Verse chronicle June 2019
Down by the Old Mill Stream
On recent poetry.
James Tate was the crown prince—make that the clown prince—of goofball poetics. That he was more than that, and less, is the burden of The Government Lake: Last Poems.1 After his death in 2015, a final poem was found curled around the platen of his typewriter. He used an old ibm Selectric, heavy as a sack of bricks, with machine-gun chatter as the type ball spat out a word. Such a Rube Goldberg contraption was perfect for a poet whose work was often a collection of cats with flaming tails, exploding bowling-pins, and mousetraps tripped by ping-pong balls—in other words, mayhem.
Tate’s genius for jazzy, half-sensical, giddy stream of thought made his poems jitterbug down the page. A lot were dopey, even dopier after the manner became a little sclerotic, as if the poet were trying ever harder for the lightness of bearing that once came so easily. (Astaire at twenty-five was one thing, at seventy-five quite another.) These farewell poems are laid out as prose, which makes a statement very different from laying them out as poetry, even if you call the former prose-poetry to make it sound legit. Poetry by nature is a gas, prose a metal—maybe. If your style is lighter than air, though, it will be a lot tougher to let fly when staked to the ground like Gulliver.
Tate’s absurdist notions had a cracked charm. A woman lays an egg. (How much of comedy comes from taking a figurative expression literally?) Wild chickens have been spotted in the hills, and feathers are floating down the chimney. The egg hatches, and the chick looks a bit like her. More eggs and chicks follow. She’s deliriously happy; her boyfriend or husband, less so. Then a fox breaks in and eats all the chicks. She says,
“What are we going to do? There’s nothing for us to do now.” “We’ll go on as we did before, when there were no chicks,” I said. “But I can’t imagine that. Without chicks there was nothing,” she said. “Without chicks we had one another. We loved each other, remember that,” I said. “It seems like so very long ago,” she said. “To me, it seems like it was only a few days,” I said. “To the chicks it was an eternity,” she said.
There the poem ends. It’s one of Tate’s typical dodgy ideas, worked out in jig time, finished almost before it’s begun, but finished with a lead pipe—the chicks, we’re reminded, bear all the tragedy. A comic malignity lingers underneath. Is the subject love with emptiness down the middle, or a literal version of empty-nest syndrome? Tate wisely never says. His instinct was to take a dumb-funny idea and leave a gaping abyss.
Some of these poems are fizzles, and far too many are misfires—jokes vainly seeking punchlines, or punchlines mopily looking for jokes.
Some of these poems are fizzles, and far too many are misfires—jokes vainly seeking punchlines, or punchlines mopily looking for jokes. Such manic, somewhat terrifying poems start off like tin wind-up toys with a great whirring of gears and then halfway across the room run down and expire with a tinny mechanical sigh. The reader has to put up with a lot of riffing while waiting for a poem to get to the point. Tate rarely knew when to quit—he was no story teller, as a writer of prose poems almost has to be. Yet at times, three-quarters of the way down the page, the story goes off the rails, and it’s hilarious. I recall a reading more than forty years ago when he kept interrupting himself with a fit of giggles. I admire a poet who can read his own work and laugh himself silly.
I thought about calling my mother, but she was in heaven. I called her anyway. “Mom, how are you doing?” I said. “I’m bored. Don’t come here. There’s nothing to do,” she said. “Aren’t there angels?” I said. “Yes, but they’re boring,” she said. “But I was going to come see you,” I said. “Go to hell, it’s more exciting,” she said. I had fallen asleep with my teacup in my hand. When I awoke I realized I thought it was a phone. My mother would never be so sarcastic about heaven.
At their darkest, these late poems borrow Kafka’s metaphysics, the Kafka who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian. An alarming number take place in offices—there’s a Kafkaesque tale about bureaucracy, and two or three that feature desks and accountants, as if Tate were revisiting that distant Prague of insurance investigators. The Brothers Grimm stand in the background, as, perhaps, do Edward Gorey and the now almost forgotten meta-plagiarist Jerzy Kosinski.
