The Book Club

Welcome to Potemkin Village

Dear James Wood,

A fiction critic like you will get no pity from me. I have been reviewing contemporary poetry for ninety years. At least it feels like ninety years. And if you think that most new poetry is–what is the polite word?–“uneven,” then just look at the criticism. The innocent reader of fiction cannot comprehend how dull, esoteric, and pandering poetry reviewing has become. Most critics never give a negative review. After all, in the small world of American poetry the critic will eventually meet the author. And who knows what writers will be sitting on the next prize committee? It is safer to declare everyone a genius. Reading the smarmy acclaim that fills most literary journals, one would think we live in an age of unprecedented poetic achievement. Welcome to Potemkin Village, Mr. Wood.

It may bring gentlemanly tears to your eyes to learn that even so tenderhearted and soft-spoken a critic as yours truly is often castigated for giving books negative or mixed reviews. The assumption is that contemporary poetry is such an endangered art that no one should criticize it in public. That Chamber of Commerce claptrap doesn’t even constitute an adequate philosophy for public relations, not to mention literary criticism. I believe that one reason poetry has such a small readership, even among the literati, is that current criticism is so bad. There is almost no really engaging or reliable public conversation about new poetry–just paid publicity and unpaid hype. Academic criticism has become so parochial in its concerns that it no longer has much relevance to the general literary reader, and the little journalistic criticism that remains rarely goes beyond log-rolling. I have noticed that the most lively and intelligent young reviewers usually leave the field after a few years. I admire your fortitude at entering the fray–especially with this list of books.  Don’t despair–we’re almost done. Now once more unto the breach.

I don’t find Virginia Hamilton Adair nearly as infuriating as you do, but neither can I discover much to admire in Beliefs and Blasphemies. Yet after the unpunctuated sensitivities of TheRiver Sound, the chatty parlor-tricks of Figurehead, and the prosaic gloom of The Mercy, I found Adair’s sweet-tempered banality positively cozy. Accessible, good-natured, and terse, Adair is a harmless middlebrow poet. She is hard to dislike. The real question is why have so many critics and editors taken her so seriously? Reading the dust-jacket copy (“a literary landmark,” “national treasure”), I wondered if some overworked editor had cribbed phrases from the back cover of the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.

I suspect that Adair’s recent canonization has occurred for two reasons. First, there is the human story behind the work–a blind woman in a nursing home publishing her first book of poems at eighty-three. You can’t get a more uplifting tale than that. It warms the heart and incites the ambition of every unpublished writer under eighty-four. Second, Adair’s poems are easy to read in an old-fashioned way. They rhyme. They make sense. They tell stories and draw comfortable morals. To a poetry audience that has been force-fed John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, Adair must have come as a revelation. “Look, Jason, this poem has a beginning, middle, and end–and in the right order, too!” A parched desert traveler who finds a brackish well doesn’t criticize the taste.

I share your repugnance, however, at Adair’s religious musings and effusions. Unlike Donne or Herbert, Eliot or Auden, she has no coherent theology whatsoever–not even an intelligible skepticism like Dickinson’s. That is one reason why her poetry lacks the dramatic and psychological tension you admire in Herbert. She changes her cosmology to suit the mood. God exists or maybe He doesn’t. God is male or female or somewhere in between. Lutheran hymns are wonderful, but then so is Zen, the Eucharist, church picnics, Christ’s miracles, and the now inevitable angels. Having arraigned her on spiritual befuddlement, however, I must confide that her views resemble those of many Californian Protestants. Adair is a prophet of New Age piety. The purpose of religion is to make you feel good. Why shouldn’t beets and broccoli have souls, as she suggests, if that helps you face the day with a smile? When Adair began “The Reassemblage” by saying, “Some myths are too terrible for our believing,” Geoffrey Hill’s more cogent notion that “No bloodless myth will hold” came to mind. Even her blasphemies are upbeat and comfy. What does Adair offer instead of the traditional Last Judgment?

Oh, you arbiters of the afterlife, let the soul go on dancing,
the mind exploring, discovering,
setting forth into unending wonders of the universe,
the wilderness of words,
the vast mysteries of the human mind.

How is that for eschatology? Eternity is an endless sock-hop cum seminar. If the end of the world is just another style choice, then give me Aquinas, Michelangelo, and Verdi’s Requiem. I won’t stir from my grave unless I hear real trumpets.

I’ve been joking around to keep the discussion from getting too doleful. It is dismal business to read and review so many negligible books in a row. How wonderful it would be to finish the week with something magnificent. I fear it isn’t Charles Wright’s Appalachia, but I’ll save my remarks on that volume for tomorrow.

Are there any general observations you want to venture? I value your perspective as a fiction critic. You need not leap into Appalachia yet unless you want to.

At the foot of the Appalachians,

Dana Gioia