Discussion Guide

Verse Aversions

Mixed Feelings in the January 2013 Poetry.

Snips and snipes and witty vitriol: poets are famously skilled at scorning one another. The January 2013 issue of Poetry capitalizes on that talent; a section called “Antagonisms” invites poets to “write short pieces about some ostensibly great poet they had never really liked, perhaps even hated.” Yet these contributors don’t merely critique poets past; they critique their own critiques. “I apologize to my editors,” writes Daisy Fried in her essay on Charles Baudelaire. “I’ve developed an aversion to my aversion.” “No sooner had I agreed to air my resistance to Elizabeth Bishop than I got cold feet,” writes Ange Mlinko.

Michael Robbins shares this ambivalence, but wishes he didn’t. He yearns to really loathe Dylan Thomas:

All that’s at stake for Thomas is whether his self-pity has been gorgeously enough expressed. And it has. That’s what I hate most about Thomas: if you care about poems, you can’t entirely hate him. Phrases, images, metaphors rise from the precious muck and lodge themselves in you like shrapnel.

At his most artistic, Robbins suggests, Thomas is as painful and dangerous as artillery. Why might the good pieces in Thomas stick in us so uncomfortably, and why should Robbins want to hate Thomas so totally? Is vacillation more awkward than conviction? Is total adoration or abhorrence of a poet even possible?

Laura Kasischke’s evaluation of Wallace Stevens is similarly complex. Her hatred of the poet seems to turn, rather quickly, into self-hatred:

I know only too well that it is my own failings as a reader, a thinker, a poet, and a human being that I don’t like the work of Wallace Stevens….I’ve read Wallace Stevens, and I’ve taught Wallace Stevens, and I know that as a poet and a thinker I am not the equal of even the pad of paper on which his secretary jotted down his poems during those torture sessions at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. I’m sure that it’s a character flaw of my own…..

Behind this comical self-deprecation lurks an idea that many take seriously: since certain poets are objectively great, it is wrong to dislike them. What do you make of this notion? Don’t differences in taste guarantee divided opinions even of vaunted writers like Shakespeare or Keats? Don’t clashes in opinion merely signify that the poet is being taken seriously?

And how do you react to such dislikes of your own? Do you keep them secret, or broadcast them proudly?

Another option might be to pretend someone else holds your controversial attitude: when Kasischke critiques Stevens, she often does so in the voice of an imaginary third party rather than herself. “Nuncle,” this person says, “you must reconsider this hoo-hoo-hoo and shoo-shoo-shoo and ric-a-nic. And, of course, ‘cachinnation’ is going to require yet another footnote, you know. Maybe just say ‘loud laughter’?” The use of quotation is telling: it suggests an effort to distance herself from her own contentious opinion.

So does the ringing endorsement of Stevens that concludes the piece; Kasischke labels “Postcard from the Volcano” “a poem for the ages, one of the greatest.” Similarly, in his essay on D. H. Lawrence, Peter Campion pauses to praise his object of disaffection (“‘Humming-Bird’ and ‘Almond Blossom’ must equal any of the anthology chestnuts.”) And Ange Mlinko quotes a friend who loves Bishop as Mlinko herself cannot: “People are attracted to her natural, conversational style. It undercuts her cerebralism. Her modesty makes her braininess ok.”

In the thick of critique, why do we utter kindnesses? Do they simply reflect the nuances of our views? Or our wish to be fair? Or our fear of criticism from those who love the poet we hate? (Mlinko worries that Bishop fans will question her “judgment,” her “refinement.”) Or could it be something more mystical—a terror of retribution at the hands of the dead immortals? (Peter Cole remarks: “Why did I have such a hard time coming up with an ‘antagonism’ to write about for Poetry? Do the dead bite back?”)

Or might it be that love and hate, two of our strongest emotions, are more intimately linked than we tend to assume? Cole describes leaning into his antagonisms “until they give way at a certain point like a secret door-in-the-wall to enthusiasm.”

Or perhaps the explanation is more straightforward. As Cole notes later, “Enthusiasms are easier."

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