Book Review

Backward Glances

In “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” Walt Whitman, at age seventy, called Leaves of Grass “a sortie—whether to prove triumphant, and conquer its field of aim and escape and construction, nothing less than a hundred years from now can fully answer.” More than a century after his death, Whitman is often portrayed, stereotypically, as opening vistas of possibility to young poets. But his example is just as vital to poets who have, like him, devoted long lives to the art. Whitman’s poetic legacy includes the elements he enumerated in the prefaces—his expansive self; his inclusive catalogues; his formal and linguistic variety; his optimism; his celebration of the body, of sexuality, and of love between men; and his ambition to be the poet of American democracy. That legacy encompasses not only Leaves of Grass, and his many invitations to future poets to follow him down that road, but also the canniness with which he looked back on his achievement from the perspective of old age. Like Whitman, the four poets under review cast backward glances over travelled roads. And, in following Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Daniel Hoffman, Gerald Stern, and Frank Bidart also accept his invitation, issued in “Song of Myself,” to honor his style even as they “kill the teacher.”

At over 500 pages, Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems: Selected and New 1971–2012 is ample evidence of the prolific, Whitmanesque scope of her career.[1] The table of contents indicates that Rich herself made the selections before her death in 2012, and it’s interesting to consider why she would have chosen to divide her work into two periods, between this volume and Collected Early Poems 1950–1970 (1995). Many of her readers would likely want to distinguish a middle period, ranging from the late sixties through the end of the seventies, the era of her best-known poetry. But Rich’s choice to bifurcate her career and begin Later Poems with selections from Diving into the Wreck invites readers to understand the continuity between her feminist work and the broadening of her focus in subsequent decades. As Later Poems demonstrates, the evolution was gradual and increasingly inclusive, a ripening of focus in which Rich never abandoned her feminism but enriched it through taking on the Whitmanesque mission of speaking as Representative Voice of her country.

But, even as she took on the challenge of writing an inclusive, public poetry, she remained skeptical, on ethical grounds, of a poetics predicated on the all-encompassing self. In her introduction to The Best American Poetry (1996), she attacked mainstream poetry for its stylistic blandness, “shallowness of perspective,” and saturation in “the personal.” As an alternative, she proposed an approach that is as relevant to her own path as a poet as it was to her controversial choices of poets to include in that anthology: “maturity in poetry, as in ordinary life, surely means taking our places in history, in accountability, in a web of responsibilities met or failed, or received and changing forms, arguments with community or tradition, a long dialogue between art and justice. It means finding our rightful, necessary voices in a greater conversation.”

In Later Poems, that conversation opens with “Trying to Talk with a Man,” a poem that exposes power imbalances between the sexes and connects the danger “of testing bombs” with the greater danger of miscommunication and the man’s curtailment of the woman’s speech. Seen from across the expanse of Later Poems, “Trying to Talk with a Man” also defines the moral challenge that Rich herself faced as she gained prominence as a poet and public intellectual: “Your dry heat feels like power / your eyes are stars of a different magnitude / they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT / when you get up and pace the floor // talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves / as if we were testing anything else.” Throughout her career, beginning with the feminist poems of the sixties and seventies and continuing through succeeding decades, Rich’s poems unfold as stages in that “greater conversation,” in which she struggles with the paradox of articulating a Representative Voice that is inclusive without being invasive. Rich’s poems of the seventies center on problems of communication, whether through criticizing men who silence women, celebrating the utopian possibilities of women’s speech, or examining how language itself is weighed down by unexamined assumptions (“Cartographies of Silence”). Acutely aware of how easily voices can be silenced, Rich walks a tightrope between self-declaration, especially of her politics, and maintaining crucial boundaries between herself and others. Therefore, in crafting “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” “What Kind of Times Are These,” “Calle Visión,” “Inscriptions,” “A Long Conversation,” and other Whitmanesque sequences surveying “the dark fields of the republic,” Rich refuses his “democratic” strategy of absorbing everything into the self and instead orchestrates complex interchanges, in which pronouns revolve through “I,” “you,” “we,” “he,” and “she.” Quoting Simone Weil in “For a Friend in Travail,” Rich proposes that “What are you going through? [is] the great question.” Later Poems documents how Rich ripened as a poet through her uncompromising examination of what divides and unites the self with others. Her books therefore swing between pessimism and optimism, limitation and possibility, a movement on display in the first stanza of “Endpapers,” the last of Later Poems:

If the road’s a frayed ribbon strung through dunes
continually drifting over
if the night grew green as sun and moon
changed faces and the sea became
its own unlit unlikely sound
consider yourself lucky to have come
this far     Consider yourself
a trombone blowing unheard
tones    a bass string plucked or locked
down by a hand its face articulated
in shadow, pressed against
a chain-link fence      Consider yourself
inside or outside, where-
ever you were when knotted steel
stopped you short     You can’t flow through
as music or
as air

With characteristic concreteness and directness, Rich considers her own work as necessarily unfinished. The syntax is contingent, as Rich strikes tension between images of continuity and obstruction, as the “you” opens out to include the reader as equally “lucky to have come / this far,” but also equally hindered. Rich ends the poem with a series of imperatives, whose contradictions include instructions for writing and for life:

The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held ready
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame

The list may at first seem overly prescriptive and aphoristic, but it, too, is contingent. As in the first stanza, everything depends on the recipient, on whether the music is heard or the invisible message deciphered. Rich leaves her book open-ended; by inviting the reader to reexamine her poems and light the “deciphering flame,” she echoes Whitman’s insistence in “A Backward Glance” that “the reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine.”

Daniel Hoffman would seem to have little in common with Adrienne Rich, besides the honor of having a first book chosen by W. H. Auden to receive the Yale Younger Poets prize. But, like Rich, Hoffman has distinguished himself as a public poet while remaining skeptical of Whitmanesque self-promotion. The title of Hoffman’s Next to Last Words reflects the understated eloquence of his thirteenth and final collection, published just before his death in April at the age of eighty-nine.[2] The fusion of wordplay, humility, and wry realism, even the cautious optimism that this book might not be his last: the title typifies Hoffman’s ability to pack multiple tones and meanings into a phrase—or a poem—that may initially seem plain and unprepossessing.

Like his other books of poetry, Next to Last Words includes an extensive variety of forms and modes: blank verse meditations, sonnets (traditional and experimental), a dream vision, political poems ranging from satirical to serious, love poems, elegies, light verse, riddles, and artful free verse. Even this list is deceiving, because of Hoffman’s tendency to temper serious arguments with touches of humor or to blend forms so that a poem will defy easy categorization. As with the best of William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost—poets to whom Hoffman is indebted without being beholden—the poems in Next to Last Words invite the kind of mindfulness, of language and of the world around us, that he advocates in “Awareness,” a blank verse meditation modeled on Frost’s “Directive.” Through his formal and thematic versatility, Hoffman prompts himself, and his readers as well, to sharpen awareness of the moment without losing sight of history (natural, literary, and political). He therefore gravitates toward hybrid forms: metered stanzas with unpredictable rhymes and irregular line lengths. Like the carpenter in “Why They Are Not All Alike” who charges a customer extra for making four identical chairs, Hoffman prefers formal innovation to idle repetition, “—Repeating what he’s made would be a bore, // And, as for creating new designs prevents / His carving painted chairs not seen before.” Or, as he argues in “Disturbers of the Peace,” another ars poetica from the book’s first section, a poet doesn’t necessarily have to side with traditionalists or experimentalists; art can hold a mirror up to the broken reality of our time, yet also offer glimpses of wholeness: “. . . let a mirror’s / Cracks compose in jagged / Reflected glints the real // Spectrum / From our refractory illusion, / The singleness of light.” The book’s spectrum of forms creates a similar effect, with Hoffman himself as the prism. The disparate forms and modes of poetry in Next to Last Words don’t seem scattered, but instead are held together through Hoffman’s steady, often self-effacing, clarity of vision.

For Hoffman, that vision is grounded on a strong ethos, in the dual senses of “character” and “moral purpose.” The poems in Next to Last Words display an equal emphasis on apprehending the details of individual, lived experience and on accepting the civic responsibility of examining public life. Throughout his career, these commitments have tempered one another, enabling Hoffman to write poems that are “personal” without being “confessional,” and “public” without being self-serving. The book’s most intimate poems, such as the moving final sequence of love poems and elegies for his wife, the poet Elizabeth McFarland, raise finely observed personal details to the level of archetype.