With their bizarre events, unlikely coincidences, mad turns of plot, and appalling misfortunes, these poems strive to be filleted versions of nineteenth-century dime novels. “Shit happens” is their motto, as it wasn’t quite for Dickens or Trollope or George Eliot (well, maybe a little for Thomas Hardy). There are even a few magical resurrections, as if Matthew and Mark had been brought in to punch up the script. So it went in Tate’s World, where after a night of making love a woman pulls a revolver; where a doctor suddenly appears and wants to saw off a man’s leg; where a man tries to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to his pet seahorse. Sweet-tempered, by nature minor and without a deep bone in them, Tate’s poems have a woebegone integrity and deadpan ridiculousness it will be difficult not to miss.
A. E. Stallings fell in love with the classics in college and never fell out of it. Her poems are knowledgeable and knowing, with cultivated intelligence and a disturbing love of poetic form. The classics run through them like a trout stream through the Rockies, and almost every time you turn a page you’re ambushed by Pandora, Argos, Charon, Icarus, or some other refugee from the beginnings of Western literature. In the fifties, Greek and Roman name-dropping was de rigueur—scarcely a poet of standing didn’t write “Orpheus Opens His Morning Mail” or “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid,” casting some mythic monster in the lead.
Like, Stallings’s fourth book, brings home again those home truths.2 The classics still have something to say to us, grounding the flightiness of the present with the weight of the past. With the decline of Biblical knowledge, the Greco-Roman dramatis personae have become convenient stand-ins for setting the ancient world face to face with the modern. Stallings is capable of astonishing passages, rich with antique sins and flash-forwards to the star turns of their distant descendants. Sometimes she offers striking images,
Church bells rinse the air
With buckets of a bright
Clean music, and the urgent human cries
Of minarets punctuate the skies,
and sometimes acts of extended sprezzatura, as in “Epic Simile,”
The hero is fouled with blood, his own and
First slick, then sticky, then caked, starting to mat
His beard—the armor deadweight all around
His teeth grit and rattle with every jolt
Of bronze-rimmed wheels behind the shit-flecked
But when he glimpses the mountains, the distant
A blankness swoons upon him, and he hears
Nothing but the white vowels of the wind
Brushing through stands of spears like conifers.
Though the latter poem lives in the shadow of Robert Hass’s “Heroic Simile,” at her best Stallings gives Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur a run for their money.
At her best Stallings gives Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur a run for their money.
Such passages can be found only in short supply here; and too many poems in this gallimaufry of a collection (the poems soullessly arranged in alphabetical order by title) are, for all their loyalty to rhyme and meter, drab and Doric. Indeed, the loyalty is itself fragile. Stallings can rarely be bothered to complete a rhyme scheme without throwing in one or two clunkers, some of them offbeat with a vengeance: parse/stars, lacks/epics, between/kitchen, fire/premiere, closed/nose. She’ll rhyme four couplets nearly perfectly then finish with a bargain-basement half-rhyme, or stretch her lines to accommodate rhymes hardly worth the effort—Procrustean rhyme is never a good idea.
Stallings loves the weight and balance of meter; but some stretches are, as Pound remarked of Eliot’s “A Game of Chess,” “too penty.” More are not penty or tetry enough. Here she drops a foot, there she adds one—the result is a casual mess. The meter is now and then deft, often clinical, but always vulnerable to the glitches and monkey wrenches of someone who either hears English in a peculiar way or is sloppy when it suits her. “She peeked under the lid” is never going to be iambic trimeter, and a line like “To another’s expert disinterested caresses” has wandered into pentameter from another country. Pentameter can absorb a fair amount of brute punishment, but when the variations exceed the iambs the line almost always breaks down. Fourteen syllables with three anapests and a feminine ending are an end too far.
The forms are filled out with a bureaucratic tidiness but not bureaucratic precision. A trivial poem on pruning begins,
You’re doing them no favors
Letting them get too tall
Too fast for their own good;
Curtail the sprawl.
They’ll only get leggy and weak
And die faster
If you don’t take things in hand
And show them who’s master.
The trimeter is decent enough, chopped to dimeter when she’s got nothing better. The poem ends,
You water them and feed them
And call yourself a gardener.
