The Book Club

Elegy for Smyrna Figs and a Heart-Battering God

Dear Dana Gioia,

So, we agree on W.S. Merwin’s book: No good. And John Hollander’s: Not good enough. And now our little antiphon of agreement continues with Philip Levine: No good at all.

I am a critic of fiction, largely, and so I come to some of these poets for the first time: and their badness deflowers me. I had never read a word by Philip Levine until I picked up this new book, and it was a shock to see Levine’s earlier work bathed in blurbs from Harold Bloom and the like. (A quick note on Bloom. A great critic, I think, with absolutely no taste in poetry. Why should I believe any praise by a critic of poetry who fails to see anything remarkable in T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, and Robert Lowell? I mean, it’s one thing to praise John Ashbery’s 540th book, or whatever it is, but to do this while simultaneously excluding Lowell and Berryman from his favored account of post-war American poetry? He’s simply not trustworthy. Do you recall Frank Kermode’s deliciously mild rejoinder, in that book of interviews with literary theorists by Imre Salusinszky? The interviewer says to Kermode: “Bloom dismisses Larkin, but at least Bloom has read him.” And Kermode replies: “Well, he may not have read him. It seems to me that anybody that knows about poetry cannot really read Larkin and dismiss him.”)


Anyway, Bloom aside, Levine’s poetry deserves no friends. For one thing, it isn’t poetry. He selects a dismal memory of his early life in Detroit, stumbles across the most obvious words, and then shuffles it into broken lines. But it has no meter, no pressure, no grasp of what line-breaks exist for, and no extravagance. It’s the opposite of Keats’ “fine excess;” it’s a blank minimum. Even as prose it would be dull. Every so often, he seems to recognize his own inadequacy as a writer, and then tries to make an awkward joke about it:

Hungry and cold, I stood in a doorway
On Delancey Street in 1946
As the rain came down. The worst part is this
Is not from a bad movie.


Later in the same poem, called “Once,” in which he calls himself “a kid from a small town with big ideas” (how did his editor let this stuff see the light of day?), he writes:

Gatsby said if Detroit is your idea
Of a small town you need another idea,
And I needed several.

How true! Alas, he doesn’t have several. In poem after poem, he rolls out the same muddy carpet of flat prose broken into entirely arbitrary lines and gray adjectives and adverbs:

I lived alone in a one-room,
Walk-up apartment across
From the Catholic seminary
On Lawton.

I think that Levine could return again and again to this material with impunity if he were a better poet. In fiction, Bellow has described and redescribed Chicago, with streaming radiance. But then, when Bellow describes a man’s foot, say, he sees the toes “pressed together like Smyrna figs.” Levine sees waitresses who “flirted shamelessly.” Always the most obvious word, the most obvious detail. Ugh.


Now: What on earth–or in heaven–is one to make of the angelic and tweetering Virginia Hamilton Adair, and her bare ruined choirs? You are right that she seems to have been writing poetry in a strange parallel universe of her own. But, alas, it’s not an appealing universe is it? There are perhaps three pleasant, slight, stripped poems in her new book, Beliefs and Blasphemies. The rest is a dreadful confection of religious sentimentality and cozy homilies. It’s an insult to both believers and blasphemers to give this book the title it has. Adair’s blasphemy is babyish; and her belief is simply infantile. Her idea of formalism seems to be that poetry rhymes, preferably in AABBCC lockstep. Apart from her rhyming, and a certain commitment in the early poems to blank verse, her poetry has no other very remarkable formal pressure: The lines are flat, the language is a peaceable ghost.


And the thought, the thought! Her sentimentality and Christian whimsy gum her poems with syrup. Take “Timing,” which I quote in its entirety:

How can we say “I’m sorry” to the dead?
Say it to God and hope he’ll pass it on?
Perhaps it’s best to get the “sorry” said
Before the injured ones are dead and gone.

Did I read this on a page of paper in a book, or was that paper made of card–Hallmark card? This kind of feeble-mindedness makes one wish that Auden were alive, so that he might bitchily review it. Or take this, “Saving the Songs,” again quoted in its entirety:

Said Luther of the singing in saloons,
“Why should the devil have the choicest tunes?”
He therefore, unless history is a liar,
Moved the best tunes from taproom into choir,


Though some are shocked, the controversy dims
When all the world sings lusty Lutheran hymns.
God’s in His heaven, Christmas cheer in barrels,
And ‘round the world, the lovely Lutheran carols.

I would like to report that Adair intends this poem ironically, but I fear not. Adair writes ditties, not poems. Even her longer things, such as “If and What,” are ruined by a sentimentality that reduces Christianity to what she calls “Having tea with God, companionable.” Now, I was brought up in a sternly evangelical household, in England, and I have a hostility to organized Christianity that perhaps renders me a prejudiced reader of Christian poetry. I love George Herbert, for instance, but those moments when Herbert eventually bows his head and surrenders, generally at the close of the poem, somewhat sicken me. Yet Adair’s failures are not just at the level of her thought, which is null, but at the level of the literary. Eliot showed, in “The Journey of the Magi,” that fine, devout poetry can be written. But Adair is not devout; she is trivial. Her kind of belief gives belief a bad name. Take the end of her poem “His Mother,” for instance, in which she imagines the Virgin Mary as an ordinary Mom who sees her son die on the cross, and then goes home to give the disciple John his tea. Adair’s last verse imagines Mary talking about Jesus:

Her most difficult kid,
she always said,
but what a darling!
Something about him too good
For this lousy world.
Don’t forget him. Don’t forget my boy–
His beautiful voice
saying those strange things.
He could be right, you know,
in the long run.

Yesterday, we measured the gap between George Herbert and John Hollander. Today, we are suspended across the gigantic chasm that separates Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” and “but what a darling!” Jeez … I need a bath in impurity.

Yours sincerely,

James Wood