Red Sauce, Whiskey & Snow. FSG, 1996.
Green Sees Things in Waves. FSG, 1999.
Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems 1975-1990. FSG, 2000.
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep. FSG, 2004.
As Reviewed By: Alfred Corn
August Kleinzahler seems to have begun writing poetry in the early 1970s, publishing with small presses until the mid-90s. Luck overtook him when the blue-chip publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux made an uncharacteristic choice and added him to its distinguished list. Helen Vendler in a New Yorker review said he was better than Mark Doty, but she didn’t like the latter at all, so for her Kleinzahler’s value must have been strictly comparative. No matter. Other readers responded, and by the time he published his second FSG volume he was, as one of his book jackets puts it, “an ascendant star of American poetry.” Since he has already received a Guggenheim and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the very probable destination for this New Jersey-born, anti-establishment dark horse, so many years out of the starting gate at Belmont Parkway, is a chancellorship in the Academy of American Poets. When the day comes, will he continue to mock officially approved culture as he now does? It will be interesting to see the outcome.
[private]Poets who grow up in New Jersey inherit the boon and liability of the contagious hospital of Dr. Williams, whose books set out to prove that the underside of American experience was poetry in disguise. Williams also imposed an embargo on European cultural imports, especially as embodied in Eliot. Somehow Pound, than whom no American could be more European, escaped his censure, and Kleinzahler has followed Williams’s lead in espousing the poet Eliot addressed as il miglior fabbro. It’s a taste that either confirmed or initiated his interest in the Asian poetic tradition. He has also said that Basil Bunting has served as a crucial example for him, but I can find nothing in his writing, apart from abundant visual notation, that resembles the serene sage of Briggflats.
Williams, no doubt because of his mother’s origins, gave Latin America a nod, but otherwise for him poetry’s true and legitimate subject was New Jersey and its other Northeast equivalents-white, vernacular, lower-middle- or upper-lower-class, and isolationist. The poet whose middle name was “Carlos” only once used a French phrase in his poetry, the title of his poem “Danse russe.” But the poem was roughly as French or Russian as those orange or red dressings offered at the salad bar at some Arby’s on U.S. 1, say, close to Camden, where Whitman died.
Kleinzahler, on the other hand, resolved to widen his horizons, first going to live in Canada, then San Francisco, and more recently spending time in Britain and Europe. But he remains rooted in the Garden State-its meadows, interstates, hobokens, and hackensacks-with the result that non-American landfalls treated in his poetry have a way of turning into New Jersey, too. It’s a sort of reverse cooking where an older world’s traditional cuisine is transformed into coleslaw. The process analogizes and in some small degree boosts the current Americanization of the globe. Does anyone remember the old ad for Sherwin-Williams paint? The opened can spills its contents over a Mercator projection of the globe, brightened with the caption “It Covers the World!” The globalization so much discussed today draws support from American pop music, movies, television, athletic gear, and fast food, which could hardly be more in demand in global youth culture from Chile to Dubai. Kleinzahler is now well published in Britain and has a following elsewhere in the E.U. No doubt he is next in the line of Nelson Algren and Bukowski as the American writer most titillating to the part of Europe that depends on American roughs, toughs, and boozers as an antidote to Dante, Goethe, and Mallarmé. I can still recall the way my jaw dropped when a French questioner asked about my origins and then congratulated me on “votre grand Erskine Caldwell.”
Europe was under no constraint to be America, but we’re stuck with the place, and so is our poetry. One service art can perform for us is change our perceptions about beauty, helping us to see it in unexpected places. Until recently, that was a plausible ambition for the American poet, who could show us American scenes simultaneously true and beautiful; but any poet who writes about contemporary America has to abandon one of those terms. Except in the most remote wildlife preserves or fenced-off demesnes, America has been submerged in dreck, and Kleinzahler doesn’t let us forget what the malling of our landscapes means. Instead, he flourishes in that briar patch, the world of kicked-out bars, pinball palaces, and dead-end streets; they make him feel at home.
