Bialosky, Logan, and taking poetry personally

Scandals in the poetry world seem sweet from a distance, like triolets blooming in epic slush pile. When, for instance, author and Norton editor Jill Bialosky publishes a memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, and William Logan excoriates it in Tourniquet Review, accusing Bialosky of “plagiariz[ing] numerous passages from Wikipedia and the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation”—you might be forgiven for not caring. Some of you, like me, are buried in not-so-golden leaves of student writing, committee reports, etc. And then there are the environmental and political upheavals threatening to wipe out civilization. It’s hard to get het-up about a distant executive passing off biographical cliché as her own prose.

There are also reasons to root for Bialosky, beyond dislike of Logan’s harsh take-downs. I find myself wanting to defend her not because of her other accomplishments—she has devoted her professional life to an art I love—but because of the nature of this book. She’s performing an experiment in literary criticism from outside the academies, writing a hybrid kind of nonfiction Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “bibliomemoir.” Taking poetry personally, showing that universities don’t own any art form—this is urgent work. Yet the project deserved more life-saving attention than Bialosky gave it.

It’s not that I disrespect scholarship written for specialists. I’ve found reams of it brilliant and useful. I’ve written some. I teach it, gladly, while leading cerebral discussions of prosody and metaphor in seminar rooms. Yet while universities may be the best patrons poetry has ever had, verse ought to thrive in many habitats, and its appreciation ought to take many forms. Snap your fingers at a good line during an open mic, recite it during a bout of insomnia, analyze it in a scholarly article or a trade memoir: it’s all good.

I’m especially hungry for fresh ways of writing about poetry, because my undergraduates deserve a wide range of models. Only a fraction of them will teach, after all. While they benefit from applying their full intelligence to art made out of language—reasoning through ambiguities, conducting research, acknowledging the insights of earlier readers, and generally writing their hearts out—learning MLA conventions shouldn’t be their top priority.

Being skeptical of what Philip Larkin bemoaned as the “cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic,” I am eager for books like Bialosky’s, but Logan’s critique has merit. Some of the gaffes in Poetry Will Save Your Life reflect hasty copy-editing: not great, although not catastrophic, either. The plagiarism is more serious. As much as I respect the signatories to a recent letter defending Bialosky—it’s a dazzling list—they did not persuade me that the New York Times, “by giving a large platform to a small offense, has tainted the reputation of this accomplished editor, poet and memoirist.” Bialosky’s respect for literary achievement shines through this book, but just as poetry requires slow care from its makers and readers, so does poetry criticism.

To appreciate a poem is to step into an expanded moment and give words your undivided attention. To write about that poem, whether in an online review or a book-length study in print, you have to linger longer, reading recursively, pondering the marks on the page, their origins, and their effects. One should commit criticism with full attention, too. Most readers won’t or can’t visit archives, count pronouns, study every essay published on the topic, or otherwise duplicate whatever persnickety strategies a critic employs. But critics can give valuable tribute to literature’s power and make a new kind of sense from it. Reading criticism should confer insight or at least complicate the meanings of art worth pondering.

Apparent hastiness is what I regret most about Poetry Will Save Your Life, because I like Bialosky’s premise. The memoir portions brim with moving stories from her own life, interspersed with great verses reprinted in full. Yet she connects her autobiography to the poems only superficially, and she rarely enriches her own reactions by referring to the many insightful readers who arrived there before. About the ending of James Wright’s “A Blessing,” for instance—“if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom”—Bialosky tells us, “reading the poem fills me with the wonder of this phenomenon. Is this a love poem or a nature poem? No matter. A love poem can be disguised within a nature poem.” Instead of feeling wiser about the poem, or pondering new emotional associations Bialosky has bought to bear, I’m just wincing.

