PHIL LEVINE AND STEPHEN DUNN BATTLE IN THE NORTH

Phil Levine and Stephen Dunn may be the two living poets most dedicated to the poem as a critique of life/art.   All the critics would agree, and the two poems by these two poets in today’s contest are perfect examples of the poem as critique, with formal qualities in short supply, with content completely driving the form—which hardly exists, so vital is the content itself.  What happens when the content is so important that it overwhelms the form?  We might say, ‘you get prose,’ or we might say, ‘you get the sort of excellent poem which Levine and Dunn produce.’  Take your pick.

But when we say “critique of life/art,” that duality, ‘life/art,’ is important; we don’t use it lightly.  Art is easy to critique, obviously, compared to really having something philosophically astute to say about life, and many of our half-wits pride themselves on their critique of life, when they are really saying things about art. As poets, they write—in their poetry—against a certain style of poetry—and are often mistaken as poets who write poetry which is a critque of life.  Write what you know, goes the Writing Workshop mantra; the poet simply writes (in a ‘critique of life’ style) on poetry.

Think of how easy it is too critique Romanticism, for instance; to say it is hyperbolic, take-drugs-contemplate-flower-weep-over-love poetry. And to oppose it to a certain kind of “Classicism,” to which you, though modern, belong.  This critique (of Romanticism) pretty much sums up the position of Yvor Winters, early Poetry Workshop teacher at Stanford, and briefly associated with the Fugitives. 

We can trace this influence easily: from Winters to his student at Stanford, Donald Justice, and then to Stephen Dunn, who studied under Justice at Syracuse, and Phil Levine, who was a younger classmate of Justice’s at Iowa, when they studied together with Robert Lowell—who studied with Fugitive poets Ransom and Tate. Which leads us back to Winters and early ‘classical’ Modernism centered around Pound.  Here is the rather small world of  Modernism and its Winters Classicism growing out of Justice at Iowa and the world of the American Poetry Workshop, anti-Romantic to its core.  People often talk about ‘the Workshop poem’ and what its characteristics are.  It has no characteristics; it is defined by what it is not: as far away from Shelley as it is possible to be.

The following is Levine’s “Simple Truth” and the title betrays everything.  Notice how it attempts to be a critique of life, when it really is a critique of a certain kind of poetry.  It doesn’t want to be that kind of poetry (“elegance, meter or rhyme”) and it doesn’t even realize it is wholly defining itself by what it is not. For what are we to make otherwise of a poem exploiting the taste of butter in the back of one’s throat that we can’t express in words as a critique of life?  Oh the woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland!  Really?  This is schmaltz, not poetry.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

How his friend Henri “began to kill himself” is passed over quickly for the more important “a simple pinch of salt.”  To get away from “elegant” poetry, Levine skips what really involves a critique of life—not that ‘a critique of life’ is what poetry should be, necessarily, but this is certainly how poets like Levine are marketed.  “Can you taste what I’m saying?” Levine asks in his poem.  Uh, no.  This is prose rising up out of the poetry patch to ask that we join in praising the poetry patch. This is what Keats, in his letter on the primrose, said poetry should not do.  There is nothing wrong with the earth and the things Levine is praising.  It’s the statement that earth must be opposed to elegance which doesn’t belong.  It’s not a poetic sentiment—and not even a good prose one.  We know that Levine’s school of poetry needs to say whatever it needs to say in order to reach its poetic conclusion—but the individual statements, and what they imply in the poem still need to be accounted for.  It’s not polite to stop a poem in the middle, but that doesn’t mean the reader won’t do it, anyway, if something is fishy—even if the poet (I’m just talking, here…) doesn’t realize it.

Here’s the thing about poetic prose, and wanting to write prose that’s poetic.  Prose that wants to be poetic is like having your cake and eating it.  You want to be poetic, but you also don’t want to be poetic.  You want to hit the ball smack in the middle of the bat with a nice loud crack! but you also want to have the ball dribble off your bat, too.  In the same swing.  So when you are talking in a less elevated fashion, as if you are just telling a story, and you throw in a few details just to set the scene—they are not that important so don’t pay too much attention to them—you are asking the reader to be of two minds, and this is a lot to ask of the reader: know when I’m being poetic and know when I’m not!  This sounds like a simple request, except that in a poem every syllable contributes to the whole effect, whereas in prose, entire words and phrases contribute to perhaps a dozen effects that are not even aware of each other, and this difficulty increases exponentially as prose proceeds.  What is seized upon by the poetic sensibility while reading poetry is meant to be quickly discarded while reading prose.  How can this be done simultaneously while reading one text?

