Weapon Of Verse Destruction #3
Reviewing the Fall, 2004 American Poet
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 4/15/05
One of the benefits of contributing to the Academy Of American Poets is that not only do you get an award winning book of poetry, but you get an annual subscription to the quarterly magazine published by it, American Poet. Well, perhaps benefit is too strong a term. You do get the magazine, but its purpose is a mystery. Poets & Writers certainly is a bad magazine, insofar as the writing of the articles, and the writers highlighted within, but it, at least, provides a service of open calls for publications as well as which talentless brownnoser got which award for what relationship in the past. American Poet lacks even that. It also seems to lack a decent postal schedule. This may explain why it was not until early March that I got my Fall, 2004 edition in the mail. I expect my Winter, 2005 issue by October. Not that I was truly disappointed, for the poetry and the criticism within are appallingly bad. I will run through the issue as quickly as I can, to spare my readership the lingering pain I had.
The first feature is called The Poems Are Strewn With Mirrors, and is the transcript of a March 28th, 1968 conversation between poetaster Donald Justice and equally impoverished poetic talent Richard Howard. Ostensibly it’s a tribute to Justice, who died in 2004. Discussed are five poems from Justice’s second book, Night Light, and the editors assure us that Justice was already a ‘sweeping talent’- true; it was rumored that he wielded a mean janitorial broom, and the conversation will give insights into his complexities and convictions- STOP!
Here’s the first poem. Marvel at the complexity and conviction:
Lights are burning
In quiet rooms
Where lives go on
The quiet lives
That follow us-
These lives we lead
But do not own-
Stand in the rain
When we are gone,
And the last bus
comes letting dark
Black flowers, black flowers.
And lives go on.
And lives go on
Like sudden lights
At street corners
Or like the lights
In quiet rooms
Left on for hours,
I’ll grant you, it’s an amazing thing to see a poem in which every line, and every word is trite, but DJ pulled it off. REALLY read the words. Just because this was published by a major press does not make the writing a bit more worthy of literary acclaim. From the title to the last line this poem has been written in a hundred thousand workshops, and all better. Is it thought that because a ‘name’ poet wrote it that it’s somehow better? Yes, that’s the gambit. Is there a single undermining of a single cliché?
Surely, even Howard must recognize this? No. Here’s what he says: the poem is like a sestina- because the first and last lines end with the same word. Of course, a sestina has all six end lines in a stanza repeat in a numeric pattern through six more stanzas- but this poem is like a sestina because two lines end with the same word. ‘Ours’ and ‘hours’ are not only examples of punning, but the sort of punning ‘only a poet who has already wrestled with the problems of the sestina would appreciate’. Well, I doubt that since, well, this is NOT an example of punning. By definition a pun is ‘ a play on words, usually on different senses of the same word, or the similar sense or sound of different words.’ Now look at where the two claimed puns occur- five stanzas apart. Can either word be substituted for the other to garner a different, coherent or rational meaning? Perhaps lives can resemble hours metaphorically, but there is not a hint in the rest of the poem that the metaphor is extended, or made use of, so that claim is rather pallid. But a light certainly cannot be left on for ours- it makes no sense. This is a distantly placed rime- purposive or not, but certainly not a pun. Of course, this sort of claim is usually made in defense of bad art. It connotes cleverness in its claim, even though the claim is groundless. Of course, who but me would point this out in the written form? And, more to the point, who would point this out by just by hearing the poem once? This is a perfect example of bad poets trying to gull readers into thinking a bad poem is good by tossing out false claims that sound reasonably intellectual. Howard then goes on to praise the third line of the poem for having multiplicity of meaning. Since this is one of the fundaments of good poetry it’s like praising a dog for the ability to bark.
Howard then claims, ‘That overdetermined, exquisite use of the most conventional phrase is the meat and the substance of a mind like Justice’s, which is constantly hovering and swaying upon itself- upon its own bondage.’ This is another gem of a cloistering attempt by bad poets to sequester themselves away from the layety by heaping ridiculously phrased praise upon bad art. What exactly is Howard saying? Well, ‘overdetermined’ is something that is too choreographed, or fake- in short, it’s a negative term. ‘Exquisite’ means beautiful or excellent, so he means a fake beauty, which is then all he says Justice can do, and is bound to, in a most inglorious phrase.
This verbal diarrhea does not end there, though. The fourth of the five poems is this gem:
The Thin Man
I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.
