Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, 2003-2012 and the recent Poetry anthology, The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine
How do you respond to someone who goes on using old terms to describe what they keep insisting is new?
This is the dilemma of those who must listen to the endless drone of the curators and defenders and benefactors of modern poetry, or contemporary poetry, as it’s sometimes called; it’s no surprise this drone would manifest itself most painfully in a celebration of 100 years of Poetry magazine, specifically in Christian Wiman’s introduction to The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine.
Wiman’s The Open Door introduction is ostentatiously entitled, “Mastery and Mystery.”
The mastery is a mystery—this is what we think Mr. Wiman means.
Wiman is one of these—fans—of poetry (in the abstract, of course) who love everything about it, so things like critical faculty, discernment, and judgment, are mere annoyances that get in the way of the joyfully universal hippie consciousness kissing every divine modern word, kissing every divine modern line-break.
Wiman is habituated, like so many of his ilk, to prate on and on about “craft” in a wholesomely earnest manner, in which craft designates not skillful arrangement, but any arrangement, which he, Wiman, for no reason which can be discerned, finds deeply meritorious. What do you say to the person, who, reclining in some well-made chair, points to a heap of sticks, declaring the pile to be an excellent example of “craft?”
“Craft matters because life matters,” Wiman intones—and of course he does, because a loose pile of sticks matters—as all things matter, and who would deny this? Certainly not Wiman.
The lovely assertion—”Craft matters because life matters”—is all the critical mountebank needs, but Wiman will not let the windmill get away quite so easily, for he adds,
Craftless poetry is not only as perishable as the daily paper, it’s meretricious, disrespectful (of its subjects as well as its readers) and sometimes, as Pound implies, even unethical.
“Craftless poetry…is unethical,” (!!) and who better to “imply” this than the highly ethical, ‘pile-of-sticks-author’ himself, Ezra Pound?
But what, according to Wiman, is “craftless poetry,” anyway?
Did you really expect Wiman to tell us? He mentions Pound, and that’s all he needs to do. The in-the-know-modernist sagely nods, and Wiman immediately changes the subject, diving into another modernist topic.
The difficulty of modern poetry—that is, poetry written since Modernism—is taken by most people as a given.
Ah, having quickly covered the “craft” issue, we now get the old canard about the “difficulty of modern poetry,” as if Shakespeare, for instance, is not “difficult,” and as if “difficult” (which can easily be translated into ‘poorly written’) means anything substantial at all.
Following his brief and sage observation that Edna Millay is not “difficult,” Wiman falls down in utter worship of a poet who is, Basil “Crushed Grit” Bunting, in a manner that would make even Shakespeare blush:
Briggflatts is a palimpsest of history, nature, learning, loss. It is the testament and artifact of a man who has lived so thoroughly through the language, that is has become a purely expressive medium. Because of cadence and pacing, and the way sounds echo and intensify sense, the word is restored to a kind of primal relation with the world; language itself takes on the textures and heft of things:
Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mansion whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
Let’s be placid and factual for a moment: Crossword puzzles are random words that fit into a whole—a rather superficial use of craft—what Bunting does (hyped by the excitable Wiman) is select random words of similar sound and meaning (“horse” and “harness”) and put them into a heap.
We might admire Bunting’s list of words, (requiring a dictionary and a bit of free time,) but we must point out that the craft of making a crossword puzzle involves fitting words into a whole—but the Bunting excerpt is, in fact, “craftless,” since beyond the similarity of the words themselves (in Bunting’s list) no definitive whole is acheived; all we get, if we speak as an honest critic, is a vague depiction of a blurry, impressionistic scene, which is naturally what we would expect if any such list were presented loosely to us.
The Bunting excerpt is (try it) as good read backwards—just as we can do a crossword puzzle in any order we choose.
The Bunting passage has less craft than what is acheived by the author of the crossword puzzle.
Yet Wiman explicitly states that Bunting of “crushed grit” is a great advance (!!) (“the word is restored,” “language itself takes on…the heft of things”) of a wondrous kind—an interesting thesis.
Next, Wiman completely misses the meaning of a Denise Levertov passage as he purports to give us “a little master class in free verse,” in which
Our bodies, still young under
the engraved anxiety of our
is for Wiman all about the line-break after “under” because
it is one thing to say that a body is “still young,” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact.
