When did our pleasures become so wan and modest, and so breezily proffered?
David Yezzi’s article appeared in the New Criterion, and I was linked to it by Jason Barry.
Yezzi attacks the current innocuousness of poetry, the poets’ unwillingness to drip la caustique on the page. His suggestions for ‘Why?’—collegiality & reliance (pandering because you have to make a living) and maybe ‘a lack of shared cultural assumptions.’
I don’t have a host of questions for Yezzi. My grip isn’t firm enough on ‘contemporary poetry’ to suggest that it’s all baby lambs and delicate tweets of innocent babyish image. It may well be. I respect that sentiment, gentleness, abstract speech and indefinite images—generally ‘self-help’ poetry—is unpalatable, like eating more than one Peep. There’s an absolvement of form in poetry like that. Not poetic form, but the matter of the poetry, where the potent presence becomes soft and squishy, indefinable, the weapon of words being used less as shiv than feather duster for the exiting greats.
As to whether things are ‘becoming mushier’? Yeah, maybe . . . and acknowledging the mush is the same as staring down at your stomach and saying, ‘Oh man,’ and heading out to the garage and picking up weights, straining, getting sore, and gorging again. So kudos for saying it aloud, for calling names especially.
As to whether satire’s going to save the day, I’ve doubts.
What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other.
The sarcastic kid and the ‘take-it-all-and-and-learn-from-it’ Zen mom and dad. One’s boring and the other’s annoying and meaningless. Or both are.
Or not? My father, on reading one of my early pieces, hazarded the criticism: ‘Why does your work always have to be so dark?’ He was worried I was summoning the devil to my doorstep. ‘Don’t seek out the darkness. Let it come,’ he said.
‘Because it will…’
He was walking out of divorce, tears, life-changes. I was feeling it (I lived with him, loved him) so I wrote it back to him, and he read it and neither of us understood the other was being totally honest.
The softness of poetry, the docility?—yeah, please and thanks. Firmness, resolve, an investment in change; always nice. I’ve been critiquing would-be published poets at Sixfold and on the Bacon and consistently find my points of criticism revolve around their reliance on observation over involvement.
If these poets highlight a reference, other art, they re-describe it. If nature (more common than other works of art), they describe it, attune with it, but hardly use it, and don’t sharpen it against their own experience.
Folks are writing moments—a bee buzzing down and being trapped, a series of birds lifting from a tree branch—and, yes, on a startling day after a series of personal revelations, three sparrows rising would have significance. But, the birds without the revelations? . . . well, here’s the last phrase repeated without ‘without the revelations’:
Say that again and again and you become a sobbing moviegoer who’s trying to explain her very transformative experience to a friend who just doesn’t get it, who would like simply to drive home, feed the fish, and tell her friends (the next day) that the film had ‘good special effects.’
The change needs to be uttered. The vocabulary of change needs to be re-iterated.
I like this:
I would like a poetry [. . .] that calls a spade a spade and reveals evil for what it is.
Back to a video from high school psych—the shock test one where participants of the test are encouraged by an overseer to feed other participants questions (inevitably gotten wrong) occasioning a shock delivered by that first participant, those shocks rising in magnitude to dangerous (labelled) levels. The striking part, as viewer: you watch this person delivering the shocks—I did anyway—hear what they’re hearing, (‘Please, I have a heart problem!’), watch them flick that shock button again and again and at a certain point suffer the horror of realizing you’re watching torture.
It was instinct. Spade-like, rural, hard-working, physical feeling.
Some of the shockers laughed too.
And I think watching them build up through the low-level shocks to the high, and then realizing with them that sensation—whatever makes them laugh or cry or balk or feel uplifted—that’s what we should be exposing. Walk us through your process of revelation, people. It’s not enough to share the pinnacle of a mountain. That is a speck, a point. It describes none of the struggle and volume of a moment; it’s aphorism alone.
I suppose Yezzi’s own ‘call a spade a spade’ is recalled, isn’t it?
Toil in a piece and to leave shreds of yourself there. Answers you didn’t come to. Things you might laugh at because of sheer scope of statement. I don’t think it’s bile that needs to be dripped on the page—it’s sweat. And if the pages are flecked with bits of bile, blood, and the rest, call it color and texture and style.