Verse chronicle June 2021
A review of “The Historians,” by Eavan Boland, “American Melancholy,” by Joyce Carol Oates, “Now We’re Getting Somewhere,” by Kim Addonizio, “The Caiplie Caves,” by Karen Solie, “Beethoven Variations,” by Ruth Padel & “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman.
The death of Eavan Boland last year left a gap in Irish poetry hard to fill. Her last poems, collected in The Historians, are variations on themes long explored and therefore honed like a much-whetted knife.1 She wrote of Irish life with the intelligence of experience and did not shy from the difficulties or duties Ireland has imposed. For at least a century, if not a millennium or more, those have been the gift—and burden—of the Irish poet.
Though Boland taught at Stanford for a quarter-century, these poems give no sign of any realm beyond her home island, as if to acknowledge that larger world would sever the deepest instincts of poems ruled by a birthplace bound in blood. (As a girl she lived in London and New York, her father a diplomat, her mother a painter.) Boland’s poems labor, as her country does, under a necessary amnesia:
What she spent a lifetime forgetting
could be my subject:
the fenced-in small towns of Leinster,
the coastal villages where the language
of the sea was handed on,
phrases bruised by storms,
by shipwrecks. But isn’t.
Isn’t her subject, that is. Instead, it’s the forced separation of “memory from knowledge.” Her best work, in lines like these, bounds forward like a dog coursing hares, shouldering into curves, leaning as it goes. The lines remain plainspoken without being dowdy, retaining a lyric density she’s elsewhere shy about employing. Many poems are much plainer, and even those that linger in language seem slightly embarrassed to have welcomed, for an instant, the touch of rhetoric. She breaks the lines as if to rid herself of the lyricism to which Irish poets have long been addicted. The weaker poems—there are a good many in this final work—arrive with their attitudes shrink-wrapped. When a poem is little more than attitude, however righteous, however felt, a series of billboards would have done as well.
The title sequence, which opens the book, cares less about history than about the actions, and knowing limitations, of poets forced to wrestle with the past. Having absorbed wave after wave of invaders, from the Celts to the Vikings to the Normans, the Scottish, and the English, Ireland continues to suffer the pains of inheritance, even in language. How many of the great Irish writers—Swift, Sterne, Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney—knew little or nothing of the Irish tongue? All wrote in English, though Beckett also wrote in French. Only 6 percent of the population, in a recent census, claimed to speak Gaelic even weekly.
Boland’s poetry often tested such ruptures of culture. In the infirmity of this late work, she often constricts the poem as it falls down the page, the lines as short as two or three syllables, which distorts or abrupts the ligatures of syntax, making the poems less fruitful and devious:
every day the page was inked,
the pen still ready to be
what it had always been:
scribe of our Irish climate,
knowing no suffering, just
the hours as they opened, closed,
opened. Unable to understand events,
only the weather
in which they happened.
Her continuing sense of the pastness of the past reads as regret, the unbreakable link to the present inviting a reckoning everywhere wished for but almost never achieved.
Boland rarely falls for Yeats’s grandstanding gestures, once as alluring as flypaper to Irish poets, gestures Seamus Heaney elegantly made his own. She’s apt to hang a poem on a single image or forlorn scene, and the result is a claustrophobia that strangles some poems before they can be born. She takes Heaney’s love of the bric-à-brac of Irish life (for him, the lengthy series of poems on farm clutter), forcing each bit of Irish tat into a metonymy at which she grinds away.
The kind of poet Boland wanted to be required the dullest part of her gifts. The most consciously public poem in The Historians was commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the day Irish women first went to the polls, and it’s as lifeless as commissioned poems usually are: “They vote in the shadow of their past./ They vote in the light of what will be/ Their new nation whose quest/ For freedom speaks to their own.” The only thing worse than poems insufficiently motivated are poems motivated too well.
When Boland ends a poem, “knowing as I do that my attention has/ no agency, none at all. Nor my rage,” you know that she’s been hanging around academic jargon too long. You wish her rage had been driven deeper, or had risen triumphantly to the surface. Consider instead that voice of redolence, instinct with Irish landscape:
A stretch of grass, fog-wet at dawn
reaching past hutch wire, sweet pea,
the chiming of small apples falling, still
falling by which time it will be twilight.
At the end of the path is a gate
creaking open on flickering
teatime windows and the Wicklow hills.
