Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Poetry candy

In a big pile of articles I've been meaning to read I found "American Poetry in an Age of Constriction" by Anis Shivani, published in the Cambridge Quarterly late last year. Not a tremendous fan of American poetry is Anis Shivani. His polemic savages Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Philip Levine, and Billy Collins, and their ilk, if so unsavory a word as "ilk" can be applied to so august a group. His lively argument is amply supported by evidence from texts, but I prefer his sentences to his sentiments. Look, for instance, at the article's second sentence:

The contemporary American poet inhabits a perpetual comfort zone, choosing to restrict him or herself to articulating private sorrows and occasional joys in language that does not inspire, in metaphors that do not invigorate the life beyond the page, and in rhetoric that suggests a closing in, a shutting down of means and ends, rather than an opening up to the excitements and thrills that might be beyond the immediate ken of the hemmed-in poet.

Or consider this, from his discussion of Jorie Graham:

The irrepressible poetics, impossible to conceive of as trespassing against any rules, suggest a pervasive unaccountability, of the poet towards history, of history towards the poet, of all towards all.

Okay, so the guy knows how to employ parallel structure, but what about vivid, memorable images? Decrying the dearth of humor in contemporary poetry, Shivani writes, "Satire, the stooped uncle with welts on his back, has been utterly homeless for some time." Or see how he excoriates Sharon Olds: "The poet's persona is now that of a woman leery of confession even as all she does is confess." Or Billy Collins: "He is like a happy adult solving the Sunday paper's crossword puzzle, having skipped the front-page headlines, the mayhem and chaos on the planet." He goes on to characterize Collins as a purveyor of "poetry candy": "Although he appears to have departed from the self's nervous tics, he hasn't replaced this with anything more serious than cute intellectual puzzles."

Shivani's critique may be a bit reductive, but I have to applaud his ability to produce such a charming and civilized polemic. Most of all, though, I applaud poetry itself. Any genre that can inspire 25 pages of such articulate prose cannot be entirely moribund.

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