Poetry Criticism

Poems of Wry Reflection

Review of Houses, New and Selected Poems by Don Barkin


Are there consolations of aging in place? For New Haven poet Don Barkin, poetry lends a kind of formal ascendancy over the quotidian feelings and everyday events that make up a life. In his earlier volume, That Dark Lake, Barkin earned respect as a patient observer able to make music of the unspectacular, as he does here with the “flaking stucco wall of Magruder’s Service Station.” There are poems that find their apt subject in a ruined swimming pool or getting stuck in the snow; others that let a gentle symbolism creep into a deft image, as in “The Persistent”’s description of a swimmer who disappears “for a frightening while” only to reappear on a rock “so far away / he seems almost to be standing on air.”

In Houses, his new and selected poems published by Antrim House with a handsome cover painting by Peter Van Dyck, Barkin’s eye for the detail that inspires a poetic reflection remains, but his concerns have expanded somewhat. There are several poems that make gestures to that old poetic procedure of justifying the ways of God to man; poems such as “He Plays No Favorites” and “Erratum to an Elegy for a Doomed Youth” take a certain satisfaction in deeming the almighty to be rather indifferent and only looking for amusement: “slowly you start to realize / that God must surprise himself, or no dice.”  I like the way that often a key line in Barkin’s poems, always close to the matter at hand, can expand to complete a thought we didn’t know he was thinking. As, for instance, how the question of God’s surprise at how things turn out mirrors our own, and, perhaps, suggests why one bothers to write poems.

Then, there are the poems, in Part II, where Barkin the rhymester gains ascendancy, a tendency that lets Barkin’s often wry humor turn toward the act of poetry itself, letting us take some of his grimmer insights with a smile: “Still if you find such pining thick, / you’re right. And love’s a dirty trick.” With rhyme, Barkin is willing to jingle if that helps us acknowledge how cloying the commonplace can be, where a moon may appear “round as a baby’s naked bottom / yet yellow as a leaf in autumn” (in a poem about the girls that got away), or where a poetic teen, getting dropped by a girl, can long to “see the late light glaze / the rock-face of her gaze.”

I tend to like the unrhymed poems better, though there is sometimes an air of Housman in some of the rhymes, with occasionally a deliberate cadence of Yeats. Then there are times when rhyme sets up a pattern that pays off with off-rhyme in apposition:

Now it’s a ski-loud lake,
words crumble like stale cake.
To a mind that’s walked the plank
itself is what it’s like.
And the sky above it blank,
and beneath that sky, your bank.

While “the plank” may primarily be there for the rhyme — though there may be a plank over the lake — the key line “itself is what it’s like” lands with more force for sticking out — like a plank — from the fluid supports of the rhyme. The natural scene suggests the rhymes, but the mind detached even from its own versifying effort to, as in the previous verse, say what something is “like,” maintains an unrhymed diffidence.

Indeed, Barkin’s verse has a tendency to let diffidence keep the upper hand, sometimes to good effect, as for instance in what seems, with its easy rhymes, a little parody of what might be a Frostian scene that ends: “I’ll sit here till I hear the front door close. / A man must fight the devil that he knows.” We watch a scene play out and let the final line take us beyond the everyday situation — a wife yelling at a husband who is burning up his motor trying to get out of the snow — to Barkin’s greater purpose. Here one finds a suitable proverb in the moment, but sometimes, more tellingly, we might see the poet finding out what lurks in his own heart.

There are such glimpses, but the lyric for Barkin seems less an occasion for self-exploration than for keeping the self at bay. A teacher, Barkin, in “Schooled,” when asked “did you always want to teach?” says “I never did. I’m not sure why I’m here. / When you start out, you do things on a dare— / to test your strength, and then to pay the rent / as you guys go to school because you’re sent.” The poem’s conclusion — which takes us back to the text being studied (Wordsworth) — gestures toward the poetic imagination, in which earth and moon “praise the sun while trading doubtful looks,” but lets the “doubtful look” control the entire enterprise: both the speaker as a teacher and as a poet. Too much paying the rent? Too much going where one is sent?