The poem then dredges up themes too familiar to take advantage of that passage; but in such lines Boland’s imagination shines forth, trapped in the past, annealed and strengthened there, but lingering over a beauty that might offer, if not an escape, a vantage.
When the Muses leaned over her hospital bassinet, they gave Joyce Carol Oates talents most writers would kill for: intelligence, a taste for subjects lurid or shocking, and the will to write as if her life depended on it. Given the gout of novels, stories, plays, and children’s books that followed, she put those powers to use. Some of the books were published under pseudonyms, no doubt in order not to flood the already flooded Oates market. Twenty-three times she has published two books of fiction the same year—nine times, three; once, four. That doesn’t count the volumes of essays, memoirs, and poetry that may also have been thrown onto the market then.
Writers who suffer from graphomania are not unknown. It’s said that Voltaire could not possibly have written all the books attributed to him, given the average time it took to write a line with a goose quill. Oates scholars willing to plough through an oeuvre of more or less 170 volumes must have the capacity for drudgery of the average field ox.
The Muses, alas, forgot to bestow one added grace, the power to write a poem that doesn’t lie on the page like a flounder three days dead. American Melancholy, Oates’s first book of poetry in a quarter-century, is largely a gallery of Madame Tussaud horrors.2 A few betray their penny-dreadful taste in their titles, “Harvesting Skin,” say, or “To Marlon Brando in Hell”:
Because your beauty seduced you, and made of you a prankster.
Because the prankster always goes too far, that is the essence of prank.
Because you were a prankster, sowing death like semen.
Because all you had, you had to squander.
To get to these lines, however hobnailed and clodhopping, you have to wade through a hundred lines of lumpy prose, cursing the day anaphora was invented. Besides, if you’ve ever seen Laurence Olivier in The Betsy, you’ll know that in Hollywood squandered genius stands panhandling on every corner. Too many of these poems are position papers. The instigating ideas may be plain as a pikestaff, but Oates pounds on them like a foundry steam-hammer.
Oates loves to plunge into other lives and inhabit them like a second skin, whether in persona or from a creepy stalker’s distance. There’s a poem about the naked woman in Edward Hopper’s Eleven A.M. (1926):
It’s a fleshy aging body. And her posture
in the chair—leaning forward, arms on knees,
staring out the window—makes her belly bulge,
but what the hell.
Oates spends six pages on this, but the result is a soulless re-imagining of life, notes for an unwritten short story about a 1920s secretary or a pitch for an hbo Original—hell, make that a miniseries. It sounds all too like Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-Code shocker, Baby Face. (“She had ‘IT ’ and made ‘IT ’ pay!” read the ads.)
American Melancholy has a strong line in scandal-sheet pieces on infamous twentieth-century psychology experiments, all widely influential, ethically dubious, and now broadly condemned: John B. Watson’s 1920 study on terrifying a baby, Harry Harlow’s 1930s examination of social isolation (what happens to baby monkeys when they’re raised by inanimate dolls), and Stanley Milgram’s 1962 investigation of obedience (how much electroshock a participant would give a subject already writhing in pain). Oates’s outrage at science that plumbed the depths of barbarity is understandable, but the poems are sometimes written like a second-grade primer: “To be a Monkey/ is to be funny// If funny/ you don’t hurt// & if you don’t hurt/ you don’t cry// & if you don’t cry/ the noise you make is funny.” Oates adds nothing to our understanding of these long despised experiments except a big show of hand-wringing.
You see where her poems are going a country mile before they get there; and when they get there there’s nothing to learn, the ways and means have been so tidily pre-packaged. Her poem about her cat, with a nod toward Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, has all the charm of roadkill: “for in the Cat, beauty is ordinary/ like the bliss/ conferred/ upon us/ in the hypnosis/ of purr-/ ing.” After ten pages of juvenile kitty-love, readers should be running for the exits.
In the only poem that redeems the nonsense and blundering that disfigure this overlong book, children walk onto a frozen lake to see a teenaged couple who drowned when their car broke through the ice. The children whisk away the snow, lying flat to peer into the solid depths:
Together beneath the ice in each other’s arms.
Jean-Marie’s head rested on Troy’s shoulder.
Their hair had floated up and was frozen.
Their eyes were open in the perfect lucidity of death.
Calmly they sat upright. Not a breath!
It was 1967, there were no seat belts
to keep them apart. Beautiful
as mannequins in Slater Brothers’ window.
Faces flawless, not a blemish.