If we reflect on other and better poets associated with New Jersey or the unglossy aspects of American experience (for example, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Pinsky, Philip Levine, or Stephen Dunn), you wonder why Kleinzahler has been singled out for special popularity. The answer probably has to do with what I call “Bogartism,” a Mickey Spillane take on things, a stance of invulnerability, cynical and misogynistic around the edges, and replacing persuasion, call it, with the literary equivalent of bludgeoning. Since Hemingway, readers in large numbers have fallen for that pose; exercises in the take-no-prisoners side of the American temper apparently made their hearts flutter. We can speculate that it also smokescreens a repressed fear that the arts in general and poetry in particular should be regarded as a sissy pursuit, casting doubt on the sexuality of the male practitioner, who then has to prove how masculine he is by exaggerated displays of bravado-these applauded by an audience subject to similar qualms. According to recent biographies, there is no doubt that such fears motivated Hemingway. Specialists in mammal behavior have catalogued various techniques adopted by “alpha males” to ensure that they remain top banana, which is fine for baboons but not for societies intent on achieving full humanity. Unfortunately, the American government during the Bush Administration has taken this “don’t mess with Texas” approach; and Bogartism, when projected on the international screen, has had calamitous results. I’m not saying Kleinzahler and writers like him are responsible; just that the two instances have common sources in the substrate of American consciousness. Nevertheless, when Kleinzahler, in an essay published in Poetry a couple of years ago, decided to trounce Garrison Keillor’s anthology (titled Good Poems), he cited U.S. intervention in Afghanistan as the model he’d like to adapt for the re-education of the unwary anthologist.
But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire and for his trespass must be burned! If it were up to me, I’d suggest we borrow the U.S. military’s tactics and lock Mr. Keillor in a Quonset hut, crank up the speakers, and give him an industrial-strength dose of, say, Albert Ayler’s saxophone solos until this “much beloved radio personality” forswears reading poems over the airwaves every morning.
Reading this, I said to myself, with both pity and disgust, “This person was obviously beaten as a child, or he wouldn’t imagine that sort of brainwashing.” But we’re all responsible, once we have the years and leisure to reflect, for our approach to things; and the same applies at the national level. I can’t be alone in thinking the time has come for America to re-examine its pervasive cultural myths. The Kleinzahler phenom is as good a place to begin as another. Given that a country is the sum of its citizens, when those citizens are generally proud to say they’re ready to “kick butt,” they’re only a step away from Abu Ghraib.
Kleinzahler didn’t come on quite so strong in the beginning. He was a sort of wispy Poundlet, sensitive to natural beauty and urban speech rhythms, comparing azalea flowers to dancers’ skirts, for example. At some point he seems to have decided to hang tougher, to use dirty words, and to start evoking women mainly by their body parts. All the smutty terms are there: tits, ass, cunt, pussy, and (my eyes bugged when I read it) “gash.” Kleinzahler apparently never married, but there are many references to girlfriends, who, unfortunately, are never fully described as people in their own right. They are extensions of his particular selfhood, propping or threatening it; we aren’t given clear portraits of these women or a sense that their lives would have any interest, except for this temporary brush with poetic genius. Evoked much more often than girlfriends, alcohol would seem to be Kleinzahler’s great passion, the one thing he consistently praises, aside from his particular approach to poetry. We end up knowing a lot more about what he drank, where he drank it, and the people he drank it with, than his romances with women. When the Acknowledgments page of his latest book mentions the American Academy in Berlin, he doesn’t fail to thank them for the “schnapps” as well, and it’s easy to imagine the directors rolling their eyes on reading it. Kleinzahler could only be described as Bukowski-lite, though, because he allows himself in the latest book to be drawn by some of his art interests like classical music and older literature. Hardly a poem is produced that lacks a literary or musical allusion, a tic Bukowski avoids; and we don’t (thanks be) get any bar brawls. Kleinzahler wants it both ways: He is the gangsta-rapper prof, the he-mandarin of letters, brandishing his brass knucks while alluding to monuments of unageing intellect.