The consolations of age are that one is no longer doing things on a dare or to test one’s strength; one can look back on the ones that got away and take stock: “You knew / way back when you held love at bay / you’d flourish in your own way / like wildflowers in their dark array.” It’s a nice thought — that “dark array” for a poet fond of keeping in mind “that dark lake” to which we tend — but the poem’s rhyme scheme, with its terza rima, skims across the important central verse of five, with verbs as rhymes: “show, know, go.” The “love at bay” looked back on, in other words, scarce causes a pause for thought, in the poem; all effort is to make the lesson of wildflowers the departed lover left become manifest — “the darkest gold, the deepest blue.” Do we trust the terms, the image, the lesson? Form and rhyme, after all, can be a manner, a way to dodge all those notions of life that don’t opt to be apt.

Don Barkin

Don Barkin


Don Barkin reads today from his verse at Mitchell Library in Westville, New Haven, 3 p.m.

Houses, New and Selected Poems
By Don Barkin
Antrim House, 2017; 88 pages

Poetry Review: Sarah Lindsay's 'Twigs & Knucklebones'

Sarah Lindsay is in the minority, a poet uninterested in the self. Rare is the appearance of the first-person pronoun in her 2008 collection, Twigs & Knucklebones, a conspicuous absence that sets her apart from other poets compelled to reveal and confess every secret shame.

Even the sole love poem, “Stubbornly,” is externalized, cordoned off from the self. No one gives or receives love. It’s a mock argument over poetic symbols of love. Lindsay picks the unlikely lichen over the “showy rose” and the “changeless diamond,” because the “alga and fungus [that] made one fleck” will continue:

crocheting its singular habit over time, a faithful stain bound to its home, etching on the unmoved rock the only rune it knows.

Lindsay does this kind of thing throughout Twigs & Knucklebones. To express what’s inside, like love, she turns to the material world. Of course, this is what poets do. Her poetics call to mind William Carlos Williams, who advised poets to let ideas emerge from things rather than things from ideas. In “Stubbornly,” love is not like lichen; it’s lichen, rather, that’s like love. A “faithful stain,” something that doesn’t go away, that combines with a “singular habit,” a behavior that’s focused and steady, best fits love as a metaphor. In this way, what appears ironic might instead be read as something heartfelt and genuine.

Lindsay resembles Williams in another way — she has a day job. The 1997 nominee for the National Book Award is a copy editor for a company that publishes trade magazines. Williams linked his poetics with his profession as a doctor, in which he experienced the immediate and “the local” every day: “That is the business of a poet,” he wrote. “Not to talk of vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal.”

I don't mean to make too fine a point of this, but I’m sure Lindsay spends time working on the thing in front of her, the words that need her attention, and dealing with its immediate particulars, words and their meaning. Given the mostly unambiguous nature of copy editing — language is used correctly or not — Lindsay likely avoids Williams’ “vague categories” in her daily routine. If she’s like other writers at all, the force of habit at least informs aesthetic principle and not as much the other way around. So my gut tells me this copy editor-poet finds value in intensifying the “external moment,” as Williams advised, stuffing her poems with all sorts of concrete things from the natural and ancient worlds.

In “Why We Held On,” an external moment begins with the slow gathering of petty details and culminates in what Williams might have called a “radiant gist” — an image so clear that you get it without knowing you’ve gotten it.

Future doctors, Lindsay writes, may learn that an infestation of parasites in our minds explains why we cling to the past, to the “illusionary satisfaction” of mimicking “the letter / that mentioned Granny’s mules were named Huldy and Tom.” We obsess over “the leavings of people we couldn’t get back, / wouldn’t see again or never saw —.” Even so, “[i]t wasn’t our fault.” We cling just as:

the housefly filled with a fungus knows only that it must land in a high place, and dies there obligingly in an odd position suitable for the firing of spores at sunset.

What an image!

