In defense of William Logan’s criticism

Eight years ago I wrote a review of Logan’s poetry and part of the reason was that while Logan has made a career of critiquing contemporary poetry, and infuriating just about every last contemporary poet, his own poetry, for whatever reason (though I have my suspicions) seems all but ignored (though I did find a review of Rift of Light here).

“William Logan is widely admired as one of our foremost masters of free verse as well as formal poetry; his classical verve conjures up the past within the present and the foreshadowings of the present within the past.  In their sculptural turns, their pleasure in the glimmerings of the sublime while rummaging around in the particular, the poems in Rift of Light, Logan’s eleventh collection, are a master class of powerful feeling embedded in language.”

This is the ad copy from the back matter of the book. Like so many poetry books these days, the ad copy has become so overstated as to defy satire—each having to outdo the last with ever more grandiose claims of unrivaled importance. The staggering testaments to heartbreaking genius are legion. But I can tell you with staggering certainty that Mr. Logan is not widely admired as one of our foremost masters of free verse nor, heart breakingly, as a master of formal poetry. Of the public who has read Logan’s critical work, I would be surprised if more than a small fraction knew that he is also a published poet; and that fraction probably represents every poet he has ever barbecued.

And what does it even mean to be a “master of free verse”? There’s an argument to be made that one can be a master of formal poetry because there’s a prosody attached to traditional forms like rhyme and meter. One can objectively compare one poet’s skill with rhyme and meter with another’s, but the same can’t be said for free verse. There’s no prosody of free verse. Each poet makes up their own “prosody” along with their own valuation of said prosody. In short, to be a master of free verse is akin to making up ones own quiz and scoring an A+. Are we shocked? William Logan himself beautifully addresses this very sticking point:

If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.

With a traditional poet, one can say that while the content of their poetry may be compelling, their skills as a formal poet are mediocre. Avoid. But all that’s left to free verse is the poem’s content. What else is there? Is the critic going to critique the lineation? There are other arts common to both poetry and prose, all the various techniques of figurative language including simile and metaphor, but if the writer of lineated prose (as is generally the norm) bypasses figurative language too, then there really isn’t anything to critique other than content. And that’s precisely Logan’s meat and potatoes. Logan is a bitingly brilliant critique of content. And that also probably explains why so much of his criticism can feel personal. It’s one thing to be told that your rhymes are clichéd and your meter thumps like a dog’s hind end, but another that not only is your clever repartee as dull as dried paint, but you are too. Take Logan’s opening paragraph on Billy Collins:

Bill Collins has a sideshow owner’s instinct for hoopla and a taste for one-ring-circus ideas; but his poems are gentle, mild, and awfully dull. It’s like finding that the weightlifter is an accountant and the bearded lady a housewife. He has an unthinking passion for nature that makes you long for a few polluters—his is a nature of continuous and helpless loveliness. In his peaceable kingdom, the mourning doves look like Robert Penn Warren and the titmice like Marianne Moore. Desperate Measures p. 133

I mean, yes? Logan nails Collins; and surely anybody not named Billy Collins has to laugh at that devastating coinage: “one-ring-circus ideas”. Everything after that is piling on. Logan could have stopped there secure in the knowledge that he had summed up the corpus of Collins’s works. That said, Collins gets the last laugh. Americans must love one-ring-circuses. Collins is one of only two contemporary poets, to my knowledge (the other being the late Mary Oliver), to make a living writing poetry. In the late 90’s Collins snagged a six-figure contract from Random House, surely due to the fact that Collins was one of the few poets to write with a sense of humor (hence Logan’s circus-jibe); (and also Kim Addonizio who is fun as all get out). But Collins would probably make a dull critic—much too nice. Logan’s sense of humor is a lowdown dog, a dog that knows just where where the ass-end of his victims’ pretensions are, and how to make us all laugh when he bites. We like that in a critic. We do. In a sense, I suppose, one could argue that the very poets who complain the most bitterly about Logan are the ones most responsible for his creation. And this is my point (and defense of Logan): 20th century poetry, with its naval gazing insistence on the primacy of content—as opposed to the aesthetic qualities of a poem’s language—makes the ideal hunting ground for a critic like William Logan.