Howard claims the poem has exquisite enjambment, as well, and goes on to state ‘It’s no accident that the first line of the second stanza reads, ‘I hone myself to,’ and then comes, ‘This edge;’ The line is honing there, so that by the time the enjambment comes and you get to what it breaks to, the line has performed the very action it describes.’ Well, no it does not. Line 4 can be broken in three ways, and Justice’s is the worst. If the line broke at ‘myself’ there would be a nice byplay between that word and the ‘I’ that ends the next line. The prepositional end is the weakest, because the ‘edge’ is not at the edge- it is buffered by the pronoun ‘this’. Moving ‘this’ up to end line 4 would also be better because the edge would be at the edge, as well as giving a greater sense of expectancy than ‘to’ does. Also, line 5’s end could be improved by dropping ‘I’ down to open the last line, making that a declarative statement- far more powerful than it currently reads- like a Headless Horseman. So, 3 of the 6 lines could be improved- a 50% rate of good, solid enjambment in a poem is not a good showing.
But, of course, neither poetaster ever thought their words would come under my intense scrutiny, and their verbal diarrhea would just fade into the abyss. Yet, this sort of flat-out wrong thought and criticism has only gotten manifold worse in the decades between their utterance and print. Amazingly, Justice ends by stating, ‘It is shocking to me that Richard should have seen into some of what I had thought remained hidden by purposes and intentions of mine.’ Surely this is a joke? No, Justice must have really thought these poems were the Duino Elegies, or the like.
Of course, Justice and Howard are far from alone in their idiocy and vacuity. The next article features the ‘poet of suffering’, the great ‘witness’ poet- Czeslaw Milosz, in Beyond Every Essence, A New Essence Waits. It features a conversation that was taped in 2004, from an NPR interview of poetaster Robert Hass, by Jennifer Ludden. I’ll suffice with just a few brain dead bon mots from Hass:
‘The line, ‘My Lord, I loved strawberry jam,’ from ‘A Confession’ is not a bad place to begin with his work.’
Now, ‘April is the cruelest month….’ or ‘Whose woods these are….’ this is not. Of course, Hass gives no clue as to why such banality should inspire, and when we read the poem on the next page our query is still without answer..
‘He wrote about, as Joseph Brodsky said, the unbearable fact that we human beings can hardly grasp our own existence.’
See what I mean? Then we get a snippet from a Milosz essay, and three poems. The last, the spectacularly titled Winter, ends with this injunction:
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of earth.
Every single word is trite. This is a horrid ending to a terrible poem- yet he won a Nobel? Rika Lesser then tackles the art of translation in Where Is The Center Of Our World? Of course, little is gleaned, save for a near-screed urging poets to take up the mantle of translator. It ends with a predictable claim: ‘More than ever we need poets, translators, and translations that see their ways through the languages, the literatures, the times and the cultures they translate, to the renewal of the next moment, and the next, without bloodshed.’ For the 10,317th time I must state that art and politics are not inextricably bound. But, it will get you published in an Academy vehicle!
Then we get an exercise in sardonism unwitting from minimalist poet Robert Creeley, who recently kicked off, called Reveries: On Music And Poetic Composition. Now, anyone in the know knows that Creeley was an e.e. cummings wannabe who lacked the skill, music, and intellect that cummings did. This should be fun, at least! It’s not, because of gems like, ‘One of the greatest compliments of my life came from an old friend and fellow poet, the bassist Steve Swallow (‘poet’ because although he writes with notes, it’s poetry for sure).’ That thud was any credibility Creeley had after that utterance. When published poets as Creeley, meager a talent as he was, refuse to take ‘real poetry’ seriously there is trouble on the horizon. I’d quote from his selected poem, but after that comment, no. He deserves no more comment.
Another essay with the same title is published by a Michael Morse, presumptively a poet, whose essay consists of the old A to Z gambit of commenting on poetry’s links to music. That his piece has an epigraph from doggerelist William Matthews says enough about him. Without any real explanation he starts tossing rock bands and musicians about, to provide tenuous links to an idea- any idea that can pass as being about poetry. Here is a brain dead example:
K- dare I follow The Beatles with a reference to Kiss? A friend gave me a copy of Double Platinum in college and it was like reuniting with a long-lost love. ‘God Of Thunder’, ‘Cold Gin’, Detroit, Rock City’. Oh my. And perhaps there’s no more humorous piece of cover art than Love Gun. Those boots! Those ladies!
