Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?
—Fool, King Lear
It takes all sorts of in- and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.
Poetry has become so docile, so domesticated, it’s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun. Most poets choose to play it safe, combining a few approved modes in a variety of unexceptional ways: lyrical, pastoral, whimsical, surrealist, lyrical-pastoral, pastoral-surrealist, interior-lyrical, whimsical-lyrical-interior-surrealist, and so on. These poems feel at home in coffee shops and on college campuses; they circulate breezily among crowds of like-minded poems and all of them work hard to be liked. (They are also beloved of prize committees and radio hosts.) Not since the Edwardians has a period style felt so pinched, though, ironically, today’s poetry is offered as “new”—either ground-breakingly populist or transgressively avant-garde. As Joshua Mehigan puts it in a recent issue of Poetry:
In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game.
Mehigan is certainly right about the mug’s game of contemporary poetry, but why must everyone agree to change the game? And why must the game be new? Perhaps the way forward is, in fact, a way back. Perhaps the route into the wilderness will be charted by someone outside the game, who manages to reinvigorate, as Eliot did, a few little-known or neglected strains in poetry—what Hardy liked to call the old way of being new.
Some types of poetry—such as devotional poetry or satire—may still be admired, but they are almost never practiced; no one would dare. When they are attempted, they are made palatable, their rough edges softened. (Most recent satire is just a winking sort of light verse.) Poetry at one time could be truly shocking, and some of it remains shocking today. Take this passage from Juvenal’s Ninth Satire, written partly in the voice of a rent-boy: “My Clotho and Lachesis are pleased if my cock can feed my belly . . . . [W]hen will I ever [find a patron] that will save my old age from the beggar’s mat and stick? All I want is an income of twenty thousand from secure investments, some silver cups,” and a couple of bodyguards, etc. His services, for which he says he was underpaid, included anal intercourse with his former patron and sex with his patron’s wife, with whom he fathered two children. Juvenal’s withering send-ups of promiscuity, gluttony, and avarice leave no one untouched, not even the virtuous. As Roger Kimball points out, reading Juvenal today may have unexpected and salubrious effects on those who see themselves as above the fray: “We are unburdened by many benighted prejudices that crimped the souls of our ancestors,” writes Kimball. “And how much better we think of ourselves on account of our liberations. If nothing else, Juvenal may help temper that self-satisfaction.”
The range of expression in contemporary poetry has been narrowing for years. In the 1980s, a spate of gushy love poetry inspired the poet X. J. Kennedy to compile his fine anthology Tygers of Wrath, which gathers “a various sampling of the poetry of hate, paying secondary notice to anger.” In his introduction, Kennedy bemoans how, by the lights of recent poems, “Human kind appears . . . as an ethereal spirit, diverted only by rainbows and primroses, smiling in beatific glee when splashed by a passing omnibus.” Such poems rarely hint at the fact that, as the critic John Press puts it, “man eats, drinks, commits fornication, dances, plays games, makes jokes, gossips, and runs away in the hour of battle.” The spectrum of subjects for poetry should be as broad as the spectrum of human emotions, which is not to say that all emotions are equally admirable, only that we exclude consideration of them at our peril.
How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.
Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; it’s high-minded and “evolved.” Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.
Perhaps I suffer from a chemical imbalance or a fatal flaw in sensibility, but I find all this good will in poetry positively hard going. Here is a random example, innocuously titled “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver, one of America’s best-selling and popular poets:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
After this anaphoric litany of wistful Whitman, Oliver slyly likens her observation of the grasshopper to a kind of secular prayer. An afternoon of strolling though fields leads her to wonder: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/ Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” One of the things I plan to do is pass up, inasmuch as possible, reading more poems like this one. Another poem, “Out of the Stump Rot, Something,” lets us know when it is attempting something darker (“If you like prettiness,/ don’t come here”), but Oliver always leaves on a night light. The title alludes to Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something,” with its unsettling vision in the depths of a well. Frost was a poet well acquainted with the night, in poems such as “The Door in the Dark,” “The Lockless Door,” and numerous others. When Frost watches snow falling he makes us think of death. For Oliver, “There is something about the snow-laden sky/ in winter/ in the late afternoon// that brings to the heart elation.” Or, as she writes elsewhere, “My work is loving the world.” Nice work if you can get it, though it’s enough to make you hate the world, or at least the poetry world.
Oliver enjoys one of the largest audiences for poetry since . . . well, since Frost. She can’t be faulted for continuing to give readers what they clearly want. The same call for warmth and “humanity” seems to drive much of the selection behind Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac,” as well as the former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column—both hugely popular and far-reaching.
Kooser’s poem, “Screech Owl,” featured on his website, goes like this:
All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness,
it calls out again and again.
