Levels of Ambition
The more I read, the more it seems a complete investment of one’s entire being is a necessity for greatness in the arts. Even to speak of greatness in our time invites derision. Who needs greatness when you can have tenure? Yet we’ve all seen it, haven’t we? Not in our contemporaries, the blur of smaller talents, but in the dead. Generalizations never stand up to scrutiny, but I will risk a few. Most contemporary poets I read seem too concerned with avoiding ridicule, trying to be the smartest kid in the workshop, rather than plumbing what Eliot called “the inexplicable mystery of sound”—bodying forth a whole charged expression of living. Much of our poetry seems denatured, flat. Intelligence abounds, cleverness is everywhere, but vitality is hard to find.
One experiment I frequently conduct is to open a contemporary journal and read only the first lines of poems. Usually the exercise proves soporific in the extreme. No novelist worth his salt would assume he deserved to be read without grabbing the reader by the throat, yet our poets are so often complacent, too comfortable in the expectation that someone will read them, even if only assigned to do so in a classroom. A low-affect sort of lineated prose has swept the field. The answer is not a return to received forms—any form is valid if used by a real poet. The answer, I propose, is to write with more than technique, more than intelligence, more than heart, more than music. The answer is to write necessary poems.
Greatness, exhibit A: The poetry of W. H. Auden compels reading—at least for me. He could not do everything. He was not a great dramatist, not a creator of characters beyond certain allegorical bounds. But he could write unforgettable lyrics and charge massive intellectual structures with vital thinking and feeling. Even his more antipoetic sentences arise apparently from a fully developed human being. He could step into the public squares of politics and religion without losing the sense of a private, suffering person. And he left more wonderful lines behind than just about anybody this side of the Bard. It is very good to have a new edition of Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, as a reminder of both ambition and accomplishment.
Arguably the best of Auden’s longer poems, For the Time Being places the incarnation of Christ in the context of World War II. Its two most wonderful voices, the Narrator and King Herod, speak either in loose-limbed verse or in prose without ever becoming dull. In fact, they are magnificently entertaining—witty, funny, wry, heartbreaking. Here, for a brief example, is the Narrator finding himself shaken by Kierkegaardian belief and doubt:
. . . nothing like It has happened before. It’s as if
We had left our house for five minutes to mail a letter,
And during that time the living room had changed places
With the room behind the mirror over the fireplace;
It’s as if, waking up with a start, we discovered
Ourselves stretched out flat on the floor, watching our shadow
Sleepily stretching itself at the window. I mean
That the world of space where events re-occur is still there,
Only now it’s no longer real; the real is nowhere
Where time never moves and nothing can ever happen:
I mean that although there’s a person we all know about
Still bearing our name and loving himself as before,
That person has become a fiction; our true existence
Is decided by no one and has no importance to love.
That is why we despair; that is why we would welcome
The nursery bogey or the winecellar ghost, why even
The violent howling of winter and war has become
Like a juke-box tune that we dare not stop. We are afraid
Of pain but more afraid of silence; for no nightmare
Of hostile objects could be as terrible as this Void.
This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.
It’s not just that Auden animates ideas. He gives them anima, soul, psychology. His understatement reveals depths of feeling and human understanding.
Originally written to be set to Benjamin Britten’s music, the text proved too wordy—at least in Britten’s view—and despite one setting by the composer Marvin David Levy, it is more often left to be read on its own, or as a companion piece to another superb longer poem, The Sea and the Mirror. There are tighter lyric voices in the piece—some hilariously camp, some movingly human as they wrestle with the mystery of incarnation and down-to-earth fears—but even Auden’s more prosaic passages command attention. Herod is the feckless liberal choosing evil but hoping not to be held responsible for it. Joseph is given verses that might be closest to Auden’s own feeling after being betrayed by his lover, Chester Kallman. He is “caught in the jealous trap,” the nervous husband of a woman impregnated by God. Mary, meanwhile, must wake into new being. These two small people must take to the desert carrying the future, and the poem returns to the present, winter, the trivializing holiday as it is celebrated now. As the Narrator concludes, “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all. / For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly / Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be / Grew up when it opened.” For all its irony and verbal polish, For the Time Being contains passages that move this non-Christian to tears—something I can say about very little contemporary poetry.