You coddle and you pardon:
Be harder and hardener.
The last line is such a groaner, all that meter seems a ticket to a no-show. She might have pruned, or just lopped, a bit more.
The most memorable poems in Like make the classical world breathe again, as do many of Hecht’s chiaroscuro poems. (Think how shocking “Behold the Lilies of the Field” still is.) It’s not Stallings’s technical mastery I’m against, or even the technical flubbing, but the ends to which they’re put. A long poem on losing things takes a Dantesque turn, yet nearly three hundred lines accomplish far less than Elizabeth Bishop’s heartbreaking villanelle.
Since Stallings published her first book twenty years ago, her devil-may-care facility with form has been warmly welcomed. By her early forties, she had received Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. She still has a taste for contrivance (a villanelle in fourteeners, with a few hexameters thrown in), for straining lines to the breaking point, yet the center is missing—a more natural way of handling the language, for instance, or a congeries of feeling that doesn’t sound as if it came from a catalog. I like the multitudinous sea of her vocabulary, the tracery of her meter and laciness of her rhymes; but the poems remain more filigree than heart, more artifice than art. Despite all the dollopings of Bulfinch, these labored and brittle poems are often rather dull.
Katie Peterson’s off-center poems, with the whiff of pickled Surrealism hovering about them, feel like unwritten short stories. They start in one place and end in another, but it would take Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook to figure out the trail. There’s a smudge of narrative; not much by way of characterization; and a sudden twist, like a wrenched ankle, at the end. They often include small Freudian dramas with every way in and no way out. The opening poem in A Piece of Good News begins,
I had a lust for what was distant.
We were in love. We crossed the border
in broad daylight and the color
of the currency deepened
but didn’t change,
I drank the water. I thought it was okay.
We talked about people we fucked
when we should have been
sleeping with each other.3
That may or may not be an actual border: the currency, the coastline, and all else seem figments of allegory. They live in that half-life occupied by Schrödinger’s cat—as well as Auden’s thirties poems caught between saber-rattling in Europe and the cunning and betrayals of boys’ schools. Peterson’s poems prefer a teasing, slightly irritating state of withholding, as if the seduction were also the afterglow.
The poet spends a lot of time on minutiae, on facts that might be fancies, so vaguely are they tethered to a real world. There’s little to distinguish the medium from a lightly adorned prose that would spice up cia intercepts or city-council minutes—little except the twisted observations that make more sense than sense does. The longest poem in the book, a basket of fragments called “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead,” is full of such delights:
We should not go out when it’s like this.
As if not going out makes this a home.
* * *
It is better the Atlantic and Pacific
do not cohabitate. Their arguments
over the origin of grains of sand
make the children think it was their fault.
Thus the flatness of tedious Ohio.
* * *
She could see the border from her house.
But where exactly did the horizon end?
Some of these thirty oddments are flatter than flatfish, some sly, some just confounding. I rather like the idea that the Atlantic and Pacific don’t share digs (plate tectonics reminds us that they used to be married). Too many of these squibs, however, might serve better as Zen koans or conundrums on some sophomore epistemology exam.
Peterson’s poems are metaphysical in a West Coast way—that is, half loopy and half apt to faint at the sight of a bristlecone pine. She’s happy to take the long way around the barn:
If it were a sound it would be a ping,
the kind used by submarine commanders to
a presence at the epic depth such vessels
For goodness’ sake, you think, why not just say “sonar” and be done with it? Her poems are meant to be profound when they’re just on the long side of precious (“my one regret/ from that summer was not cutting the stalk/ of at least one sunflower so I could/ see water ache from its insides”). The material has difficulty rising to the style, because the style is so diaphanous. A poem more or less about President Obama jabbers on for nearly a hundred lines and makes watching dust motes a more thrilling proposition. Still, these little tales and parables have something haunting in them, something in the atmosphere without being said, something like the come-hither stare of a predator. Peterson has an oddly angled gift for description (“old men standing in front/ of crafts that survived gales in no fresh// air that hasn’t lived with salt, no fresh/ catch without a hook”) and a love of figure she doesn’t trust often enough (“a storm in the background,/ the shape of a fist, and wrinkled like a raisin”).
