In praise of the praise of poetry.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 5 2008 5:48 PM

New Literary Art Form Discovered!

In praise of the praise of poetry.

I believe I've discovered a previously unrecognized genre of contemporary writing that deserves commendation for its distinctiveness and frequent excellence. It's practiced mainly by contemporary poets, but it's not poetry. In fact—at least for me—it's much better than most contemporary poetry, in the sense that it's much more readable, much better crafted, and often beautifully compressed in a dazzling haikulike way.

It's something that gives people like me who don't find themselves drawn to much contemporary poetry a sense of the verbal facility of contemporary poets—and contemporary poetry critics—when they're writing prose about contemporary poetry.

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The past century has taught us that good writing can appear in unexpected forms: film scripts, Sopranos-type series, the storytelling of R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman, for instance. And writing about poetry, particularly praising contemporary poetry, is a fine but extremely difficult art. It has to distill the presumed poetic genius of the writer being praised in a way that at the very least equals the supposed brilliance of the work itself. So in a way it's more elevated than prose; it's prose-poetry (remember that?) about poetry.

Recently, British poet * James Fenton cited something that the mandarin of poetic modernism, T.S. Eliot, wrote about the supremely difficult and delicate art of blurbing poetry:

"Everyone engaged in publishing," Eliot wrote when he was an editor at the august London house Faber & Faber, "knows what a difficult art blurb-writing is; every publisher who is also an author considers this form of composition more arduous than any other that he practises. But nobody knows the utmost difficulty until he has to write blurbs for poetry: especially when some are to appear in the same catalogue. If you praise highly, the reviewer may devote a paragraph to ridiculing the publisher's pretensions; if you try understatement, the reviewer may remark that even the publisher doesn't seem to think much of this book: I have had both experiences."

Let me explain the roundabout way it came to me, the discovery that the praise of contemporary poetry, either in blurbs or reviews, is itself a neglected form of poetry, meta-poetry. Even if it comes from the most corrupt and sordid favor-trading, grant-grubbing, academic back-scratching sources, it's clear that those who are good at it are so very good at it that their work rises above its origins and deserves special recognition. It is not some degraded adjunct of contemporary poetry but perhaps its very apotheosis. It would be a tragedy to lose the poetry, of course, but to lose the even more brilliant blurbs! Sometimes I wonder whether in fact the poetry being praised even exists or has been dreamed up to provide the rationale for the praise.

In any case, my recognition of this underappreciated genre began with my attempt to find a proper way to praise Keats' ode "To Autumn." A poem whose melancholy perfections I've had a lifelong obsession with.

With autumn—and specifically Sept. 19—coming upon us, I wanted to commemorate Sept. 19, the day in 1819 when a tubercular, slowly dying young Keats took a walk on the hills outside Winchester overlooking the just-harvested stubble fields and watched

... barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

as he would put it in the poem he wrote in the aftermath.

I wanted to write about the way I felt inextricably linked to the poem, even before I made a kind of pilgrimage to that very hill, overlooking those very stubble fields, and beheld the phenomenon of the "barred clouds" as the crimson sunset light that lit them turned those stubble fields a rosy, almost blood-red hue.

Being there made a difference: I felt I understood the shadow of death and dying, of death's final harvest and its grim reaper, a shadow that lies behind the poem's beautiful bucolic scene. And gives it its aura of approaching mortality.

I wanted to revisit a point of dispute I had with the great Helen Vendler, Harvard's poetry goddess (author of the incomparable study, The Odes of John Keats) over the sex of Autumn in the poem. I wanted to take issue with Jack Stillinger, editor of an important edition of Keats' works, who appears to believe that (despite "hinting of death") the ode is "unambiguously affirmative"—which I believe is unambiguously wrong.

But there was one problem: I wanted to find a way to praise the poem that would do justice to it after so many others had praised it to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to convey to others why I thought "To Autumn" was probably the greatest lyric poem in the language. I know others will leap to defend other poems' claims to that honor, and there are times when other poems come to my mind. ("Lycidas"? "Upon Appleton House"? "Winsdor Forest"? "At Melville's Tomb"? Do "Pale Fire" and "Venus and Adonis" qualify?)

So I was worrying over the problem of praise, realizing how difficult it is to breathe life into the exhausted form, when I happened to land on the bookmark of one of my favorite Web sites, The Page. No, political junkies, I'm not talking about Mark Halperin's site of the same name. This Page contains nothing but two-line excerpts from reviews of poetry. It was while reading The Page that I came across a link to James Fenton's piece in the Guardian that contained the Eliot quote about the difficulty of blurbing poetry.

And it was on The Page that I came across a thoughtful essay by one of my favorite critics, Adam Kirsch, which centered around an unusual new book of reflections on Keats, Posthumous Keats by poet Stanley Plumly. I got hold of the book and found that—though nothing compares with Helen Vendler's 50-page ode to the ode—Plumly does a pretty good job of describing what is remarkable about "Autumn," its burnished bucolic surface, and the Modernist shadows it harbors.

