mlinko repeatedly, one might say obsessively, blames a single arch-villain, Robert Lowell, for the proliferation of these crimes.

But Mlinko's bias against the "I" is so forceful that it leads to insults and misreadings. To take a single statement from Henri Cole's poem "American Kestrel"—"No one has what I have:"—and call it narcissistic is to ignore what comes after the colon: "my long clean hands, my bored lips." The "I" here is ironic, despairing, far from self-admiring. This fourteen-line poem, unrhymed but with a sonnet's structural logic, culminates with the poet's struggle to find ground somewhere between the "I" and language, as the speaker tries "to create something neither confessional/nor abstract." Clearly Cole has heard the news that the "I" is partial, overdetermined, constructed, fluid, multiple, etc., and that the confessional voice á la Lowell has its limitations. But this is old news, and any serious poet writing today has heard it. Even Lowell was aware that his "I" in Life Studies was artifice, a self-conscious invention, a fiction.

As she reviews book after book, Mlinko relentlessly puts the "I" on trial. However, she does not feel the need to subject the "I" in her own review to the same scrutiny. "I offer these propositions . . . as a foundation for judgment," Mlinko declares unironically at the beginning of the piece. In applying her myopic critical framework to render not only aesthetic but moral verdicts, she relies on the authority and the unity of the "I" she would deny the poet. Mlinko is not telling us that her opinion is one of many, or that her viewpoint could change according to context, or that her stance is undergirded by the institutionalization of a certain aesthetic. On the contrary, she takes an authoritarian position on the "proper" relationship between the "I" and language and then belittles the poets who don't conform. In the end, the review had this reader wishing her "I" were in quotes.

Decatur, Georgia

Originally Published: December 3, 2007

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

December 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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