SHARKPACK Poetry Review

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Yezzi’s Bitter Fool

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’:

‘The birds.’

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.

And laughing.

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.

7 responses to “Yezzi’s Bitter Fool”

  1. I’ve got plenty of reservations about Yezzi’s piece, not the least of which is his apparent belief that the end of ‘contemporary poetry’ is poets that have grown into some fame. Not one quote by Seidel—on whom he lavishes quite a bit of attention—is truly moving.

    Also, poetry never needs ‘shared cultural assumptions,’ does it, EW?—poetry makes or unearths the thing worth sharing.

  2. Hi Joseph, this one is *With edits* Please use this!

    An excellent post here, Eric Westerlind. While I too, along with Joseph Spece, have a few reservations about the David Yezzi article (some of them illuminated after a recent email exchange with a poet friend), I am sympathetic to his argument that we’d be benefited by poems that are less sterile, and less “suburban ode.” But it strikes me that sterile poems have often or always been written, and that if one doesn’t get off on these (so to speak), then one should look elsewhere. Nothing new. And not that suburban is always sterile, of course; there are insights and lessons to be had in poetry about the home, about the familiar, about the every-day. David Yezzi’s own poem, “The Good News”, for instance ( takes us right into the familiar: old friends meet up for a drink, discuss their lives and their failures, and commiserate. But the tone of the poem – its emotional content – and its meter give us something darker, something running in sharp – or is it blunt? – contrast to the “gold,” “sun shafts,” and “rich light” of other domestic poems and settings.

    So which of our contemporary poets, if any, is writing verse that’s hard hitting – that “calls a spade a spade”? We might take a look at the man who’s looming in the shadows of Yezzi’s piece, a certain Joshuah Mehigan (the talented young poet for whom bile seems easily drawn). Let’s have a glance at this triolet, shall we?

    The Crossroads
    By Joshua Mehigan

    This is the place it happened. It was here.
    You might not know it was unless you knew.
    All day the cars blow past and disappear.
    This is the place it happened. It was here.
    Look at the sparkling dust, the oily smear.
    Look at the highway marker, still askew.
    This is the place it happened. It was here.
    You might not know it was unless you knew.

    Nothing mushy about this one, folks. Despite the form’s tendency of slipping into the sentimental and the mundane (that repeated first and second line), this poem takes us straight to the grit – the asphalt, the blood, the grime. And the “sparkle”? Not your sister’s eye-glitter. While I am not in total agreement with Joseph Spece’s claim above, that “poetry never needs cultural assumptions,” Mehigan’s ”Crossroads” is a piece that requires very little cultural assumption or understanding – and requires almost no literary or poetic familiarity. This hard-hitting poem (window shattering, concrete smashing) successfully deals with an every day scene – an every day tragedy – in a way that (as Yezzi might suggest) calls a spade a spade.

    Yes, Eric Westerlind: let’s keep on the lookout for those poets who write with sweat. Or with smear and, if we’re lucky, “sparkling dust.”

    Joshuah Mehigan is a good place to start.

    Jason Barry

  3. “And being without benediction may bare / each face as a charger // that rings in the hall” —That’s the solution. That other poem is burned up against it.

  4. Eric, this is an interesting piece. I didn’t know about the Yezzi essay, but I appreciate your response to it. Although, come to think of it, sometimes “the pinnacle of a mountain” is enough, at least to me. Or the pinnacle reveals something new about the slope and shape of the mountain I wouldn’t understand otherwise. For example, this “pinnacle” poem by Merwin, “Elegy,” seems to be operating this way. This is it in its entirety: “Who would I show it to.” That, at least to me, is a gorgeous, vital “pinnacle” all the way.

  5. Cool bit, Kondrich-san >> The title spins the mind afterwards into an eddy of thought.

    And it aches, definitely, but ‘pinnacle’ to me is not just brevity, pinnacle is a point…

    I live in Colorado – a lot of folks come here and hike big mountains and take pictures of themselves at the top next to a sign that says how high the mountain is… and these pictures don’t excite a sensation of effort in me.

    Now, what singular picture of a hike *would* do that? Harder question.

    I think of very affecting photographs for myself: wailing children. Snarling athletes. Leaping creatures. Mating creatures!

    Maybe it’s the pose. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my inability, through a 2D shot, to register the height and scope of the vista of these pinnacle-pushers. But a poem isn’t a photograph. It can be more than an instance. And, return to your Merwin– that thing is a deep pool, both question and answer in unison.

    The Mary Oliver piece that Yezzi bombs:

    “Who made the world?
    Who made the swan, and the black bear?
    Who made the grasshopper?
    This grasshopper, I mean—
    the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
    the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
    who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
    who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

    No answer. No attempt. A crossing of the eyes without the effort to refocus. There is an observance and that’s all, a total submission of agency in: ‘complicated eyes’.

    JB / JS / Shared Cultural Assumptions >> Yezzi’s suggestion is that a satirist writing in an archipelagogic society has no uniform Goliath to face off against, and so slings against the water between landscapes to pishy effect.

    I don’t think he’s referring to the broader Poetry or Poet.

  6. I was immediately suspicious reading the opening to Yezzi’s piece, that “Poetry has become so docile, so domesticated, it’s like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun.”—First, the offense to cats (in what world is a cat, domesticated or not, fathomable to the point of static boredom), and secondly for the implications of a gendered domesticity, which later are echoed in his attacks on Mary Oliver. The feminine and Nature (and the female poet who apprentices herself to Nature)—oh how boring and domesticated, if only poetry could loose itself from those humdrum tethers and return to the Restoration halcyon when the war-of-the-sexes and social-satire were all the life of the literary party. Juvenal had a way with women, didn’t he?

    No offense to Westerlind, who is a saintly creature, but I would agree with Spece that if anything there is too much “shared cultural assumption”, and that it is precisely an ability to break from the identity-centric, culture-flooded and media-created world, and to look again into Nature and true otherness, that will revitalize our next wave of poets. But of course, my belief is that Great poetry contains and invents and cradles The Sacred.

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