I write here as someone with two special angles of vision on the poetry world. One comes from twenty-odd years as an editor—and three as sole editor—of the durable West Coast all-poetry magazine Blue Unicorn. This job entails constantly sampling, and choosing from, a hefty stream of submitted verse. The second is a lifetime of immersion in the critical ideas and teaching methods of Lawrence Hart, mentor of the so-called Activist Group of poets, and my father, who died in 1996. For a quarter century now I have been documenting, applying, and I hope extending these methods.[Read more…] about Who is this guy and why is he talking?
A century after a gaggle of French painters and poets launched a movement favoring dream logic and the most unexpected juxtapositions, Surrealism in poetry is still a thing. Much contemporary verse does or could fly that flag. But as tastes in poetry have veered toward the cautious and tendentious, it takes less and less—a few bold images, a couple of sideways moves—to stand out from the crowd. My thoughts go this season to the most thorough-going Surrealist I have known—one who never used the term—the fantastical Fred Ostrander (1926-2016).
Ostrander took an unusual path. A student of Lawrence Hart (and accordingly considered an “Activist” poet), he began with a long immersion in the discipline Hart made everyone start with, Direct Sensory Reporting. Hart regarded this stripped down yet highly detailed mode of descriptive writing as an essential prelude to more complicated work. Those who stayed the course agreed, yet mostly moved on as soon as they could to what seemed richer ground. Ostrander lingered, writing in this constrained manner for some five years, building up, I suppose, a kind of artesian pressure. Then the gusher came. “I went into a room,” he said later, “and went crazy.”
Access to dream landscapes? How about this:
Since you died I cannot bear my actions, this eternal examination of the dark. Your interminable walking far into my skull, your heels growing small through the dampness and the shining.
But the memories. They are borne of the imagination, angel and anti-angel, the flaring nostrils, dazzling eyes, dragon, skin of scabs twisting like a dreadful tree-climbing vine, budless and without a song.
Or this about the crucified Jesus:
In the alcove he is hanging. Late he shines. By moonlight like a waterbird he will stretch and rend himself then climb with great stealth back upon the nails. It is clandestine. He is lavender with shadow.
This begs to be compared with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s celebrated, wisecracking “Christ Climbed Down,” written about the same time:
Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year and ran away to where there were no gilded Christmas trees and no tinsel Christmas trees and no tinfoil Christmas trees . . .
After 50 years of strenuous Modernism, the times were apparently ready for something less demanding. Ferlinghetti became a power. Ostrander was denied the major recognition I think he deserved. He did have a lot of magazine credits and three books, one with a fine, small eastern house, one (an award-winner) with Blue Light Press, and a final New & Collected from Sugartown Publishing—but nothing that amounted to a breakthrough.
A wave falls, like the great initial verb, crushing upon the sand, scattering like your countless pages the moments you were saving, waves and the winds of the enormous, unpublished sea.
Not everyone would, should, or could write like an Ostrander. But whenever I find myself inclined to settle—to think: that line is maybe good enough, that image wild enough, that transition bold enough—his best poems are touchstones. I read them, and I am ashamed.
Some copies of Ostrander’s books are available. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I first knew Simon Perchik, recently deceased, through manuscripts he submitted to Blue Unicorn. However busy we were, his envelopes got opened right away. The BU editors (three of us back then) could count on finding poems that resisted instant understanding, and poems we were very proud to publish. We noted some of his credits—Poetry, The Nation, Partisan Review—and wondered how he made such a mark in an era not especially friendly to uncompromising work like his.
We had no idea how old Si was. I see now that he was born in 1923, nearly reaching the century mark; that he worked until 1980 as an environmental attorney; that he published over 30 books; that Library Journal called him “the most widely published unknown poet in America.”
When I wrote him a fan letter, he pointed me to his essay Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities. It is in essence a Modernist tract for the post-Modern era. Unlike prose—”a telling of what the writers already know”—poetry can be a means of exploration. “If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.”
Perchik describes a demanding practice he developed for himself. “Every day at 9 A.M. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.” After hours of intense concentration, “an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold. No one is more surprised than I.”
Perchik offers this definition of poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated.” I’d quibble with that: say rather that another kind of articulation is achieved. He achieved it often.
Si Perchik last submitted to Blue Unicorn last October. Here is the poem that will run in Fall 2022. Like all his later work, it is untitled.
The words you dead were promised never come—even now what you want to say so much hasn’t a chance—deal with it! your stone has no strength left, has room only for your name and the years you took to spell it, to keep the bargain meant for two mouths pressed against the silence, then nothing :the shell songbirds dig holes through sending its light as the small stones side by side telling you why.
