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Young Poets Calling: Part 1

The Hidden Model by David Yezzi. Triquarterly, 2003.
Radiance by Joe Osterhaus. Zoo Press, 2002.

As Reviewed by Adam Kirsch

No instruction has ever been so eagerly and doubtfully obeyed as Ezra Pound’s famous “Make it new.” In twentieth and now twenty-first century American poetry, the new has been like the Ypres salient, constantly claimed and fought over to no one’s lasting profit. More than ninety years after Pound’s “Imagism” became the first product to roll off the modernist assembly line, it remains standard practice for young poets to claim attention and reward for what is most advertisably “new and improved” in their work—if at all possible, as part of a school with a critic-friendly label.

[private]But to ask, before anything else, what is new about a young poet’s work is a mistake, for at least two reasons. First, there is the obvious fact that every genuine poet is a new beginning for poetry: the new is each writer’s inalienable birthright, regardless of style or school. The real measure of originality, in this sense, is not chronology but artistic invention and courage: does the poet write poems that no one else could have written, or does he or she simply rearrange stale conventions? This leads to the second objection to newness: that, after a hundred years of modern poetry, techniques and ideas that were once new can now seem as venerable and unthreatening as rhyme royal. Collage was new for T.S. Eliot, typographical whimsy was new for E.E. Cummings; but the beasts the Modernists trapped in the wild come to today’s poets in zoo cages. In fact, the intelligent, fruitful use of pre-modernist techniques, like rhyme and iambic pentameter, is today considerably more surprising than the most estranging experimentation.

Young poets, however, are seldom judged by that deeper and truer standard of invention that T.S. Eliot laid out long ago:

In a peculiar sense [the new poet] will be aware also that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead; and certainly not judged by the canons of dead critics. It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other . . . . we do not quite say the new is valuable because it fits in; but its fitting in is a test of its value.

In a series of articles, of which this is the first installment, I am going to write about some young poets who have demanded and earned, in their first book or books, the right to be “judged by the standards of the past.” These poets, all of whom are under forty and none of whom has published more than three collections, are doing some of the most moving and vital writing in their poetic generation. Reading them offers the same species of pleasure we get from reading the good poets of the past—the same species, but not a mere clone, for as Eliot also said, “to conform merely [to the standards of the past] would be for the new work not really to conform at all.” I do not know much about their relations with one another, and I have no intention of grouping them together in a school. They are poets I have read with genuine pleasure and admiration, and whose development will be of interest to anyone who cares about American poetry.

The specific gravity of David Yezzi’s The Hidden Model (Triquarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2003) is generated by its fusion of two kinds of poetic energy that usually pull in opposite directions. First there is ambiguity, that vanished discipline of the New Critics, so long disparaged as an obstacle to sincerity and self-expression. It is worth remembering, however, that the poets who did most to demolish the New Critical regime were themselves its most accomplished products: poets like Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, who studied at the feet of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. (The Hidden Model carries an epigraph from Tate, a subterranean influence on so many of the most intelligent poets from Lowell to Geoffrey Hill.) In fact, the purpose of ambiguity, as practiced by Eliot and Pound and systematized by Empson, Brooks, and Wimsatt, was never merely formal and dogmatic; it was deeply expressive, and it remains the ideal vehicle for certain kinds of poetic feeling. Ambiguity stops the flow of language, charging each word with tension and scruple. It forces words to play double and triple roles in the line and the sentence, demanding that the reader puzzle out what is ordinarily obvious. It is, in short, the music of doubt and self-doubt.

Yezzi’s verse is full of this kind of ambiguity, in which puns are raised to the level of aporia. “Aporia,” in fact, is the title of a sonnet sequence in The Hidden Model, five emblems of doubt or frustration, each studded with double-meanings. Looking at a foggy New York cityscape, Yezzi remembers that “the grains a solvent will not hold we call / precipitate, and buildings are the forms/these crystals take.” This is a Donnean kind of punning—by returning the weatherman’s synonym for rain to its chemical origins, Yezzi can then use that scientific etymology to construct a new, beautifully suggestive metaphor. Another kind of ambiguity opens the next sonnet: “Ivory beneath a wind-whipped swell of bays, / a peony has flowered overnight.” Following immediately on the vision of fog, that first line seems to return us to the sight of Hudson River in a storm; but the bays, we realize, are actually bay-leaves, and the “ivory” is not whitecaps but white petals.