This is the kind of experience only poets have, packaged and consumed by poets and by those with poetic souls. No bigger than a heart? Taken away by the stars? Hardy’s thrush would have been embarrassed to hang out with this owl. As William Logan has written: “Kooser wants a poetry anyone can read without shame and understand without labor.” The result is a kind of easy listening, what a musically minded colleague calls Adult Contemporary, after the popular strain of innocuous soft rock. Adult Contemporary, according to Wikipedia, “is inoffensive and pleasurable enough to work well as background music.” It is poetry to accompany your day not disrupt it, to keep one entertained on that long car ride through life. A poem should give pleasure, wrote Wallace Stevens, but when did our pleasures become so wan and modest, and so breezily proffered?
It’s partly a matter of realism. By including disturbing emotions, I am not advocating a poetry of decadence (though that too has a soft spot in my heart). Quite the contrary. I would like a poetry that doesn’t talk down or talk only to a coterie, one that can call a spade a spade and reveal evil for what is. The condition of satire (broadly construed) is realistic and moral, yet it appealed to poets—such as Catullus, Rochester, Baudelaire, and the writers of French fabliaux—whose visions we do not consider entirely wholesome. As Bau-delaire himself wrote, in one of his prefaces to Les Fleurs du mal, “Some people have told me that these poems could have evil effects. That did not delight me. Other, kind souls, said that they could do some good, and that did not distress me. The fears of the first and the hopes of the second surprised me in equal measure, and only seemed to prove to me once again that this century of ours has forgotten all the classical wisdom about literature.”
The poet Yvor Winters defended Baudelaire against accusations of decadence by comparing him with Shakespeare. Both he and Shakespeare had the ability to portray the unlovely manifestations of man’s animus. The materials “of most of Baudelaire,” Winters writes, “are no more evil than the materials of Shakespeare. The topics of both men are bad enough, for both explore human nature rather far; both depict evil and make us know it as evil.” As Baudelaire wrote in another version of his preface: “It is harder to love God than to believe in him. On the contrary, it is harder for people in this century to believe in Satan than to love him. Everyone is at his beck and call but nobody believes in him. The sublime subtlety of Satan.”
Should a poet resist such impulses toward the expression of one’s most febrile passions? John Ruskin thought not:
A poet is great, first in proportion to the strength of his passion, and then, that strength being granted, in proportion to his government of it; there being, however, always a point beyond which it would be inhuman and monstrous if he pushed this government, and, therefore, a point at which all feverish and wild fancy becomes just and true.
The poet’s job, according to Winters, is to communicate, as accurately and precisely as possible, the emotions associated with a human experience. Winters gets a bum rap as a chilly rationalist. What he really advocated, it seems to me, was poetry as a catalogue or road map of emotion, each properly motivated by a human experience. Winters himself understood a great range of emotion (as is clear from the harrowing story he wrote about his own nervous breakdown, “The Brink of Darkness”). He exemplifies Eliot’s notion that “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” His classicism (“laurel, archaic, rude”) struck some as marmoreal or even prudish. But he was a brilliant reader of Baudelaire and Rochester, of Hart Crane and Allen Tate. For all of his talk about the “morality” of poetry, he did not shy away, in his appreciation, from the darkest spectrum of human feeling or even from evil itself.
What poetry today sorely wants, then, is more bile: the realism, humor, and intensity occasioned by the satiric impulse. It’s what Shakespeare might have thought of as “the bitter fool.” As Bart Van Es explains in his brilliant article in the Times Literary Supplement for January 25, Shakespeare’s habit of tailoring parts for individual company members greatly shaped his plays. One such example is the succession of the comic actor Will Kemp by Robert Armin. As Van Es writes, “as is well known, [Armin] replaced Kemp as sharer and principle comic actor in Shakespeare’s company. Having written a set of broad comic roles for Kemp (Lancelot Gobbo, Bottom, Peter, and Dogberry), the dramatist began from this point on to write plays that featured self-conscious jesters (including Touchstone, Thersites, Feste, and the Fool in Lear).” Armin, himself a writer, published a “compilation of prose and poetry called Fool upon Fool,” and it is impossible to imagine As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or King Lear without the bitter fooling that Armin both wrote about and enacted. If such fooling is comic, it is a comedy tinged with tragedy. (Bile makes its own distinct music. Without it we would lose much of the poetry of Geoffrey Hill—“Tune up an old saw: the name-broker/ is carnifex. Forms of enhanced/ interrogation by the book. Footnotes/ to explain BIRKENAU, BUCHENWALD . . .”—and, of course, Shakespeare: “Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ’em i’ th’ paste alive.”)