"Autumn" presents itself on the surface as a simple pastoral ode, reminiscent of Virgil's Georgics. And yet there is that "soft dying" in it, and it has a kind of completeness—the self-containment of a private universe—in the way it really resembles only itself. Hard to explain, but Plumly gives it a go:

Can a lyric poem of thirty-three lines achieve the awe and spaciousness of the sublime? "To Autumn" is ... a twilit symbolist masterpiece realized independently—it seems—of its implied author, as if it were an object, self-created. …

An object self-created. I don't like the anachronistic "symbolist" reference here, but there is something ineffably "self-created" about the poem, a melancholy Grecian urn of the psyche (in ode-speak) set down like the monolith * in 2001 and leaving us little to do but gather round and gibber at its flawless alien perfection.

He's onto something, Plumly, but his essay illustrates the difficulty of being precise in a realm of imprecision. It drew my attention to the current contents of The Page. Especially that essay by James Fenton that references Eliot on blurbs. Reminded me how difficult praise was to pull off, made me realize praise is underpraised. After so many centuries of poems and poets, it's difficult to be persuasive about some contemporary poet's place in the pantheon.

On the home page of The Page, there are about a hundred two-line entries, each linked to a longer review.

But if you forget about the review they link to and just read each two-liner as a kind of haiku, you can apprehend each as a beautifully distilled "object, self-created."

So many are so well-written! Almost all of them! They undertook what Eliot called the task of poetry, a "raid on the inarticulate," and came back with pure gold. Much have I traveled in realms of gold, in the Keatsian sense, and this was the real thing, almost every one of them a gem. (Credit here goes not only to the poets and critics doing the praising but to the editors of The Page for distilling them into two-line epigrams. Modestly, they only identify themselves at the very bottom of the page, this way: "The Page is edited by Andrew Johnston with occasional contributions by Stephen Burt.")

I became greedy for the felicity of the two-liners—Twitters of poetic genius—and found myself just reading them sequentially for the pleasure they gave. So many of the quotes were so thought-provoking and original, often offering what I usually fail to find in contemporary poetry. They seem to be suggesting seductively something I must be missing, something that I now will look for more attentively.

And so I'd like to present some of the best two-liners to you and hope you can find the same pleasure I do in them, the pleasure of heightened language well-used. The pleasure of poets blurbing each other. And the excellence of some of the critics specializing in a genre not widely read or appreciated.

What's remarkable is how variegated the pleasures offered by the two-line quotes are, some particularity felicitous turns of phrase, some epigrammatic nuggets of wisdom, some unexpected prospects and vantage points on words and the world.

Some are ingeniously inventive descriptions:

"James K. Baxter can be crabby, difficult, bombastic, tortuous and tricky. He is, in nearly equal measure, astonishing and heartbreaking."—Rebecca Porte, Contemporary Poetry Review

"Juan Felipe Herrera's worst poems seem disorganized, excessive, frantic; his best seem disheveled, excited, uncommonly free."—Stephen Burt, the New York Times

"Matthea Harvey has Stevie Smith's knack for writing throwaway lines that in the end seem less like Post-it notes than ransom letters."—David Orr, the New York Times

"Their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies—and these were O'Hara's virtues—give us as much of a life as poetry can."—William Logan, the New York Times

Some are intriguing, mysterious:

"Sometimes we live as if we know more about the experiences we don't have than about the experiences we do."—Adam Phillips on Larkin, The Threepenny Review,

"These poems have a permanence about them that belies their fragility. Some of them even approach that supposed impossibility: The tautology that contains knowledge."—Laurie Duggan on Gael Turnbull, blurb on book jacket

Some are witty and contrarian:

"If there is one lesson to be drawn from Shelley's life and work, it is that you can't trust a man who believes he is an angel."—Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker

"If one were forced to select a single word to exemplify Bishop's peculiar charm and power, it might well be 'No.' "—Brad Leithauser, the Wall Street Journal

"To test oneself, Oppen recognized, is to know failure. Oppen's victories are no less great for being small."—James Longenbach, The Nation

Some are casually thought-provoking:

"Hass's latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion."—Cynthia Haven, San Francisco magazine

"If we can give up on consolation, there may be room for something more promising."—Adam Phillips on John Burnside (and Henry Reed), the Observer

Some of them helped with capturing why I felt the way I did about Keats' "Autumn":

"In any poem of value there seems to be some poetic element, some inner intensity, which is separable from the language it is embodied in."—Clive Wilmer on Ted Hughes' translations, TLS

And I must admit I admired some of them, however over-the-top, for witnessing how much they cared about contemporary poetry:

 "Only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack." —David Orr, the New York Times

Since I've gone out on a limb and suggested Keats' "Autumn" is the greatest lyric poem in the language, I invite readers to post their choice—just one!—for this honor in "The Fray." Perhaps along with an approximately two-line description. Let's say, a Twitter-like 140-character limit. After all, almost prophetically, the last line of "To Autumn" somewhat ominously observed:

And gathering swallows twitter in the sky.

Correction, Sept. 14, 2008: This piece originally said James Fenton is the British poet laureate. He is not. It also said the central object in the film 2001 is an "obelisk." In fact, it is a monolith. (Return to the corrected sentences.)

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