The Book Club

Poetry’s Perilous Popularity

Dear Tony,

I also voted today and wondered about those judges. But perhaps you noticed that in every case one was invited to vote for exactly as many candidates as were on the ballot, and every candidate was listed with every party! “Voting” in this case means ratifying a pre-selected slate, as in the Soviet Union. Pre-selected by whom, you may well ask. Obviously, the fix is in–but how these particular people are chosen is probably hidden in a file drawer somewhere out in Queens. There’s a bit of a comparison with the world of poetry–and the distribution of Bollingens, Pulitzers, and so on. It’s a tight little gerontocracy that hands out these delightful plums–the poets with “influence” are mostly male, mostly white, mostly over 50, mostly working the academic end of the poetry street. As a matter of fact, Carolyn Kizer caused a huge ruckus a few years ago when, with Maxine Kumin, she resigned from the board of the Academy of American Poets because despite years of lobbying they had been unable to get women and people of color elected to it. (And it’s not like the existing members were entirely names to conjure with, either.) As a result of the two women’s resignation, there was a shakeup, and women and minorities were added to an expanded board. But, as with the judges in our real elections, I still don’t know exactly what the board does.

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There’s a difference between reading classic poetry and writing poems, though. “Lycidas” may be a lost cause (not “The Waste Land,” though, which was recently performed on Broadway by Fiona Shaw to ecstatic reviews). But I suspect more people are writing poetry than ever before in world history–and they take it up in much the same spirit as people take up yoga, cooking, and piano playing. I used to feel so frustrated with my students because they were content to stay at an amateur level–then I realized I was to them exactly what my piano teacher is to me. I’m not trying to get to Carnegie Hall, and my students weren’t trying to climb Parnassus. I think a lot more Americans read poetry than we think, just not necessarily the poets most admired by Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom. Some poets, who write accessible verse about subjects people are passionately interested in, have big followings–Sharon Olds and Billy Collins, for instance. Deborah Garrison’s “A Working Girl Can’t Win” made the expanded best-seller lists of several papers. Ted Hughes’ “Birthday Letters” was a huge best seller, and although its appeal had more to do with its subject–his version of his marriage to Sylvia Plath–than with its (not very great, in my opinion) literary merit, Plath herself is a much-read poet, even today. All these poets sell more copies of their books than many novelists with solid reputations do of theirs, but they don’t get the same kind of attention. There’s a mismatch between the tastes of the readership and that of the critical-cultural establishment.

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I wanted very much to admire Talking Dirty to the Gods. First, there was the form–all the poems consist of four four-line unrhymed stanzas–suggesting restraint, intensity, and wit. Then too, I liked the juxtaposition of elements–sex, politics, jazz, race, sex, mythology, history, sex–the marriage of classicism and topicality, the zest and challenge of making the old stories yield something new. But I often felt these poems eluded me: I could see what they are made of but not what they are made into. The poems I liked best had a kind of bitter world historical sweep that reminded me of Lowell in some of his sonnets:

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The victorious army marches into the city,
and not far behind tarries a throng of women
who slept with the enemy on the edge
of battlements …–(from “Lime”)

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Carolyn Kizer shares Komunyakaa’s penchant for things Greek, but that’s about all their books have in common. Where he is clipped and abrupt and a bit withheld–intense when it works, flat when it doesn’t–her poems tend to be long and conversational and flowing, except when she employs very short Japanese and Chinese forms. Like Kunitz’s collected poems, Cool, Calm and Collected harvests a long life in poetry–the earliest poems go back almost half a century. “Persephone Pauses,” which you singled out, is a beauty from the l950s, and it is still fresh (based on the West Coast, Kizer was never a well-wrought-urn kind of poet, so her poems, unlike many from that decade, never give the impression of having been strangled with a bowtie). The modern twist she gives the myth of Persephone, condemned to spend half the year as Hades’ wife in the underworld–originally a fertility myth explaining the cycle of the seasons–is: Love is Hell. Persephone both dreads and longs for her lover, Hades, who “proffers me an iron plate/ of seedy fruit, to match my mouth.” It’s a poem about sexual guilt, about the way a woman can feel trapped by passion, about resentment at the power of a man to evoke this feeling in her, with all that it implies of subjection both compelled and willing: Hell is Love.

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There are many lovely poems in the book, although not all of them stand out as distinctly as “Persephone Pauses.” In a different vein, I particularly enjoyed “Pro Femina,” which is probably Kizer’s most famous poem. It’s half a Juvenal-inspired satire on women poets, and half a feminist call to poetical arms:

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“We will be cows for a while, because babies howl for us,
Be kittens or bitches, who want to eat grass now and then
for the sake of our health. But the role of pastoral heroine
is not permanent, Jack. We want to get back to the meeting.”

Too right! This slangy, sharp-tongued, aggressive Kizer is my favorite of her several literary selves. “Children” is another winner (“Forget their birthdays, as they forget yours”). As a social satirist Kizer is messy, brassy, smart, hilarious. I hope she writes many more poems in this mode: Elections would be a good subject, don’t you think? Especially, I fear, after tonight.

Crossed-fingersedly yours,
Katha

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