But if I were to object to that last paragraph, I would write: Come on. When have poetry critics not addressed the content of poetry? But there was a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) difference. Take Blackwood Magazine’s hostile reviews of Keats, Hunt and the other, as they called them, Cockney poets. The reason for the hostility had to do with the “pretensions” of poets like Keats and Hunt (who had the temerity to think that they could write among the ranks of the nobility, think George Gordon Lord Byron or the aristocratic Shelley). The criticism of Blackwood was an attack on their lower class, cockney, background. That said, the criticism was couched in terms of their poetry’s formal features and less their content—their choice of rhyme and diction. When Coleridge critiqued his erstwhile friend Wordsworth in his Biographia Literaria, it was largely for Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and poetic diction. If you go back further, to the Restoration, you will find Alexander Pope more concerned with technique that content:

    And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
    While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
    With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
    Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
    In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
    If Crystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
    The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.[5]
    — lines 347–353

He criticizes lazy rhymes, pat images, and clichés like “crystal streams”. During the Elizabethan Era, Jonson took umbrage not at the content of Donne’s poems, but that Donne’s Iambic Pentameter was too fast and loose. But getting back to the primacy of content in 20th and now 21st century poetry, there’s an added twist. It’s when the content of a poet’s work is so identified with their politics that critiquing their poetry is tantamount to critiquing their politics and identity. I notice that Logan has never reviewed Maya Angelou. He has reviewed Rita Dove and Logan is very careful to keep his criticism strictly confined to her poetry. He gets her prerogatives as a black poet but her poetry really isn’t that good. Anymore.

Logan has never criticized Maya Angelou, that I’m aware of, and that’s probably because he doesn’t consider her worth reviewing. Another reviewer, Helen Razer, has though. Razer goes to great pains, for example, to reassure the reader that she greatly respects Angelou’s courage, intelligence and activism but, let’s face it, her poems are “almost uniformly shit”. Razer spells it out:

…if I don’t mention how great Angelou the activist thinker was, someone will have me admitted to a hospital for the dangerously miserable. And I won’t effectively urge you to critically read her poems, which are almost uniformly shit. Unlike her activism.

I agree, by the way, with Razer’s estimation of Angelou’s poetry. Every time I hear someone swoon over her poems I cringe for the sake of the art. And yet many do swoon and one has to wonder whether it’s because they know so little about poetry or simply praise the poem because it’s “an Angelou”. One gets the sense that to criticize her poetry is to criticize Angelou unless, like Helen Razer, one goes out of their way to separate their admiration of the person from their condemnation of the poetry. With poets making poetry about themselves, is it any wonder then that they take Logan’s criticism personally? In some sense, can he really even avoid it? In the 50s and 60s confessional poetry was coined both as a genre and as a sobriquet. Poets learned to make their personal lives grist for their poetry, to expose all; and that confessional element continues to inform contemporary poetry. But do poets then get to complain when their personal lives are critiqued? It’s not an ad hominem attack to criticize a poet’s character if that poet has made their character the subject of their poetry. To restate, it’s not resorting “to ad hominem accounts of poets’ personal lives” if those same poets have made their personal lives their poetry. Many poets point to Logan’s ad hominem attack of Stephen Dunn: “Stephen Dunn is a rational man, probably a good husband and father, a generous and genial neighbor, homo suburbanus at his best.” But isn’t this precisely the confessional portrait Dunn has cultivated in his own poetry? I would give examples but Logan does so himself in The Undiscovered Country, p. 184. Likewise, one can’t critique a poet like Sharon Olds, if one gives the least attention to the content of her poetry, without critiquing the poet herself.

Missapplication of intensity is her cardinal vice: everywhere brute shock is taken as a sign of honesty (shock eventually makes the reader shockproof); finally, it becomes just a form of self-promotion. Olds has as many teases as a strip show, and the psychology that drives her poetry is dourly exhibitionist: that is, a form of punishment and abasement. “Loot at me! Look at me!” the poems say, poems of someone never loved enough. ~ The Undiscovered Country pp. 99-100

So, this is in some sense a defense of Logan’s criticism—which I mostly agree with (I do not agree that Frost’s Birches is sentimental tripe for example). If a poet writes formal verse, as AE Stallings does, then Logan will largely critique the verse, but if all a poet gives Logan is their own lineated psychodrama, then their psychodrama shall be Logan’s main course. And rightly so.

upinVermont | April 27, 2021

Something to Think About

No writer should expect their reader to work harder than they do.”

This was a comment I came across, reminding me of my post “Fetishizing Difficulty“. Something every writer and poet might want to think about. There might be readers willing to work harder than the writer, but not many. One can think up exceptions—T.S. Eliot comes to mind. But T.S. Eliot wrote very few poems in his lifetime and had a reputation for working very hard at them, writing wholesale revisions upon revisions. And so if Eliot’s poetry expects much from his readers, it can also be said that Eliot expected much from himself. If ones poetry is simply a cascading string of allusions to autobiographical effects, experiences and literary/artistic footnotes that no reader could possibly be familiar with without reference to the poet’s life and sources, then good luck to that poet finding a reader willing to work harder than they did. The poet who works hard is the one who makes their solitary existence universal and worth the reader’s effort.