What is this mystery of feeling and intellect, of incarnation in words? Why is it that even the best impersonal poets seem to charge their work with personality? And why is that quality missing from most of the poetry I read? I think of two contemporary poets who are polar opposites, Franz Wright and William Logan, two men who have had a very public squabble—Wright threatened to punch Logan out for a bad review—yet each has talents the other could learn from, talents that would expand the possibilities for his art. Wright is all confession, all open sores and sensitivity, while Logan is a prolific ironist. Neither of them moves me deeply—one because his writing is too raw, the other because he holds himself apart, impervious to feeling.
The poetry establishment has bent over backwards to give Wright the trappings of a successful career, yet he remains the hurt child seeking sympathy. “No one was there / to be ashamed of me,” he says in one poem. Often he’s the therapeutic client, the son of a famous poet, James Wright: “My father was unavailable, and my mother / looked like she was about to break, / and not into blossom, each time I spoke.” The woundedness is wearying, yet Wright’s vulnerability allows for a level of humanity few poets are willing or able to risk. Perhaps some day an able editor will find the poems in which self-pity is not the dominant emotion and collect them in a book demonstrating what beautiful writing he can do. His poem “Leave Me Hidden” is not a work I need to memorize or tape to the fridge, but at least it contains a person struggling and alive:
I was having trouble deciding
which to watch: Night
of the Living Bloggers, or
Attack of the Neck-Brace People.
In the end I just went for a walk.
In the woods I stopped wondering
why of all trees
this one: my hand
pressed to fissures
and ridges of
bark’s hugely magnified
resting against it
a heartbeat, vast, silently
booming there deep in
my hidden leaves, blessed
underworld, thank you
The poem expresses an experience of being alive in the world at a level no clever ironist would risk. Like his father’s later books, Franz Wright’s new collection mixes prose vignettes with plain-style verse, and while the language rarely compels me, the suffering person sometimes does. The F of the title asserts and subtracts his ego in the same instant. One might say he’s more confessional than the confessionals, but like them he knows how to make a scene in which something real is at stake.
If Wright is unguarded, William Logan is always on guard, armed with rapier wit, prodigious reading, the courage to disagree with the arbiters of taste. To use Auden’s phrase about the poet, he is “Encased in talent like a uniform,” and it is impossible not to admire both his verbal gifts and his willingness to entertain. Easily the best poetry reviewer we have, he is as a poet both accomplished and cold. Mind you, a certain iciness can be a good thing in art, and Logan’s style is never dull, yet having gone back through many of his books, even to the earliest he published in 1982, I remain convinced that there is something missing. What’s missing is the vulnerability to life, the same absence that prevents him from enthusing about much of anything in his reviews. What would happen if Wright could borrow some of Logan’s coldness and Logan could crack open a bottle of Wright’s holy foolishness? Grafting the two of them to some new root would make a remarkable poet, even a great one.
Logan responds to the world as a reader, and many of his poems arise from reading. Well and good. But the style in the verse is more subdued than that of his prose. The title poem of Madame X, for example, responds to John Singer Sargent’s painting of the same title with couplets guessing at her identity, comparing her time and fashion to students of the present: “Poor Madame X, in her day, was far bolder— / originally the right strap had slipped off her shoulder.” Is Logan defending a poetics of reserve? Perhaps, but he doesn’t lead me to anything deeper. The poem never lifts off the ground. It’s too constricted to fly.
You can see in this new volume how Logan is trying to undress, trying to step out of his straitened decorum. His free versions of passages from Homer and Sappho show him acting like one of the boys:
I laughed when Menelaos coldcocked Peisandros
with an ax, making his eyeballs pop out,
then made a speech, the way soldiers do in poems,
the death stretched out on hexameter like a tanned hide,
though in battle mostly you heard
FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!
But it all feels contrived rather than lived. An afterword mentions “our cunning and duplicitous relations with the past,” and that, too, seems a statement of poetics, as he filters so much literary history through his verses. Where is the urgency, the need? Where is the crack in the mask that will admit another’s feeling? He is a very good writer, of course, but I have yet to find a William Logan poem I can’t live without.
