Do you pick a destination in order to have a reason to take a walk, or do you take a walk in order to get to a place you have in mind? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Are the words a poet uses essentially a means to convey a thought or feeling he or she has in mind, or is the poem’s subject chosen mainly as a way of helping generate the poem’s language? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. But I confess to being more attracted to the second kind of poetry — or maybe it’s fairer to say I prefer reading poetry as if it were written that way. That doesn’t mean the walk’s endpoint (the poem’s subject) is finally irrelevant to the pleasures of the stroll (the poem). You might not want to end up in some alley where you’re going to get mugged. But the destination is only a small part of the journey you’ve embarked on.
I started thinking again of the poem’s relation to its subject after reading a review of Louise Glück’s Poems 1962–2012 in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, accessible online to subscribers. Glück is one of the best-known American poets, a native New Yorker who has won just about every prize and honor available — Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle, U.S. Poet Laureate — and taught at all the famous places to be taught poetry; better still, as I’ve just learned from Wikipedia, her father helped create the X-Acto knife, a tool I’d recommend to every poet who hopes to carve more precise verses out of the thick and messy matter of our speech. But I’ve never been able to get interested in Glück’s work, and that’s too bad, because I’m always willing to go out of my way in search of a new pleasure. So I started reading the review with real curiosity, hoping that it would show me how to begin liking this poetry.
But no such luck. Why? Because the essay’s author, Gillian White, an English professor at the University of Michigan, writes about Glück’s poetry as if the most important thing about it is its subject matter. So I know pretty early on in the piece that Glück writes quite a lot about death, and that more broadly she consistently seeks out melancholy subjects. A bit further along, I gather that the stakes of this melancholy are often raised to the pitch of melodrama — that Glück’s is a “gothic” imagination. Well, that sounds entertaining. There’s so much poetry of understatement around (I might even be guilty of it myself) that a bit of blood and guts could be refreshing. But then it seems a rather mundane, even understated, daytime drama kind of gothic: “Marriages fail, tragedy hides beneath pastoral innocence; in a photo taken by one speaker’s mother, ‘not one of us does not avert his eyes.’” In any case, to speak of the gothic is to invoke a set of conventions, but an authenticating detail grounds convention in the poet’s biography: In her youth she suffered from anorexia.
So we seem to know what Glück is about, but still, what is the form of her poetry? About a third of the way into the piece, the critic finally begins to say something about the sort of language through which Glück adumbrates her fraught themes. It is implied that her early writing was kind of fancy — in what way we are not told — but that the consistent development of her work as she’s matured has been toward “a more authentic vernacular; ‘a longer breath’; an enlarged vocabulary; a poem ‘less perfect, less stately.’” Ok, but what makes one vernacular more authentic than another? And doesn’t the expanded lexicon slightly gainsay the idea that poems are turning toward the vernacular, assuming that the Wordworthian “real language of men” (and women) is relatively poor in relation to the studied artifices of poets? The seeming contradiction can surely be argued away, but one would like to see what particular form this critic’s argument would take. But she’s not interested. Rather than expanding on these points, White quickly turns back to thematic matters without pausing to consider what these “technical and stylistic” aspects have to do with the poet’s subject matter: Why is it that Glück has found a more disheveled, expansive, and down-to-earth style better suited to her themes of suffering and loss than the richer, more elegant manner of her early work? The answer: This “plainspoken quality suggests, at one extreme, an oracular, even demonic frankness that exceeds the merely personal.” This is very suggestive, but also puzzling. “Frankness” is a personal trait, so how does it get transfigured into something impersonal? Since “Glück’s poems are written in the first person and cycle through a limited repertoire of places, nouns and themes, including the real names of her ex-husband and son,” it’s hard to credit White’s claim that the poet’s work is in something other than a confessional mode. Glück writes, “When I speak passionately,/that’s when I’m least to be trusted,” but to confess to being an unreliable narrator is still a confession. And her use of mythical figures might work less to universalize these personal issues than to aggrandize them; the difference would all be in the details of the poems’ language, which we still haven’t heard too much about.