The Piety of Formalism?

Way back in 2008 I reviewed one of Dana Gioia’s books. I just edited it. (My writing was a bit more straight-laced back then—and wordier.) And that was because, while noodling around The American Conservative (the closest I get to visiting an alien planet and/or parallel universe) I discovered a new article about Dana Gioia. The article was — odd. Like a couple articles I’ve read there, it managed to make the article’s ostensible subject matter yet another opportunity to piously reflect on the “The Church” (to be fair, the conservative site doesn’t hesitate to lay into conservative commentators). They’re not solely a right wing propaganda outlet.

But back to Dana Gioia. Schmitz, the writer of the article, Dana Gioia’s Timeless Piety, likes him because:

Gioia’s characteristic virtue, like that of Aeneas, is piety. (….) The pious man worships God, serves his country, and honors his mother and father. He remembers the dead. “To name is to know and remember,” Gioia writes in one of his finest poems, and here he repeats the refrain: “Oblivion can do its work elsewhere. Remembrance is our métier. After all, our Muse is the daughter of Memory.”

I’m not sure whether Gioia would necessarily go along with that interpretation, but it suits Schmitz’s narrative. And then Schmitz makes the assertion that has done more to ruin traditional poetry (let alone classical music) than any critique that I know of:

His unpolemical formalism is in part a way of keeping faith with the literary traditions that have shaped and sustained the West, expressed in their highest forms by Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Gioia is Latin not just as an ethnic matter, but in his commitment to an ancient civilization. He is a faithful steward of what Pope Benedict XVI describes as “the treasures of worship and culture … accumulated by the Romans.”

He enlists “Formalism”, or the formalist writer, into the conservative cause. But the more one drills down into this belief, the more insubstantial it becomes. George Gordon Lord Byron had nothing good to say about the the church or its pieties—and he was a blue-blooded formalist. Keats was more a Deist than a Theist (some say a pantheist) and detested the clanging of church bells. Milton is the only poet one could call pious, and Milton rejected the strict formalism (the closed heroic couplets) considered (by conservative Restoration poets) the true analog to the great poetry of classical Greece and Rome. He wrote blank verse instead. No one really knows where Shakespeare came down (some speculate he was Catholic) but he too paid no mind to the classical obsessions of his peer, Ben Jonson, who insisted plays be written according to the “Classical Unities” (and huffed and puffed when bored audiences didn’t appreciate the effort). So if, anything, the great formalist of the past weren’t exactly faithful stewards of worship and culture.

But Schmitz has this to say about piety: “Today the word “piety” is used to describe hollow and sentimental shows of belief. In its ancient and proper sense, however, piety is a noble thing, a disposition of reverence toward those to whom we owe gratitude.”

And this is how literature gets dragged into the mud pit of identity politics—both on the left and the right. The “left” by asserting that a given work’s “canonical status” is primarily a reflection of the author’s gender, skin and entrenched social hierarchies (that art has no intrinsic claim to greatness beyond this); and the “right” by identifying the formal structures in “canonical literature” as intrinsic to great art and as the embodiment of the social hierarchies (formal “structures” in politics and religion) they wish to preserve and reinforce. And then there are the politicized poets and authors who reinforce these associations insofar as it benefits them.

All I can say is: Good grief.

eYe by Howard Fine

Howard Fine, a reader of my blog, sent me one of his books of poetry to review and I have to say, aesthetically, it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve gotten. Each page is a handwritten facsimile. I myself wouldn’t possibly have the patience for this sort of effort. My mind wanders. I would absent-mindedly misspell a word and have to start all over again. I would probably end up writing the book ten times over just to get one printable version. So I admire Fine’s effort, his handwriting, and the neatness and readability of it. This book is a labor of love.

But what are the poems like?

Fine gives meter and rhyme a go and for that I’m grateful, but the end-result is a superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson. Similar to Dickinson’s manner of writing, Fine dispenses with grammatical connectives, omitting definite articles, pronouns and propositions in the name of meter. Fine’s poetry often feels like its made from the limbs and shoots of a grammar tree, held together only by a poem’s thematic material. So you get stanzas like this:

was poor chronicler's lament
is our mere finite sphere
shall far sparkling firmament
may be forever near

labor least to reinvent
worn world as it wanes here
but by conjure and consent
drown known orb in own globed tear
coax Other to appear

What makes me guess this isn’t a peculiarity of Fine’s voice but a concession made to rhyme and meter is that in those poems where there’s neither rhyme nor meter, his grammar and syntax are perfectly normal (less the omission of punctuation):

we brought a box of chocolates
we would have brought flowers
but all the florists were closed

oh what good are flowers?
they only fade

flowers are good
because they fade

Much to my enjoyment, he also wrote a couple poems in German:

aus dem trauern flog ein r
und wohnt der wunde bei
ein ich fragt    was es sei?
sagt ein engel  es war Er!

