Tom Disch: Work Ethicist of American Poetry

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

“A spiritual life doesn’t require taking Holy Orders, only a decision to submit to a lifelong discipline.”
— Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008

Few American poet-critics since Edgar Allan Poe have brought a practitioner’s knowledge of writing genre fiction to the service of poetry reviewing. It is a commonplace and, like most truisms, only a half-truth, that poets make the best poetry critics. But what about poets who also trade on historical novels, science fiction, detective tales, or horror stories? Even in Britain, where poetry criticism far outdates Poe, the record is slim. Robert Graves, C. Day Lewis, C.S. Lewis, and Kingsley Amis are four that spring to mind, though there are plenty of British and American poet-novelists who did not tackle serious criticism on the one hand or genre fiction on the other. In America today, one can point to Stephen Dobyns, whose single volume of poetry essays, Best Words, Best Order, appeared more than a decade ago.

[private]Until Independence Day, 2008, only Thomas M. Disch held Poe’s mantle, and it is a loss to poetry as much as to criticism (not to speak of science fiction or fiction itself) that he died in circumstances as macabre as those of his forebear. Did Disch have within him an essay as prescriptive or influential as Poe’s “The Poetic Principle”? It does seem unlikely, for one of the hallmarks of Disch’s criticism is its freedom from dogma, its allowance for the limits of personal taste. He can turn on a dime, as when he warns against conflating the genius of poetry with grand schemes about how it should be regulated.

It’s a crapshoot. And none of this has much relation to the experience of poetry. Keats was knocked out when he came upon (of all things) Chapman’s Homer. I have a sincere regard for the antigenius of the Scottish bard MacGonaghal. We both might be wrong.

This passage occurs near the end of the first and title essay in The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters (1995). Disch has just been pondering the strained relationship between poetry and academic employment. A few pages earlier, he had concluded that workshops indeed have a viable role in college education, “one not unlike university sports departments: they promote a sense of confidence and self-esteem.”

The workshops can’t make Miltons out of the tin-eared, but they can instill those simple skills of impassioned self-expression that once we learned in classes of Rhetoric and Elocution-skills that should be cultivated by anyone with a sense that a gift of gab might be his or her meal ticket: teachers, ministers, salesmen, anchormen . . .

Yet, with the concession, “We both might be wrong,” the critic does a volte face:

But I equivocate. For I do believe there is a remedy, and that is the disestablishment of poetry workshops as an academic institution. (Yes, I know, I said just the opposite above, but I was wrong.) The art of poetry is poorly served by its bureaucratization, and only the trade is advanced. I will even venture a prophecy (which is the prerogative of poets, if not of critics)-that they will, in my own lifetime, self-destruct.

“The prerogative of poets, if not of critics.” Disch’s disarming ability to engage with both sides of a proposition-even if he comes out resolutely on one side, as a good critic should, or on a third or fourth side-is all too scarce in today’s ping-pong controversies between academic theorists and practical critics, between formalists and free-verse poets.

I have referred to Disch’s non-fiction writings as criticism, but a better term would be Christopher Ricks’ “reviewery,” which implies goods assessed for workmanship. The word also assumes an audience or customer base, whose expectations Disch regularly strove to meet in his surrogate life as a fiction-writer. His reviews and essays about poetry are collected in two books, The Castle of Indolence and The Castle of Perseverance: Job Opportunities in Contemporary Poetry (2002). Those titles, inspired by the 17th-century poet James Thomson and by a medieval morality play, respectively, hint at a severe outlook. Indeed, as a reviewer, he can dish out with the best of them, Poe included (one feels little compunction for gross punning with reference to an author who went in for titles such as “A Nashional Institution”-an appraisal of Ogden Nash-and “Sound of the Raine, Prophetic Wind,” an appreciation of Kathleen Raine).