Being dumbstruck by a powerful piece of art, unable to address the uncertainties it provokes—that’s a valid response. A tribute, even. Yet it’s not an occasion for criticism. Failing to forge bridges based in interpretation or research or both, Bialosky ends up stranding autobiography and poems on alien shores. They just don’t communicate with one another. A memorable chapter on “Motherhood” works best because she makes scenes of reading and rereading painfully vivid. But the author isn’t a great explainer.   

So where does a reader go for meditations on how poetry, embedded in daily living, can enrich and be illuminated by personal experience? Plenty of scholarship is grounded, at least fleetingly, in the circumstances of the researchers’ lives, although it uses specialist shorthand (try Alice Te Punga Somerville, for instance). Less professorially, there are splendid poet-critics past and present: Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Alexander on Paul Laurence Dunbar. The latter, however, are compelling in part because the subjects of the critiques are as interesting as the objects. It’s not clear yet whether William Logan, Jill Bialosky, my undergraduates, or I will ever command such fascination in our own right. Frankly, the odds are against us.

The criticism I find in literary, as opposed to academic, journals, is less jargon-ridden but often ill-informed. Yet exceptions inspire optimism. For example, the first line of Bruce Snider’s recent essay in New England Review has the drama of gripping nonfiction: “The first gay man I knew was the undertaker.” Addressing a topic he calls “the gay rural,” Snider conveys the significance of his own early reading experience: after childhood in a small town, he immersed himself in poems by Frank O’Hara, Mark Doty, James Schuyler, and others, deriving the moral that “if you were gay, you needed to live in the city”—and, if you were a poet, write urbanely. Snider’s bibliography contains mostly poetry and criticism by poets; there’s no attempt to reference the full research field of sexuality in American poetry. I wouldn’t call Snider’s essay scholarly. Yet it’s a compelling, insightful piece of criticism that shows a reader in conversation with other readers. It’s worth attention.

Outside of a very few magazines and university presses—usually the elite ones—there are scant venues for good, general-audience criticism, much less criticism blended with memoir. We need risk-taking publishers as well as writers, so that bibliomemoir haters have more books to lambaste and the genre doesn’t stay islanded in blogs. Literary scholarship, after all, doesn’t always serve poetry well by downplaying story in favor of argument, addressing specialists instead of interested general audiences. We poetry fans know that reading changes us in small, meaningful ways, as well as, once in a great while, performing dramatic rescue missions. Isn’t that worth writing about—slowly, carefully, maybe even with an occasional footnote?

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Poetry fans as Wordsworth and Coleridge this Halloween

Thrushes, worms, and bibliomemoir

What can amateur accounts of literature do better than conventional literary criticism? That’s the question I brought to two recent bibliomemoirs: Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (from Princeton and Oxford’s Writers on Writers series, 2013) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014). The main answers seem to be: 1. sell books (well, better than criticism generally sells, anyway) and 2. testify ardently that reading matters and, perhaps, that the books that strike us powerfully in our teens and twenties may matter most of all. Which makes me think: teaching matters.

smithI enjoyed both books in a mild, non-urgent way. I’m a binge-reader of print or e-books but a slower listener, and because I downloaded My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, I consumed it in nibbles. I started Mead’s encomium in September and finished it two months later, listening mainly on extended car trips—and I don’t have a lot of those, since I commute on foot. Yet “no car time” isn’t really the headline here: when I listen to Robert Galbraith or Tina Fey, I somehow find more listening occasions. There just isn’t much suspense in a bibliomemoir. (Spoiler alert: she loved the book!) I read Smith more rapidly, in just a couple of evenings last week, but his is actually the less compelling of the two books. What W. H. Auden Can Do For You just happens to be shorter by more than half and, ahem, I had a deadline. I post this bibliomemoiristic episode from the Modernist Studies Association meeting where I am about to moderate one of the conference’s “What Are You Reading?” sessions, in which I’ll informally present Smith’s prettily-printed meditation.

