Karen Volkman: Poetry’s Latest Punchline
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/5/03
A few months
back the Academy Of American Poets mailed me the latest winning book of
the James Laughlin Award- an award named after a bad poet who was a noted
insider in publishing (founder of the New Directions imprint), & is
supposedly an award for the best 2nd book of poetry printed in that
calendar year- this being the 2002 version. The 3 team judges panel consisted of
no-name Mary Jo Bang & no-talent doggerelists Daniel Hall & Campbell
McGrath. This dastardly trio are who to blame for the insipid & monstrously
banal book of proems (interspersed with a few attempted real ‘poems’) called
Spar, by 1 Karen Volkman. The book is ludicrously bad- but I decided to
pick on it out of the 100s of horrid books of poetry published in recent years
mainly because reading it made me a bit nauseated. In short, KV has absolutely
no discernible writing talent. That she has managed to get 2 books of poetry
published is a testament to either a) the mental retardation that affects Love
Canal survivors who have drifted into the poetry field, b) the incredibly
persuasive sexual skills of KV applied to a bunch of horny old book publishers,
or c) the scent of the 4th Horseman rounding the far turn,
causing all reasonably intelligent lovers of the poetic craft to stop caring,
absolutely, about putting out quality material.
That point a seems unprovable, point b unlikely due to the backcover photo of KV (as well her writing) suggesting she has Down’s Syndrome, & point c something neither you nor I, dear reader, want to truly consider, I believe that a 4th option must be behind this confluence of evil that brought about this book’s existence. But I won’t ponder further. Such things are too depressing. Before getting to the actual book, don’t you want to know all about KV? Here ‘tis:
Karen Volkman was born in Miami in 1967 and was educated at New College,
Syracuse University, and the University of Houston. Her first book of poems, Crash’s Law (Norton, 1996) was
a 1995 National Poetry Series selection
picked by Heather McHugh. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review,
American Poetry Review, Poetry, Partisan Review, and
the 1996 and 1997 editions of The Best American Poetry. She has received
fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and
Yaddo. She has reviewed books for The Harvard Review, The Boston Review,
and The Voice Literary Supplement. She teaches creative writing at New
York University and works with Teachers & Writers Collaborative teaching
poetry in the public schools. She lives in Brooklyn, and spent Spring 1998 in
residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.
The book, itself, was published by the University of Iowa Press. Yes,
that University of Iowa- the infamous writing workshop mill that has cranked out
1000s of poetasters over the decades it has been in exploitation (I mean
Here are 2 typically ridiculous & nonsequitured backcover blurbs:
‘Her poems are the best
of contradictions, coupling tradition with today’s sardonic uncertainty.’-
Cathy Hong, Voice Literary Supplement
‘Karen Volkman is building up a world slowly, patiently, starting from walls, fences, and hedges. She is a virtuoso, a wise and provocative poet; she makes us long for windows, for the warmth of a room filled with the air of passion.’- Adam Zagajewski
Blurb 1 is typical off-the-rack blurbery. It means nothing, says nothing
about the writer in question, nor her work. But it does include tetrasyllabic
words! Blurb 2 can only be taken as confirmation that I was absolutely correct
in my earlier point b. That, or KV is the ideal spokesman(-person?)-in-waiting
for Home Depot. How does a poet’s work that reminds you of lawns &
fenestra qualify as good?
Of course, the book itself has not 1, not 2, but 3 epigraphs. I won’t quote them since they have nothing to do with the work itself, save to show that KV is a devotee of the latest edition of Bartlett’s. Even more silly is that the book came with an interview insert where KV claims to have been influenced by greats such as Mallarmé, Keats, Stevens, Rilke, & Plath (among others)- yet her bad poems & proems bear absolutely no resemblance to their work; not in substance nor style, much less merit. This is just typical wannabe namedropping. Let’s gander at a typical proem (untitled, as are all the proems) of KV’s from page 49:
I have a friend. My friend is a sky. There are dark, starved places that
do nothing but blur and spend, and the quick sharp blue-black lightning streaks
called punish. If you wish to do what is known only as “to rest”,
“to sleep”, “to live”, you and my friend will have nothing to
He says, Girls fall through holes, occasionally on purpose. He says, Many shapes of web make the rope that will stay you. He says, A bitter metal forms the bit that slits your tongue.