In the reviewing the Good Poems anthology, Kleinzahler attacks Keillor for his sentimentality and while doing so eviscerates Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” on the same grounds. (It was inevitable that young Oedipus would bump off his poetic father at some point.) Williams is among the more tender of American poets, a quality that must have helped him as a physician and in any case inspired a current of sympathy for the disadvantaged people he encountered. Though Kleinzahler is often billed as a “people’s poet,” the epithet is a poor fit. In his poems, the underclass is at most picturesque or ironic; he doesn’t give an accurate picture of the difficulties experienced by working people, single parents, disabled veterans, or people of color. African-Americans are allowed in as jazz composers and performers, but, with one exception, never otherwise appear, and the same goes for Latinos. It’s likely that the city of Newark contains an enormous amount of potential subject matter for the right poet-the plight of its underpaid populace and their original responses to the situation, for example. But such topics fail to interest Kleinzahler, safe in his ivory and sheetrock tower, no doubt because taking up anything that smacks of the political would risk sentimentality. Again, in the Keillor essay, he cites with unqualified approval a statement of Basil Bunting’s to the effect that poetry isn’t “useful” for anything, which would of course include political uses. He will allow it only an entertainment value, no different, fundamentally, from the titillation of Britney Spears “wiggling her ass,” as he says, on TV. Why, we may wonder, have the various institutions listed in his bio spent so much money funding all these “useless” and (at least in theory) entertaining poems? Certainly poems must please, but they do so in many ways, for example, by offering new perspectives on experience, tempered by the sense of what is true and fitting. Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae says the Horace epistle known as Ars poetica. But the best poems both delight and instruct. A poem that only intends to delight fails to delight; a poem that only intends to instruct fails to instruct. So it is even with good light verse, which won’t entertain us absent a grain of salt. Another “use” of poetry is the heightened access it gives us into the nature of the language we normally speak (and sometimes write) without much forethought. On one hand, we become more aware of the sensuous qualities of language and vocal production; on the other, we learn to distinguish when language is fudging the truth, when it has secret designs on us, when it is inflationary, when it is empty, when it is overbearing. (I should qualify this by saying that good poetry allows readers to see this by immunizing them from illegitimate or feeble uses of language. But clearly poetry does not immunize everyone; otherwise, different names would appear on the roster of famous writers of our day.)
Sentimentality is a slippery and even a paradoxical thing, as Wilde suggested when he said, “Only a man with a heart of stone could fail to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” This can be stated in its converse form as well: “The man who consistently affects a stony view of existence is actually concealing a creampuff heart.” A person I’m acquainted with who sneers at almost everything on the planet, often uses the phrase, “It left me in tears,” as his highest accolade for a work of art. Which is odd, because of course neither Antigone nor King Lear leaves us in tears, but instead with a kind of reflective sorrow, plus a chastened respect for human passion as it tries to match wits with destiny. When Kleinzahler lets his guard down he is as sentimental as anyone writing, to judge only by this passage from “Gray Light in May” (from Green Sees Things in Waves). The poet, returning to his New Jersey home, writes:
The manner in which this gray light
Wraps itself around things
Bringing up their color
So much a part of me
So much of what is dearest
I can barely stand upright under the weight of it
The song of the wood thrush
Reverberates through the heavy air
And around its hidden columns
Who knows the Palisades as I do
The answer is, Quite a few, including other New Jerseyites, geologists and wildlife experts; but a narcissist never misses the chance to pay himself a compliment. Even Pound, that titan of ego, achieved enough distance to say to himself, “Pull down thy vanity,” in the Pisan Cantos, a much-anthologized moment in his oeuvre that even so could be described as sentimental. Meanwhile, there’s no reason the love of home can’t produce an unsentimental poem. But the celebrant does well to describe what is there rather than wax maudlin about his sensitivity to its beauty. Sentimentality aside, we can wonder at bad writing here, beginning with the slapdash, flaccid syntax. And what’s gained by using the mannered “The manner in which . . .” instead of “The way . . .”? Can a poet not know that intensifiers like “very,” “so,” and “so much” weaken assertions they’re applied to? “So” is a particular favorite of Kleinzahler’s, marring any number of lines. The poem concludes “How many years / For how many years / A stranger to my own heart,” without any discoverable reason for the revised repetition; he must have thought it would lend weight to the nostalgia evoked; instead, ponderousness. If the poems have in fact taught him that he doesn’t know himself, the recognition might have been the beginning of some stimulating changes. To judge from his most recent book, though, things have only gone further in the wrong direction.