My feelings are mixed. Smith is an acclaimed mystery writer—I dipped into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series a couple of times—so he has an easy, appealing, unpedantic style. Twelve short chapters present different aspects of Auden’s life and work, including some basic biography, attention to the major works, and a tactfully-written meditation on how secular people can appreciate a poet’s turn to religion. Smith’s subject is a writer I care about, but not one whose works or life I know thoroughly. I teach Auden and adore many of his lyrics. I don’t know much Auden scholarship. However, even I can tell Smith’s book offers no serious, original appraisal of the Anglo-American poet’s work. In fact, there’s plenty here to irritate even a disaffected member of the contemporary Critical Congregation. Smith pontificates, oh lord, on themes of choice, responsibility, and the journey; and while Smith is totally forthright about Auden’s homosexuality, I found the bit about how “Lullaby” “transcends gender” and “can be appreciated by anybody”—well, not quite untrue, but defensive. And reductive of one of the century’s most beautiful poems. A more accomplished critic could deepen “Lullaby”‘s magic even while explaining its tricks, I think.

Yet there are parts of Smith’s book I found memorably charming. While this is not a very personal bibliomemoir—I closed it knowing the author’s disposition, but not much about his life—I recognized myself in his descriptions of poetic earworms. “The line returns again and again until it becomes part of the way I look at things…It is rather like having the poet by one’s  side—ready to point something out, ready to put into words a feeling or impression that would otherwise be fleeting.” Because Smith happened to read Auden at an impressionable age, and because Auden’s lines delighted and mystified and haunted him, he proceeds to perceive events of his own life more richly and vividly. I loved a passage starting on page 93 and triggered by Auden’s phrase “with thrushes popular”: Smith is inspired by it to find hidden life teeming in all kinds of scenes: rivers become with salmon popular, etc. Auden’s strange locution populates Smith’s life with weird, excessive liveliness. Words affect perception: “the way in which we stock our minds will surely determine the quality of our experiences, conscious and subconscious.”

Overall, Smith’s approach to the poetry seems dated and shallow compared to Mead’s. However, there are several circumstances that dispose me to prefer the latter. I’m less invested in Eliot’s work than Auden’s, which may make me less critical. Mead, a journalist, is in her forties like me and Smith, twenty years senior, sounds rather more like my own stuffiest high school English teachers. Mead’s basic premise cuts close to the bone: she’s a middleaged person beginning to see the shape of her own life the way a novelist might, and also contemplating the ultimate meaning of love and work. Well, yeah. Me too.My Life in Middlemarch is in any case more complex study, rooted in extensive research, archival work, and site visits, as well as a detailed interweaving of both authors’ lives. Mead’s book is not so different from a critical biography; it just foregrounds the researching writer more.

I’m interested in bibliomemoir because my current critical project, Taking Poetry Personally, shares affinities with this emergent genre. I didn’t expect to find myself feeling suddenly more thoughtful about my own children’s reading and the books I assign to undergraduates. It might be that life is full of crises, of which youth is only one, and what we read at any crux can hook us deeply. Yet when I think back through the books that have shaped how I think about myself, that have encouraged and chastened and obsessed me, I realize that I encountered almost all of them before my twenty-fifth birthday.

Twilight, Call of Duty, stupid cat videos: contemporary twenty-year-olds’ brains are with zombies popular. I’m not anti-screen, or even anti-zombie.( I don’t think there’s a better show on the air right now than The Walking Dead, but that’s a swordfight for another day). Yet I do feel inspired by these bibliomemoirs to keep stocking student trees with literary singers. You never know which bird will become the worm.

If you’re swimming with the scholars like me, by the way–or just in or near Pittsburgh–come check out a free reading at the Omni William Penn tonight, Friday 11/7, 9 pm, in the ballroom on the 17th floor. The conference program is here. There will be a LOT of thrushes warbling, including Cynthia Hogue, Meta Jones, Dan Tobin, Julia Lisella, Tyrone Williams, Jan Beatty, Elizabeth Savage, Beth Frost, Aldon Nielson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lisa Samuels, and Jeanne Heuving.