When they ask, What is your friend, that you ash and azure for him? I sing boxless wind in a blanched meadow, scree and scrawl. It is not because doors keep the light out, or doom is mortal. It is not because dawn calls weather, wander, weigh. If words are wire and can whip him, this is the scar.
Does this really put anyone in mind of Endymion, Archaic Torso
Of Apollo, or any of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (another influence)?
This is total nonsense- so much so that it is not even the poseur crap of the
Languagist hordes, nor is it silly & inventive enough to amuse like an
Edward Lear ditty. This is not even a series of words that you could Rorschach
together. This type of Rorschach poetry is popular amongst young poets who want
to feel experimental. A decade ago I recall a young poet who would tread
nonsensical Burma Shave ad-type poems & when someone would ask for
what he was meaning he’d say ‘cool’ at whatever interpretation they gave.
Yet, this ‘proem’ is not even that intriguing. All it is is a poor attempt
to mimic a child’s POV; with the child being resentful & then hurting
over being made fun of &/or being scolded. Wow (underwhelmingly). After that
all it is is a typical PC Elitist plaint against the world. The occasional
haphazard alliteration is designed to make you think there was deep thought put
into this, as well as there being an underlying ‘structure’. There is none.
Nor is there in this 2nd ‘proem’- from page 16:
Lady of the lake, what does all our weeping lead to? A pair of keys, paucity of summer--just because. I tasted his tears, they were salty, like a seawind--that should have been enough to set sail, acres of stray. Acres of wind-swept granary, what then? Everything blind begins in the darkness. It portends the deliberateness of an unsinking sun, past forgetting, or finishing, the room phrased, phased, like tiny nets of caught. A tree never asked for its stature. A pearl never counted its pallor as less or more. Why should winds take the pulse of farther, slipped along the digits of simple go, of been? No one has thoughts as pale as these--till they bleed them. I doubt more the less I grow, I taste the dark cognition, it is everybody's random. Be your own heart's ending, in the abandonment of seeming--weeping like a two-bit sermon--mistress Sum.
KV hopes to distract the reader from noticing the 14 or so clichés (underlined) that infest this tiny paragraph by using adverbs as nouns (farther), or adjectives (random). In fact, all this paragraph states is ‘be strong because the world sucks’. Another PC sentiment, which- again- brings to mind nothing of Rilke nor Stevens. Let’s have another look at a poem/proem- from page 32:
deciphers my plain lines badly, from whom ideas are not meant to multiply. Such
lapses contract or repel the intruder, anemic or shut, an abstained attention.
Zephyrs of speed within, freezing; those phantoms which never cease to rave;
some industrious zero opened out into a wheel. And later, exhausted with
indifferent meaning--a dead limb, a wooden--and the hooks that clamber,
The failing stretches and extends outside it. No more on my tongue was there ever a name. Some instinct claimed a tainting; I saw nothing. My curse not yet growing on my skin, or flicked in the ear like an opulent whip. A thought erected and burnished, boxed in a gleaming, like a head inviting the hawks in. Feet on the voids again, the way a woman might flee, solitude fallen, his cloaked back empty with wounds, he avoids her like a feather.
That was my winter. I ignore the frames. Yes I believed us imaginary/we did not exist. We could never reason how in the future nothing would not occur, delinquent heathens, refusing to end without a hallow, some doll-faced Tuesday, when it might be free.