Peterson’s poems are meant to be profound when they’re just on the long side of precious.
Many poems in this, her fourth book, are like being stuck in an elevator with a woman having a cell-phone argument with her boyfriend. Or perhaps there’s no reception in the elevator, and she’s having an argument with herself. Or maybe she just wants to show you snapshots of her vacation in Bora Bora, the one where it rained incessantly, and some guy said . . . In any case, you realize you’d sell your children to be anywhere else—and that you’ll be thinking about her for the rest of the week. It’s easier to list all the ways these poems don’t work than to remember the oddball ways they do. There’s a simplicity that argues its own depths, and a simplicity shallow as a cafeteria tray. Peterson traffics in both. Maddeningly banal poems lie just over the page from ones that cut deep into the American character, into that place where all the malls and shampoo commercials in creation can’t tell us how to live.
Jana Prikryl’s second book, No Matter, is radically different from The After Party, one of the strongest debuts in the past twenty years.4 The balanced, beautifully articulated poise of her first book has been overthrown by a nightmarish journey through the living dormancy of the modern city. (New York for Prikryl is all cities writ large.) The musing, open interrogations of the earlier book have become a telegraphic flood of anxiety and gritty detail, Frank O’Hara on meth, with long prosy gouts of interior monologue, fractured thoughts, sentences that either shift gear in the middle or dead-end without warning. The opening poem begins with the title, “Got”—
off a stop early but no harm.
A pleasant walk. This is a different place.
Lady at the counter doesn’t know it either,
no use asking.
Lucky you turned when you did
and saw the ceiling of the Brooklyn Bridge
not ten feet above. Never noticed
the whole thing’s umber, made of brownstone.
The shattered perceptions, the jarring sentences and fragments, are like a flicker book thumbed at speed toward some disaster. (At the end of the poem, “houses along the way start exploding.”) The impulsiveness of style seems contrary to the wide-awake perceiving eye; and the desperate, nattering delivery betrays some inner torsion never explained—but explanation (or, as it has been called for six decades, confession) is rarely the strongest turn in contemporary poetry, where baring the soul sounds like mealy-mouthed excuse, less the underlying motor than the raison d’être. The whole is nerve-racked by a comma shortage due to the long droughts in the comma fields of California.
Prikryl is too canny a poet to take the easy way out, and these meditations on an oblique life possess little pressure points that reveal how tough-minded she can be:
like the East River pretending
to be a river when it’s merely an appetite.
* * *
the window seat is just a way of taking in
the danger all at once, breathing the ultimatum in
and trying to breathe it back out at decent
* * *
No way their faces can be let
sit empty, must be always rented out.
Prikryl’s angular intelligence is too rarely tested by this helter-skelter, hell-for-leather style. Central to the book is the lived experience of cities; but it’s not clear if the poems are, as Eliot intended The Waste Land to be, the police in different voices or just Dante’s stenographic notes while going through the malebolge with no Virgil in sight. The antiphony of recurring titles—“Anonymous,” “Sibyl,” “Stoic,” “Waves,” and “Friend” appear four times or more (there may have been drought in the title orchards as well)—makes experience a formal act of repetition, all nightmares a reprise or encore. There’s a headiness to these gusts of expressive anguish; yet many of the poems, despite the onrush of desire and need, seem exercises in the higher tedium. Their structures have been only half built, architect’s models that have run out of balsa wood. Some just judder to a close, amputated by a willful muse.
In this world where every perception is a threat, there are poems that manage to keep the chaos at bay:
Just in front of the porch steps, on a flat stone
that appears partially tucked under the porch,
a ficus in a clay planter. It produces
strange sounds. The silence that comes dressed
in not the past but conditional tense
may be quietest, it’s endured the most.
Prikryl at such moments reminds me of Kay Ryan, who takes the small and roughens it up in memory, or Walker Evans, whose furtive subway photos made even humanity seem human. Another poem is photographic in its nearness to the skin of being:
One has the more organized face, a bowtie
producing a wide dark rectangle, like a strip
of censored text, at her collar.