I was wondering if it should read ein(e)r? or if this was a kind of visual pun (the small ‘r’ corrected to the divine and capitalized ‘Er’)? — but anyways, what’s interesting is that Fine writes the same way in German as in English, the same sort of piecemeal grammar. I’m guessing most readers will simply accept this as a facet of his style. Since it’s something that I pay (possibly too much) attention to, I’m also probably going to be more critical than others. Even so, the downside is that it risks making the poetry feel altogether rhyme-driven and line-driven (the poem as a collection of lines rather than a whole). It risks trading the musicality of idiomatic English for something that sometimes sounds less playful than juvenile.

now west heeds east
by eremite's beach
here sweet tears teach
why best needs least

come share my tent
in neither nor
on this spare shore
from came to went

Or later, he will write a line like “and wonder what this life be worth”. I’m not sure what Fine gains by using “be” instead of “is”. Is it a feint at poetic depth? Is this meant to make us treat the narrator as a pretentious poseur? As it was, I was suddenly finishing the poem in the voice of Hector Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean.

and wonder what this life be worth

the dog returning brought for me
a stag's domed skull    laid at my heel
she knows     thought i    memento mori
though risen now     there yet i kneel

It’s a trade off and a conscious one. Either the reader accepts the stilted syntax or one wishes he had simply written free verse. I personally find myself sometimes, it has to be said, spending more time trying to piece together his grammatical jigsaw puzzles than enjoying the poetry.

why try? could court worse failures
draw blood? no more touch knife
assailed by fear's familiars
jailed   in   contracted life

grow bold! quit taboo's ambit
breathe freely  having fled
cold cell of concrete habit
enforced by bar of dread

Compare this to one of Dickinson’s many inscrutable poems:

Reverse cannot befall
That find Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior
As soon — Adversity

A Diamond — overtake
In far — Bolivian Ground —
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it — if it found —

Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them p. 287

If one is going to be influenced by Dickinson (not just in grammar but hymn meter too) then I’m not sure poems like these represent Dickinson at her best. When Dickinson is read and remembered, and appreciated for her genius, it’s for the poetry that speaks to us in familiar ways and of a world that is not so synechdochic as to be indecipherable.

But enough of that. What about the content of Fine’s poetry? Once you get past the (probably too) seriousness with which I read poetry, one can also read his poems as playful, inventive and enthusiastic—in short, as light verse. The reader seeking traditional poetry that aims for any sort of sublimity won’t find it here. There’s lots of winking, nudging, coy question marks and exclamation points. And not all his poems have that expediently truncated feel to them. You get a little charmer like this:

a natural cat knows how to purr
how to groom her winter fur
how to choose the cutest mice
and skate soft-shoe across new ice

how to scratch      how to sleep
wholeheartedly     but not too deep
and when she meows her ninth goodbye
a natural cat     knows   how to die.

But then at other times his humor can feel a little smug, like someone who laughs at his own joke a little too much and too long:

i knelt by a jamb
that hung no door
felt swung   i am   ajar

got sung till i crossed
through thought and ought
at last   past sense   commence

It’s a mixed bag. Not only is Fine writing to entertain but also, it has to be said, show off. One does get the sense that he wishes to impress with cleverness—a cleverness that sometimes implodes in it’s own too much:

lose ego   lose me    lose smartphone
what's dark   what's whole   what's hominid's?
re-inspire spark     runic sorcery
impish futhork    lyrical surge

sanity enjoyed   small's great while hearts turn
be peace vaporize into outto blackwhite lighght

Writing humor isn’t easy. It’s a curious thing, for example, that Steve Martin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, has little talent for writing humor. Comedic timing means something completely different on the page than on the stage and I’m not sure that Fine altogether succeeds as a humorist or writer of light verse, but his poems do communicate a good-natured and engaging enthusiasm. Fine himself closes the book by writing:

my script now nears its end
i'd love to ad-lib more

And that’s probably the spirit in which to read these poems—as ad-libbing. They’re high-spirited, and never longer than a page. There’s a touch of love and spirituality among them, but Fine doesn’t let either break the overall mood—a sort of pranksterish extroversion. In the end, I think he’d like to leave the reader as light-hearted as his poetry. That’s a wonderful thing, but there’s a serious art that underlies the art of light-heartedness. I think the reader is going to have to be a little indulgent with Fine to fully enjoy him, but I would discourage no one from giving his collection a try.