This is a bit more coherent, & a little less willfully ‘creative’. But, note how in all 3 of these proems 1 is never directed toward some great idea nor image. Recall the proems of a Rilke, Trakl, or the best from some of the French Symbolists. All of their proems had a focus, a monomania, that thing which lay at the end of a dark hallway that inexorably drew the reader (& the writer, obviously) to it. What draws you to this proem? This latest is merely a regretful woman’s lament for lost love. Another yawn.
Does KV have no good ideas? Is she utterly clueless as to the idea that a proem- because it lacks poetic structure- MUST have heightened language & imagery! Let’s look at another gem (shades of William McGonagall?) from page 26:
greeting on a bright sift, yes. And the less falls, a loss does. You will not be
absent in the day's convocation, as a trickle wakes to find itself in the
rift’s mind. It drifts from the demurral in the clouds, cast off, to the
uniform sameness of soil, a stream patiently distilling itself from stone. A
blind culmination, at that trace where nothing stops being, no sweet
surfeit--one could reject it, not from conviction, a less rational sorrowing
strip from the sky, escaping when the stone falls.
It goes, straying from some refined mass of resistance. Something harder, one height against another, as the gradual, slow nourishment of artifice prevents you, unravelling, destroying no molecule in progress. Somewhere here on the firm ground you have pressed farther apart those ten tricks from the chaos which you rejected one by one--nothing to leave, worth stealing. It never meant to be casually accruing. Under the nothing of what decayed, or some scarcity, staying. Loss implies such rigid divisions. Come in.
Here is the most blatant attempt to be Stevensian. But where is the humor? The joy of wordplay? Is it in the rime of rift’s/drifts? KV is desperately trying to make palpable the unnamed, much as old Wally did. Unfortunately for her, WS would have wonderful imagery, neologisms, & a narrative that took you up out of the ordinary. Here, again, KV is totally PC- the poem says, “Welcome, you special person.” Perhaps because KV has emotional issues this resonates ‘deeply’ with her. To the rest of us there is no reason to reread a proem like this- granting you did not nod off during the 1st read. Another, from page 55:
No noise subtracts it. It won't leave, or scatter jokes or fathoms, no
tiny failing, or some short multitude impossibly, or now, it would certainly
never scribble stanched fragments on this less. Noise is not, so words think, a
complex logic, no one loses reason fast enough, or then. To murder sound, you
must bleed the pastures, the so few animals and vapors, misread the minerals, or
still the static the huge stones break when we close at night. You must never
dream clouds in coils, convulsive weathers, or those greetings we never felt
leaving: nights of adulthood whose boredom is forever explored.
A sorrow not meant for anyone, an ancient beneficence ending so softly, with such shallow and plain sustainings--days in the lavish spaces, and nights in the desert, deserts, someone else--or is it too much to never sleep enough, to dream? There must be forebodings of a few dawns of contempt, none the same as any other, premonitions of a few men whispering from pleasure, or of loud leaping boys who have never touched death, and are opening this first time.
Of all the proems so far this is probably the best- but it still would be sliced & diced at the UPG to something like this:
subtracts it. It won't leave, or scatter jokes or fathoms, no tiny failing, or
some short multitude impossibly, or now, it would certainly never scribble
stanched fragments on this less.
There must be forebodings of loud leaping boys who have never touched death, and are opening this first time.
This is still not anything passable, but it is a place where the rest of the proem can develop- the subjects of masculinity & death are far more rife with possibility than the stale & melodramatically grandiose (impossibly, murder, bleed, huge, break, convulsive, forever, ancient, lavish, forebodings, contempt, premonitions, & death) original’s. 1 last proem, this from page 39:
The rain falls on the empty town and “The rain falls on the empty town.” There are no facts, just cages cross-hatched on a page ...
If my words for you were skeletal, quiescent, not flat wrecked runes but luminous bones, what animals would grow from these vestigial mazings? If it roars, it's hungry, feed it. If it bleats, cut its heart out, eat it. If it bleed ...