The illusion that prose is poetry is aided by the fact that both exist in time—we proceed from one step to the next in both prose and poetry.  But temporality merely organizes prose; poetry is constantly acting on temporality to re-organize it.  To confuse these two functions is to lose the sense of poetry—while thinking one is gaining it—in perusing prose.

Back to the game.  Here is how Dunn counters Levine:

STORY

A woman’s taking her late-afternoon walk
on Chestnut where no sidewalk exists
and houses with gravel driveways
sit back among the pines. Only the house
with the vicious dog is close to the road.
An electric fence keeps him in check.
When she comes to that house, the woman
always crosses to the other side.

I’m the woman’s husband. It’s a problem
loving your protagonist too much.
Soon the dog is going to break through
that fence, teeth bared, and go for my wife.
She will be helpless. I’m out of town,
helpless too. Here comes the dog.
What kind of dog? A mad dog, a dog
like one of those teenagers who just loses it
on the playground, kills a teacher.

Something’s going to happen that can’t happen
in a good story; out of nowhere a car
comes and kills the dog. The dog flies
in the air, lands in a patch of delphiniums.
My wife is crying now. The woman who hit
the dog has gotten out of her car. She holds
both hands to her face. The woman who owns
the dog has run out of her house. Three women
crying in the street, each for different reasons.

All of this is so unlikely; it’s as if
I’ve found myself in a country of pure fact,
miles from truth’s more demanding realm.
When I listened to my wife’s story on the phone
I knew I’d take it from her, tell it
every which way until it had an order
and a deceptive period at the end. That’s what
I always do in the face of helplessness,
make some arrangements if I can.

Praise the odd, serendipitous world.
Nothing I’d be inclined to think of
would have stopped that dog.
Only the facts saved her.

It is easy—and necessary—to extract Dunn’s critique of life here: life is ruled by “facts.”  The narrator cannot save his wife.  Only the accident of “facts” can.  But Dunn is confusing the “facts” of his poem with life—more than just “facts.”  Dunn, like Levine, is confusing life and art; he thinks he is talking about life—reducing it to “facts”—but he is really talking about his poem, and its “facts.”  This “confusion” is not unusual, and as far as Dunn’s poem goes, this “confusion” is perfectly acceptable, since Dunn is telling us a real story about something that happened in his life—and putting it in “a poem.”  Dunn is conscious of this and says it explicitly: I will take what my wife says and put a period on it. But it’s a “deceptive” period, Dunn says, and here he is, again, imitating Levine (they are from the same pessimistic school) in criticizing not life, but a certain kind of poetry, a poetry “of elegance” which puts “deceptive periods” on things. 

Dunn 83 Levine 82

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2 Comments

  1. Kevin said,

    December 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    I’m not so sure about the idea that Justice imposed a uniformly anti-Romantic vision on his pupils. My professor Geoff Brock, though I think indeed not a fan of Shelley, is very keen on Keats indeed.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Kevin,

    Is Geoffrey Brock a poetry professor?

    This poem of his was published in The New Criterion a few years ago.

    “Not a fan of Shelley.”

    Yea, I guess I can see it.

    One Morning

    The boy is wide awake:
    he climbs into our bed
    and clambers toward my head,
    wielding a yellow rake.

    Combing my hair, the boy
    giggles with every stroke.
    His is a simple joke:
    he knows his plastic toy

    is not a comb, my hair
    is not disheveled sand,
    and yet his furrowed mind
    has seen a likeness there—

    delight grows from small seeds.
    And for now I won’t worry
    what else might, as we hurry
    toward what the future breeds.

    The enemy of poetry is: the prosaic, in the largest sense of that word. As we have been writing lately, verse contains prose as much as prose does; as coined by us recently: verse is not not prose. This poem is prosaic for a number of reasons, and its particular use of rhyme is just one of them.

    Tom


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