Archive | July, 2005

Confidence Artist

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 71 pages. The trick of transparency, like all sleight of hand, does not admit close scrutiny. To tag the parts of a poem that render its effects invisible is a paradoxical aim, akin to explaining a joke. Conversely, it […]

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The Civilized Yawp

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar Fourteen On Form: Conversations with Poets by William Baer. University Press of Mississippi. 265 pages. The liveliest moment in William Baer’s collection of table-talk occurs in an interview with Douglas Dunn at St. Andrews University. The author of Elegies (1985), that masterful tribute to a dead spouse, recounts his poetic debt […]

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On and Off of Parnassus

Anne Carson’s most recent collection, Men in the Off Hours, is a conspicuous departure from the uniform tone and patient psychological exploration of her previous book, Autobiography of Red, which, for all its intellectual elegance, was essentially a bildungsroman, a formational novel in verse. Against the elegantly balanced narrative configuration of Autobiography of Red, Men in the Off Hours seems overgenerously protean. Carson introduces no regularity of style, subject, or form. This endless retreat from cohesion assumes the quality of a mad sonic or ocular polyphony, the stuff of wonder and headaches, resembling at times the aural experiments of Edgar Varèse or stormy visual language of Robert Rauschenberg. It is at times chatty, at others Sibylline, at others glaringly plain, still at others virtually impermeable, as she lays an adamantine lamina over certain impossible truths. This stylistic diversity is compelling, a lurid movement between the most open of lyrical insights and most impenetrable of semantic clusters. Carson’s readers will no doubt be familiar with her intellectual dexterity, but nothing in her earlier books, such as Plainwater or Eros the Bittersweet, prepares them for the decapodal evasiveness of Men in the Off Hours.

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Artificer of Americana

John Updike balances upon, and in many ways defines, the center of the beam in American literature. While maintaining a highly literary elan and readership, he has managed to avoid the obscurity and ostentation associated with “highbrow” authors. Flipping this coin over, one realizes that he also treads the muddier waters of otherwise mundane suburban American iniquities, marital infidelity (consider Rabbit and Bech), drugs and drink (consider Rabbit’s son, Nelson, who put a “whole car dealership up his nose”), the whole cornucopia of vice and folly, without succumbing to the sensationalism of mainstream (read “lowbrow”) authors.

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The Voice of the Poet Part 9: Anne Sexton

It is a peculiar pleasure to hear Anne Sexton read her poems, though her parched agony carries through and occasionally sends a shiver down the spine. Her voice, smoky and a bit bored even in the earlier recordings, conveys the world-weary, scarred persona that gained her such an enormous and devoted following. Despite the excruciating private torments that formed the basis of her poetry-the girlhood abuses, multiple suicide attempts, the vodka and Thorazine-she was a very public figure. By 1970 she had accumulated innumerable awards and honorary degrees. She formed a touring rock band, Her Kind (after the title of one of her best-known poems), and, in a slim red satin dress, thrilled worshipful audiences with recitations of her incendiary poems, a rock star of poetry. While many of her poems are gaudy and overworked, as one would expect from such a passionate outpouring of painful emotion, her best work shows a poise and strength that places it among the best written in America since the Second World War.

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The Voice of the Poet Part 7: Five American Women Poets

Gertrude Stein is the odd woman out in this collection, her fame owing as it does to a broad array of achievements. As an experimentalist, adjudicator, patroness, and novelist, we observe a pivotal figure in modernist art and Parisian bohemian stirrings in the first half of the century, but perhaps unavoidably, the poetry seems a lesser fixture of this ambitious life work. Her writings have remained undervalued to the present for two reasons. The first is that outside of select graduate seminars, usually devoted to gender rather than poetic craft, she has grown unfashionable over the past few decades.[private] Those with whom she is most often associated are not trendy at the moment: John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, even Picasso (who has attained the status of a Beethoven, universally revered but no longer anyone’s favorite player).

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The Voice of the Poet Part 6: James Merrill

James Merrill is usually imagined as a genteel lyric poet who lived a genteel lyrical life, engaged by purely domestic concerns, whether in New England or Greece, while turning out some of the most balanced and swiftly canonical American poems of the century. He is also thought of as a poet who willingly removed himself, for the most part, from the political and social discord that marked many of the decades of that same century. As with most abbreviated portrayals, this is at once inaccurate and a bit too much to the point. Although not attracted to the political stage, Merrill’s life and works are important more for their inward development, their internal contrary energies, than any imagined civic obligation they might fulfill. Where Robert Lowell and Robert Bly felt quite at ease at the great podium of American politics, Merrill was cut from very different cloth. He believed that the foremost problem with “political or social writing is that when the tide of feeling goes out, the language begins to stink.” In this he was correct, and, in exchanging a bit of democratic contemporary appeal for a more ample vision, it is likely that he guaranteed himself a lasting place in the history of American letters.

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The Voice of the Poet Part 5: John Ashbery

John Ashbery has often been described as the most important poet writing in English today. Even if this cannot be said with any great deal of enthusiasm, one may relent and admit that he is certainly the most influential poet to cast seeds on American soil for some time. That any single poet might find himself in such an enviably central and rarely contended position is itself a remarkable achievement in an age as aesthetically decadent and rife with poets as is our own. To speak of the “English” language, however, immediately begs obvious questions, and, in a typically triumphalist statement made at Yale six years ago, Ashbery insisted that he writes in the American language, which “includesthe English language.” Originally cast as a first generation member of the perpetually avant-garde New York School, which includes Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara in its inner ring and James Schuyler, the perennial dark horse, at the outer ring, he quickly wriggled free. Even in the late 1950s the classification barely held, as Ashbery made for Paris and remained there for a decade writing poems while penning art criticism for the New York Herald Tribune and ArtNews. Known as the “poet” of the group, a striking distinction in such a group, he has aged into the elder statesman of American literature, the last of the New York School, continuing to publish regularly (some might think too much) and deliver energetic readings around New York City, where he now lives.

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The Voice of the Poet Part 4: Elizabeth Bishop

In 1962, as CIA analysts stood over grainy photographs of what they believed to be Russian missile bases in Cuba, Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ of the sea receding, where “(no detail too small) the Atlantic drains / rapidly backwards and downwards.” This passage, the falling away of detail into experience, and, above all, the belief that no detail is too small to be of significance, is emblematic of the focused energies to be found in her poetry. This is her great strength, that while the world waited on the brink of war, she could use the human concern for detail to create works of art rather than political hostility (one might recall Allen Ginsberg’s poem from The Fall of America that begins with the invaluable lines “If Hanson Baldwin got a bullet in his brain, outrage? / If President Johnson got a bullet in his brain, fast Karma?”).

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The Voice of the Poet Part 3: Sylvia Plath

Few twentieth-century poets in English have achieved such lofty heights of fame or been surrounded by such cumbrous shrouds of legend as Sylvia Plath. Alongside Allen Ginsberg, she is the best-known American poet since the Second World War, earning through her death the fame that Ginsberg gained only over decades of very public and flamboyant life, much of which reduced him to a shaggy icon of the hippie moment. Plath’s fame has, lamentably, allowed as much sarcastic detraction as undiscerning devotion to accumulate around her glaring and difficult reputation. Attitudes toward her life and art (taken by many to be inextricably bound together) tend to fall into one of two camps. The first holds that her death was a necessary final act in the literary Passion play of a woman’s escape from a world of persecution and limits, exemplified by Robert Lowell’s presumption that the last poems were her “appalling and triumphant fulfillment” (she herself declared in the poem “Edge” that “The woman is perfected. / Her dead // Body wears the smile of accomplishment”).

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