To cite one example: Disch once referred to Stanley Kunitz as “the master of the meaningless encomium.” This judgment, devastatingly delivered in a parenthetical clause, captures Disch’s broader disdain for the vacuity of some poetry-book blurbs. (Stanley Plumly also draws Disch’s ire in this respect.) “‘Risk-taking’ is my favorite blurb-writing maneuver,” he writes, “since rarely is the risk being taken ever specified. The suggestion is that the poet is somehow a member of that international band of persecuted geniuses on whose behalf PEN sends off protests to the dictatorial regimes of third-world countries.” The essay, “Reviewing Poetry: A Retrospect,” features a rare instance of Disch supporting an argument with mock-verse:

All that’s needed

after all

is a way of breaking

the line so as to

create a slight

syncopation in

the underlying flow

of what is really

ordinary prose.

Look at any grocery list

long enough & a sonic

pattern begins to

emerge. Erase

some of the connecting

lines, throw in

a metaphor or two,

and bake. That’s what

we call

taking a risk.

One imagines Disch going on to create, in this mode, an inverse version of John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, a manual he must have appreciated. Disch’s cautionary models could have illustrated the worst clichés of contemporary poetry, as in this sample, representing what he calls the fulfillment of Whitman’s prophecy that poetry would become “the most democratic of the arts”:

Take any piece of prose you like

and snap it into lines of verse

like this, using the end of the line

as a kind of comma. You can create

a further sense of shapeliness

by grouping the snapped prose in stanzas, so.

That specimen appears in a round-up review entitled “Snapped Prose in Slim Volumes.” The Castle of Perseverance provides many more glimpses of Disch’s versifying, all on a more sublimely humorous order. An entire section of that book, issued in The University of Michigan Press’s “Poets on Poetry” series, contains 13 pages of witty lyrics-a couple in the vein of Max Beerbohm’s parody-poems from A Christmas Garland. The essay, “On the Rondeau” (a survey of the form spanning four centuries), ends with Disch’s twinkling “Rondeau for Emporio Armani.”

By now it should be apparent that Disch does not suffer slouches gladly. Laziness in poets is one of the besetting vices he enumerates in The Castle of Indolence, along with incompetence, smugness, and entitlement. What prevents Disch from sounding churlish, however, is his acknowledgement that indolence has a place in poetry. He might have been thinking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic essay, “An Apology for Idlers,” in the following paragraph:

Laziness is, on the whole, not a bad thing for poets. Some of the best-Emerson, Whitman-have gloried in their indolence, from a Zenlike sense that good poems as often have their source in a chance encounter with a songbird as from the diligent pursuit of epic significance. Idle hands can be the Muse’s workshop, as well as the Devil’s. The pillowy borderland between our dreams and our daily routines can be a marvelously fertile soil for poetry.

But for laziness to be passable in poetry, “the soil must have been prepared, the harp tuned, the fingers schooled,” Disch writes. “Then careless raptures may sound more like Liszt than listlessness. It should also be noted that the laziness of genius may seem, at lower altitudes, a great deal like exertion.” The elderly George Eliot enjoyed reading aloud from Dante. In his youth, Auden cribbed Icelandic for a lark. “For such spirits, schools are superfluous,” Disch remarks.

A famous by-product of Auden’s Icelandic immersion is his Letter to Lord Byron, which carries these stanzas:

. . . I don’t know whether

You will agree, but novel writing is

A higher art than poetry altogether

In my opinion, and success implies

Both finer character and faculties

Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare

As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison

Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

You must admit, when all is said and done,

His sense of other people’s very hazy,

His moral judgements are too often crazy,

A slick and easy generalisation

Appeals too well to his imagination.

In his writings about poetry, Disch is constantly on guard against these weaknesses. He views them not as failures of poetry in general, but of bad poetry and bad poets. (“Good poets tend to be hard workers, because both good poetry and hard work are manifestations of high energy.”) All the same, he insists that poets and novelists have vastly dissimilar work habits and metrics for achievement. These factors undermine any comparisons of time and labor, but they do not make such scorekeeping irrelevant. Nowhere does Disch argue more strenuously for this idea than in “The Difference,” an essay from The Castle of Indolence.