Sure, it’s a grim worldview that sees human behavior as pre-determined as a housefly’s gut fungus. And sure, it’s made grimmer by Lindsay’s lucid style in compact lines. But cynicism in Twigs & Knucklebones is often counterbalanced by the sublimity of her images and the force of their implications.

That includes the disconnect between nature and man — the workings of an amoral universe independent of human notions of morality. Good and bad don’t really apply to nature. She’s perfectly indifferent. Even so, how do we “labor to comprehend” and find meaning in a world, Lindsay writes in “Song of a Spadefoot Toad”:

where minute crustaceans pierce the side of a swordfish to lodge in its heart, where spadefoot toads wake from eleven months’ sleep and sing till their throats bleed, where humans do everything that humans do, where a fig wasp pollinates a flower while laying her eggs, then lies on her side as baby nematodes crawl from her half-eaten gut … ?

Lindsay frequently returns to parasites. It seems they are an apt metaphor for her tragic worldview. Parasites need a host but slowly kill it in spite of themselves. One's desires lead to one's undoing. And Lindsay jams human behavior inside a list of horrible things parasites do, obscuring the divide between thing and idea: Are we like parasites — or are parasites like us?

But just as you find tragedy, you also find external moments of stunning beauty.

At the end of “Spadefoot Toad,” Lindsay answers despair with another image. Meaning can be found inside this image, the thing itself, but unlike a rose or a diamond, it has no metaphysics beyond itself. It is what it is — a thing of beauty, a stripped down picture in which we might take comfort.

These images reflect a wholeness of understanding in Twigs & Knucklebones, an old-fashioned way of seeing the world that used to be called wisdom, in a place:

where faithfully every day in a mangrove shallows paired seahorses — armless, legless, without expression — dance with each other at sunrise.

ABOUT THE BOOK Twigs & Knucklebones by Sarah Lindsay Copper Canyon Press, 117 pages, $15

Everybody’s Critic

William Logan, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, Columbia University Press, 2009, 346 pgs. Disclosure 1: I haven’t read much Logan previously, though I know he is notorious for poking holes in inflated poetic reputations; Disclosure 2: I don’t read a lot of poetry criticism because most of it is ego-stroking blather aimed to curry favor with the poet reviewed; Disclosure 3: I wanted to read this book because Logan includes two essays on later novels by Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, respectively.

About Logan’s rep: he seems to me to live up to it in this collection of his critical pieces from the recent decade, the earliest review first appearing in 1997 and the latest in 2008.  If you read poetry crit with some regularity, you’ve probably heard some of the best bits, for Logan’s pithiness has a way of excerpting itself into anti-blurbs: Billy Collins is “the Caspar Milquetoast of contemporary poetry, never a word used in earnest, never a memorable phrase”; on Tony Hoagland: “You don’t ever get the feeling that he reads, or is affected by anything he can’t shut off with a remote control”; “Readers adore Bishop and adore themselves for adoring her”; “Nobody does a better Heaney imitation than Heaney”; “Drama queens can be charming at thirty; at sixty, they’re insufferable.” And so on, in reviews that cover front-runners like Robert Hass, Geoffrey Hill, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, Charles Wright, and newcomers like Natasha Trethewey, Cathy Park Hong, and a host of others.  I found myself laughing aloud quite often, which is to say that watching Logan handle the Pulitzer-prized poets of our day and other notables is way more entertaining than reading most of them ("There's nothing natural about Muldoon's poems now--they're full of artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and probably regulated by the FDA.").  And it’s also true that I rarely found myself disagreeing with him, even about poets I read and admire.  Here’s a comment about Robert Pinsky that seems to me quite accurate:

“Well-meaning, often charming, sincere as a traffic sign, he has all the gifts that education and rationality can provide; but you never feel he’s actually moved to write.” Logan gives us all the “good” qualities of Pinsky while making them seem inadequate for poetry, where the important thing is the passion or feeling that compells composition.  While it would be naïve to suggest that one writes out of emotion (even Wordsworth said poems were based on “emotion recollected in tranquility”), we still have to concede that a problem with Pinsky is how controlled and deliberate it all is.  No rapture, no divine afflatus.

