On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly –Isms
Carolyn Kizer: James Merrill With Tits?
by Dan Schneider, 1/29/02
while back I ran across poet/critic Carolyn Kizer’s essay book Proses
in a used bookstore & bought it. While not a particularly good poet,
she is- more importantly- not a particularly bad poet (see poems below). Her poems generally attempt wit & occasionally succeed. She
is a feminist, but not of the ‘tack those testicles to the wall’
persuasion. I’d only read a couple of her essays in mags or online so
my impression of her was as sort of a female version of James Merrill-
white, dilettante, but not as talented a poet as he was. As I also
recently picked up her Collected Poems at the same used bookstore my
opinion of her as a poet is unchanged. But my opinion of her critical
skills is in the sewer. Proses is a bad book filled with essays
that top out at mediocre.
Simply put, her criticisms are very lightweight. No more truly needs be said, but I shall. Even when she is negative, as in a review of poet Linda Gregg, the criticism is only slightly negative, & more truly silly. There’s really no other way to phrase it. But, let’s hit the book chronologically. The 1st essay is the obligatory bio on her life, her upper crust upbringing, childhood memories of Vachel Lindsay- a family friend, links him as a precursor to Dylan Thomas- at least in making poetry readings sources of income, & then a dull litany of the relatively unimportant instances in her growing up. The worst that can be said is that the piece is too long & sheds no real insight into her being. If 1 is not a good nor important poet, at least 1 should attempt to convey their life’s tale (if they feel obliged to such indulgence) in an interesting way. Her tale is not of a good nor important writer, nor is it a scintillating read. However, that’s the obligatory part. Excelsior.
She next tackles Emily Dickinson. We learn what 1000s of other critics have told us: ED’s poems ‘reach out to us so confidingly, the language so pure, the meaning so evanescent....and Emily, more than most, can reveal our own truths to us, and then gleefully snatch them away!’ Boy, this is enlightenment- eh? How many critics have said this before? I mean, in exactly the same way? It amazes how when artists or historians ‘borrow’ a phrase, line, image, paragraph, etc. the screams rise, ‘Plagiarism!’ Yet, the same crib notes (lacking any insight) regurged endlessly do not invoke such screams. We then get references to Freud & an analyst’s take on the ‘metaphysical’ aspects of her poetry. Again, nothing new, & we end the ‘review’ with the classic Contemporary Critical Copout:
‘Now let me just posit that the fingers are the fingers of the Muse-poet; Emily Dickinson is the poem on the page who is being fingered, like someone picking out a tune (on a cornet, if you will); like someone revising her, the poem; like a Galatea who is simultaneously her own Pygmalion, her own creation-creator. Like, in fact, our own elusive complicated Emily who, like all of our great loves, forever tantalizes, and forever escapes us. Just read the poems. Your guesses are as good as mine. We are all of us right and all of us mistaken- and somewhere Emily Dickinson is secretly smiling.’
In a word- oy! This last paragraph is an apt condensation of the prior 3-4 page review. CK, like so many other critics, gets to a) invoke the Muse iconography, b) state the obvious, c) reference Classical mythos (telling us she has depth & breadth), d) invoke both the general & possessive- Emily is ‘our own’, etc., e) show she is pc & demotic by declaring ED elusive, etc. (That ED is famously parodied for her rather simple statements & often leaden rhythms, well….), & f) be coy: ED ‘secretly smiling’. If you’ve read enough of my prior essays, these tropes should not come as a surprise. To the uninitiated, however, let me briefly state that all these tropes are as clichéd as poetic phrases like ‘a torn heart’, ‘the night’s mystery’, ‘the sea’s depths’, etc. That such tripe is applied to ‘new’, living poets who might someday return a favor is 1 thing- however incestuous. But to apply this to 1 of the 4 or 5 most well-known names in English language poetry shows a laziness too common in American Poetry Criticism (APC).