up in Vermont | March 31 2021

Blackbirds

‘Don’t make him go.’
                ‘I’m not.’
                                ‘He’s only just now
Come in to play.’
                ‘He’d rather be outside, ’
Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside.
He’s old enough to want to help.’
                                ‘Then next year,’
Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table
That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’
‘Let Mary,’ said the father.
                                ‘Mary? Set
The table? Let her help with splitting wood!'
The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older.
Why can’t your daughter?’
                                ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’
‘And does she need to?’
                 ‘Jack did.’
                                ‘Why not ask her?’
‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father.
‘They’re old enough.’
                Just then the boy walked in
Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow
Nonetheless guessing at the argument.
His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’
He asked.
                His mother paused. She’d carried in
The plates and silverware and had begun
To set them.
                ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’
She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough;
I don’t.’
                ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy.
‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help
And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals
Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’
‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father.
                                                The boy
Ran out the door but never having seen
His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked,
Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling
And had already fallen, not in gales
But in that way November snowfalls shroud
The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace
Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard,
Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening
Descending overall but for the dooryard
And lighted house behind the boy. The path
To where the wood was split went first before
The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where
The log length wood was piled. 
                                The closest bay
Stored their discarded toys. Among them were
A tricycle, its rims half buried in
The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds
That just a year ago already would have
Skated November’s early snow—the lettering
Faded and flaking from their slatted backs.
The boy might yet have pulled them out but for
A baby gate that sometime during the summer
Was forced into the only narrow entry
(As if to bar a child’s going in
Or toys from coming out again). The snow
Curled over the metal lip of roof
Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded
Into a ghostly exhalation.
                                Drawing
His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled—
A knee to snow. The middle bay was where
His brother stored his car on blocks. The right
Front block had sunk into the dirt so that
The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy
In nightmares. The car still needed work—
And every day less likely to be done.
The doors, fenders and hood were primed
With spray paint (underneath the priming gray
The paint’s original red) but here and there
The rust was rusting through. But mostly when
His brother visited the car he’d take
A girl along. The boy would want to follow
But every time he’d asked them what they planned
His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play
A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not
Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by
What kind of hide & seek there was to play
Inside a car, made plans some night to follow
And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay
For just a little while and sometimes late
Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss
And laugh as though in seeking they had found
A thousand hiding places. 
                                Another gust
Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans—
Their desiccated eyes were motionless
And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight 
Or the boy passing by.
                                The furthest bay
Was where his father kept the tractor—lights
Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped
And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer
The boy’s father might leave the tractor out
Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb
Into the seat as though he could ignite
The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs
To life again. The metal’s heavy odor
Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like
The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work
Of tractors other than they worked the fields;
And where he would have traveled had it rumbled
To life meant less to him than understanding
What force of architecture moved the steel,
What housed explosions turned the giant wheels
Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ 
His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom—
Too much to call it hate—but let the field
For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay,
And have no livestock. Let it go uncut
Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route
The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’
His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared
A meadow? And there are other reasons
Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them
He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar
So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple
Over the kitchen table just as if
A scythe had lain them down again.
                                The boy hewed
Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown.
He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus
Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged
The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs
Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards
As if they were a final parting breath—
The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle
And motionless.
                Any other day
He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn,
A storehouse of forgotten generations
Who owned the property a hundred years
And more before the boy’s own family.
Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through
The slow haphazard regolith of mice
And straw to find a broken tool half buried:
Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades
And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile
In crates he made himself—half a dozen
He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden
With nail holes. The boy had found foundations
Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings
A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder
What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes
Looking for the long forgotten button 
That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards—
Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee
The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been
More than the lumber worth saving then either
That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber,
The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory),
And the machinery still following
The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments
Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing
Into the sediment. And yet the boy
Will mend their failing joints, imagines them—
Painted and metal polished—renewed
Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not
A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries
From the barn and there stable either ox
Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay
And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard
Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing
And more.
                He followed round the barn’s far corner,
The muddy yard where log-length firewood
Was piled—the time of year the yard
Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields,
Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s
Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge
Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse
Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow
Of early winter.
                The boy had often
Come out this far and been distracted by
The sloping fields, wondering at the world
Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean
Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds
Of incandescent sands and whirlpools
Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales
Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels;
And waters trembling over them like outspread wings.
Their contemplation wakened him; he feared
The dark that sank his bed into their mystery;
The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights,
In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode
The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore,
He’d waken to horizons nothing more
Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, 
A cluttered floor.
                The path veered left between
The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood
As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow,
Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands
Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes
Half shut until the gust rose over top
The roof again as though the barn itself
Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing
As fleetingly as it appeared. 
                                The boy
Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul
Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul
A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather
Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle
Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf
Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust,
Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled,
Stepped back again. A little further on
The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown—
And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled
Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry.
His sister lightly cupped his shoulder,
Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather.
She turned him gently to his back. She leaned
As if unsure; then being sure, she closed
His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she
Nor the boy moved.
                'Okay,' she finally said.
She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand.
'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more.
Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021
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Genius, Hair & Shakespeare

To the right is the image of Shakespeare from Shakespeare in Love. The astute observer will notice, first of all, that he’s rakishly handsome, wears his shirts like all poets do—exuding sexuality—and most importantly, has a full head of hair.