Or, on Ashbery: “when you read Ashbery you have to forget much of what you know about reading poetry.  You have to take satisfaction where pleasures are rarely given and never let yourself wish for what isn’t there. (There’s so much that isn’t there.)”  While I can’t imagine someone saying that “pleasures are rarely given” in Ashbery’s poems (if there’s any poet writing today who seems to live by Stevens’ dictum “It Must Give Pleasure,” that poet must be Ashbery), I do concede that the kinds of pleasures Logan means may well be rare in Ashbery—“so much that isn’t there” (echoing, it seems to me, Stevens’ “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”) calls to mind the things other poets do that readers of such poets seem to like.  Which is to say that the pleasures of Ashbery are the pleasures of Ashbery; you’ll never confuse him with Lowell, or Auden, or Larkin, or any of the other poets that Logan uses as a measuring rod.

Then there’s this, from the close of his review of the Library of America edition of the complete Hart Crane:

Crane was no innovative genius like Whitman; he was perhaps closer to a peasant poet like John Clare, an outsider too susceptible to praise and other vices of the city. Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, a rum in one hand and a copy of The Waste Land in the other.  Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded.

This review apparently brought down much complaint upon Logan’s head, for it’s the only review here that is followed by a response to critics of his criticism.  The objections to what Logan has to say about Crane are easily imaginable—is it worth mentioning that someone is “no Whitman”?  But what’s instructive here is how Logan makes Crane critique-able.  He raises an issue that is often lost sight of when we try to appraise those (seemingly) secure in the canon: how much of what they did is truly remarkable, how much of it achieved what was intended?  Logan’s assessment of Crane—that he was too ambitious for his abilites, that he was out of his league with his intentions, that he was a writer of gorgeous lines rather than completely satisfying poems—is accurate, as far as it goes.   And that’s far enough to offset the outrageous claims for Crane as one who achieved more than he did.  But, though I’m sympathetic to Logan’s effort to be even-handed here (and entertaining—that rum and Eliot remark is funny but also sadly true: you don’t become the next Eliot by worrying so much about the current Eliot, and drinking to escape your inadequacies), I also find his appraisal to be ungenerous, not simply to Crane, but to the value of beauty in poetry.  No, it’s not enough simply to be gorgeous, but Crane, arguably, is never simply gorgeous—the beauty he courts comes, when it does, at considerable risk, costing, it may be, “not less than everything”—including the kind of sense that Logan would like more of.

And it’s here that I can say I grew tired of Logan when read at such length.  If we find it hard to imagine Pinsky being moved to write, we also find it hard to imagine Logan ever being transported by the pleasures of poetry, or simply overwhelmed by beauty.  Logan is Lowellian, it seems, and that puts him off to the side of the leading taste of our day, I’d say, but I share his admiration for Life Studies and feel it’s the rare poet who can achieve as much as Lowell does in such deceptively simple diction.  But the chaos and crazed ambition that lurk everywhere in Lowell’s work inspire, it seems to me, a bit more acceptance of a poet like Crane who wrestles with many of the same problems—a Lowell who never got from Lord Weary to Life Studies, let’s say.  Logan, as a critic, is too-much enamored of his Johnsonian parallels—reading Logan’s criticism at length makes one feel trapped in an apothegm factory—and too-little concerned with poems as affective experience (which requires, I’d suggest, assuming a bit more what the poem assumes).

But, that said, Logan is to be praised for doing what he does with such aplomb, wit, and succinctness.  The book opens with a reflective essay on his work as a critic, “The Bowl of Diogenes; or, The End of Criticism,” where Logan claims that the critic’s “besetting vice is generosity,” so I suppose it’s pointless to rebuke him for showing too little vice, and the essay is valuable for showing what Logan thinks of criticism, which he seems to regard as largely a necessary vice.  How else to decide what is worth our time?  We can’t read everything, so we look to critics to give us some idea of what we’re missing, maybe making claims that send us to things we’d otherwise avoid or convincing us to avoid something we’d otherwise waste time with.