I feel similarly about Debora Greger, whose new book, By Herself, is also decorous, literary, accomplished, and not quite winning. Her epigraphs are more compelling than her poems, which again arise from reading without transforming it. (I don’t know why our poets think they are writing book reports. They all seem to want gold stars on their foreheads.) The book offers some common tropes about childhood, mothers and daughters (Demeter and Persephone), etc. But few lines manage the compression of her epigraph from Tomas Tranströmer: “Experience, its beautiful slag.”
Like Logan, she writes well, and writing well is better than not writing well. Here are some felt descriptions from “To a Spoonbill”:
Some fisherman had pinned
a corsage of tangled line to a dead reed.
Farther down, past a rotting log,
a scrap of something pink
wavered, too pink, in the heavy air.
In all this death, how could that be?
At the outer limits of my binoculars,
I unriddled a blush of tutu,
a beak of two wooden spoons.
My first roseate spoonbill,
you’re too far north. Are you ugly or beautiful?
Your commedia dell’arte bill
sieves the shallows for a taste of mud.
O my unlikely one!
When would you not look out of place?
You won’t let me draw any closer,
I the one who doesn’t belong.
Still, experience seems held at a distance, seen through those magnifying lenses, and I don’t feel I’m being granted access to transformative realizations. Rather than really seeing that bird, the poem turns into a lament for the poet herself. A few poems like “California Aubade” hint at what she can do when when something breaks through the veneer of the comfortable life:
What woke me? A sound I didn’t recognize.
Finally I remembered, as if from another life:
rain against a roof. Where was I?
In someone else’s house, in someone else’s bed.
Slow, sad, expensively green streets
had a rooster as their uncrowned king.
Dawn broke like a ladyfinger over the Fresno Women’s Club.
How ladylike the sunrise, thanks to the smog:
a fuzzy pink that one duck flew through,
chasing a rumor of water across the valley.
Had I dreamed the rain? There was no sign of it.
Gardeners arrived from across the tracks
to see each leaf put in its place.
After the rawness of Wright and the shieldedness of Logan and Greger, the urbanity of David Lehman is a breath of fresh air. Lehman’s poems can be insouciant, discursive—I associate them with New York School figures like Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and early John Ashbery, but also with the lighter side of Auden. He’s not an earthy poet but a man about town who can see his life in the context of popular culture. Like Logan and Greger, he uses received forms as adeptly as free verse, and his technique never calls attention to itself. His poems range over many subjects and moods, but we remain in the company of the same conversationalist. In “The Escape Artist,” one of the new poems contained here, Lehman hints at narrative abilities:
. . . the heroine
In his arms was someone he had met before,
In a novel about a murderer and a whore,
And didn’t expect to meet again
In the seedy familiar hotel room with the bullets flying
All around them. They were busy dying,
But the imaginary spies of childhood were still spying
On them, the sinful and tormented ones,
Hungry for ordinary corrupt human love, and bound
To turn up whenever a lively crisis could be found:
A lost breed, the sort of chap who knew all about guns,
Having used them for Russian roulette, and won.
Wacky, cartoonish and dark, poems like this uproot themselves from realism. They offer the scary pleasures and sliding logic of dreams.
As you might expect from a man who manages the Best American Poetry series of anthologies, Lehman is not averse to commenting on the current state of the art. Here is “A History of Modern Poetry”:
The idea was to have a voice of your own,
distinctive, sounding like nobody else
The result was that everybody sounded alike
The new idea was to get rid of ideas
and substitute images especially the image
of a rock so everyone wrote a poem
with the image of a rock in it capped with snow
or unadorned this was in the 1970s
a decade before Pet Rocks were a Christmas craze
showing that poetry was ahead of its time as usual
and poetry had moved on
the new idea was to make language the subject
because language was an interference pattern
there was no such thing as unmediated discourse
and the result was that everybody sounded alike.
Bull’s-eye. It’s not the whole thing, not the great book you may be searching for, but Lehman’s New and Selected Poems has the spark of life in it, a mind alive to all kinds of stimuli and a sense of pulse-quickening experience. This is a book I would pay money for.