Yet, all of her pieces on the safely dead bear such tripe- she ends her criticism of Louise Bogan, a decent poet (& CK heroine- bear this in mind for what soon surfaces) now barely recalled, with another sad trope of poetry criticism: the poorly selected poem quote. Here is her essay’s end:
‘Louise spent the rest of her life attempting to subdue her demons. Unfortunately, one of the demons wrote the poems. [2 clichés in a row!- DAN] But she is lucky, as she was so rarely in life, to have this sympathetic biographer, who writes so well, and whose intuitions seem so sound. Louise’s exquisite poems are intelligently correlated with the events of her life. I can’t imagine anyone reading Frank’s book without reaching to the shelf where Louise’s poems rest, as I did, or rushing out to buy them. Thanks to Ecco Press, The Blue Estuaries, her complete poems, is still obtainable, so that we may drink in lines like:
There was so much love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.
Some things I overlooked, and some I could not
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.’
OK. Why would any sane, & appreciative, poetry lover want to
‘drink in’ these lines? Is she merely hiccupping the drink reference
in the poem? Could these lines be any more trite? If you disagree with
that last sentence, please, stop reading this essay, because nothing I
can or will ever say will be able to crack your stolidity. Go away, please!
Of all the lines Bogan ever penned, this is what CK accords immortality?
& re-read the fawning intro to this selection. Can CK really be this
lacking in critical skill? Well, yes. The real query is why? This goes
back to 1 of the most pernicious of predicaments in criticism-
hero-worship. CK’s whole book is glopped in it. & so is Academia.
This is why former students edit Selected & Collected editions of
their professors, why obvious flaws in the poems of ‘supposed’
Masters are never pointed out, or why poorly selected examples are rife
in critical pieces.
The whole book is full of such essays & lack of insight into mediocre poets like Alexander Pope & John Clare. The aforementioned urging to buy Bogan’s book is what passes for wit, & the essays are all very blasé. Her selections are as poor as the above, & generally not delved into. She quotes from a Clare poem these lines: ‘No moment-hand can move/But calendars an aching thought’- the best part of a trite 4 stanza quote, yet this is the total of her criticism: ‘(It might be worth noting that Clare’s casual use of nouns for verbs, as in “calendars”, was frowned on in his day, though now it has become a commonplace.)’ This is a good point- but does she go on to a historical placement of this phenomenon? No. We get a poor attempt at psychoanalysis. The point? Just as 1 must judge a good poet by their ability to consistently attain excellence by noting the techniques good poems share, so must a good critic not just stumble in to a good point- but once revealed, seize it & delve. Sort of like this digression does.
CK then ranges from an essay on Robinson Jeffers (whose most interesting point is that CK’s parents almost named her Tamar- after RJ’s titular heroine), to 1 on an unknown poet she claims as great- Richard Shelton. Again, she tells us we are about to get a quote from a great poem by Shelton, called Requiem For Sonora. What we get is this:
years ago I came to you as a
and have never been worthy
to be called your lover or to speak your name
most silent sanctuary
more fragile than forests
more beautiful than water…
I have learned to accept
whatever men choose to give me
or whatever they choose to withhold
but oh my desert
yours is the only death I cannot bear
About here I could really rip in to the many ludicrously bad
clichés this piece offers. I won’t. I could gape over CK’s claims
for greatness for this poem or poet- I won’t. Granted, perhaps it
& he are great, but CK not only fails to prove her case, but goes in
the other- agh! You get it. Let me instead posit this: there are 3 types
of successful critics. The 1st is the critic who really
fundamentally understands the field they critique, & their acumen
overrides any shortcomings they have in conveying it- i.e.- good
judgment, poor writing ability, or substance over style. The 2nd
is the critic whose acumen is no better than a non-expert, but whose
writing style is good enough that even poorly thought out arguments can
seduce one to disreason- i.e.- poor judgment, good writing ability, or
style over substance. The 3rd is the critic with good acumen
& good writing ability- i.e.- style & substance.