“The Difference” arose from a genial row Disch had with Marilyn Hacker over a poem he had written, mocking the delusions of some poets who believe that the world owes them a living. In the essay, he rather defensively summons “the authority of a Tiresias, with personal experience on both sides of the existential divide [between poets and novelists], having published over twenty volumes of fiction and eight of poetry; having, as well, noted the working habits of hundreds of poets and novelists.” An anthology of quotations from this essay will prove more effective than paraphrasing it.

Novelists put more hours in. They have to. It’s simple arithmetic. My latest novel, The Priest, is 310 pages in its English edition; 500 manuscript pages; 114,000 words. It took me a year and a half to write, a rate of production that translates to a meager page of manuscript per day, or 250 words. Usually, I write at least two pages once I get going; on a good day four or five pages. That the book took as long as it did reflects the fact that it was often interrupted by time taken off to write reviews, short stories, and poetry . . . .

Novelists who produce a new book every year or two are probably spending fifteen to thirty hours a week at the typewriter, writing. And poets? High-productivity poets were once not that uncommon. One can imagine Tennyson, Browning, or Longfellow spending as much time at their desks as Honoré de Balzac or Ouida, but nowadays workaholic poets are rarer, and regarded with suspicion by their less hardworking peers . . . . [F]or most poets a thin volume every two or three years seems to be the norm.

I have one here, by a well-approved poet, who observes that norm. There are thirty-six poems, covering eighty pages (not counting pages that are blank). That would represent one poem, or more than sixty lines of verse, every three weeks, if the poet were to publish a book biennially; or, three lines of verse a day. Poems, however, do not get written in such a fashion. Once a poet attains liftoff a first draft tends to get written in a day or two (especially poems less than a page long, which constitute a third of the poems in the collection at hand) with varying degrees of excision and revision thereafter. My rough estimate would be that the poet may have worked on these poems for some 125 days in the course of two years; or, one out of every six days. Even then, I doubt that many stints of poetic labor exceeded a couple of hours . . . .

Poets may object that the work of poetry is not one that time clocks can measure, that they live with their poems twenty-four hours a day . . . . This is true, and just as true for novelists as for poets. Indeed, perhaps the hardest part of any novelist’s job is keeping in mind all those elements of his work-in-progress that have already been written and that remain to be done, the latter a protean flux of possibilities that will not stop shape-shifting until it has been pinned down by the act of writing. So, in this respect, no less than with the matter of what the time clock registers, the novelist must make the larger exertion.

And now we begin to understand why Disch’s genre fiction-writing is so germane to his reviewing of poets and poetry. Novels for him are a full-time deal; other literary appointments take him off schedule. This much is implied by his defense of the 18 months it took him to finish The Priest. He is not an intermittent novelist, one who can get by on a teaching career or creative writing program directorship. His genre writings are undertaken with a publisher and audience in steady view. He has to satisfy the deadlines of one and the conventions of the other (or justify his decisions not to do so). From this orientation, Disch takes his bearings when it comes time to judge his fellow poets.

Ironically, this vantage is also responsible for Disch’s appreciation of poetry as the purer art form-purer in motive and sensibility. It is as though the addictive properties of the Muse are so potent, unadulterated, that they cannot be indulged in regularly. “And truly, there is no other form of writing that feels so good as a lyric poem when it gushes forth in a steady flow,” he confesses in “The Castle of Indolence.” Yet, in the next sentence, he reveals that poetry may be “a luxury product for intellectual sybarites.” The luxury of bliss, then.[i] It is this refusal to take poetry seriously as careerism-this playful detachment-that gives Disch the integrity of his observations. We value them more highly because, like an expert craftsman in matters of plot and suspense, Disch is at home with the implements of poetic line, rhyme, and meter.