That’s it. Tell me what this has to do with poetry, please. The piece then ends with his poem and I want you to pay attention to Morse’s themes and word choices, and see how utterly unambitious, and safe, and banal they are, and how like all the previous quoted poem selections they are. In short, this is a perfect example of the genericization of poetry. You could easily switch the names appended to these poems and this rock loving doggerelist could easily be the Nobelist Milosz. Imagine confusing Robinson Jeffers with Robert Frost with Marianne Moore with Countee Cullen. That very lack of individuation kills– be it online or not. Here’s the poem:
What burns the hearth before me says fire
and yet I’m speechless in this living room.
Say loners correlate leftover beeches
in categories that outsource the slipstream:
might yellow hues still nominate whole thinking
that corresponds with current sentiment-
How now, Quo?
The thinnest of attentive trees suggests
a nomenclature for the turning leaves:
a luminary eleventh-hour handout,
venerated as an elevated downturn
or taunted like a volunteer,
tentative and wholehearted.
Note the title as banal as Milosz’s, with utterly no thought to improving it or undermining it with what is written in the poem’s body.
Speaking of which, there come some new poets, in a series of introductory essays. The first is The Body Is Always Trembling: Introducing Kerry Webster, by Janet Holmes. To have one poetaster introducing another is sort of humorous, but the way it is done is bone dry. Quoth Holmes: ‘Again and again, the poems investigate whether one’s natural state is alone or paired or otherwise joined (‘Am I conduit, am I / filament’)’. Boy, I don’t know which is a more laughable quote- Holmes’ or her quote of Webster’s poem. Is there a thing stated in either that is unique or deep? Perhaps the only thing we learn in the piece is that Holmes is still up to her eyeballs in questionable poetic practices- as detailed in Foetry.com. She actually admits that Webster’s a former student of hers, and that soon after her chapbook won an award. Here is a sample of her award-winning nature. Know that ‘eidetic’ means vivid in imagery and memory.
Come, bring us to this hovel. Somewhere the groom enters the bride. Somewhere today said something hopeful about fixity. Bath towel, bible, room key, and it all runs to nothing, my evidentiary? Women are not inhabited figuratively. Say stain and come to bed, say bruise and kneel instead, say rough. Let fall your horrible pleasure. Killed, the spider curls to galaxy. Outside occlusion/snow/a localized stifling/the day bereft. And cry these dreadful summoners grace? This page is full of theft.
Well, the poem does steal its readers’ never to return time, but what does it mean? Is there a reason to even find out? No. There’s not a single wordplay nor image that arrests. As in the previous poem it’s a perfect example of utterly generic writing. Holmes then gifts us with her own poem Ars Poetica- another gem of titling. Read a bit and chuckle:
just the way you read
we don’t share the field
until I fill it
Aren’t you always gonna treasure that strikethough? Especially the one through ‘till’?
The next poetaster introduced is Roxane Beth Johnson, by Paul Hoover. The bon mot wafted? ‘The moral grounding of her work is to suggest the extraordinary complexity of identity.’ Even were that claim of identity true (it’s not), how is that complexity a moral agent? This is just literary fellatio at its most blatant. She also has a proem proffered. Compare it to the one above and ask if either is mnemonic in the least:
I walk into the candy store and my father is chewing a gooey chocolate-toffee, the syruped almonds cracking between his teeth. This is years ago. His teeth are false because, as a child, his mother punched them out. I don’t think about being over, but of it being parallel. Equal. Balanced. Like music playing as we talk. This is what being born teaches me. My father chewing sweets and swallowing his teeth.
Almost every major PC cliché is touched upon- the striving for knowledge, memory of a lost loved one, banal scenes and images treated so dearly. Is there a single unique image or metaphor? Has what is said not been said a thousand times before?
As if to prove that he is as equally bad as Holmes and the ‘emerging poetasters’ Paul Hoover grants us with Poem In Spanish, in which the immortal lines ‘I have two sons and the time of day / its late hour dark in a brilliant landscape’. Another two poetasters and their apologists are likewise ‘introduced’, but you get the drift….Followed by two more pieces on translation that are as about as interesting as the introduced poetasters’ work. Then we come to an In Memoriam section on poets Cid Corman, Thom Gunn, and Frederick Morgan. The first had no talent, the second some, but squandered it, and the third was an unknown to me. Of Corman (1924-2004) we are told of his import by the use of modifiers like ‘iconoclastic’, ‘prominent’, ‘tremendous’, ‘celebrated’, ‘keen’, and ‘imaginative’. Bear them in mind as you read this poem meant to highlight those qualities:
The patience of the
more than a hundred
year old sculptor met
was letting a chunk
of great wood ripen
in his atelier
before finding the
figure he was to
elicit it from.