Spleen and the satiric impulse have fueled certain writers to very great heights. Yeats understood their place in the creation of poetry, as did Ibsen. In Edmund Gosse’s book on the playwright, we see “Ibsen wandering silently about the streets [of Rome], his hands plunged far into the pockets of his invariable jacket of faded velveteen, Ibsen killing conversation by his sudden moody appearances at the Scandinavian Club, Ibsen shattering the ideals of the painters and enthusiasms of the antiquaries by a running fire of sarcastic paradox.” Scraping by on a meager scholarship in 1865, Ibsen found a project that perfectly suited his mood—the verse drama Brand, which would, as Gosse writes, “place Ibsen at a bound among the greatest European poets of his age.” During the writing, Ibsen kept imprisoned on his writing table a scorpion in an empty beer glass; when the scorpion grew sluggish, the playwright would revive it with a bit of fruit “on which it would cast itself in a rage and eject its poison into it; then it was well again.” Disgusted with his Norwegian compatriots for their cautious pacifism in the Danish-German war of 1864, Ibsen through Brand sought to purge some of his own pent-up venom.
A number of twentieth-century American poets have embraced a classical tartness and venom: Tom Disch, Turner Cassity, Anthony Hecht, Carolyn Kizer, as well as a handful of poets now writing (including some Brits)—Geoffrey Hill, Frederick Seidel, William Logan, and Sophie Hannah. There are others, of course, but dispiritingly few. And why? A graduate student I spoke with recently offered a plausible theory: collegiality. So many poets rely on poetry for their livelihood nowadays—prizes and fellowships, academic preferment, conferences and readings—that they could never be seen to raise hackles or give offense. The bitter fool is an outsider: the banished Touchstone, the cast-out Fool.
Another reason may have to do with a lack of shared cultural assumptions: as the Prince-ton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Enlarged Edition) has it, “The greatest satire has been written in periods when ethical and rational norms were sufficiently powerful to attract widespread assent, yet not so powerful as to compel absolute conformity—those periods when that satirist could be of his society and apart from it.”
Then there is the cultural amnesia that Baudelaire identifies, the loss of the classical tradition. Of course, it never really went away; strong poets have always gravitated toward it. Here is Robert Lowell in 1961, interviewed for The Paris Review by Frederick Seidel:
LOWELL: [Y]ou take almost any really good Roman poet—Juvenal, or Virgil, or Propertius, Catullus—he’s much more raw and direct than anything in English, and yet he has this blocklike formality. The Roman frankness interests me. Until recently our literature hasn’t been as raw as the Roman, translations had to have stars. And their history has a terrible human frankness that isn’t customary with us—corrosive attacks on the establishment, comments on politics and the decay of morals, all felt terribly strongly, by poets as well as historians. The English writer who reads the classics is working at one thing, and his eye is on something else that can’t be done. We will always have the Latin and Greek classics, and they’ll never be absorbed. There’s something very restful about that.
INTERVIEWER: But, more specifically, how did Latin poetry—your study of it, your translations—affect your measure of English poetry?
LOWELL: My favorite English poetry was the difficult Elizabethan plays and the Metaphysicals, then the nineteenth century, which I was aquiver about and disliked but which was closer to my writing than anything else. The Latin seemed very different from either of these. I immediately saw how Shelley wasn’t like Horace and Virgil or Aeschylus—and the Latin was a mature poetry, a realistic poetry.
Also lost is the sense of persona, of a speaker that may or may not share views with the poet but who provokes the reader. Frederick Seidel (who seems to have taken Lowell’s comments above to heart) revels in the persona he has created around himself. Like Baudelaire, he “explores human nature rather far,” but, like Larkin (in a different vein), that is part of his genius. We recoil from the opening of Seidel’s “Broadway Melody”:
A naked woman my age is a total nightmare.
A woman my age naked is a nightmare.
It doesn’t matter. One doesn’t care.
One doesn’t say it out loud because it’s rare
For anyone to be willing to say it.
Because it’s the equivalent of buying billboard space to display it.
Seidel then takes us deeper, to an underlying dread that implicates us and pulls us in despite our resistance, until we have more in common with the speaker than we were willing to admit:
I hate the old couples on their walkers giving
Off odors of love, and in City Diner eating a ray
Of hope, and then paying and trembling back out on Broadway.
Drumming and dancing, chanting something nearly unbearable,
Spreading their wings in order to be more beautiful and more terrible.
As William Logan has written about Larkin, such poems
may be the record of how a man converts his basest feelings to something more humane; and we read him, not because he is less base, but because the flaws reveal the pathos. . . . the poems make clear they were not simply a way of concealing from the public taste his gruesome prejudices.
If concealment were Seidel’s wish, he’d sound a lot more like the ubiquitous Adult Contemporary poets mentioned above.
Satire needn’t be thuddingly didactic. It doesn’t need to provoke us into specific action, merely show the difference between virtue and vice. As Auden wrote, “Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.” It would be pretty to think, as so much poetry does, that the world is a place of revelation and light, if only poets show us the way to it. The best poets, however, never forget that the path to light often leads though the dark.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 8, on page 4
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