This kind of alienation, in which the grammar of a sentence shifts as it unfolds, is one of Yezzi’s favorite effects. In “Nostalgia for a New City,” he delights in pushing it to an extreme: a sentence unspools first as a kind of riddle, an almost random string of words, until with a “click” the actual meaning comes clear:

Carp trawl on tanbark mirrors
clearer than oolong we drain for its cut leaves, you insist.

Next to the childish fracturing that passes for linguistic energy in so much contemporary poetry, Yezzi’s carefully deceptive syntax seems like the work of an adult, one who knows the language so thoroughly he is able to transform it at will.

The feeling of mastery that suffuses The Hidden Model is owed in large part to the second type of poetic energy that Yezzi draws on: the elegant fluency whose most obvious sponsor is Auden. If Tate’s ambiguity tends to choke off speech, Auden’s easy eloquence urges speech onward; it makes possible Yezzi’s ample periods, his gracefully ironic tone, his delight in rare words. If Yezzi’s sure control allows him to wreathe language into knots, it also, and more often, allows him to send it cascading through ornate stanza forms, like a river through cataracts:

Yezzi’s ability to translate visual into verbal splendor is very rare, and stems from his instinctive understanding of the difference between the genres: while a painting (and Yezzi often writes about paintings) exists in a luminous instant, a poem must cunningly prepare its effects. So in these stanzas from “Chinese New Year”—as in poems like “Chekhovian Landscape” and “Casco Passage”—Yezzi seduces with lavishness, before surprising with seriousness. For this richly rendered carnival scene gives way to a Chinese emigrant’s recollection of what seems to be the Cultural Revolution: “I’m glad you lived, / that you scraped through when thousands died/and war rooted in frozen earth.” And the tourist exoticism of the Chinese dragons (“I buy a dragon / for my daughter, just turned one”) inevitably reminds the poet that history has real dragons, not so easily dispelled (“She understands nothing of dragonkind”). In “Chinese New Year,” as in all the best poems of “The Hidden Model,” Yezzi brings together beauty and skepticism, eloquence and doubt, the visual and the verbal. Reading him reminds us that poetry is capable of the most subtle perception and the most civilized thought, if only a poet takes himself and the art seriously enough to achieve them.

The cover of The Hidden Model displays a Morandi painting of bottles, in beautiful and slightly eerie stillness. Joe Osterhaus’s Radiance (Zoo Press, 2002), on the other hand, greets the reader with the buzzing diagonals of a Lichtenstein painting of the Statue of Liberty. The image is well chosen, in the way it unsettles patriotic iconography with Pop-inflected vibrancy. For Osterhaus is fascinated by the difficulty of telling the whole truth about America and its history, especially the history of the present. His best poems want to capture the feel of living in a particular time and place, one of the most valuable things any poet can do, and one of the most difficult. To render the Kennedy years in verse, for instance, or just the few scandalous months of the Lewinsky affair, means reminding the reader of what he already knows—the facts, the official reference points—but giving them a new arrangement and coloration. It means condensing a whole historical period into a verbal icon, and making the poet’s own impression of the times so powerful that the reader will accept it, at least provisionally, as the truth. Take, for instance, Osterhaus’s “1998,” which races through the forgotten scandals of that year and culminates in the image of tabloid culture as a giant incinerator:

no center, no regard, no honor left
as oil-stoked furnaces burn through our trash;
last week’s charges go up like bits of foil
that leave an oily stain; a sheath, collapsed.

A poet who complains about “no honor left” risks sounding merely censorious, but Osterhaus’s daring final image—the used condom, ironically euphemized with the archaic “sheath”—shows that he too is at home in the profane culture he regrets.