In an interview included here, Logan, a poet, modestly refuses to claim company with grander poet/critics (such as Eliot and Jarrell), and that seems more than fitting.  Logan, as critic,  has the assured and captious tone of the entertaining friend one values for his ability to find fault with disarming confidence.  One rarely feels antagonized by his pronouncements, and even more rarely does one feel challenged to delve more deeply into his meaning.  His is the strength of the surface assessment; it’s often enough for him to quote a few damning lines of a lackluster poem to convince us that poetry is often simply the name for willful idiosyncracy in writing, but the effect is more like punching buttons on a radio to see if one catches a sound that will make one stay and listen.  Logan gives us a pretty good idea of what he’s hearing, but apparently doesn’t feel he has to bother to spell out what he’s listening for—which Eliot and Jarrell were not so reticent about.

And what about the Pynchon reviews?  I was pleased to find that Logan admires the audacious pleasures of Pynchon’s style, though as critic he also has to provide a caveat (on Mason & Dixon): “This intensity of imagery, this continual and immodest word-by-word invention, ruptures the plain understandings most fiction now requires.”  And this assessment comes fully informed by the challenges even a sympathetic reader of Pynchon is apt to find: “Joyce and Proust offered character in lieu of plot, and many novelists substitute plot in lieu of character.  It’s difficult for a novel, even a novel everywhere touched by brilliance, to offer so little of either.”  And Logan is even less accepting of Against the Day (as were most).  The point, we might say, contra this judgment, is that a writer like Pynchon wants us to get out of the habit of thinking in terms of plot and character as the mainstays of what the fictive reading experience offers, and I would like to think that dedicated readers of Pynchon have done so.  And yet there is much justice in Logan’s assessment, but, as is often the case when one tries to hold the willfully slippery still long enough to deliver one’s plodding objection, his criticism boils down to wanting Pynchon to stop goofing around and simply give us the story.

Pynchon may have conceived Mason & Dixon as a supreme fiction, a poetic act freed of the slavery of plot and character; but conventions are cruel to those who betray them.  As his stand-up comedy becomes merely a seven-hundred-page improvisation, the jokes grow hollow as the Earth itself.  Here Pynchon’s poetics have seduced him: it hardly matters if most poems mean what they say.  Poetry is the saying, but fiction (the drama, the action, the consequence, the regret) is the having said.

As a statement this can’t be argued against (except that M&D is the one Pynchon novel where “the regret” becomes palpable in the character of Mason).  But IF M&D is a seven-hundred-page improv, then it’s all about the jokes and that might well grow tedious, but what’s at issue is what Pynchon is joking about (the thematics of the work) and part of what he’s joking about are the very conventions that, to Logan’s mind, he has “betrayed.”  But is mocking, lampooning, satirizing, tickling, poking, needling, and slapping in the face with a custard pie the same as “betraying”?  And, while it may sound wonderfully Johnsonian to say "poetry is saying and fiction the having said," it only makes sense to the degree that poetry is a form valued for its immediacy and fiction a form valued for its ability to impose order on what has occurred.  But poetry’s order and fiction’s order are likewise impositions, the more so when convention becomes determinate for what can be said or shown.  Logan wants more matter, less art, and certainly understands that Pynchon writes from a perspective in which that distinction becomes indistinct.   No one can fault a critic for saying "something too much of this," and Logan earns respect for reading Pynchon carefully; if at times he sounds like a school teacher trying to hold his most irreverent student to the standard of his "best students," so be it.

Again, there is no deficiency in Logan’s position, it simply isn’t one that best serves the work under discussion.  If poetry is the saying, and fiction the having said, I suppose that criticism is having one’s say.  If not always saying much, Logan’s say is always well-said, and that’s saying something.