The other’s rounder, softer, and though both
half smiles of the same degree of satisfaction,
the other expresses contentment
more and thereby appears more resolute.
That’s the Prikryl these new poems have little room for, a great noticer of things that don’t want to be seen. Half these poems are mysteries that can’t be solved; and many present a mere limning of sensibility, the static of experience long repeated and the transience of moments impossible to fix, the way a darkroom photograph is fixed. They lie in sharp contrast to her elegy for the New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, which freshens the act of memory with the living presence of the dead. Though her strengths are less evident in the poems here, Prikryl remains one of the few poets who could make the next ten years uncomfortable.
Geoffrey Hill was the greatest English poet after Auden. His crabbed early work was brutish and chilly, like an Eliot who found religion in the barbaric world beyond the stained glass. It’s not clear that Hill ever experienced a revelation on the road to Damascus—his struggle with God stayed a private war with neither the clear victor. If the poems found grace, they didn’t bask long in its warmth.
Written as a posthumous testament, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin appears in a late state, four-fifths having been revised and corrected before the poet’s death in 2016.5 A poet who so often took vengeance upon his readers, who acted as if he loathed the very idea of being read, might have preferred to inscribe it on papyrus and bury it in the sands of Oxyrhynchus, hoping that fragments would emerge centuries hence. The book was probably never meant to be finished—it’s a scrapheap he might have added to for years, scraping, fine-tuning, revising in eternal contention with the world, with himself.
Though Hill considered the 271 sections poems, they struggle to be more than prosy rambles held together by spider’s silk. He could work up a temper on almost any subject; but his discursions and digressions remain deeply learnèd, fraught, and rudely funny. The Blitz made a terrible impression on Hill, who as a boy saw Coventry in flames. The distant fires of London were just as haunting:
The City was destroyed through torpor and oversight though few even now will admit that; and become shifty and annoyed.
Its real destroyers were the employers: offices to which none had keys during the weekend break when incendiaries struck. Employees behaved well, challenged the burning wall with ridiculous stirrup pump and pail.
The Cathedral Church of St. Paul was upheld by its own grandly ordained soul, believe that who will. I speak as a fool.
There you have the late style, long sentences from some ponderous op-ed piece, castigated by self-doubt, squealing and spraying like that stirrup pump operated by footrest and far too small for conflagrations. The black humor comes elsewhere:
Blitz fire-squalls. St. Bride’s bells shout, fall about, for an hour; tower splits its sides.
Hill loved the desiccated pun that splits its own sides. The whole is riveting and a little mad, laid out in mouse print like an interminable sonata of footnotes. His final works shared that grimy, obsessive manner, especially the half-dozen Daybooks that finished off his collected poems, Broken Hierarchies (2014). Frustrated readers gathered on street corners and set fire to police cars. (I confess that the longer I’ve lived with the Daybooks, the more I admire them.)
The jibes, roars, and insights drunk on insight in this Devil’s Bible, sustained growls replacing argument, are never convincing poetically—you could shuffle the sentences and get an effect as good. Hill was not unaware of his dispositions. In a work where Holbein snuggles up to the Beverley Sisters, Thomas Nashe knocks one back with Mr. Toad, and Celan stands toe to toe with Sonny and Cher, it’s heartening when Hill turns on himself and says, “You’ve always been a name-dropper.” Baruch quickly collapses into a forced march, the poor reader battered by a hailstorm of invective, irritation, stage gasps, and untethered yammering. It scarcely makes things better that this self-outlawed outlaw (he was eventually knighted) is so full of “solemn zing,” as he calls it. He knew what he was doing and hated giving an inch.
Much of the book is, to be charitable, prosaic, notes from the encyclopedia of discontent Hill never finished. (Not that his prose is less charged, less muscled than ever—but, had he called the work prose, no one would have taken it for poetry.) His delightful, even shocking, descent and ascent through the registers of English speech, expressing himself like the sniffiest don and then pratfalling into the demotic (“Cute, my arse”), toys with his distaste for much of the modern. His mockery was often self-mocking, the best defense being preemptive; yet even to the last Hill was capable of moments of beauty amid high-handed pronouncement and tortured allusion.