One of the most appealing things about Radiance, in fact, is this sense that Osterhaus must force himself to overcome his natural delicacy in order to write about the indignities of sex, which play so large a part in both national and personal destinies. In his address to the muse, “To One of the Dugout Nine”—a title that characteristically merges Helicon and Fenway Park—Osterhaus gives a sense of the range of places the poet must be willing to haunt:

where are you hiding now; where do you comb
leather shops for ridged pleasure toys, or steam
mosaics till their gold leaf flakes the tomb;

which alleys do you piss in; on which grates
or hotel featherbeds do you awake . . . . ?

If transgressive sexuality seems like a major ingredient in this recipe, that is because Osterhaus, unusually among contemporary poets, really feels the transgression in sex, and allows us to feel it. Graphic anatomical descriptions of sex inevitably come across as polemical and self-conscious, which is why the sex poems of Sharon Olds, for instance, feel so unerotic. To understand what a spirit genuinely embarrassed by lust sounds like, we can turn instead to the opening poem of Radiance, “The Tree Rings in the Surface of the Butcher’s Block,” with its impacted music and densely suggestive imagery:

A virus riveting the skin and mind

connects the close-watched second-hands to the drops
beaded on the panes of butcher shops,
that swell, edge, burst, and run in a thin crest

whose warp distorts the sweetbreads as they’re dressed.

For Osterhaus, the god of desire is not Venus but a shambling Satan, “goat-footed, bent, and shawled,” as he writes in “Shadow, Hawk, and Dove.” The insult of sex is not so much to Puritan morality—which troubles Osterhaus, like most of us, not at all—but to the illusion of self-control, in the way it forces the mind to serve the body. This is the humiliating experience encoded in Osterhaus’s coolly ruthless description of pleasure: “And though his love / was mixed up with his pain, / the pinprick, needling shards of it / were angels on a pin.”

For a poet compelled by history and sexuality, John F. Kennedy, with his lurid heroism, seems like an inevitable subject. Osterhaus’s eight-sonnet sequence, “The Depth of Things,” approaches this familiar terrain with exactly the right combination of cynicism and susceptibility; he is suspicious about the sources of JFK’s charisma, but never dismisses the fact of it. As the title suggests, Osterhaus approaches Camelot through its things, its vanished properties: “their thin lapels, / manual typewriters, and tripod cameras,” which still keep the glamour of the modern even now that they are obsolete. No poet who didn’t live through them has evoked America’s early 1960s so confidently:

Rough stands of chokecherry, bronzed by thick heat;
gray aircraft carriers and Berlin wall;
Bull Conner’s German Shepherds in the street;
moon craters lapped with dust; and the lyrical

blue earth, seen from a pear-shaped craft.

Best of all is the fifth sonnet in the sequence, which summons the true but nightmarish vision of Jackie Kennedy’s aides prowling the Library of Congress at night, looking for precedents for JFK’s state funeral. In the “incisions” of their roaming flashlights, Osterhaus find an indelible metaphor for the chaos and enchantment of history: “What made that random lightstorm beautiful?”

This is not to say that every poem in Radiance is dedicated to a familiar or celebrated figure—though Fred Astaire, Sam Cooke, and Buster Keaton all make appearances. The book’s tour de force is a long narrative poem, “The Villa Basque,” all about the habitués of a forlorn restaurant in the California desert—the crooked owner John, the drug-dealing cook Tony, the veteran waitresses Sally, Annette, and Ruth. “The Villa Basque” combines the plot and characters of a good tale with a good poem’s intensity of language and deliberate pacing; all by itself, it constitutes a powerful argument for the continued viability of the narrative poem in an age of lyric. Here, as throughout Radiance, Joe Osterhaus uses established forms to express a daring, cunning, and completely new sensibility.[/private]

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Adam Kirsch The New York Sun. He is the author of The Thousand Wells: Poems (Ivan R. Dee, 2002) and The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (Norton, 2005). His articles regularly appear in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, and other magazines.

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