Not that they're lambs or lions, no simple twinnings. No tusk no tooth no tongue says am enough, or sing to the reverend keeper her grim flaying. A species of three-winged flutter, or pearly paw. Pewter pelt, raw rigging, jarred jawing. Fang and fin.
You lose the world and win a gamey zoo; but won is less than least when I lose you.
Another attempt to be postmodern with clichéd sentiments. Let me just ask this- is there a single line, sentence, or image from any of these proems that you will recall even 10 seconds after reading? No. Stringing alliterated word pairs is not poesizing. Nor is it a nice enough feint to rescue the poem’s ho-hum ending. But, perhaps KV is truly a poet? Maybe her actual ‘poem’ poems succeed where her dismal proems fail? Here’s the en face poem to the last proem- from page 38:
Shadow Of A Doubt
Link the i to the n and get nothing.
Because I've left a path which knows you.
An indigenous form of blemish, a fatal lend.
Would a postcard in the shape of 2 kisses still get through?
Ice-storms in Spokane left not a tree standing.
Take off the good shoes, put on your boots.
Put your socks on. Take a shower. Comb your hair.
I'm writing to you from a far-off country.
I'm buying blueberries for breakfast, milk for tea.
A nuisance met a notion and begat a noun.
Will you be singing this evening to my green eyes?
Will the mist-mad birches tarnish and persist?
A good day to beat a heart out, to buy a hat.
A good day to fold blue blankets and forget.
Does it seem like there’s not much of a difference between this & her proems? You’re correct. Just look at the poem written as a proem:
Shadow Of A Doubt
Link the i to the n and get nothing. Because I've left a path which knows you. An indigenous form of blemish, a fatal lend. Would a postcard in the shape of 2 kisses still get through? Ice-storms in Spokane left not a tree standing. Take off the good shoes, put on your boots. Put your socks on. Take a shower. Comb your hair. I'm writing to you from a far-off country. I'm buying blueberries for breakfast, milk for tea. A nuisance met a notion and begat a noun. Will you be singing this evening to my green eyes? Will the mist-mad birches tarnish and persist? A good day to beat a heart out, to buy a hat. A good day to fold blue blankets and forget.
The fact is that- poem or proem- KV has absolutely nothing of interest to say. There simply is no reason for her to write, much less be published. There are great writers, such as myself, that owe a long literary life to my readers. KV should be put into indenture for her wasting the readers’ time. But neither she, nor her publisher, nor her critics, feel they owe readers a damned thing. Writers like KV don’t give a damn for the shit they put their readers through- despite all the PC BS to the contrary.
Instead of properly ripping into the soft white underside (& its equally pale flabby overside) critics damn near genuflect, & consider the KVs of the world to be ‘experimental’ & ‘risky’. Here’s a few snippets from the Little Review re: Spar:
The poems of Spar recall Rilke of the Sonnets to Orpheus, not only in her depictions of the language of sense experience as a congeries of active agents -- "What, I said, noise, I said, is you, are you, all?" , starts one poem, and "Berry, eye" ends another -- but also in her use of first lines that simultaneously suggest both a conclusion and riddle -- one poems starts "No noise subtracts it," and another "A light says why" -- thus tossing the reader in media res into a slipstream of cosmic, sensually redolent speculation, even if the subject remains aporic, an empty eye-of-the-storm.
[The critic is
phoning this in. Actually- in interviews- KV has propagated the notion that she
wrote Spar guided by the Sonnets To Orpheus,
& fell a poem short. Of course, bad poets always make sweeping allusions to
far greater poets, so that idiotic critics will re-quote them just enough so the
idea is planted & a connection is made where no one would have made 1. &
the 2 1st lines quoted in no way suggest a poem starting in media res-
then, again, why should a critic quibble?]