The 1st 2 types of critics most Americans are familiar with if you’ve been a film fan over the last 30 years. The long-running film criticism shows hosted by the late Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert (under various names) are a great example of the 1st 2 types. Siskel was more intellectual & fundamentally understood film better than Ebert- who was more of a filmwise fan. But, Siskel was not the writer Ebert is- thus why Ebert won a Pulitzer (as did CK- for poetry- ugh!). If you scan any of the reviews Ebert has written (available in his annual editions) there are many passages of just beautiful & lucid writing, even if the film he is reviewing he just does not get- pro or con. The last, best example of a good (or great for having both qualities) critic is alot harder to find- off the top of my head I cannot contemplate 1. Usually a good critic has 1 skill or the other. There is a 4th example of critic worth mentioning- & that’s the bad critic who neither is insightful nor can write. That’s just about any critic you will read- Harold Bloom is a primo example of this type.
CK also falls into this 4th batch. I’ve given a # of examples of her lack of critical skill & sometimes sophomoric writing. Let me dollop you with both. Here she is with a take on Robert Creeley:
‘Then perhaps his most famous poem, “I Know A Man”.
And I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,- John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
(Oh, that his followers
could use his shorthand as he does! But really, they haven’t earned
the right; Creeley isn’t, as many seem to think, in the public
domain.) Here, in a couple of lines, he sums up the deep inner feelings
of us Americans: the darkness surrounds us; let’s buy a big car. Only
Louis Simpson has come so close to encapsulating our true nature.’
I will try to be brief & contain my rage &/or disgust at this laughable selection. As criticism it begs the revelation of only where & when these 2 did the nasty? Or is it sympathy over his lost eye? Or does she worship the trite? No person, nor poet, of any real reason could think Creeley’s poem is any good. It lacks music, is poorly enjambed, is 3rd rate William Carlos Williams (himself a vastly overrated poet; yet it echoes WCW’s much superior To Elsie), & certainly not what CK describes- & look how poorly she describes it: ‘Here, in a couple of lines, he sums up the deep inner feelings of us Americans: the darkness surrounds us; let’s buy a big car.’ Her exclamatory opening volley also serves to announce the utter silliness of her criticism like brass in Carlsbad Caverns. With further poorly selected quotes she praises RC’s ‘subtle music’ & ends her sentimentally limp essay with this:
‘In the introduction to The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975 (University of California Press, 1982), Creeley says, “There is sense of increment, of accumulation, in these poems that is very dear to me…when it came time to think specifically of this collection and of what might be decorously omitted I decide to stick with my initial judgement, book by tender book…” Dear, lovely, decorous, tender- ah, there is no one like him! Thank you, Bob.’ Technically, this is not criticism; this is a poorly written love letter. 1 need only gander at some of the Encomia essays I have posted on my Bylines 2 page of Cosmoetica to see how 1 must handle criticism of people 1 is personally acquainted with. You know, that a writer, as writer or critic, is going astray when they blatantly appeal to the heart- not head. As a critic, that CK 1st has us endure RC’s wimpy sentimentalized excuse, & then she saccharinely endorses it, well- that’s a nutshell’s worth of what is wrong with APC!
CK ends her book with a collection of brief 1-2 page reviews of specific poets & books. I will take on 3 of them- 2 of them notorious for their nonsense I damned in an earlier S&D/APC essay, & the 3rd the aforementioned Linda Gregg. I will be brief. I just need to, again, reinforce how bad criticism in general, & CK specifically, is. To use a sports metaphor, I am not ashamed to run up the score against an overmatched opponent!
