The Book Club

Several General Conclusions

Your summation is distinguished, and prompts me to several general conclusions about the disappointing poetry we have read this week. Unsurprisingly, the tendencies that weaken the poems by Merwin, Levine, Hollander, and Wright (again, putting aside Virginia Hamilton Adair, that Californian canary with her sentimental tweeting) are tendencies visible in contemporary fiction, too. The most striking, which can be seen above all in Levine and to a lesser extent in Merwin, is a linguistic thoughtlessness that produces flat, stony prose which is then optimistically carved into lines and called verse. In fiction, this kind of flatness is much more widespread; it is hard to find a contemporary novelist with a true style, something that represents a pondered essence.

Again and again, I open a novel and fine the most ordinary, managerial language. For instance, if you have the misfortune to see Paul Schrader’s ridiculous, bombastic and sentimental film Affliction, from a novel by Russell Banks, listen to the voice-over spoken by Willem Dafoe at the end of the film. Perhaps Dafoe, or Schrader, think that the words being spoken are etched and angular in their renunciation of richness. They are not, of course; they are just ordinary ugly sentences. (Banks is a dead-ordinary novelist, the Philip Levine of the fiction-world).

Well, what fun this is, spinning my Catherine wheel of insults and showering whomever I please! Both Levine and Merwin use a language that might benefit from a little extravagance. But then, extravagance–or call it solemnity, gravity - of occasion, of diction, of thought, is painfully absent from all four of the poets I am discussing. You rightly mention the sheer fecundity, even prolixity, of these writers. And this is not surprising, because they consider a poem nothing more than a page torn from their mental chapbooks. Levine gives us yet another of his loose memories from Michigan; Hollander copies down some fancy quotes for us, and spins a clever little web around them; Merwin gives us his eighty-fifth sensation of the day, mentions the smell of the ginger and the sound of the bamboo, and then gives us his eighty- sixth; and Wright lets us know what he has been reading recently.

It does seem to me that these poets suffer by living in an anti-Romantic hollow, when the lyric occasion is no longer a noble and high thing, (let alone a public thing) but has been banalized and domesticated. Keats wrote about reading Chapman’s Homer, and ran around to his friend and patron the next morning in a high fever; the contemporary poet opens the refrigerator door and has an epiphany, thinks of something Simone Weil said, sees a pretty tree in the garden, and then writes it down. You recall that John Updike writes poetry? If you look at Updike’s verse, you see a perfect unwitting parody of the weakest contemporary verse - the banal occasion, the “clever” observation, the soft consolation in a purely aesthetic sensation (“the miraculous knit of his jockey shorts” as Updike absurdly wrote in Toward The End of Time) the mild emotional tenor, the fancy language. When this anti-Romantic domesticisation is combined with a sense of belatedness and exhaustion - our sense that Modernism has had its revolution and we are merely the government officials who grayly survived, as it were – you get poetry like the kind we have been reading.

However, we shouldn’t tear our clothes too much; I doubt that any of the poets we have discussed will survive my lifetime, and that is hardly surprising: it would be unnatural to expect four poets from each decade, let alone each year, to survive Dr Johnson’s hundred-years test.

What might a hypothetical Levine-Merwin-Hollander-Wright poem look like? I can’t resist a cheeky parody:

Memories of East Street and Leibniz

(– after Lowell’s “Memories of West Street and Lepke”)

Asthmas of memory, constrictions of retrospect…
I struggle to breathe the old smells and sights,
Lowell’s “rich air”…
It was only yesterday when Duggsy Franz, who ran
Franz’s Car Depot on East Street yelled to me
About Leibniz and his “godawful” book,
“The Theodicy”. The light fell in a flat pool, as if
The sun were
Jove’s bedside lamp,
And I thought then, as I think now, that God
Honors us in his fine withdrawal.
Today, January 14th 1999, the hepatica outside
Is a version of God, unknowable, blinding, unbreathable.
It is always the same problem, as Tertullian wrote, the same veil.

Yours sincerely,
James Wood