In the public poems, gathered in the book’s second section, Hoffman develops a chronological series that contrasts the founders’ high hopes for the American republic with the modern consequences of cutthroat capitalism, urban sprawl, racism, class stratification, and the limited possibility for individual resistance in the face of government power. In these poems, Hoffman voices skepticism of extremism on the left and right, as in “In Memory of Lewis Corey,” reprinted from an earlier book, and of poets who assume the Whitmanesque mantle of outsider-prophet. In “Democratic Vistas,” he skewers the appetitive, undiscriminating vision of such a poet in a virtuoso sentence that expands across thirty-seven lines of blank verse, and then contrasts that “self that does the including” to the “we” who must struggle with the dark side of plenitude:

    The Camerado for whom [the Poet] waits
At the end of the long road, c’est nous,
The children spawned in the open nets
Of his liberties. Between his long spiels
It’s we who pick up our tickets at the Thruway
Tollbooths, erect new shopping centers in the interstices
Of his strophes to the Future, growing older
As his leaves rattle in the wind.

Overall, the poem challenges not Whitman himself but what some contemporary poets have made of his example. In Next to Last Words, Hoffman posits a different solution, a poetry of civic engagement unencumbered by the bluster of the vatic self. Following “Democratic Vistas,” the section’s poems move chronologically, each one set in a decade that Hoffman himself lived through, beginning with “1931” and ending with “History, 1989.” Even as they chronicle the human consequences of past political events, these poems also correspond to present-day crises, suggesting that we still haven’t learned from our own history. Thus, the contrasts between excess and poverty in “1931” reflect aspects of the recent Great Recession. Hoffman underscores the parallel in “Mishap off Seal Rock,” in which a drunken “out-of-stater” capsizes a tiny boat while trying to poach a lobsterpot and must be rescued by local lobstermen. Placed in the sequence of political poems, the spare narrative becomes a parable of the 2008 financial crisis. Other poems in the sequence are more direct in their criticisms, especially of racism and class stratification (“Ninth Street 1952,” “Reading the News, 1968,” “Autumn”). In many of these poems, Hoffman writes from third person or first person plural perspective; when he adopts first person, he speaks as a witness who acknowledges both the importance and difficulty of fostering change. The section ends with a striking, perfectly paced poem documenting the brutal off-camera murder of a Tiananmen Square protester in “History, 1989” and affirms the importance of the individual who stands against the overwhelming force not just of “unhindered power,” but of “history, learning nothing from itself.” Overall, Hoffman’s versatility and his aversion to self-aggrandizement make his work original, but also impossible to categorize among the schools and factions of contemporary poetry. Hopefully, Next to Last Words will regain Hoffman the notice he deserves as an innovative poet who combines individualism with a sense of public purpose.

Often aligned with Whitman by critics, Gerald Stern, in In Beauty Bright, could fit into the category of poet whom Hoffman criticizes in “Democratic Vistas,” one who “mak[es] of everything ingredients for a possible / though unexampled ingestion” as layers “in his hero sandwich.”[3] As in Stern’s earlier work, the poems of In Beauty Bright include an expansive array of experiences and cultural references—childhood memories of growing up in Depression-era Pittsburgh, of immigrant Jewish culture, of his travels in Europe, of his adult life lived in New York City and New Jersey. These “hero sandwich” poems accrue from layer upon layer of details, which tend to blur together because Stern’s approach is anti-hierarchical; he doesn’t discriminate between the layers, but makes them all equivalent. While Stern’s motivation may be a Whitmanesque celebration of the world’s strangeness and diversity, the overall effect is monotonous. In contrast to the formal and syntactic variety of Hoffman’s collection, the poems of In Beauty Bright are written in a loose blank verse uninflected by active enjambment, and almost every poem, no matter its length, consists of a single, underpunctuated sentence. For the most part, Stern’s sentences are not complex, but paratactic, so that the details registered are relentlessly compounded by “and,” with the reader left to sort out their relation, as in “Aliens”:

How on the river the loosestrife has taken over,
and how at the wedding there were spaghetti straps
and one or two swollen bellies, and the judge who
married them was wearing red sneakers and he was
altogether a little pompous, and how the
Guatemalans have moved into the borough
and they are picked up in front of the Flower Mart
sitting by the ice machine and there the
bargaining takes place and both sides love
light maybe because of the glittering
between the trees and locked inside the droplets,
and what the swollen river is up to and how
New York City is stealing the water and what,
with the weather events, there could be a failure
of one or more of New York’s three earthen dams
or there could be a collapse of the steel tunnel
feeding the city, and what the language is
they argue with and whether it’s under the table
the way they get paid or there are water-marked checks
with complicated deductions, and what the birds are
that eat the garbage and if a plastic milk box
turned upside down is not a good enough table
for coffee and donuts especially if the sugar
goes neatly through the holes and red plastic
makes music too and boots take the place of sneakers.

The sentence here is not simply paratactic, but open-ended: inclusive, but not conclusive. This kind of urban catalogue depends on juxtapositions that seem random and too easily generated, and in which the infusion of “poetic” heightening, such as the observation in lines 10–12 that “both sides love light,” seems dubious and undercuts the illusion of urban realism. And many of the details aren’t exact enough: the “swollen bellies” would mean different things if they belonged to pregnant women or to middle-aged men. Is the loosestrife, an invasive species, analogous to the wedding participants and the Guatemalans? What, exactly, is the relation between the wedding, and its randomly observed details, the Guatemalans and their bargaining for work, and New York City’s drain on the water supply? Perhaps the only answer is that all of these details are important because Stern puts them in a poem; he becomes the Whitmanesque filter, the Self that celebrates everything. Yet inclusion on this scale, unenlivened by formal and syntactic variety, falls flat. Even Whitman’s catalogues gain traction from pacing, narrative context, and syntactic patterns such as anaphora (strategies that Stern has successfully deployed in earlier books); and the work of kindred urban observers, such as Williams and Frank O’Hara, depends on the subtleties of active enjambment. While the individual details in any one of the poems of In Beauty Bright may provoke interest, the cumulative result of sixty-eight poems written in this style is overkill.

The stronger poems in the book are those that have a clear historical or narrative context, such as “Eleanor,” which brims with amusing and poignant details about Eleanor Roosevelt; “Two Graces,” a contrastive character study of two women; and the political satire of “Hyena,” which mocks Richard Nixon. Also distinctive are the book’s few poems with formal variations, such as the tongue-in-cheek ballad on aging, “I Who Lifted a Car.” Stern specifically invokes Whitman in two poems, “Independence Day” and “Broken Glass,” which feature pilgrimages to the Camden house where Whitman lived in old age. In the latter poem, the broken glass becomes an analogy for urban decay—the shards of the republic—and also for the fragments of experience that Stern collects in his poems. Among the many analogues for the Self that Stern proposes in the book are the donkey (“Donkey,” “Lowness”) and the goat, both notable for their stubborn endurance. Likewise, rather than Whitman’s grass, Stern chooses weeds as a symbol for himself and, by association, for his poetry. The “fleabane” of “Dumb” is “an old flower, it hates whatever / it wants to, it grows where it wants and it / loves goats because of their flattened eyes.” Persistent and proliferative, it gains regenerative strength through sameness, like the poems of In Beauty Bright.