The winter sky at noon, grey-fawn; the mistletoe brimming to be smitten down.
The aspen’s full shivery delight, small aerial pool to the sight; hawthorn quick again, luminous chalk-white; once-rare red kite a now familiar livery, a hawk’s veer, its flair in flight.
The reader will note the internal rhymes here and there clanging like funeral bells. The language remains pained and elusive, twitchy and self-flagellating. There are many reasons not to read this overheated book, the longwinded ramble and leaden rant interrupted at every pass; but such reasons are nothing compared to the privilege of spending a few hours in company with one of the great poetic minds of the past century.
Nearly five thousand pages of Auden’s prose, most unseen for at least half a century, now rest in a collected edition, and at least as much of Eliot’s has been gathered in digital form. That should make any serious reader of poetry feel, as the author of “Miss Gee” once said, ever so comfy. It’s not true that the only critics who understand poetry are poets, but it’s so nearly true that Hill’s scattered thoughts here on poetry are as darkly penetrating and giddy as anything found in his formal criticism:
No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from limescale under the rim.
* * *
I would demote simile as being to poetry what calamine is for lotion or camomile for tea.
* * *
To come up with a good line is like briefly discovering you are sane.
* * *
Poem as the need to conform to some imagined power that could redeem a near fatal solecism.
* * *
Whether poetry is unreal is best tested by using it to settle a hotel bill.
He had a knack for apophthegms almost as crusty as Pound’s. The Book of Baruch cannot offer narrative or anything like a handful of schemata. (Though Wittgenstein could dive deeply into philosophy in his skittery way, however philosophical Hill was, he was no philosopher.)
Why the curious title, then? Considered by the church father Hippolytus the most dire of all heretical writing, the fragmentary text of The Book of Baruch survives only in his Refutation of All Heresies. A remnant of Jewish Gnosticism, the book presents an alternative Creation by God and a pair of henchmen demiurges, male and female. (It must be distinguished from the Book of Baruch in the Septuagint, banished to the Apocrypha in the Protestant Bible but adopted by Roman Catholics.) Of the Gnostic Justin nothing is known beyond his naming in Refutation. Such a text stands within and between religious traditions. That would describe a strategic position for a poet muscling himself into the canon. Hill has doled out fragments that do not complete what was scattered through the partial quotations that made Hippolytus so furious; but the poet’s droll and suspect form offers as gospel these long elaborations of poetic art. The book should remind us of his most groundbreaking work, Mercian Hymns, in which King Offa, the eighth-century king of the Mercians, was still present in the world a long millennium later. Hill is eating his cake and, as usual, having it, too.
The lines are as unpoetic as a contract’s fine print, without the skeleton of meter or flesh of rhyme.
One might imagine Hill’s Book of Baruch one day employed as a Sortes Vergilianae, but it’s far too thorny and resistant for that. The lines are as unpoetic as a contract’s fine print, without the skeleton of meter or flesh of rhyme. (I except the clumsy internal rhymes scattered like candy corn, just as I don’t accept his suburban prejudice against the simile.) If we call it free verse, it’s the sort only Skadden, Arps could write. This final howl takes and gives back, hammering away at that last reader, the future, like a carpenter uncertain of his carpentry—or refusing to be persuaded by it. There’s a good joke somewhere in the poet’s posthumous intention, a saintly bittersweetness amid the grumble, a memento mori with perhaps the shiver of revenge. Hill’s “exultant snarl” should leave us dissatisfied and bereft.
1 The Government Lake: Last Poems, by James Tate; Ecco, 83 pages, $24.99.
2 Like, by A. E. Stallings; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 137 pages, $24.
3 A Piece of Good News, by Katie Peterson; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 77 pages, $23.
4 No Matter, by Jana Prikryl; Tim Duggan Books, 107 pages, $15.
5 The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, by Geoffrey Hill; Oxford University Press, 148 pages, $27.95.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 10, on page 67
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