Reading on in the review, as White traces the shifts in subject matter from each of Glück’s collections of poems to the next, I find occasional mentions of linguistic matters — of the poet’s “lexical wit, her skill with tone, her knowledge of the Anglo-American poetic canon” — but only by the by, without any analysis of specific passages given to illustrate how these virtues manifest themselves. At one point White backtracks to reiterate how the “thick, stacked diction and taut, chewy syntax” of Glück’s early writing “is unlike the plain style that follows” and notes that her lines as well as the poems themselves have grown longer with time. We learn, too, in the next-to-last paragraph of the review, that (despite the enlarged vocabulary mentioned earlier) Glück’s mythicized personal dramas are presented with minimal props and highly abstract settings: “There are no classrooms, bars, supermarkets, highways, restaurants, cars, governments (local or national), hospitals, televisions, radios or gum wrappers.” What are all those different words being used for then, I wonder? Are there really that many words for middle-class discontent?
Those are real questions I have, not what are commonly called rhetorical ones. And if I seem to be picking on White or on Glück, that’s not my intention. White’s review struck me as typical of the way poetry is discussed in the mainstream press, not unusual, and I just want to tell reviewers of poetry that there’s at least one reader out there who’s mostly less interested in what someone’s poems are about than in what kind of linguistic experiences the poems make out of what they are about. That’s what it would take to get me to start reading a poet whose works are mostly unfamiliar to me. It’s true that Edgar Allan Poe considered the death of a beautiful woman to be “the most poetical topic in the world” but really, it’s not the subject that makes for poetry, it’s the work on language that the subject enables the poet to do. Until a critic can explain how Glück is reworking our language, I’m not ready to start tackling the 634 pages of her oeuvre. But I’m still ready to be enticed. Is there a critic out there who’s willing to try?
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right. it’s an officialized manner of speaking of, and choosing, poetry, eg, gluck, kooser, collins, dove. something about being gentle on us readers, i think. and it’s a fine way. just a little samey.
A review of a review rather than a genuine review of the poetry. Perhaps Barry Schwabsky should simply demonstrate what revewers of poetry should do rather than chiding them on behalf of readers.
Precisely. This isn’t about Gluck at all; it’s about White’s review of Gluck. Poetry reviewing has its issues as a form, and perhaps this review failed to elucidate the poet or make a case for her, but that’s not Gluck’s problem.
Well, I’m not a big Gluck fan, but I’m also NOT all about the stroll. I care about the subject, and if it doesn’t speak to me, I don’t care about the language. It’s seems weird to me to try to get someone to get you to like a kind of poetry you already say you’re not that into. I can appreciate Ashbery, but I’m not going to ask anyone to convince me to get into him…he ain’t my kind of poet….
his argument is reactionary and old-fashioned, derived from the tenets and implications of Imagism that what a poem says is less important than how . . . and of course in this case it’s sexist.
RAGE RAGE AGAINST THE GOING OF THE LIGHT
what’s wrong with reviewing reviews? if a writer feels certain reviewers have become a witting, or even more so unwitting, apologist for a certain kind of poetry [or art] then why not call attention? i’m not so hung myself on the particular subject this writer is calling out but am interested in other things this generalized variety of poetry does [and doesn’t]. i like what was said–“Grocery Store Poetry”–over here: http://htmlgiant.com/random/writing-that-makes-you-feel-like-youre-being-groomed/
I appreciate and share the desire for formalist engagements with poems. But who said the (or my) point was to get readers to like the poems? I don’t think
that’s the only reason for reviews, and least of all do I think it’s the best
stance in a review of a book representing an entire career of a poet who is
already pretty broadly known and liked. This is not a close reading of a single
poem or collection by an emerging poet. My assignment was to account for 50 years of work for a general audience, and I was thinking about an audience as I wrote.
You could read the essay with a different set of criteria, and find that the point wasn’t
to win new readers but to address a mix of fans and detractors, especially
those who operate under the assumption that Glück is a confessional writer, whatever
that means. I’m interested in addressing the frequency with which readers treat poems as objects of identification, something I think about at length in a forthcoming book called Lyric Shame.