Here, then, is CK's opening paragraph on the infamous Carolyn Forché: ‘Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between us (Harper & Row, 1981) has already won the Lamont Prize, and will win others. Forché lived for two years in El Salvador, and her courage has been unflinching, both in her role as endangered witness to horror, and in her commitment to write about it. Once again- and Forché is not alone here- the poet serves as our conscience. Some with a bad conscience will heap praise upon her, hoping there is room for them under her umbrella; some of the rest will take up the stale cry that a true poet does not concern herself with “politics”. These last will go on like this until they are choked by the first whiff of nerve gas or the first firestorm.’ Now, you know how I feel about this nonsense, & the woman it describes. That CK unwittingly indicts herself as a person/poet of ‘bad conscience’ with her injunction is more downright silliness. But, note the utter contempt for her dissenting readership with her grotesque hyperbole. None of CK’s wit seems to find a place here! That this very paragraph [replete with the heart-rending & hyperbolic modifiers] could be (& no doubt has been) written by many a critic pre- & post- this essay, only points to its utter superfluity & vacuity. Need I tell you CK ends her piece by quoting from CF’s ‘The Colonel’- perhaps the most widely & wildly over-quoted American poem of the post-Vietnam era?
Another old fave CK dredges up is Adrienne Rich. In a not-too-sly rebuke to Plath & Sexton CK opens up her AR piece with: ‘Perhaps one reason why so many critics like to concentrate on dead women poets- aside from our growing national necrophilia- is that there will be no surprises.’ & ends with: ‘Adrienne Rich is used as an instrument of reconciliation, an affirmation of empathy, and by a man too! And so, in Denise Levertov’s words, there is milk to be found in us. Overall. the message of these splendid women is that we must keep on trying to “hold to our icy hearts a shivering God”.’ Trust me when I say, between the disdain- for the superior writing of 2 women CK has admitted to disliking in the past (Plath for her imperious snobbishness & Sexton for her sluttishness)- & the slobbering fawning, there is nothing of critical worth CK reveals. Granted, given the subject matter it’s a tall order- but then why essay it? It almost makes one wish for Randall Jarrell’s snidely curt dismissals- at least they were brief & occasionally fun. A quick comparison of these 2 essays to my takes on CF & AR will serve as useful.
Let me end out comments on her book with her piece on Linda Gregg. As I relayed, it is a very silly criticism. Gregg is, at best a mediocrity, yet CK- of course- describes her as a ‘brilliant flawed poet’. Why? Well, aside from the contemporary convention of labeling every poet brilliant (to ensure reciprocal claims of genius wafted their way in the future) & flawed (to strongly point out that despite aforementioned reciprocities the asskissing critic has the requisite objectivity to see the poet as yet another small, frail, & fallible creation of a higher power), her brilliance evidences itself to CK in a few poorly chosen poem quotes. (Don’t thank me for not torturing you with them, it was a purely selfish act to avoid having to engage the pieces again, plus a touch of sloth on my part!) But the real silliness comes in why LG is flawed:
‘The flaws, one feels, are due to what might be called a continuing crisis of confidence: as if she felt that to be real she had to tell us things about herself we don’t need to know, as if her readers were a mirror into which she gazes with an almost pitiable uncertainty, to assure herself that she is present.’ Yet the 2 selections chosen to bolster this claim are hardly anything to rival the best of the Confessionalists- you know, that group of poets CK disdains? Plath, Sexton, et al. As for the psychobabble, well- I told you some critics are bad with both their acumen & their writing.
As to the larger question of why she indulges in such lightweight critical writing? Perhaps her bio holds a clue? Here it is- this particular bio is found on any # of CK websites:
Carolyn Kizer (b. 1925) was born in Spokane, Washington. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a biologist and professor. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945, Kizer pursued graduate study at Columbia and the University of Washington. From 1959 to 1965, she was editor of Poetry Northwest (which she founded in 1959 in Seattle), and spent 1964 and 1965 as a State Department specialist in Pakistan, where she taught at a women's college and translated poems from Urdu into English. She chose to leave early after the U.S. decision to bomb North Vietnam in 1965.
Later, she joined archaeological tours in Afghanistan and Iran. She has worked as director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., has taught at several universities, and was poet-in-residence at the University of North Carolina and Ohio University.