Though the manner is largely the same maladroit, made-from-spare-parts prose, the subject is so compelling that the reader can ignore the deficits of style for a poem—more subtle, for once—about being young and seeing the young die.
Other work in this fit of Grand Guignol misfires badly—a series of excuses for abortion (another anaphora-heavy showstopper), predictable head-shaking over the Chinese custom of drowning baby girls, and the apologia of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army doctor taxed with removing skin from the bodies of executed prisoners. Still, it’s almost possible to forget all the bad verse when you read of the frozen girl that there was a “motion like a smile/ in Jean-Marie’s perfect face.”
Kim Addonizio is American poetry’s bad girl, nice in a naughty way, and naughty in a naughtier way. The poems in Now We’re Getting Somewhere sizzle with spite and anguish; they stick out their tongues and shake their little fists in your face.3 In short, she’s hard to take seriously, and part of the pleasure in reading her is that she doesn’t care a fig:
I’m not sure what to do about that scorpion twitching on the wall
Maybe I should slam it with this book of terrible poetry
or just read aloud to it until it dies of a histrionic metaphor
bleeding out on the ancient stones in a five-octave aria
Few poets are as game or dogged as this, and fewer have been such a natural antagonist. She loves making trouble, loves to live at odds; and the trouble is that she brings the same angst and attitude to everything. Compared to her, Diogenes was a nursemaid.
Just about anything can set her off: cicadas (“the males flexing their tymbals to make/ the horrifying sound that will attract a mate”), children (“The new people are fidgeting in strollers,/ running on little piston legs”), or politics (“72% of Americans believe in angels,/ no wonder that parasitic amoeba got elected”)—all in the same poem! Light the fuse and the firecrackers go off until they’re exhausted. Even poor Walt Whitman gets a beating, or a hounding, for saying, “I think I could turn and live with animals”:
O Walt you were wrong, they aren’t placid or self-contained
I just watched a spoonbill make carpaccio out of a frog
& crocodiles dining on wildebeests trying to cross the Maro River
It’s wrong to say O in poetry these days
which makes me want to have a loud orgasm right here
in an unashamed animal way
The headlong frenzy of the poems (and the refusal of most sentences to stoop to terminal punctuation, or any at all) keeps the reader from wondering whether there’s an overarching logic or structure, or just, as often seems, a blistering, blithering string of one-liners.
Addonizio often grabs you by the throat, but she can do that only so many times before you see it coming. A poet with this much acquired savagery ought to have more to write about than climate change (“The earth is about used up// like the preserved atrophied brain of a retired nfl defensive lineman leaking cryoprotectant”) or ugly people (“some people are just ugly—if you poke them with a short needle/ you find badly lit rooms of cheap wall-to-wall carpet/ & metal shelves of racially insensitive trinkets”). It’s all very jolly in a teenage way, but it doesn’t go even skin deep. Most of these poems, brash and bullying though they are (and those are their positive traits), peter out halfway through, becoming just a series of outraged, outrageous images.
While she’s grumbling about histrionic metaphors, Addonizio might examine those closer to home: “I feel like a giraffe in a parking garage,” “inviting people in/ to the dirty gas station bathroom of your performative loneliness,” “feeling like a gilded royal barge was ceremoniously moving through my blood.” The poems zing in one direction, zang in another; but finally her stream of consciousness is the kind you drown in. The wonder of her work is that it’s chock full of a violence, even virulence, rarely seen in the staid poetry of our moment, so intent on behaving correctly and not being canceled it seems afraid to put a foot wrong. (Yes, she does quote someone using the “N-word.”) In a sequence about confessional poetry, she says, “depressed, narcissistic little bitches/ are filling notebooks with their feelings// Sloppy, boring, grotesque, unfuckable feelings.” She’s got that about right.
There’s a lot of joie de vivre in her poems, as well as a lot of joie de self-destruction, both with a thick coat of vinegar. Addonizio’s life of drinking, of friends and exes, seems vacant, pathetic without real pathos. Her wit is like putting rage in a party dress. Where once she could enjoy men and be savage about them, the relish has vanished, like the humble-bragging about her sex life that filled her early work. The poems about Keats, late in the book, suggest that he represents some antiquated model of ideal male, unlike the men who flit through her poems: “Their thought-balloons are full of dick pics . . . floating toward the ceiling/ & slowly deflating, like their interest in me.” Unfortunately, as she says about Keats, “You can’t go back to 1821 and invent streptomycin.”