Another question, and one I can predict B. Schwabsky’s answer
to: should we assume formalist interpretation to be the be-all end-all of critical engagement for a general readership? Though I sometimes forget it, too, many readers are now
undertrained for or uninterested in the New Critical modes of lyric reading (once
the standard) that inform the Schwabsky essay’s assumptions about how best to
read and value poems.
(It’s worth adding here that like many, this journalistic essay had a key formal constraint of its own: the hands of several editors and copy-editors
that shaped its print destiny, decided its word count, etc. Schwabsky’s piece interestingly treats the LRB piece of writing as a speaking subject, another New Critical assumption. )
Finally, the account of my essay’s form and logic could be sharper, given Schwabsky’s penchant for close reading. My essay does not “trace the shifts in subject matter from each of Glück’s collections of poems to the next.” On the contrary, my essay argues that themes and subjects of Glück’s collections are weirdly consistent, though my
hunch has been that, in its formal shifts (from short lines to longer, from hypotaxis to more
parataxis at the level of the sentence and phrase), the poems register a desire – in line with some avant-garde poets’ turns from hypotaxis – to leave the culture’s preference for the elegy of anxious, isolated individualism behind. Thank you.
Barry, your book of poems, Book Left Open in the Rain, looks good to me and I shall read it unreviewed, or without seeking out reviews to prepare me for the kind of linguistic experiences I will have. That’s what it would take for me to start reading a poet whose works are mostly unfamiliar to me. I will figure out how you are reworking the language.
I appreciate Gillian White’s response to my article but it leaves me with further questions, among them these:
1) Given that by my count there are three instances in which variants of the word “speak” (speaks, speaker) occur in the piece, of which one is a quotation from White and one a quotation from Gluck as quoted in turn by White, I wonder, why is the idea of a “speaking subject” (logocentrism?) imputed to me alone? It seems we are all this together.
2) But then, nothing to do with speaing voices, what about the gesture of signing a text? The review to which I was responding is signed by White, but now she wants to offload some of the responsibility for its authorship into the editorial staff of the LRB (not notably invasive in their editing, in my experience). This makes me wonder: Is White gently trying to say that she was not trying to show readers why and how they might enjoy the poems because she herself is not particularly enthusiastic about them, but felt that a fully respectful attitude was what was expected of her by her editors? And
3) Has White not noticed that there are many other ways of paying close attention to the language of a poem besides the (I’d have thought, nearly forgotten) protocols of the New Critics?
Thanks for your reply, Mr. Schwabsky.
1/ Yes, this is a great comment. We ARE all in it together. See my forthcoming book, Lyric Shame: Producing the ‘Lyric’ Subject of Contemporary North American Poetry. which should appear in fall of 2014.
2/I hesitate to get into this too much online. I waver on the issue of “a respectful attitude” in critical responses to art, a wavering that is not entirely unrelated I would guess to the fact that I’m new at reviewing. I *can* say that I hope your or my life’s work, when it is reviewed, is approached with respect. The culture of response to art is changed by internet culture; I won’t go into the obvious and banal points to be made about this…. but anyway, I think tact doesn’t preclude intelligent and probing critique. To think otherwise sometimes (only sometimes) strikes me as false consciousness of a kind. Whether my review achieved either mark (tact or critique) is a whole other story and one i’m not actually that interested in. It seems you’ve put a lot of pressure on a short piece by a relatively unknown reviewer…. Without meaning to demean myself, I wonder if you should be having this conversation with someone more tested in the role. If you’d like to extend this thread, please email me: email@example.com
3/ White believes that much formalist criticism is informed by but not equal to the New Critical classroom culture in which we were trained to think about (mostly) modernist art and in which we struggled with the situation referenced in 1/. I’d rather not pursue this further online, but would welcome further discussion with you over email.
respectfully, gillian white
On the contrary, I think a close reading of the Wild Iris is an order. This is some of Louise Gluck’s finest work, for she does excellent violence onto the given with an acute Hegelian eye. In short, compare Gluck to say Maya Angelou is like comparing mountains to ant hills. Daniel Morris does a good critique of Gluck, undermining how she constructs a linguistic self in much the same manner Hegel constructs the “subject” as “spirit”.
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