In the February issue of Poetry magazine, there is a poem—well, a verbal phenomenon—in the form of a cootie catcher, or origami fortune teller. You have to cut out the page, fold per instructions, and manipulate it to generate combinations of pre-printed words. I am butterfingered and rusty at this skill, and it took me a while to get things working. When I did, none of the combinations was very interesting.
This gizmo can represent another large realm in the current poetry scene: poems that puzzle but, in the end, cannot please.
The Surrealists started it. They expressly didn’t care to please. In their adoption of automatic writing, random devices, and game-like exercises, they were striving for a revolution in thought, indeed in society. If they added new powers to poetry along the way—and they surely did—this was almost beside the point.
Half a century later came the cluster of writers sometimes known as the Language poets. They too sought a kind of liberation, freeing the reader from the bossy presence of the writer with “something to say.” (This control-by-the-writer was vaguely linked to capitalism.) This avant-garde championed a poetry that was not only hard to paraphrase but hard to experience. Let the reader do the work of connecting fragments or, at the other extreme, of wading through miles of unrewarding text. These obstacles, it was felt, echoed the way language works, the way life works. To offer an order was to bully, and to lie.
(But isn’t this just more of the obfuscation Modernists were often accused of? I say No, because the Modernists, at their most difficult, meant to build houses of language that could actually be lived in. The Language poets scorned this idea.)
Surrealism and Language are no longer news, yet both are very much with us today. Some poets follow the automatic writing path and simply gush, producing about one gorgeous line per page. I prefer that to the post-Language intellectual games I find in the three recent winter issues of Poetry. Along with the cootie catcher, there are poems containing underlined blanks, bidding the reader to supply a key word; poems that leap all over pages, requiring us to decode how the content flows; poems with words grayed out or struck out; poems with several lines of type superimposed. These mechanisms have one thing in common: they invite the (sufficiently patient) reader to enter into a game, to ask for hidden intentions, or to extrapolate a message. But it’s all in the head, fodder for the puzzle-solving mind, not the mind that feels and visualizes, and sometimes understands in a new way, because of poetic words.
I’m thinking back fifty years to a course in descriptive linguistics, taught by the eminent William G. Moulton. The adjective meant that, in characterizing a language, you don’t set up as a critic―you just describe what is. The way people talk is the way people talk. If someone wants to say “it seems to Sue and I,” instead of “Sue and me,” you don’t wince. You make a note and observe that this is the way usage seems to be going.
I am a critic, of course. But what if I applied a purely descriptive eye to the flood of writing that carries the label “poetry” today? Instead of concentrating on the precious exceptions, how about looking at the norm—not the peaks, but the plains from which they rise?
My sample, of course, is limited: a handful of mags I follow; a few thousand manuscripts submitted yearly to one little periodical, Blue Unicorn; the occasional binge-reading of a poet who catches my eye. But maybe it’s a start.
To my eyes, the world of poetry-as-she-is-wrote-right-now has a definite geography.
By far the biggest terrain is, simply, prose. I don’t know how many times, listening to the car radio, I’ve heard a mildly charming anecdote or essay, only to be informed at the close that this was a poem. Such pieces may have a few metaphors or other linguistic twists along the way, just as much good prose does; they may unfold a little unpredictably; or they may lack any distinction at all. In judging a printed poem, I sometimes give it the radio treatment: I remove line breaks and other traditional signals of verse and see just what remains.
But isn’t there good prosaic poetry, or good poetic prose? For sure. Yet I get a lot more pleasure from words that pose as prose (while offering something more) than from words that pose as poetry (while offering much less).
Another large country is the Formalist one. After a mid twentieth century eclipse, rhyme and meter and other useful patternings came back, a good thing. Reading the new formalists, however, tends to make me appreciate the old ones more. Too often now the words are wrenched into sonnet form, for instance, with evidence of strain. Often, too, the words thus treated are banal. A neatly filled form is a pleasure, but it can’t do all the work.
Overlapping these domains is the zone of sentimentality, the too-sweet, the too-easy, the obviously edifying. Greeting card stuff. This used to be confined more or less to the amateur mags, but it has lately found a frequent home in our flagship journal, Poetry. The same goes for verse that expresses political and cultural concerns of the day too baldly. One may nod in agreement (or not); but that is a kind of counterfeit of being moved.
Objection: You’re not saying that all bad poetry tends to the obvious? No indeed. I read plenty of puzzling poems I don’t like. Some speak to the intellect only; others can be traced back to the old Surrealists, who sought to banish conscious control and put together the most outlandish word combinations. More about this other hemisphere of the poetry-scape another time.
A funny thing happened when people reacted to my post reacting to reaction to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb.” They very much wanted to share their thoughts, but (with one exception) not to give their names. Most identities below are disguised.