Another influence is Hopkins -- alliteration and near-hypertrophied word-play abound, and one poem even declares "The day un-days" -- and Volkman convincingly melds her engagement with the ludic quality of words and the marvelously chaotic commerce of the natural world, a distinctive confluence of forces that keeps her at a healthy distance from poets who might choose deconstructive tactics to the exclusion of the image, for example, or mundane confession over the charge of the liberated word.
[Phone home deux. Note how this critic uses fancy words to intimate intellect? From the 1st snip aporic means feigning a loss of how to begin an argument- yet the poem clearly does no such thing. In this snip ludic is used- it means simply playful. Then look at the old scandalous usage of attributing the bad things other poets might have done (name some names!) vs. how wonderful KV is. Also, simply using a negative prefix does not suggest a great gift with word- every workshop rookie is told to do the very same thing to a word, to ‘jar readers’ expectations’ etc. That KV is still using this puerile exercise in her mature poems shows how really un-individuated a writer she is.]
After a slight upbraiding for affected language the writer concludes:
Despite these problems, Volkman's poems are involved, elusive, and often startling performances of language, and with a more subtle use of poetic stagecraft they may be revelatory.
This is the critic really
stating- this girl has shit, but I hope she’ll kiss my ass when our positions
are reversed. Calling poems ‘performances of language’ is code for ‘these
are not ‘true to the heart poems’- a no-no in the PC Elitist realm. This- in
other words- is a PC trashing of KV’s book! Yet, would you have known it
Let me end this with a
snip from an online interview KV did with Poets & Writers magazine:
P&W: How did your nomadic lifestyle inform your
experience of writing Spar? Was shaping so cohesive a
collection—cohesive in both form and content—a challenge under the
circumstances? I imagine that the cohesion of the project may have provided you
with stability otherwise absent. Can you comment on how this constant movement
has informed your sense of argument, structure, and form?
KV: One of the attractive aspects of the prose poem is its ability to have a kind of solidity of presence regardless of internal permutation and movement. This could at times be almost oppressive—there were certainly occasions on which the poems and the form itself struck me as impermeable, hideous bricks (when I was having trouble writing, needless to say). I think this partly accounts for the surprising aspect of their disjunctive interiors….In France, I lived in Provence, within view of the Mediterranean, so almond trees, water, cliffs, even scree make their way into poems here and there. In Germany, I took long walks in the woods a few times a day, and that really shifted the book towards a conversation with the natural world and a sense of its materiality as something vivid and present; I was aware of this in earlier poems, of course, but these daily forays over the course of six months made it much more personal and emotional. There's good reason that trees are so often personified; they may be the most humanly expressive presences we find in nature.
poets adore 2 things- 1) talking about how they came to the revelation(s) that
led to their bad poems, & 2) how well-traveled they are. Also they love to
talk of the ‘joy’ they get from teaching:
P&W: You've also taught writing a great deal, to a
range of age groups. Who do you look to and how do you convey the approach you
mentioned earlier toward "contradictory states of being" to your
KV: I often teach Anne Carson, C.D. Wright, Michael Palmer, Allen Grossman, Thylias Moss, Rosmarie Waldrop in graduate workshops. I've also on a few occasions taught a forms class, which ranges over Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Bishop, Ashbery, as well as Basho and Ghalib. And I'm currently teaching a class on the book-length poem, which in terms of "contradictory states" makes room for all manner of dialogic and discursive argument and complement. Thinking about form, in terms of form-types or more generally, can be a great entry into discussing what Carson has called "the motions of the self" and the expressive means by which that self might be manifested….One thing that has greatly surprised me in discussing poems with children has been their sensitivity to rhetorical structures; this is exciting in a way, but also unnerving to realize how quickly these structures are internalized and how much power they have to shape response on the most intuitive level. It has reinforced my feeling that attention to rhetorical movements, which in poetry take the form of lyric gestures, is absolutely crucial in understanding the work poems do and how they do it, and essential knowledge for those who choose to pursue that line of work.
Return to S&D