The Book Club

Regularly Scheduled Passionate Intensity

Dear James Wood,

Yes, Charles Wright is a far more interesting case. Appalachia represents a certain style of modern verse that Wright has refined and distilled into a contemporary version of poesie pure–poetry, that is, that aspires to the conditions of music, so pure that it has shed all the mundane trappings of prose.

I don’t think it is possible to discuss Wright’s poetry responsibly, however, without addressing the issue of obscurity. He is a deliberately opaque and indirect poet. He writes in what an Italian critic would call the “hermetic” style. This “occult” manner is the difficult, high style of Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana, two modern Italian poets whose work Wright has translated. In American terms, Wright’s approach fits–nowadays almost anachronistically–under the rubric of the “High Modernist” mode. The strongest influences on his style seem to be Pound and Montale (with little touches of middle-period Donald Justice, who was Wright’s teacher at the University of Iowa). Reading Wright, in fact, often reminds me of poking around in Pound’s later Cantos, and I experience similar mixed feelings of pleasure, frustration, exultation, and bewilderment.

Now there is nothing wrong in principle–you may disagree–with difficult or even obscure poetry. A poet’s methods should not be judged in advance, only retrospectively from the results. Literary history suggests that certain methods improve an artist’s odds of success, but there are always lucky or divinely touched individuals, like William Blake or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who find their own weird way to Parnassus. In the right hands, evocative obscurity is mother’s milk to me, and difficulty my delight. I adore Friedrich Hölderlin, Georg Trakl, Rainier Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Eugenio Montale, T. S. Eliot, and Osip Mandelstam. This is clearly the sort of company Wright wants to keep. And who can blame him?

I have a simple philosophy on poetic difficulty. If a poem withholds its central meaning or imaginative impulse on the surface, then it must clearly communicate that meaning in other ways. The more obscure the surface, then the more powerful must be the subtext. The verbal music and emotional tonality of a poem must carry the reader intuitively across every gap on the intellectual level. If a reader is not allowed to see a path through a poem, then it must be possible to feel the way. The modern poets from Baudelaire on understood this principle of imaginative balance. Look at the famously formidable Eliot. “The Waste Land” may be an intellectually difficult poem, but it is not an emotionally obscure one.

Back on Monday you cleverly lifted a phrase from Yeats to discuss what was missing from John Hollander’s latest book–“passionate intensity.” I’m not sure that “passionate intensity” stands as a universal requirement for all poetry, but certainly it remains a prerequisite for all genuine lyric poetry, which is the only sort that Wright endeavors to create. In regard to Appalachia, I think the question is not whether Wright’s poems offer “passionate intensity” but whether the reader can meaningfully connect with them.

To discuss a poet who so completely resists paraphrase as Wright does, a critic really must quote a complete poem. Here is one of the strongest poems in the new book:

Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
I wish I were a mole in the ground,
                                                     eyes that see in the dark.

Attentive without an object of attentiveness,
Unhappy without an object of unhappiness–
Desire in its highest form,
                                       dog prayer, diminishment …

If we were to walk for a hundred years, we could never take
One step toward heaven–
                                         you have to wait to be gathered.

Two cardinals, two blood clots,
Cast loose in the cold, invisible arteries of the air.
If they ever stop, the sky will stop.

Affliction’s a gift, Simon Weil thought–
The world becomes more abundant in severest light.

April, old courtesan, high-styler of months, dampen our mouths.

The dense and moist and cold and dark come together here.

The soul is air, and it maintains us.

Wright’s virtues are immediately apparent. He has a singular talent for compact, powerful phrasing (something you notice, too). I also admire his suave free-verse line. His Poundian versification lacks what you yesterday so nicely phrased “lateral pressure,” but nonetheless the lines have a rhythmic solidity. I find rather too many echoes of other authors in this poem. (Don’t you hear the shades of Roethke, Eliot, and Rilke haunting the first six lines?) But perhaps the Modernist mode thrives on such ghostly visitations.

For me, the real problems start appearing in line 11 (“two cardinals, two blood clots”). This violent image signals some sudden emotional and intellectual shift that I can neither understand nor feel. The next stanza (the Simone Weil one) shifts back to the poem’s opening idea. Okay, I get that gesture, but then the poem dissolves into three seemingly unconnected clusters of imagery. The three one-line stanzas at the end call too much attention to themselves without being able to reward it. The penultimate line is not only obscure but unredeemably awkward: “The dense and moist and cold and dark come together here.” That’s a true clunker. Then the poem ends with one of those highly “poetical” flourishes you hate so much–lovely but vague language. I wouldn’t call it “fakery,” as you do, but it does seem too self-consciously precious.

This poem demonstrates Appalachia’s allure, but it also reveals the central issue with Wright’s hermetic style. He creates a concise, polished poetic surface full of resonant phrasing and evocative observation. (Wright’s compression comes as such a relief after Hollander’s inflated verse.) The individual ideas are interesting. But the poems in Appalachia cannot communicate a “passionate intensity” strong enough to pull all the bright individual moments together. Wright’s style is urgent but his tone is oddly relaxed. The poems are beautiful but languid and noncommittal. Ultimately, the author at some deep level is too coy, reserved, or genteel to tell us what lies at the center of his vision. Yes, we catch all Wright’s religious musings and allusions, but what cogent underlying spiritual vision unites them? The reader sees the shining cathedral on the hill, but there is no path up to it and no doorway in. I know what Wright’s poems say, but I don’t feel what they mean–at least as a whole. I am quite aware that textual cohesion and integrity are supposedly antiquated concepts in this post-modern and deconstructed age, but they remain the sine qua non of lyric poetry.

So here we are, my invisible correspondent, in the embarrassing situation of agreeing again. Using a different set of literary assumptions, I’ve ended up with similar conclusions to yours about Appalachia. There can only be two possible conclusions about our astonishingly synchronous evaluations this week. We are either dead right about these books or we have developed telepathy.

One final thought about the poets under review. Did you notice how wildly prolific our four male poets have been? (Adair here, as in everything else, has done things differently.) Merwin has published 17 poetry collections (plus twenty-odd volumes of verse translation and poetic prose). Hollander, by my count, has issued at least 18, Levine 18, and Wright 13. (And Wright didn’t start publishing until 1970!) Their astonishing rate of productivity becomes more alarming when one remembers that they are writing almost exclusively lyric poetry. Did even Goethe publish 18 volumes full of lyric poetry? I can’t help believing that overproduction is deeply connected to the weakness in their poetry. No wonder they lean so hard on style. It is hard to put “passionate intensity” on a regular schedule.

Out of curiosity I examined the careers of some exemplary modern and contemporary poets. Here are a few quick comparisons. Larkin, an extreme case admittedly, published only 4 collections in his lifetime. Bishop brought out 5, Jarrell 8, and the manic Lowell only 12. Even Frost, who lived till 88, published only 12 collections, and that tally includes both his verse dramas and several versions of his Collected Poems. There is no time to explore this idea, but I can’t resist noting it.

Did you manage to write your parody? I hope so. It would be a snazzy way to conclude. I can’t tell you how refreshing the candor of our conversation has been.

And the rest is silence,
Dana Gioia