I’ve noticed over the years, even going back to 19th century forgeries, that bardolators just can’t get past the possibility that the greatest genius of the English language was—

bald.

The hairline is always creeping forward as the centuries progress. Not only is Shakespeare’s hairline restored but he gets thinner and ever more rakish until you end up with Joseph Fiennes. And isn’t this how we really want Shakespeare? Young. Beautiful. Dashing. Dangerous.

Consider the hair of Beethoven, Mozart, and Einstein. These were not bald men. They had the hair of genius. Bach is a question mark. He wore a wig, but I’ve always been partial to Mohlman’s modern portrait of Bach. Note though, that Mohlman can’t bare to make Bach bald. Bach’s gray hair is cropped short but he’s not bald. And it’s fair to note that men didn’t wear wigs back in the day because they were bald but because that was the fashion. So Mohlman’s portrait may indeed be what Bach looked like when he was composing music rather than directing the church choir.

Beethoven and Einstein’s hair are the very synecdoches of genius. I had a lover once who ruined my evening by saying: “Have you ever noticed how all the great geniuses have great hair?”

So what’s the news about Shakespeare? As it turns out, the effigy at the Holy Trinity church was not sculpted by Gerard Johnson, after Shakespeare’s death, but by Nicholas Johnson while Shakespeare was very much alive. Not only that, but Nicholas Johnson was probably commissioned by Shakespeare himself. Just today, The Guardian writes:

“The evidence is that this man’s monument – he died in 1615 – was created by a London sculptor whose practice was to travel with the sculptures to see their installation,” Orlin said. “If this sculptor followed his usual practice, he would have been in Stratford some time in the year before Shakespeare’s death. Even if not, his workshop was round the corner from the Globe. It’s highly likely that he would then have seen Shakespeare’s face.”

What this means is that this:

Is very likely a spitting image of Shakespeare in the last year of his life. Not only that, but Shakespeare must have seen and approved of the bust. The 20th century critic, John Dover Wilson, famously described the bust as looking like a “self-satisfied pork butcher”. And as the author of the Guardian article ruefully writes:

“They say you should never meet your heroes, which has been just as well for literature fans who for centuries have been told they would never see an accurate likeness of William Shakespeare.”

So much disappointment. But for every man or woman who looks like a self-satisfied pork butcher, rejoice. You stand in the company of Shakespeare, one of the greatest geniuses of all time—more than a little overweight, bald and wearing an Oxford gown (with no rakish hempen shirt or Gwyneth Paltrow hanging from his lips). But if Shakespeare was an anomaly as far as the hair of genius goes, there’s always Christopher Marlowe to set matters right.

The Fetishizing of Difficulty

Two books that I ordered just came in the mail and they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: Broken Hierarchies by Geoffrey Hill, a massive and über-serious Oxford edition of his collected poetry, and what is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio, an erotically slim, semi-serious, wry and sometimes sex-filled collection of poems. The covers couldn’t be more different. The cover image on Hill’s book is Kokoschka’s “Lorelay”, a painting that manages to combine drowning men with something like deliberate kitsch (a strikingly and unwittingly apropos cover for Hill’s poetry):

And then there’s the cover to Kim Addonizio’s book.

Needless to say, I was immediately attracted to Addonizio’s book. Accuse me of having a fetish, but here’s the thing, which book really attracts the fetishists? I’m going to say Geoffrey Hill’s compendium. Hands down. Nearly every review I’ve read of Hill brings up the subject of his poetry’s “difficulty”. Here you will find a series of quotes from reviews of Hill, and they all, in one way or another, broach the subject. Thomas L. Jeffers for example, writes that “as a philosophical poet, Hill may not be at the level of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (not to mention Goethe or Dante), and not just because he lacks their degree of systematic clarity” where “lacks their systematic clarity” is a wordy euphemism for difficult.

Now when I read poetry, there’s only one question I ask myself: How does the poet use language? The notional and semantic content of the poetry is crucial but not so crucial, to me, as the aesthetics of the poet’s language. Not just aesthetics but I want to sense the poet’s metaphorical genius through their figurative language. A critic is going to read this some day and call me a philistine, but so be it. I read poetry for the poetry, as it were. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy works in translation. The inherent aesthetic beauty of any given language, such as a great poet realizes it, is untranslatable. In the end, as Cervantes said, reading a work in translation is like looking at the backside of a Persian carpet.

