The Book Club

The Gentle Corruption of Academia

Dear James Woods,

Are you being too harsh about John Hollander? Alas, no. I fear you have described his work quite fairly. Hollander’s case is the most perplexing among the poets under discussion. He is so conspicuously gifted with intelligence, erudition, wit, and verbal dexterity. If the Muse chose great poets by reviewing résumés, Hollander would get the job. Parnassus, however, is not won by competitive exam. The sad truth–sad, that is, for intellectuals–is that intelligence is not enough for an artist. Too much intellect may even get in the way. An intellectual tries to think through problems directly by force of reason. But in poetry, thought, emotion, intuition, imagination, and physical sensation must collaborate holistically. Sometimes the indirect route is the surest way to an assignation with the Muse. The best poets also know that what is not said can be almost as evocative as what is said.

Hollander, however, has succumbed to the academic vice of leaving nothing unsaid. He cannot resist glossing his own poems as he writes them, leaving the reader with nothing much to do but listen politely. He rarely treats the reader as an equal whose attention is not passive but collaborative. Academic writers risk a gentle and gradual corruption from their professional duties. Their job is essentially to address–repeatedly and at length–a captive audience of subordinates. But the reader of poetry is not a captive, especially today when so many enticing and easy alternatives exist. A poet can successfully seduce, mesmerize, entertain, console, or delight a reader, but a writer runs a great risk by lecturing one at length.

A huge problem with contemporary poetry, as I mentioned yesterday, is its unabashed verbosity. There is hardly a poem in Figurehead that would not be twice as good at half the length. (There are so many clever ideas, beautiful lines, and striking observations buried in the verbal clutter.) But Hollander seems unable to cut any of his B-budget lines to give his A-budget passages room to shine. He out-Victorians the Victorians: His reply to Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is more than twice the length of the original, and all of its considerable ingenuity dissipates in endless palaver. Isn’t it ironic that the best poem in this book of intricate formal work (including sapphics, haiku, ghazals, and assorted varieties of couplets) is probably the title piece, “Figurehead,” which is in free verse? Having complained about Figurehead at such length, I will probably seem perverse in saying that I still admire Hollander. His intelligence and learning are values I revere. Perhaps that is why his brilliant but soulless peroration disappoints me so much.

Before I turn to the next book, let me confess that you are quite correct to question my definition of “style” in regard to Merwin. I plead guilty to using the term in the impoverished sense currently employed in creative writing circles. In the traditional sense, style refers to the total manner in which a writer uses language to express himself or herself. This theory assumes that a fine writer not only develops a characteristic and individual manner of expression but also creates one that perfectly matches the stylistic means to the artistic ends.

Nowadays that hopelessly idealistic notion has been replaced by a utilitarian attitude. In the poetry subculture, “style” means an easily identifiable set of linguistic mannerisms. Several decades back there was a poet who became famous because he put a comma after every word. (No, I’m not making this up.) He was a true pioneer of contemporary Po-Biz. Today there are poets celebrated because a knowledgeable reader can immediately recognize their work on the page by the typographical arrangement. Such style has the added advantage of not requiring a person to read the poem but only to see it. Needless to say, in a busy age with too many poets, a reading-free style offers an inestimable competitive edge.

Now on to our next poet. As I reread Philip Levine’s The Mercy yesterday, I began wondering why the author had written yet another book about the bad old days in Detroit. Levine has published 18 poetry collections in the past 36 years, and almost all of them center on his youth in Depression-ravaged, industrial Michigan. A novelist might reuse the same terrain with new plots and characters, but Levine’s work is mostly autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical. (“Some of this is true,” he confides unhelpfully.) Hasn’t he run out of things to remember and lament? I was not dismissing Levine’s work for this obsession. As Henry James says, we must grant the writer his “donnée.” But I couldn’t help wondering about Levine’s imaginative motivation.

Then it occurred to me how externally ordered and predictable the life of a contemporary academic poet has become, especially a highly successful one. Since Merwin raised the specter of Villon, let’s momentarily resurrect him–not as a paradigm but for the sake of comparison. Villon spent time in prison and narrowly avoided hanging on at least two occasions. He joined a secret criminal society, killed a priest in a brawl, repeatedly endured exile, and who knows what else before disappearing at 31. It is no wonder that a poet like Levine (who has a touch of Villonesque roguery in him) instinctively returns to the most uncertain and difficult period of his life.

By now Levine’s Detroit has become as much a mythic landscape as a real American metropolis. I was reminded of the recent phantasmagoric film Dark City, in which the huge, brooding cityscape mysteriously shifts shape each night–street by street, building by building–to reflect the changing memories of its imprisoned inhabitants. Levine’s dark satanic automobile-mills represent projections of his own early traumas more than historical depiction of early post-war industrial life. His companions are invariably white ethnics, blacks, or old immigrants who lead doomed lives on the mean streets of a mostly nocturnal city. Levine is an urban existentialist who sees no victory over life, only defiance and anarchism. Chief among the defiant ones is the author himself, who appears somewhere in virtually every poem, mostly now as a survivor. “I only am alone escaped to tell thee.” And tell us he does. The Mercy is one overlapping elegy for crushed ambition and unanswered prayers.

All of this melancholy retrospection rather appeals to me, at least in principle. I am a sucker for the epic urban brooders–Dickens on his night-walks or Cavafy lost in erotic reveries. I feel a hometown attachment to Eliot’s “Unreal City,” Baudelaire’s “cité pleine de rêves” and even James Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night.” And my father grew up in one of the tough, working-class, immigrant Detroit neighborhoods Levine describes. Why then do I so often find myself resisting The Mercy? At least two reasons come to mind. First of all, Levine’s Detroit poems have become formulaic (however smoothly the author applies that formula). It’s déjà lu all over again. Levine has done it before in book after book in much the same language and images. But ultimately, it is the language itself I can’t connect to on a deeper level. Levine writes forcefully and precisely. The poems are carefully shaped in ways that make both emotional and logical sense. (The logic of emotion is, after all, one of Levine’s big subjects.) The trouble is that the language always seems on the verge of catching fire but hardly ever does–except at the end. Levine ends poems wonderfully, but by then I have distanced myself. I can follow the poem moment by moment, but the language never draws me inside it. In some of his earlier work, like the nightmarish poem “They Feed They Lion,” he leaves me mesmerized, but not in the new book.

There is more to say, but I’ve already risked becoming the poster-boy in my own “Stamp Out Prolixity” campaign. Tell me I’m wrong about Levine. We really do need to disagree about something.

Disagreeably (I hope) yours,

Dana Gioia