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

“Douchebag” and other rude, not-seasonally-festive epithets

The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?

In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.

Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.

English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.

While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.

Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.

And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.