The lengthy excerpts from his essay “The Difference” are not meant to portray Disch as a compulsive clock-watcher who is quick to blame and chary with praise. Far from it: many essays in these two books celebrate hard-working poets who manage to achieve such buoyancy or lightness of touch that their best poems levitate: Albert Goldbarth, John Updike, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, C.K. Williams, and Kenneth Koch (“In the ideal Tonight Show of my imagination,” one review begins, “Kenneth Koch has always been the host, a performer more durable than Duracell, ageless as Johnny Carson, an emcee for all occasions, guests, and seasons . . .”) are among those earning Disch’s raves. Others are poets who succeed in narrative or dramatic form: e.g., Christopher Fry, Craig Raine, Frederick Turner, and Vikram Seth.[ii] Disch prizes a capacious poetry and the “inspiring but, alas, almost inimitable manner” he detects in John Ashbery, the “ability to change the subject quickly, at high speed, without even really stating it . . . . It is the illusion that knack induces . . . of almost limitless profusions of poetic statement that puts Ashbery into contention with the immortals.”[iii]

Alongside such paeans, Disch’s pans are more in the nature of dismissals than disavowals. Others may enjoy the “sheer amiability” of Galway Kinnell; Disch is indifferent: “If ever a poet had to be found to endorse a new brand of bran flakes, here is the man.” James Tate is “an underground cartoonist without portfolio.” Reading Tony Hoagland’s initial volume of “lazy poetry” is “like listening in on someone who has mastered the art of group therapy”-and yet, with something like generosity, Disch allows that “one can look forward to his next book of poetry in much the same way that one follows the life history of a distant relative whom one visits at intervals of five or ten years.”

Because his heart would appear to be in the right place, Disch is genuinely surprised that people take his opinions so seriously. Child-like, he is closed to the possibility that words can hurt. In one review, he pans a book by David Wojahn, and then, in a later essay, as if writing from personal experience, calls him “terminally humorless.” Responding to Marjorie Perloff’s counter-punch upon receiving an unfavorable review-she writes: “I have never so much as noticed” [Disch’s poetry]-he coolly states:: “[U]ntil I was asked to review her book, I’d never heard of Marjorie Perloff and so could not take great umbrage that she’d not heard of me.”[iv]

But the crowning tempest in this teapot involves Brad Leithauser. Narrative poet, novelist, and critic, he would seem to have been a natural ally-but after Disch described him in print as “the prom king of American poetry,” all bets were off. Leithauser “invented a character, little Tommy Disch, in his novel Hence, who commits suicide by drowning himself in a toilet bowl.” Characteristically, Disch boasts: “I understand that a first edition of Hence, with my signature, commands a fair price in the rare book market.”

Of Disch’s two critical volumes, The Castle of Indolence and The Castle of Perseverance, the first is superior. On the cover he stands, wearing what looks like a black sweater, the sleeves rolled up, exposing tattooed forearms folded across his chest. Inside, his essays stand with those of William Logan and the early Adam Kirsch as the most inspired and iconoclastic writing about American poetry at the end of the twentieth century.

[i] “Poetry, like salvation, is an absolute gift. When it is happening to the poet, when the Muse is there, what bliss. Whether the poem is any good, what bliss anyhow.”

[ii] Reviewing Seth’s The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse, Disch concludes that “life, however messy it may get from time to time, is really, pretty much, a bowl of cherries”-a reflection almost unbearably poignant after his suicide.

[iii] Elsewhere he writes: “Once a poet has mastered his instrument, once he is a poet, he is judged-cherished, respected, or ignored-chiefly for his sense of poetic opportunity, for the ways he welcomes or courts his Muse; for availability, as a poet, to the plenum of experience.” And again: “[T]hose poets fortunate enough to possess a dramatic gift . . . live in a larger and more blessed universe, a fact reflected in the largeness, psychological complexity, and variety of their oeuvres.”

[iv] Similarly, Disch confides about a question that “undid him once, the one time I met May Swenson and told her how much I liked her work. She smiled politely and asked what poem I particularly admired. I failed the test, but so, in a way, did she. If the answer to that question isn’t ready to hand, both parties must blush.”[/private]

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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