Ruth Padel’s Beethoven Variations is what is now called a “project book,” the project a life of Beethoven in some fifty poems.4 Padel previously treated Darwin to this drive-by method, though there she had the excuse, and a good excuse it was, that Darwin was her great-great-grandfather. Her attachment to the Spaniard, as Beethoven was called at school, came through early music lessons; but the reader must suffer through three stanzas on her parents’ courtship “at a music camp/ in farmland of chalk hills” before the poems can properly begin.
Padel’s method is to traipse through the composer’s life more or less chronologically, giving a few atmospheric details with a dollop or two of sentiment. Beethoven’s was a life full of incident and sorrow, especially his long decline into severe deafness. Because poems can’t give nearly the details or resolution of prose, she must treat complicated acts with poetic simplicity, the reader often receiving only a sketchy look at disasters long in development.
The poetry is serviceable but rarely distinguished—indeed, too often it seems no more than prose fitted to the line, frothy with poetic instinct, yet a little ludicrous: “At home he writes concertos/ pitching the wonders of modulation/ against his father’s blows.” The cheap Freudianism attached seems just psychologizing from a mountaintop. Psychology is of course the biographer’s coat-rack, but shoving it into poetry doesn’t make the shots any less cheap.
A poem is a clumsy way to confront the biographical hour. We’re fortunate that Auden gave us some of the best and briefest biographies of Yeats, Voltaire, Lear, Arnold, and Housman, the last three as sonnets. That Padel is no Auden is hardly surprising; after a few decades, even Auden was no Auden—but he set a standard for the seriousness of the art of poetry when it stooped to biography. Padel’s treatment of the life rarely gets further than a mess of platitudes: “I learned that creating comes/ from need. Also surprise,” or “You must have chaos in you// to give birth to a dancing star.”
Poetry is not a natural medium for a warehouse of facts, as anyone will know who has read The Botanic Garden by Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Padel doesn’t even try to construct a convincing portrait—these Variations do a lot of noodling over the keyboard of Beethoven’s years without finding his depths. The best passages are painterly renderings that never show the other side of the canvas:
Blossom bright as paint. The sparkling Danube canal.
Vineyards in bud, blue needle of distant mountains,
a narrow lane, a low arch to a bakery, the croissant sign—
and that yeast smell.
There she at least begins to capture something most biographers cannot, the influence of sense and setting, the way the eye returns the drama of the lived. Poetry provides the shortcut to that art within the art; and there, though the moments are rare, the portrait comes into its own.
Padel too often offers a memory buttered with sentiment, as if life plain were not enough to break our hearts: “music crosses languages/ and is mysteriously connected/ to what we feel// and never say.” Or she takes genius and makes it trivial:
He is standing on a hill of evil counsel. But keep on, boy,
this is going to end in devastation but somehow,
through all this muddle, something close to divine
revelation through music will be given to the world.
That might almost be a third-rate football coach’s locker-room speech to a team down forty points and without the starting quarterback. An anecdote here and a private recollection there get us no nearer music that was incomparable.
Worse, Padel’s life keeps interrupting Beethoven’s, to the detriment of both. However much she may have felt some childhood violist’s longing toward his work, her memoirs have no relevant purpose here. Her gosh, gee-whillikers awe at the detritus of the composer’s life (“I’m still reeling from the piano/ with a megaphone on the lid/ . . . to amplify the sound”) is sorely embarrassing, though not as schmaltzy as her longing to interfere with events two centuries gone: when she finds the great man “ordering a servant to drag out/ an open milk-wagon/ and take him and [his nephew] Karl back to Vienna” during a freezing December, threatening his precarious health, she writes,
I shall make this not happen. And if it does
I’ll call out in the forest
from dark lanes dusted with snow
for them to keep each other warm, he and Karl,
heads on each other’s shoulders,
two hearts tilting into each other.
For each to have his head on both of the other’s shoulders would be anatomically impossible, even for two contortionists.
Her work on Darwin was far more grounded in the life and more invested in a reticence that left the biographer’s gaze less susceptible to the writer sniffling over the page. When the poems are over, Padel supplies thirty more pages of prose snippets, giving background the poems failed to, followed by three pages listing selections from the Master’s work, a page of further reading, four pages of acknowledgments, and finally a note about the author, like a concerto with a stutter of false endings. Recent research suggests that Beethoven was not entirely deaf while composing his greatest symphonies. Many of her passages may need to be rewritten.