Writing of William Logan’s intelligent uses of the past, I tried to suggest that something was missing, some level of culpability rather than judgment. Turning to Stephanos Papadopoulos’ third collection, The Black Sea, I find a young poet who can manage the formal demands of his art while making you feel the bloodedness of his stories. And they are bloody stories. The Black Sea is a sequence of sonnets and sonnet-like poems about the suffering of the Pontic Greeks, some of them the poet’s own ancestors, who lost their homes in the catastrophic population exchange following World War I. As Papadopoulos mentions in his brief preface, the term “population exchange” does not say the half of it. After the Armenian genocide, the violence between Greeks and Turks escalated, with atrocities on both sides. At the end of it all, the Aegean city of Smyrna was in flames and the Pontic Greeks had been marched to their deaths or escaped to live as refugees. To this day, Turks and Greeks can seem like cousins caught up in arguments about religion and land. Seeing the relative friendliness of their current relations, it can be hard to remember just how cold-blooded and vicious their battles have been. This slender, eloquent collection keeps the history alive without being merely a book of documentary evidence.
Papadopoulos is a Greek-American, and while he has often written about New York and other locations, I read him as a poet of the Greek diaspora. He has not led the usual life of the American poet—no graduate degree or teaching job. The son of an important Greek artist, Nonda, he has made his way building theatrical sets, doing carpentry jobs, making furniture, etc. In addition to Greek poets, his single greatest literary influence has been a close friendship with Caribbean poet Derek Walcott. (The Black Sea is dedicated to Walcott, and Papadopoulos is one of several younger poets to whom Walcott dedicated White Egrets.) Like Walcott, he has a legitimate sense of an enriching cultural history that is his own, not merely borrowed from books. His identity was forged in a trilingual household that moved between America, France and Greece. And like Walcott he is not afraid of writing beautifully, not afraid either of an elevated line or of being vulnerable to life.
The Black Sea won’t be for everyone. The subject is unrelentingly dark, rarely leavened by humor, and the history involved is known to few Americans. But it is a superb book, ambitious without being verbose. His opening poem meditates on the role of the poet in history, and in this subject alone he has plenty of company among Greek writers like Cavafy and Ritsos. The texture of cultural allusion in some of these poems is quite rich, yet the book dispenses with footnotes and leaves us to find our own way. Most of the poems can be read as little dramas in which vital characters have everything at stake. Here, for example, is “The Circassian Whore”:
These blond locks are worth a pretty penny, boy.
The Turkman thinks my ass is his, the Greeks are beasts.
But a glass of this sweet wine will bring them to their knees.
Greeks, Turks, whatever—two half-wits make a man, I guess.
I’ve spread these thighs for seven armies
and when they come to fuck the flags are gone.
I’ve seen a thousand pricks that look the same to me.
Other characters include a woman trying to save her children from the slaughter, a Turkish pasha, a couturier named Stavros and a ship captain. At its best the verse is dramatically alive, and while Papadopoulos himself makes no overt appearance until the end of the book, one can feel a guiding sensibility, a world-grief and a man who enjoys a good story. Not content to do his research in libraries, Papadopoulos made a solo journey through Turkey on a motorcycle, and surely that experience informs poems like “Rain over Trabzon”:
Heavy raindrops strike the water,
a wafer of dissolving sunlight below the clouds
is a white line on a canvas of storm-blue.
The rain erases and renews itself in puddles
that lean like oval mirrors on the promenade
where the priest hurries, robes lifted from his ankles,
thin white ankles reflected in the rain pools,
dark sky over Trabzon, the mist filtering
through streets exchanged like dirty banknotes,
Rubles, Drachmas, Lira, passed hand to hand,
the dog-eared corners wet with blood, bent
by angry fingers, angry men with sadder wives,
the streets of Trebizond, Trabzon, Trapezounda
washed by rain but won’t wash clean.
Another poet would have placed that motorcycle journey in the foreground and turned himself into a modern Xenophon reaching the sea. Papadopoulos has instead given us vital poems about other people, but people whose history is intimately tied to his own. Writing this good, this modest in its stance toward important matters, is hard to find in contemporary poetry. Our poet historians are too often earnest documentarians, but Papadopoulos goes for the life inside his stories, writing with an ear for the deeper music of grief.