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep takes its title from some lines of Williams cited in the poem just discussed. They are identified in an epigraph as belonging to Williams’s poem “January Morning”: “I have discovered that most of / the beauties of travel are due to / the strange hours we keep to see them.” The statement would ring truer if “most” were replaced by “some,” but never mind. I don’t know how it applies to the book, except for the fact that a poem of the same name comes first in the table of contents and that some of the later poems involve travel, whether or not at strange hours. The title poem belongs to a type that often appears in Kleinzahler’s work: in effect, a riddle composed by juxtaposing disparate oddments in no special order nor with any explanation of why they appear in the same poem:
Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat
Electromagnetic ether peppered with photons
Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes
Food trucks, propane, tortured hearts
The reticent epistemologist parks,
Gets out, checks the curb, reparks
finally concluding with an unidentified woman:
How pretty in her tartan scarf
Her ruminative frown
Ambiguity and Reason
Locked in a slow, ferocious tango
Of if not, why not
Even if I knew what Unisys A-15 J mainframes were, this poem would still make no sense. (Kleinzahler takes it for granted that he can wow the readership with some recondite bit of contemporary technology and often includes these obscure references in his poems.) Again, the carte blanche of suppressed punctuation encourages our digressor to let the chips of syntax fall where they may. More trying still is the Ambiguity, which all too easily comes out the victor in its tango with Reason. As long as we’re asking, “If not, why not,” then why not, “If not, who cares?” Stevens: “A poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully.” But here the success is total. Something about travel and airports; sitting up till late hours, I got no further than that, but then I’m not an epistemologist.
This poem is poor, but it is far from the most repellent in the volume. That particular palm goes to “A History of Western Music: Chapter 11,” set in Florence among some sort of dolce vita nighthawks, whom Kleinzahler proceeds to trash:
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a human being drink like that.
I mean now the swollen old cunt could pass for Uncle Bertie
but in those days . . . Anyhow the Badger
was well along into his routine: a few bons mots,
feigned interest, the learned quote and the rest,
then his signature:
–I don’t suppose a fuck would be out of the question?
The girls took no notice, giggling between themselves
and the inevitable band of toffs and toff-y rent boys
who gather round these things. Love culture,
the toffs, can’t live without it: mother’s milk,
penicillin for the syphilitic.
And where would we all be without them: their dinners,
soirees, art openings, their expensive drink;
and whose appalling wives could we so generously appall?
He goes on:
when just then Signore Cor Anglais struggles to his feet,
humongous hard-on like a prow in advance of the rest,
and proceeds to blow a heavenly riff from Bruckner,
one of those alphorn bits the Bavarians so adore.
The poem makes a couple of other cultural allusions, willy-nilly placing the poet among the toffs (obsolescent slang for rich sophisticates) and their like, who need culture’s penicillin, before concluding:
And the Badger just sitting there like the rest,
hypnotized, but now his face gone slack:
astonishment? epiphany? grief? But clearly shaken
and-unimaginably out of character-about to weep.
Unimaginably? Maybe not. “It left me in tears,” signature accolade of the hard-boiled sentimentalist, and applicable here as elsewhere.
Several other poems have the title “A History of Western Music,” followed by a chapter number, all of them provided with smut and the penicillin of cultural references, but there’s no point in quoting them. Or other poems with differently cute titles like “Pulp ‘n’ Gumbo Sonnet,” “Hyper-Berceuse: 3 a.m.,” “Lil’ Bits: American Foundling,” or “The Single Gentleman’s Chow Mein.” But the conclusion of “Balling at 50” (preceding which he must have asked Badger‘s standard question) is priceless and shouldn’t be omitted:
Sans undo Care
Such Swyving rare
This grand Plaisance
So strong, so strange, so well
Fair star, do tell
Using outdated slang is a Kleinzahler hallmark (“cat” for “man,” “toff” for “rich guy,” “balling” for “fucking”), but here he blends it with archaic English terms for sexual pleasure, for reasons best known to him. But as usual, it’s solipsistic fucking. Not one detail about his partner is forthcoming. The “fair star” had what it took, she was willing, and that sufficed. After which he must have said, “So long, my lovely, so, so, so, so . . .” as people used to say when they wanted to tranquilize a bucking horse. Do tell? Maybe not.[/private]