No, you missed nothing. The iconoclasm, I suppose, is that his title is four words on four lines, but let’s see if this poem’s poetry holds up if we write it the way the emerging poetasters proems were:
The patience of the more than a hundred year old sculptor met was letting a chunk of great wood ripen in his atelier before finding the figure he was to elicit it from.
No, you’ve still missed nothing. Perhaps Gunn (1929-2004) is better, and a true poet? This master, it is said, claimed ‘my life insists on continuities’. Whose does not? Here’s some insight from his poem Autobiography:
life seemed all
loss, and what was more
I’d lost whatever it was
before I’d even had it
This, surely, is a thought only a genius like Gunn could have thought, and certainly no one has ever penned such depth before. The unknown Morgan (1922-2004) has a stake to fame- founding The Hudson Review. Ok, he was a publisher, but poet? And The Hudson Review hardly made him a central figure, although its proximity to New York City doubtlessly made him well known to the Academy.
Here’s how a publisher poesizes, from The Vantage:
Imagine yourself in a huge dark mansion
at night: you’re not quite lost, not quite at home,
and free, or so it seems, to move about.
Rooms, halls, stairways-all are still and dark
Again, not a single image that sticks, not a single poetic technique save enjambing the lines. This is prose. Go ahead- write it out in a paragraph form. This is the magazine’s editor paying back a friend, with a posthumous mention. Certainly this is not as grievous as the other literary sins I’ve outlined, but it is a sin nonetheless.
Next, there is a section called Re: Print, in which they claim to be reprinting good poems from Ten Surprising Recent Books. Here’s a snippet from Macular Hole, by Catherine Wagner:
Bought a book on economy
Called about plane tickets
I bought my debt today
Debt off my God today
God off my debt in a macular hole
Wagner apes the wannabe Surrealist doggerelist so named, but cannot even make original doggerel.
The penultimate section of the magazine is a bunch of mini-reviews of poetry books, such as this, about a Sophie Cabot Black’s The Descent:
The poems in The Descent are spare to the point of elegance and are stripped of determinate time and place. This overarching equalization- speakers, characters, and addressees remain unnamed as well- keeps the work elusive but enchanting, as though one were reading the chronicles of a pilgrim whose name and beliefs were long ago lost.
I ask- does a reader have any sense whether this writer’s poems are in
any way like an Eliot, a Rilke, a Plath, a James Wright, a Stevens? No. It’s
utter blather, void of any heft. After ads and a list of contributor notes and
bios the magazine ends with a holograph of a Donald Justice poem Elsewheres.
Yet, I wonder why anyone would care about the thought processes involved in a
poem whose end result is lines like these?:
Closing our eyes to the sun,
We try to imagine
The darkness of an interior
In which something might still happen:
The truth is that thirty-seven years ago or today, neither Donald Justice nor Richard Howard made any real impact on the art of poetry, and their ill considered opinions are free to float amongst the detritus that passes for arts and/or intellectual talk these days.
So, I’ve shown you what you can expect for your contribution to the Academy Of American Poets. Is there any way they could be charged with fraud? Or some violation of the U.S. Mail Code?- for this crap is far more mind-numbing than the worst pornography. The poetry is horrid, the prose built about it to defend it, or rationalize it, just to poison the minds of younger wannabe poets into thinking that bad is good, and if you write badly enough you can get published for the overall quality of poetry needs to be dragged down, so that talentless hacks can delude themselves that they’re not talentless hacks, but really super-nice human beings, so that the good become the freaks. Yet, this is what comes from the official establishment, deluded into thinking PC thought means good poetry, just as hipster poets believe anything without form or shape is ‘daring’.
Well, I have shown it for what it is. Often, I’ll get nasty emails from immature people who kvetch, usually because they’ve found I denuded a poetaster they love, but not a one has yet risen to my challenge to debate me on the merits of my claims, so I issue it again. I will publish a rebuttal to this piece, unedited, if anyone has the cojones to make themselves look the fool. Of course, I’ll rebut the rebuttal, but it would be a change, and perhaps the start of recognizing the brain cancer that infects Academia, and allows such pap to not only be published, but feted. You see, I’m not afraid to point out the good and bad that is obvious and not- be it manifest clichés or lesser known techniques that are poorly done.
As I end this essay I hope I was brief enough. If I’ve pained you with the crap that the Academy foists I apologize, but only once the ill is recognized can it be overcome. Damn- think I can make a poem of that in time for the Winter 2005 issue in 2007?
Here’s a go:
only once the
Nah. I must still have alot to learn.
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