Gioia and Wood

Piddling Around by the Lemon Tree
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 13 1999 6:44 PM

Gioia and Wood

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Dear Dana,

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I think that there are some interesting general observations to be made about the poetry we have been reading, and perhaps, as you kindly imply, I can approach this poetry at a slight gradient, from my reading of contemporary fiction. I do, of course, read a lot of poetry, but most of it is by the dead. I will save these general comments for our last day, along with, perhaps, a parody-poem, the kind of thing that W.S. Merwin and Philip Levine and John Hollander and Charles Wright might produce if all of them existed within one mind and body. It is impossible to include the absurdly eccentric Virginia Hamilton Adair in such a game; she is like the school weakling whose presence always ensures that your team loses.

As you say, it is extraordinary that she has been so pickled in plaudits; she is really not good at all. Did you read her poem about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "Sermon on the Sermon," which begins:

Let us skip for a moment the beatitudes
And get down to refreshments. The picnic part.

She then goes on to describe the crowd at the sermon: "Snacks appeared from nowhere--the fruit, the cookies,/ the hardboiled eggs and the peanut-butter sandwiches." The peanut-butter sandwiches... And I turn from this to the back, and see A. Alvarez bleating on about how she is "extraordinarily moving" and E. Annie Proulx writing that Adair is "very, very, very good..."

Now on to Charles Wright, whose book seems to me a complex failure, and one that illuminates an entire style of contemporary poetry. Undoubtedly, he has some nice phrases (phrases rather than lines; like all the poets we have discussed, his verse is without much lateral pressure, and lacks a sense of meter). I enjoyed, for instance, "Whunk of a ball being kicked. . ." At his best, he has a fibrous sensuality, and imparts that well, in the texture of his language, in his gluey compounds and floating, glossy adjectives (you see, his style is contagious).

But there is something rather faked about this book, isn't there? To begin with, far too many of his words and phrases are glamorously unjustified. He chooses them to sound "poetic." He seems to have borrowed the worst aspects of Plath and Stevens, and then melded them together. For instance--and this could be a long list--"Serenity of the rhododendron, pink and white..." Or "Candor of marble, candor of bone." Well, does marble have such a candor, in fact? I am reminded of lines from a recent Seamus Heaney poem: "Praise/ the verity of gravel." Does gravel have such verity? No, of course not; it's just Heaney wanting to sound impressive.

And sounding impressive is what Wright wants to do. Take, for instance, these lines from the first poem in the book:

February, old head-turner, cut us some slack, grind of bone
On bone, such melancholy music.

Now, this, to be frank, is just bogus. The language is lying; and because the language is lying, the thought seems faked. Quite apart from the rather tired idea that months can be invoked in this way, the phrases are unearned. This grind of bone on bone that he refers to; what is it? Is it the fatigue of getting older, of encroaching death? If so, is it, exactly, a "music"? There is a quality of ritual about this language. "Music" seems the obviously "poetic" word, floridly pompous and mournful.

As I say, along with a certain faked quality in the language ("Such minor Armageddons," for instance--well, when is an Armageddon ever minor? And if it is minor, then it should not be called an Armageddon, should it?), I don't really believe in the motions of Wright's thought. A typical poem in his new book has the following movement ("peristalsis of language," as Wright might moan): The poet has a vaguely abstract thought, often about God. He is unwilling to explain this thought for us; we must savor its opacity. Then, about halfway through the poem, the poet announces that his mind is weary from ratiocination, and that we must instead take consolation in the textures and tactilities of life--the dogwood, the recent rain, the light. At the end of the poem, he then brings back the abstraction, with a slight guilty apology. Thus in "It's Turtles all the Way Down," he decides: "O well, I let the south wind blow all over my face."

Or in "Ostinato and Drone," he begins by announcing: "Undoing the self is a hard road," offers us a speculation about how "incommunicable" things are, and then writes: "That being the case, I'd like to point out this quince bush." Or, as he puts it in another poem: "I think I'll piddle around by the lemon tree."

The problem is that Wright's consolations are too consoling! They are too easy, and they retroactively infect the problems that prompted them. Because his consolations are too easy, his intellectual perplexities seem trivial. Wright's thirst is too easily slaked; and then we wonder if he was thirsty after all.

Too many poets seem to think that because they are writing poems, their thought can escape exactitude. You would think that Shakespeare and Milton, very precise thinkers, would have instructed them in this regard. But Wright is a good example of a poet whose thought is maddeningly imprecise, poetically imprecise. (He may think that this is what Stevens is like; but Stevens is better than this). Thus, almost every time Wright uses the word "God" in these poems, he does so without any kind of rigor. He can move from "However, if God were still around" to "God is the fire my feet are held to" to "Indifferent silence of heaven" to "Jerusalem, I say quietly, Jerusalem." It's all the same to him: God alive, God dead, God a cloud, God a city, God silent, God speaking.

This is a frustrating collection. A writer with obvious talents has produced smeary, loose verse, full of sliding thought and beautiful imprecisions. It is not enough, is it?

Yours sincerely,

James Wood

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Dana Gioia, the author of
Can Poetry Matter?,is a poet and critic who lives in Northern California. A frequent commentator for BBC Radio, Gioia also co-edits (with X. J. Kennedy) the best-selling college anthology An Introduction to Poetry. James Wood is a senior editor at the New Republic. A book of his essays, The Broken Estate, will be published this June. This week they discuss recent and forthcoming poetry.