In contrast to Stern’s donkey, Frank Bidart’s totem animal is the “Metaphysical Dog,” a hybrid creature imprisoned by dual demands of appetite and desire; the book sets the fleshly torments of animal instinct against the mind’s equally insatiable “hunger for the absolute.”[4] The dog not only reflects Bidart’s fierceness in grappling with the mind-body conundrum but also connects that obsession with another of his major themes: the indelible imprint left on the psyche by family trauma and conditioning. The dog of the title poem, “who reproduced what we did / not as an act of supine // imitation, but in defiance—” is “Belafont,” whom Bidart identified thirty-six years ago, in “Elegy” (The Book of the Body, 1977), as his mother’s pet, trained to go against its animal instincts (“forbade . . . from even licking his genitals”). In “Elegy,” Bidart explicitly links the dog with himself, “my mother’s dog is dead; / as truly as I am, he was her son,” and the comparison haunts not only “Metaphysical Dog,” but a later poem in the book, an elegy for his mother, “Martha Yarnoz Bidart Hall”: “As long as you are alive / she is alive // You are the leaping / dog // capricious on the grass, lunging / at something only it can see.” The dog lunges at phantoms, an act that seems futile yet also becomes a metaphor for writing a poem and for the way that Bidart returns to the same core material in book after book, interweaving connections between Freudian family romance and his own adult pursuit of sex, love, and art. Although each of the poems in Metaphysical Dog can stand alone, they gain depth, poignancy, and often irony, as well, through their relationship to each other and to Bidart’s earlier collections. Thus, although Metaphysical Dog consists primarily of short lyrics, it is also orchestrated as a long sequence that reconfigures the dialectic between the body and the mind and repeats motifs from poem to poem (the dog; the twin, the mirror, and the magpie; air as an analogue for physical and spiritual sustenance; and insistent references to hunger, food, eating). Like Wallace Stevens’ endlessly inventive riffs on Reality and Imagination, Bidart’s dialectic is not monotonous but varied, even though he pitches the poems at the same high level of emotional intensity. Although Metaphysical Dog can stand alone as a sequence, it deepens in relation to Bidart’s previous collections. The poems in Metaphysical Dog are like a braid that picks up new strands while also looping back to incorporate material from his other books. A quotation from his mother first appears in Golden State (1973) and resurfaces, in condensed form, in Metaphysical Dog’s “History”: “sex shouldn’t be part of marriage.” In “History,” the insight becomes a kind of shorthand, a refrain that links the poem with Golden State, illuminates the parents’ fraught marriage and Bidart’s coming out as a gay man, and resonates with the section’s other poems about how romantic dissatisfaction perpetuates suffering and desire.

Bidart has long been fascinated by double plots, a structural device that shapes early long poems like “Ellen West” and “The Sacrifice” and factors into several of the poems in Metaphysical Dog, such as “He Is Ava Gardner or the pendent poems “Janáček at Seventy” and “For an Unwritten Opera.” Bidart has so fine-tuned the doubling that he now concentrates his poems, eliminating the discursiveness and the distance between passages of abstract, philosophical rumination and concrete, personal revelation, that slowed the pacing of his earlier work. This approach makes his focus on the self less lengthy, and therefore less oppressive, than in early long poems such as “Confessional,” and fuels the incisive balance of political and generational history in “Racism.” In Metaphysical Dog, the abstract and the concrete are not so easily separated, an effect Bidart gains through stripping down his lines. No longer does he need to “shout” at the reader in capital letters; instead, he relies on the exactions of enjambment. This tautness increases both the emotional tension and intellectual complexity of the poetry. Yet the poems in Metaphysical Dog don’t supplant the earlier work but grow organically from it. Bidart, as maker, is fueled by dissatisfaction, which parallels the romantic discontents he charts. As he suggests in “Writing ‘Ellen West’” and “Of His Bones Are Coral Made,” all of his other poems, especially the dramatic monologues, stand as double plots that buttress his own narrative, told and retold in book after book. Like Whitman in Leaves of Grass, Bidart has continued to write, and revise, one long poem throughout his career.

Bidart acknowledges the influence in “Whitman,” strategically placed at the center of the book. The poem contrasts young Whitman with Whitman in old age, and, by association, Bidart also looks back on himself as a young man mesmerized by lines from the first Leaves of Grass. Bidart affiliates himself with Whitman through sexuality and through accepting that “each creature must // himself, . . . grind the lens / through which he perceives the world.” But as the poem unfolds, Bidart acknowledges the dark side of this proposition, in which the all-encompassing self becomes “not a lens . . . but this suffocating // bubble that encases you partial, mortal / stained with the creature that created it.” The recognition enables Bidart, in “Whitman” and in Metaphysical Dog, to bind self-scrutiny with painfully acute philosophical rumination and to sustain what he calls “the illusion of voice,” “broken, makeshift, aiming at an eloquence that so insinuates, so dyes each vision with the presence, the voice of the singer.”

[1] LATER POEMS: Selected and New 1971–2012, by Adrienne Rich. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $39.95.

[2] NEXT TO LAST WORDS, by Daniel Hoffman. Louisiana State University Press. $16.95p.

[3] IN BEAUTY BRIGHT, by Gerald Stern. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $25.95.

[4] METAPHYSICAL DOG, by Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.00.