There are different kinds of difficulty. There’s the difficulty of Shakespeare who writes the every day but whose figurative thought is so rich in metaphor, whose imagery is so inventive, that one needs footnotes and annotations to fully appreciate it. That’s the “difficulty” of genius and that’s hard work—for the poet. Then there’s the “difficulty” of 20th century poets like Geoffrey Hill (if not a sizable portion of latter-half 20th century poets) whose difficulty is not in the richness of the known but in the obscurity of the unknown. That’s a third rate sort of difficulty that doesn’t rely on intellectual rigor but on trivia—a chough’s memory that builds its nest collecting whatever shiny scrap catches its eye.

XXXII

Composure's fragile citadel betrayed
Common agitations have served us well,
Write-offs as they prevail,
Love-ins destroyed
The Triumph of the Will
Unwilled recall
Kurfürst Leviathan,
Weak celluloid sucked from the can
Go for portraits as if caricatures,
Let us have selfmade greatness plucked by wires.
Must I confess that I'm
Partial to fame,
The grand puff and clatter
Of noble Herr Reuter...

~ Liber Illustrium Virorum p. 716

It’s a tedious difficulty. But it’s the sort of difficulty lauded by poets, critics and reviewers who, having once thought in middle school that all great poetry was difficult (and all great poetry is difficult for a middle schooler) concludes that all difficulty is therefore great poetry; and never matures beyond that adolescent supposition.

I’ve been reading Hill’s book, or skimming (as my reading adjusts to the spirit of his writing). I find him, as one Amazon reviewer put it (referring to his poetry after the early 80s), to be a garrulous bore. His verse is full of trivial sentiments, banalities and rhetorical posturing. It’s no surprise, though, that Oxford is attempting to sell him as the great poet of our generation (and lifetime). Those in the know have been telling us who the great poets were throughout history and have been repeatedly wrong. (Give readers 50 years and they’ll decide.) Prior to 1982, before he started psychotropic drugs apparently, he writes like a poet who understands the difficult art of poetry:

The chestnut trees begin to thresh and cast
huge canisters of blossom at each gust.
Coup de tonnerre! Bismarck is in the room!

Bad memories, seignors? Such wraiths appear
on summer evenings when the gnat-swarm spins
a dying moment on the tremulous air.
The curtains billow and the rain begins

its night-long vigil. Sombre heartwoods gleam,
the clocks replenish the small hours' advance
and not a soul has faltered from its trance.

That is the kind of poetry that greatness is built on (and I’m not referring to the rhymes). If that’s the Hill you want to read, then buy Geoffrey Hill: Collected Poems, published in the 80s. The Hill of the 90s and 00s is a different poet. In the later poems there are moments (to call them passages would be a stretch) of true poetic difficulty, the kind that is difficult for the poet to write and deceptively easy for the reader to read. They are so beautiful (along with the poet’s earlier poems) that they doubtless convince Hill’s editors and reviewers that his bad poetry must be the deliberate kind. How else does one explain such bad poetry? And so we must take his banality seriously.

This is not Duino. I have found no sign
that you are visited by any angel
of suffering creation. Violent
sensitivity is not vision, nor is vision
itself order. (...)
Indecent in turn, let me here interpose
the body of a parenthesis (do we indeed
not know ourselves?). (...)

XCV The Triumph of Love p. 266

And on he goes with such clichés and banalities—”suffering creation”; the banal musings on vision; the feigning depths of his adolescent rhetorical questions. The poem is full of automatic-writing like this—blather. I’ve been reading a lot of William Logan’s criticism lately (because I’m working up a review of his latest book of poetry) and think that Logan gets it right. There’s Logan’s review of The Triumph of Love, which reads like a 20 page apologia and the thing is: Logan really, really, really wants to like Hill. He knows Hill could be a better poet than he became. He recognizes the flashes of brilliance (if not genius); but unlike other reviewers, Logan indirectly states that he won’t be joining the poet’s cult following. Once Logan has served his 20 page tour of duty (having demonstrated his respect for the poet Hill should have been) he dismisses the long poem with one word in a later review—caterwauling.

To get to the difficulty that is the art of writing great poetry, you will, for example, have to read the entirety of Scenes from Comus, all 79 onanistic verses (like little Rorschach tests in your borrowed Playboy) to get to this:

80

While the height-challenged sun fades, clouds become
as black-barren as lava, wholly motionless,
not an ashen wisp out of places, while the sun fades.
While the sun fades its fields glow with dark poppies.
Some plenary hand spreads out, to flaunt an end,
old gold imperial colours. Look back a shade,
Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, over your
left shoulder or mine, absolute night comes
high-stalking after us.