First, despite the feverish belief in the importance of the line-break, we must point out that Levertov never says, “still young”—she says, “still young under.” In the split-second it takes to read “still young under,” it is impossible not to read Levertov’s line as “still young under,” line-break or not.
Second, Wiman misreads Levertov’s simple meaning. Wiman informs us that:
The mind naturally wants to read these lines like this:
Our bodies, still young
under the engraved anxiety
of our faces…
But this completely changes the meaning and effect of the lines. It is one thing to say that a body is “still young” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact.
We are not sure what all this “history” and “density of feeling and experience” is that Wiman gratuitously mentions; Levertov is stating an anatomical fact: faces show outward signs of age (wrinkles, and so forth, the “engraved anxiety of our faces”) before bodies do; it’s common knowledge for the body in middle age to remain smooth and young-looking while the face begins to look “engraved.” The “under” Wiman wants to load with all sorts of significance, merely refers to to one’s body “under” the engraved face. Wiman’s ‘insight’ is nothing but error.
This is where line-break-ism leads: rant. Wiman, winds up his “triumphant” reading of Levertov’s lines with this:
The point here is not to go through every poem nitpicking technique, trying to find some obvious “reason” for every formal decision. Rather, the point is simply to be aware that what may seem like awkwardness or even randomness (James Schuyler!) can be as formally severe and singular as any Bach fugue.
The folly here is laughable in the extreme: we move, with Wiman, from a silly misreading into the majesty of a Bach fugue.
Wiman, now half-way through his introduction, swells with pride at his own poetry-reading skill, which causes him to embrace the essence of life itself:
One of the qualities to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life…
Wiman continues in this vein: Poetry! Life!
Poetry…”gives us access to a new world and new experience” and also “enlivens the lives we thought we knew.”
Hyperbole joins hyperbole, as only the advocate of modern poetry can bring it.
“Why write poetry?” asks Wiman, why “keep a journal?” Because “language is a living thing” and deserves “our fullest and most costly consciousness, only our whole selves honed by emotional extremity.”
Wiman then warns against “vanity” in poetry as we might find it in the “bloviating laueate” or the “open-mike” poet in the “local bar,” saying poetry, even when it’s anti-religious, is the force that invented religion in the first place, and we must feel poetry in our “blood,” in the “marriage of word and world.”
We also need to understand that “the lyric” is not only “inward,” as Wiman points out for us that Thom Gunn, with “his heroic height” and “his motorcycle boots” had “little patience for Romantic effluvia” as he “wanted to obliterate personality in his poetry.”
Wiman blows us away with another flashing insight: a “writer who grows up in a bookless culture” will “always be torn by conflicting impulses.”
More wisdom: “Every poem in this book is situated somewhere on this spectrum between life and learning, between linguistic powers honed to surgical precisions and the messy living reality out of which all language…”
For all the canons and anthologies, for every rock-solid reputation and critical consensus, poetry is personal or it is nothing.
As far we can tell, Wiman has convinced everyone—but himself—that “it is nothing.”
Precisely because he has declared it to be everything.
Poetry, according to Wiman, brings that “face-off between spiritual integrity and social insecurity.”
If only Wiman were a bit more “insecure” regarding “spiritual integrity”—and everything else.
Finally, Wiman tells us that he and his co-editor, Don Share, feel “humility” and “pride” in the job they’ve done.
At least he’s feeling humble.
Do we expect too much from a perfunctory introduction to a book containing 100 poems in 100 years of Poetry?
Of course we do.
But at that same time, the thought on display in any poetry anthology introduction should not be taken lightly. Mountain-top pronouncements no longer exist in poetry. We should be harsh with every whisper, every small notion, every part. If we find no fault with the brick, we cannot criticize the house.
Criticism today must be micro, as well as honest, and Wiman, who made Poetry better as an editor by adding controversial prose, will no doubt understand Scarriet’s purpose.
It is not our fault that the Modernist is the dullest creature on the face of the earth, both emotionally flat and inane.
Whatever poetry does to us with its awkward spell, it finally does to us in a manner of which we have little or no cognizance; how important, then, is the Maid, Reason, who protects us from ravenous incomprehensibility; Modernism, however, with its notoriously unfriendly prose style (Whitman, Pound, Jarrell) is no nurse speaking with sweetness and clarity at our feverish bedside. Wiman, like all the other Modernists, is excitable, and lacks simple common sense.