Karen Solie is the freshest poetic voice I’ve encountered in a long while. The Caiplie Caves is her fifth book, including a selected poems that appeared in the United Kingdom almost a decade ago.5 Now in her mid-fifties, she’s been writing gorgeously complicated poems for decades yet isn’t widely known in this country, perhaps because she’s Canadian:
Where should we find consolation
dwelling in the north? Amid the stunted
desperate plant life clinging
to its edges, thriving on atmospheric
vengeance or neglect? Of two moods,
fragile and invasive, it gazes out to sea
as its character bends inland.
“It” would be the flora, “invasive” of course the term for non-native plants that damage local vegetation, usually by shouldering it aside. The passage suggests that coastal plants (or what they stand as symbol of) precarious in the local habitat long to travel abroad, even though their fate is to stay in place.
Feeling unsettled, even at home, is the human condition; and Solie’s poems often bestride worlds human and nonhuman. The Caiplie Caves, along the northeastern coast of the Firth of Forth, were by legend once home to an obscure hermit named Ethernan, who may have been martyred by the Picts in 669 A.D. Known locally as the Caiplie Coves, they have been a place of pilgrimage for almost a millennium. The hermit left little in the historical record—and that little, confusing. Worship grew up around his supposed grave on the Isle of May, a smudge on the horizon when seen from the caves.
Ethernan wavers into focus in these poems, much like King Offa in Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, a Methuselah who refuses to die. Ethernan exists in present and past simultaneously, a figure of history still troubling the present and therefore a convenient mouthpiece. Solie takes every advantage of this whack-a-mole who pops up unexpectedly. The poet’s fizzing intelligence is riveting but difficult to pin down, her cool, detached delivery sometimes surprised by the coils of her thinking. There’s a bit of Marianne Moore in her, and a bit of Heaney; her poems from the edge of nowhere are strange but strangely familiar:
we don’t know how to properly celebrate
or mourn—bindweed and ox-eye daisy, cranesbill, harebell,
hare’s-foot clover, whose ideology is fragrant
and sticky, the underside of reflection blooming
Such cross-grained sentences test the temperament of her thought. Some lose themselves in a mass of collecteana—her reserve leaves little room for something as coarse as emotion, which remains beneath the surface. The poet she most resembles is Amy Clampitt. Solie has the same striking investment in whatever surrounds her, often the natural world—and Clampitt’s obsessive knowing and noticing were similarly encased in syntax knotted in the city of Gordion.
Solie’s images, however antique her subjects, are furiously up to date. (In “The Desert Fathers,” “With or without a bindle of crystal meth/ they made their anchorage in Egypt’s/ Wadi El Natrum.”) The similes and metaphors flaunt the discontinuities from which these poems are formed: “inefficient, comical, overlarge, like a Quaalude,” “at dawn/ when walls between worlds/ are thin as a motel’s,” “a cortege of unhelpful sea life,” “the sea a television in another room, only the audio reached me.” They are the manifest sign—or sigh—of the off-kilter imagination that drives these poems.
Some poems, admittedly, don’t quite come off—in a poem on mercenaries, she drives too far into the language of commerce and bureaucracy to salvage the subject. The more personal poems have trouble gaining ground—the devices that allow her denatured analysis have little dramatic purchase in more heartened pieces, their life in prose more telling than the life of poetry. You keep reading because something, as it never did for Micawber, always turns up. A miscalculated trek becomes a dark night of the soul. A long excursus on the Battle of the Isle of May sounds like a Wiki page, but her broad range of subject and diction retains a marked advantage when so many poets are writing with alphabet blocks:
May Island, born under the firth’s unstable bed,
an eruption deep within the ritual subconscious.
Sill of an underworld planed by glaciers
crawling east-northeast. Ragged incursions,
occlusions, perspectival falsehoods
She treats the island once inhabited by monks as a site of contention for geology, myth, and the “ritual subconscious,” ending the poem wittily, “Small freshwater loch like a light left on.”
If this is a “project book,” it doesn’t read like one—Solie’s imagination is too susceptible to the out-at-elbows, too subtle to be straitened by a single idea. In a literary culture where complication is considered complicit, it’s good to have a poet who delights in taxing the intelligence. Solie operates on a wavelength different from that of any poet I’ve read. I’m embarrassed not to have reviewed this book a year ago.