Are the other 79 verses (and the high price tag of the Oxford edition) worth it?—with their little glimpses of that last verse? Ultimately, my own judgement is that Hill was neither a great thinker nor a great poet. He was a competent practitioner of his times possessing too few tools to elevate his competence to greatness. And that brings me back to Addonozio’s collection of poems—as opposite to Hill as road tar to chocolate. I confess, it was Logan’s review of her book that made me buy it. His opening paragraph immediately sold me:

Kim Addonizio is that New Formalist dream girl, a hot babe who can bang out a sonnet on demand. If your vice runs to forms a little more obscure, how can you resist? Her come-on seems to be, “Wouldn’t you like to peek at my sexy little sonnezhino?” ~ The New Criterion

Yes, please.

But don’t be fooled by Logan’s opening paragraph or mine. Addonizio possesses all the gifts that Geoffrey Hill lacks and lacks the one gift that should have made him great. She possesses the story telling gift and gritty realism of a Bukowski, the ease with form of a Richard Wilbur, and Dorothy Parker’s wry and cutting sense of humor. She’s all those things with a tender heart, and that’s probably what differentiates her from all those other poets. What she lacks is that difficulty that makes you want to linger over her lines the way you might linger over Hill’s best lines. There is little figurative language—imagery and metaphor. They are written plainly like a Bukowski if he’d ever bothered to write meter and rhyme. In Missing Boy Blues she describes the murder of a boy, sexually assaulted, and begins with the boy hoping he’ll be discovered before he’s “a few old bones”, then closes with these lines:

Once I asked my mother if God was all over.
I asked if He saw us. I had a high fever—
She said she didn't know, and straightened my covers.

Then she kissed my face, then she kissed my hair.
(Then he tore my pajamas and my legs were bare.)
If you're still looking for me, you won't find me anywhere. 

There’s something disconcerting with Addonizio’s lightness of touch, the rhymes that are as half-hearted as elevator music, and yet it works. There’s a Mother Hubbard nursery-rhyme feel to this verse that tricks the reader into complacency but also, perhaps, speaks to the ease with which these murders happen—how easy it is to not even bother looking for the bones. In the poem Knowledge, written in the second person singular, she seems to address herself in this regard:

even now you're sometimes stunned to hear
of some terrible act that sends you reeling off, too overwhelmed
even to weep, and then you realize that your innocence,
which you thought no longer existed,
did, in fact, exist 

And that describes a poem like Dead Girl, where she nonchalantly describes the benefits of being the dead girl “who show up often in the movies” but always gets to be the “center of attention, the special/desirable, dead, dead girl.” And that’s the way with Addonizio. She likes you to think it’s all fun and games. She could be the woman who’s learned to talk that way to men, to abusers, to other women, to survive, to not give offense when she speaks the truth. I can imagine how she might read those last lines— “the dead, dead girl”— dead repeated twice to make sure she’s been heard. Many of Addonizio’s poems are like that, wanting to please, wanting to put the reader at ease, wanting to make you smile the way her verse smiles—it’s okay—all while she tells you the desperate and unbearable truth before she leaves the room.

She writes about death, love, sex; but not all her poems speak with that innocent wariness. She also turns her wit for narrative and straightforward candor to less morbid use:

There are people who will tell you
that using the word fuck in a poem
indicates a serious lapse
of taste, or imagination,

or both. It's vulgar,
indecorous, an obscenity
that crashes down like an anvil
falling through a skylight

to land on a restaurant table,
on the white linen, the cut-glass vase of lilacs.
But if you were sitting
over coffee when the metal

hit your saucer like a missile,
wouldn't that be the first thing
you'd say? Wouldn't you leap back
shouting, or at least thinking it,

over and over, bell-note riotously clanging
in the church of your brain...

It’s that phrase, “church of your brain” that is snarky perfection, that reminds me of Dorothy Parker and Lord Byron, and that made me laugh out loud. I didn’t laugh once skimming through the whole of Hill’s 936 page book. Not once. What she lacks in “difficulty”, she makes up for with all her other gifts.

It’s a frowned upon game to compare poets and composers: how would you rank them?—who was the greatest?—is Addonizio a better or greater poet than Hill? Immediately your game will be suffocated by the nearest pedant who will remind you (with all the charm and intellectual curiosity of a cloistered nun) that there’s no such thing as better, best or greatness, only taste. But let me put it this way, if the late Hill and Addonizio were to read on the same night at Oxford, would you be standing in line with a gaggle of old Oxford Dons? — or with the students? What’s your fetish?