The Book Club

Poets Who Loved Their Mothers

Dear Dana Gioia,

You are quite right about W.S. Merwin, who seems a negligible poet on the evidence of The River Sound. He should be used in high schools as an argument for punctuation (he has apparently never met a period he liked). I would slightly adjust your complaint that the problem with poets such as Merwin is that they are “obsessed with style.” They seem to be not obsessed enough with style; though of course, even to discuss “style” as an entity separable from a poem or from the poetic is to try to separate the dancer and the dance.

What style exactly, what precision of application, does Merwin bring to the way he is currently writing poetry? He doesn’t write a poem; he mislays one. He wanders out into his garden in Hawaii, inhales “wet leaves fragrance of ginger and kamani / the feel of the path underfoot,” decides that it’s all very beautiful, and then ends the poem by breaking it off arbitrarily–“a moment ago in our life together”–with the apparent hope that the lack of a period will make the line look glamorously naked, that it will dangle in urgent forlornness on the page, a little orphan of free verse. Shklovsky talked about the “zero ending” of Chekhov’s stories, the fade into anti-climax, the unsolving resolution; but Merwin’s poems always invite the question: “Why are you ending here? Why not continue for another two or three thousand lines?” His poems are strangely amnesiac, as if they had just run out of memory, like a car out of gas, and forgotten how to continue.

In Merwin’s poems, there is rarely felt the pressure of any kind of meter, or the jolt of any suddenly electric phrase. The prefect of formalism has never addressed these lines. They’re just soft. The lack of punctuation simply allows Merwin to say everything twice. For instance, the poem “Chorus,” which begins:

The wet bamboo clacking in the night rain
Crying in the darkness whimpering softly

Now, this is just bad writing. The sentimentality of the idea of bamboo crying curdles into the vulgarity of “whimpering softly.” And Merwin has more: The bamboo makes sounds “from before there were voices/ gestures older than grief from before there was/ pain as we know it…” Again, the lack of punctuation merely licenses Merwin’s dribbling sentimentality (“gestures older than grief”–well, how would he know?). So Merwin might profitably attend rather more deeply to style, no?

I understand your point, of course, as a proper roar against the watery content of these poems. On the other hand, John Hollander is evidence that you can attend finely to style, be indeed a magus of formalism, possess a mind beautifully carpeted with every fabric and texture of literacy–and still write boring, indeed sometimes intolerable, poems. I hope that I am not being too naughty here (well, of course, I really hope the opposite). I am aware of Hollander’s awful distinction, of the quotes and blurbs that cling like fertilizing spores to his books. But he makes me think of Proust’s lovely sentence in Contre Sainte-Beuve, that to praise a novelist for being “intelligent” is no more than to say: “He loved his mother”–a biological inevitability, and merely the premise of a work of art. Hollander is intelligent, very intelligent, but how does it avail him?

The poems in his new book, Figurehead, are essentially poems about language and meaning. All are clever, some even true, but how rarely he moves one! This is partly because he is an academic poet, and more than this a deconstructive one, for whom “texture” is always “itself becoming/ Text,” as he has it in “Arachne’s Story.” When Hollander looks into a fire (as he does in his poem “Fire!”) he has to mention Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire , and then wearily remind himself and us that “still we … ply old tropes of/ Heat and Light and all those tradeoffs…” Yes, oddly enough, we do still ply such tropes as heat and light, especially when fire burns us. This isn’t philosophical thought, or even deconstructive thought (though in another poem we are treated to the excruciating “a trope/ Of a trap”); it is donnish muttering, dreaming itself as a discourse of sophistication and rigor.

Too often, Hollander kills the passion–kills the poetic–from a poem by academic self-consciousness. He is like the millipede in Meyrinck who discovers he has a thousand legs and then suddenly can’t move an inch (a rather Hollander-ish allusion, in fact). One senses a real lyrical impulse–for instance in the rather fine title poem–being strangled by an anxious academicism. And again, I must stress that the problem is not intellectualism–of which we can’t have enough–but academicism. Take the end of his poem, “Getting From Here to There,” which plays with a word-game from Lewis Carroll:

As the text says, we all start out from dust
And passing through (inevitably!) lust
We might move right to “dust” again, at last.

The Lewis Carroll game involves moving from one word to another via a word that is similar to both origin and terminus: thus, in the lines above, we go from “dust” to “last” via “lust,” which shares aspects of each word. Hollander is implying that just as we do this in language, so we do this in life, moving from the dust of our beginning through the genesis of our lust, to our “last,” the final end, which is dust again. But there are several reasons why these lines are not moving, or even resonant. First, Hollander makes his observation within the limiting context, precisely, of a word-game, and by the end of the poem we have had to endure several really dreadful word-games such as this:

One hears such stories with one’s eyes unwet:
She woke up one day and found that the Tet
Offensive had left her widowed with a tot

But more than this, even within the language-game, Hollander must apparently apologize for daring such unfettered statement. Twice, in two lines, he excuses himself: “As the text says … (inevitably!) …” The giggling parenthesis is unfortunate. This is the writing of someone who is afraid of “passionate intensity.” One inevitably compares these lines on dust and death with George Herbert’s simple, strong, direct lines:

Love bade me welcome
But my Soul drew back
Guiltie of dust and sinne.

 Hollander, on the other hand, with his hedging about “texts” and “tropes,” his clever puns and phrases in French and German (he uses “vaut le voyage” and helpfully tells us in his notes that this phrase is “high praise for a restaurant in the Michelin Guide”), his theoretical interrogations, just produces a kind of campus stutter. No “thought-tormented music,” this; rather, it is a “thought-pleased music.”

Curiously, it is the esteemed John Hollander, a fine critic, a fine mind and a decidedly disappointing poet, who most obviously measures the gap between the present age and ages past. Am I too harsh?

Yours sincerely,

James Wood