A column last March in The New York Times was headlined, “Amanda Gorman’s Poetry United Critics.” Well, not all critics. The tradition of having a poet read at the presidential inauguration is relatively new. Robert Frost was the first, and 1961 proved an omen. The sun was so bright that January noon, he was barely able to struggle through half-a-dozen lines of what he called “Dedication” before giving up. Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to shield Frost’s papers with a top hat proving fruitless, the poet had to ad lib. The poem he couldn’t read was meant only to preface what John F. Kennedy had requested, “The Gift Outright.” Frost then recited from memory that least attractive of his sonnets, which begins, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The unknowing arrogance of the line, considering whose land it was before the settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth muscled in, cannot adequately be measured—Manifest Destiny was an article of faith centuries before it was named. At Kennedy’s request, Frost changed the last line, which he dedicated “to the president-elect, John Finley”!
Poets tapped on the shoulder by a president-elect try to please, and to please must write something inspirational. (White House staff now apparently ask for three or four poems, no doubt to vet them so the poem will be less embarrassing to politics than it inevitably is to poetry.) There have been only five inaugural poets after Frost, and not one of the inaugural poems did more than fill the bill, if the bill required the bumptious platitudes and wheedling uplift longed for by advertising agencies, carnival barkers, and small-town preachers.
Amanda Gorman delivered “The Hill We Climb” last January with much-envied panache and a bold flair for fashion in a town still largely a town of men’s suits, and now Viking has brought it out as a book.6 That the country was moved is a reminder of how poorly poetry is taught, where it is taught at all. Gorman went to Harvard. She made a splash at the inauguration; but her poem was a sorry affair, composed of stock metaphors and dreary banalities, with the rhymes of a breakfast-cereal jingle and the heart of a stockbroker. “We’ve braved the belly of the beast,” she read, which sounds Biblical but isn’t. I can trace the phrase only as far back as Thomas Lodge’s 1602 translation of Josephus, where the beast mentioned was an elephant. Somehow I doubt that the poet was making a sly dig at the Republicans. (For the elephant, blame Thomas Nast. For the donkey, too.)
Gorman indulged in excruciating puns and game-show-host wordplay (“We lay down our arms/ So that we can reach our arms out,” “the norms and notions of what ‘just is’/ Isn’t always justice,” and, even worse, “We seek harm to none, and harmony for all”). The text was also full of Sphinx-like riddles to make a reader of poetry wince. “And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it./ Somehow, we do it.” Do what, exactly? (And shouldn’t that be “was ours”?) The fragmentary sentences don’t help. In the opening, she’d written, “The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.” She may have intended that the shard be governed by the previous sentence, which began, “Where can we find . . . ?”—but “Where can we find the loss we carry, a sea we must wade?” doesn’t make sense. Or is the sea the loss we carry? Not even the Colossus of Rhodes or Paul Bunyan could wade a sea. Elsewhere,
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory
Won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promised glade,
The hill we climb, if only we dare it:
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit—
It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.
The promised glade? Really? A glade is an open space in a forest, so not usually something you can climb. And why are “we” daring the hill? (She should have said, “dare to,” but she needed a rhyme on “inherit.”) Finally, the past can’t be repaired—only its mistakes.
No one expects a poet of limited rhetorical gifts and a taste for timeless drivel to write a masterpiece. Gorman was only twenty-two, and perhaps she’ll be more than a nine days’ wonder. Alas, The Guardian reported on April 7 that she had signed a contract with a modeling agency; was scheduled to be on the cover of the May Vogue, shot by Annie Liebowitz; and had already turned down some $17 million in endorsements. The article didn’t mention how many she’d accepted, if any. However one feels about greeting-card sentiments (“So Happy You Were Elected!” the card might have read), this “keepsake” edition of the inaugural poem ought to embarrass poets, readers, and the famous Washington dead.
1 The Historians, by Eavan Boland; W. W. Norton, 69 pages, $26.95.
2 American Melancholy, by Joyce Carol Oates; Ecco, 112 pages, $26.99.
3 Now We’re Getting Somewhere, by Kim Addonizio; W. W. Norton, 86 pages, $26.95.
4 Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life, by Ruth Padel; Knopf, 132 pages, $27.
5 The Caiplie Caves, by Karen Solie; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 119 pages, $25.
6 The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country, by Amanda Gorman; Viking, 32 pages, $15.99.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 60
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