Her volumes of poetry include Yin (1984), which won a Pulitzer Prize the following year, Mermaids in the Basement: Poems for Women (1984), The Nearness of You (1986), and Harping On: Poems 1985-1995. She has also published a collection of essays, Proses: On Poems and Poets (1993), and edited 100 Great Poems by Women: A Golden Ecco Anthology (1995).
Sarah Lawrence. The requisite toiling as a poetry magazine editor. The State Department. The courageous moral stand. Note, that most of these things are things that can be done, only if 1 can afford to do them. While not nearly as independently wealthy as James Merrill (what other artist was?), CK was firmly in the upper class boeurgoisie, & her, shall we say, style, both poetically & critically, is tinged with the airs of mere dilettante dabbling in pursuits others hold more dearly. So all my queries as to motive, result, & such, are probably superfluous to ears as hers. In her defense, of course, is the fact that when 1 is an effete upper class dandy with a taste for the arts, such queries from ruffian little white boys from Queens don’t have to be answered- in the short run. But, always a reckoning is dragging its knuckles across the primmest of estates. But, till that brute arrives, or she dies (my money’s on the latter!), CK will just go on delighting her witty self into critical oblivion while we plebes are left to do the harder work of really engaging poetry- poetically & critically. What else is new?
The frustrating part for poets & critics of real talent is that while CK is not the bottom of the barrel in either field, the sense (& reality) that she has gotten her work published due to her connections does discourage, for while many can feel & examine themselves & others’ works, few can make an art of it, or art in general! CK is 1 of the many. But hey, unlike James Merrill, she holds up well to the camera- at least they’ll be able to say she had a nice set of knockers!
Bonus Poems of Carolyn Kizer:
On a Line from Valéry (The Gulf War)
Tout le ciel vert se meurt Le dernier arbre brûle. The whole green sky is dying. The last tree flares With a great burst of supernatural rose Under a canopy of poisonous airs. Could we imagine our return to prayers To end in time before time's final throes, The green sky dying as the last tree flares? But we were young in judgement, old in years Who could make peace; but it was war we chose, To spread its canopy of poisoning airs. Not all our children's pleas and women's fears Could steer us from this hell. And now God knows His whole green sky is dying as it flares. Our crops of wheat have turned to fields of tares. This dreadful century staggers to its close And the sky dies for us, its poisoned heirs. All rain was dust. Its granules were our tears. Throats burst as universal winter rose To kill the whole green sky, the last tree bare Beneath its canopy of poisoned air. Fearful Women
Arms and the girl I sing - O
arms that are braceleted and white and bare
Scape-nanny call her; wars for turf
and profit don't sound glamorous enough.
Mythologize your women! None escape.
Europe was named from an act of bestial rape:
Eponymous girl on bull-back, he intent
on scattering sperm across a continent.
Old Zeus refused to take the rap.
It's not his name in big print on the map.
But let's go back to the beginning
when sinners didn't know that they were sinning.
He, one rib short: she lived to rue it
when Adam said to God, "She made me do it."
Eve learned that learning was a dangerous thing
for her: no end of trouble would it bring.
An educated woman is a danger.
Lock up your mate! Keep a submissive stranger
like Darby's Joan, content with church and Kinder,
not like that sainted Joan, burnt to a cinder.
Whether we wield a scepter or a mop
It's clear you fear that we may get on top.
And if we do -I say it without animus-
It's not from you we learned to be magnaminous.
Song for Muriel
No-one explains me because
There is nothing to explain.
It's all right here
O for my reputations sake
To be difficult and opaque!
No-one explains me because
Though myopic, I see plain.
I just put it down
With a leer and a frown...
Why does it make you sweat?
Is this the thanks I get?
No-one explains me because
There are tears in my bawdy song.
Once I am dead
Something will be said.
How nice I won't be here
To see how they get it wrong.
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