So, picking up on our poetry criticism discussion of last week: we seem to
go to poetry for different things at different times. And, I should say,
to different poets! Some of those reflective, staid, "acceptable"
Iowa-school poems may be just what we need when we’re trying to think
about how to do things with words, or trying to create something lucid and
lovely ourselves. But you might need to recite some Allen
Ginsberg–loudly–on Friday at 8 pm after a long week and several
Someone like Rita Dove, though a contemporary, really may not have much at
all in common with "talk poet" David Antin, who is famous for a
spontaneous type of oral verse that was never intended for page or book.
How do we fit all these approaches into our own–often
fluctuating–standards for what is "good poetry?" A review in today’s New
York Times comes up against this critical glass ceiling in dealing with an
anthology that aims quite frankly to be middlebrow. And there are some
damn good irreverent lines in the review that make me trust the writer’s
judgement. Says David Orr:
‘According to Keillor: "Poetry is the last preserve of honest speech. . .
. All that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and
truthfulness. All that is twittery and lit’ry: no thanks, pal." Well, fair
enough, pal. Of course, in the literary world, directness and clarity and
truthfulness are themselves matters of artifice, but a man is entitled to
his preferences. There’s plenty to admire about this anthology and the
spirit in which it was undertaken.
On the other hand, there’s also plenty to be annoyed about. The most
obvious problem with "Good Poems for Hard Times" is that it proposes that
"the meaning of poetry is to give courage." That is not the meaning of
poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch. The meaning of poetry is poetry.
But a more subtle and intractable difficulty is that Keillor’s taste isn’t
just limited, it’s limited within its limitations. He likes plainspoken
writing that is long on sentiment, short on surface complication – a
defensible aesthetic, if one that occasionally condescends to its subject
matter and audience.’
Me, I like poems with a little surface complication*, but there are plenty
of OTHER reasons to enjoy, too. I think the little epiphanies are what
lyrical verse (our mainstay in thsi forum) can do so well, but if all
poetry aimed for them I would begin to cringe as I neared every new poem’s
And now I’ll shut up. Here’s a poem by a very respected–is he local,
Boston peeps?–guy who writes, typically, with a directness I admire. No
fussing about here with "meaning," he just invests an everyday item with
*I can compare my way of enjoying a poem to the football fan who knows to
watch the blocking of the lines, rather than just where the ball goes.
Compared to one’s normal clothes, pajamas
are just as caricature as the dreams
they bare: farce-skins, facades, unserious
soft versions of the _mode diem_, they seem
to have come from a posthumousness;
floppy statues of ourselves, slack seams
of death. Their form mimics the decay
that will fit us so comfortably someday.
-Bill Knott, 2001