Beth wrote: “I think Amanda Gorman is a lovely, poised, passionate young lady. Not a poet. I am afraid to say this to anyone else because it would be taken as racist and sexist. Maybe that is why others are mum.”
Catherine wrote: “Bravo! Hallelujah! Your blog was a breath of fresh air in a very smoky literary climate. If I’m just a bit over the top, you’ll excuse me—I’ve been grumbling about the Gorman poem (earnest, clichéd prose separated into lines) and Poetry magazine for a while. It’s wonderful to read someone who assures me I’m not alone in my judgments. “
Catherine continued: “The irony is that poets are the ones most likely to share progressive views . . . The idea of opening up the ranks of people who get published to include under-represented minorities makes all great sense and yes, the fact that the canon is largely peopled by white men is undeniable. That observable truth is what has driven what I believe to be an over-reaction to publish the marginalized groups, regardless of the quality of the work. Oh my, I think this is maybe a phase we need to go through until things start to right themselves.”
Donna wrote: “My shyness about public comment on other poets stems from not wanting to cause pain, I suppose. I liked young Amanda as a person and as a representative of the future, but felt sorry that she was tasked with such a heavy public role so young.” Donna went on to note (as did critic William Logan) that none of the earlier inaugural poems (six to date) has been anything special.
Estelle wrote: “I was very excited about Gorman . . . I think she entranced on many levels that clouded my (& so many others’) ability for closer critical response to the actual poem. It’s challenging to critique it without throwing shade on such a bright hopeful moment but I think it is necessary, especially for her. She has gotten so much attention, so much praise at such a young age, that it may undermine her ability to mature as a poet.”
I was grateful but embarrassed to hear from Fiona, who alerted me to a notable critique I had missed clean. (Points off here for inadequate homework.) “Amanda Gorman Was Let Down by a Terrible Poem,” wrote Melanie McDonagh (caricature) in the July 21 issue of the British magazine The Spectator. I think McDonagh spends too much time faulting Gorman on logic (not so relevant to poetry), but applaud her conclusion: “You could just about get away with declaiming all this at a rally . . . but as poetry?”
Of course an inauguration is akin to a rally, and some who disliked “The Hill We Climb” have kept quiet on the grounds that written-to-order work like this needn’t be taken seriously. Some sat on their critical hands because of Gorman’s youth. And some, certainly, swallowed their thoughts for fear of being tarred with the racist brush.
The people who made high claims for “The Hill We Climb,” of course, were held back by nothing at all.
I am glad that somebody with a platform has finally ventured a criticism of Amanda Gorman’s oration at Joe Biden’s inauguration, presented as a poem and rapturously received. It’s about time that this heartfelt effort by an impressive young woman was taken seriously enough to be questioned on its merits. But I am sad about where the critique has appeared, and where it has not.
The excellent William Logan, not surprisingly, was the one to take on The Hill We Climb. After acknowledging that any inaugural poet has an almost impossible task, he pulls no punches: “Her poem was a sorry affair, composed of stock metaphors and dreary banalities . . . ” I reluctantly agree. I have heard similar reactions many times in private, but this is the first public statement of them that I have seen.
A healthy debate should ensue. Outrage in some quarters. But so far there’s no sign of it. The trouble is that Logan’s piece, part of a review of several books, appeared in The New Criterion, a distinctly right-wing journal easily overlooked or discounted by those not at home in that part of the current political spectrum.
Founded in 1982 by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion exhibits a split personality. It pairs valuable, subtle critical responses to the arts with harangues on the wider political and social scene; the latter assume the reader’s agreement and argue mainly through scorn. The serious pieces are the bait that makes me subscribe; I skim the rest, looking for a genuinely stimulating challenge to my own views. For, politically, I am more in tune with Amanda Gorman than I am with the Criterion editors in their combat mode.
But why should criticism be sectioned off in this way? Why no debate about Gorman’s work and its reception in, say, in The New York Review of Books? Are we so imprisoned by our politics that only an almost fringe publication will carry a negative assessment of a newsworthy piece of work?
As a liberal and environmentalist, I’m distressed to note that my political tribe has an awful weakness for weak poetry—or at least an ingrained habit of judging art of all kinds by content, origin, and social utility, not by style.
Poets come in all political shades. Strong political poetry has been written, though it is tricky to pull off. But poetry should not—it simply does not—belong to any side in the ongoing culture wars.
PS. At least one more voice, distinctly not a right-wing one, has been raised in gentle dissent about the choice of Amanda Gorman as inaugural poet. Ishmael Reed, the renowned Black satirist, thinks a more seasoned Black literary figure ought to have had that honor.