Just when we thought the state of poetry could not be less visible, Adam Plunkett digs its hole even deeper. “Why Critics Praise Bad Poetry,” he titles his Sept 15 Bookforum piece, and begins by surmising, “False advertising” is “probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.”
Plunkett offers only one reason for “why critics praise bad poetry:”
Uncertain of an obscure poem’s meaning, critics worry they will “miss something” and “look like fools.”
Not only are the poets bad, according to Plunkett, but the critics are stupid.
Plunkett then goes on to prove there may be some truth to his idea—by praising bad poetry himself.
First, he shows himself astute enough not to praise (Michael Dickman’s) bad poetry:
“His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?
Yes, “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars” is bad poetry, very bad poetry. Congratulations, Mr. Plunkett; you are not completely stupid.
Now Plunkett goes on to review Michael Dickman’s new book, Flies, a book Plunkett calls a “case study in failed difficulty.”
Is there a successful difficulty? The whole notion that a poem “ought to be difficult” has tripped up many a critic and helped to destroy poetry since T.S. Eliot made the unfortunate choice to advance such an illogical monstrosity, one that is not even counter-intuitively interesting—but merely asinine—almost a hundred years ago. A sonnet by Shakespeare can be highly complex, in terms of ideas and grammatical structure, but not because Shakespeare intended his poem to be “difficult.” A writer should never intentionally make things difficult for a reader. Difficulty is a by-product of sloppy writing, not a standard to be sought. If a reader does not ‘get’ something, the reasons—if the writing is clever—are always more profound (even if superficially) than from the reason of mere “difficulty.”
Plunkett quotes more of Michael Dickman’s bad poetry:
they shine like
But the beak is real
A real beak
instead of a mouth
And then, to prove he isn’t just a dick, Plunkett thinks of something good to say:
A welcome contrast is Katherine Larson’s lucid incoherence, which invites reflection as it escapes paraphrase:
The Milky Way sways its back
across all of wind-eaten America
like a dusty saddle tossed
over your sable, lunatic horse.
There’s no simple literal sense to the simile (The Milky Way is to America as a saddle is to a mad-horse), but the visceral descriptions draw the objects together (“back,” “saddle,” “dusty,” “wind-eaten,” “lunatic”) with an associative certainty the final rhyme secures (“tossed” / “horse” is a Yeats rhyme, imperfect but accruing). Her image of the Milky Way is a perfect point of comparison with Dickman’s, which is literally incoherent but frustratingly rather than breathtakingly so. Hers is so charged with a depth of sensuous associations that it feels raw and unconscious, dreamlike and primeval, exciting precisely because you can pleasantly think it over endlessly without ever making sense of it or having it lose its mystery. Dickman’s image aims for this, fails to please the reader, and just looks silly, a failure absent from Larson’s stunning first book.
After having proven to everyone’s satisfaction (most of all his) that he is not a stupid critic, Plunkett thrusts out his chest and praises this absolute horror: “The Milky Way sways its back/across all of wind-eaten America/like a dusty saddle tossed/over your sable, lunatic horse.” This sounds like bad Jim Morrison poetry. Bad poets over-use metaphor, and in this case the Milky Way is compared to a dusty saddle. Mr. Plunkett, please remove your Critic’s badge. Now. Adam Plunkett, stuck in a nightmare from which he is unable to awake, attempting to establish his critical acumen to all the world, kills every critical cred he could possibly have, in a suicidal gesture of incomprehensible dumb. The Milky Way sways its back across all of wind-eaten America like a dusty saddle over your sable, lunatic horse. And according to Plunkett, “horse” and “tossed” is a “Yeats rhyme.” Magnificent.
Benjamin continues his self-murder, making sure that we know all about the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, as he inflicts himself, orgasmically, with
The book, Radial Symmetry, earned Larson the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, which since it started in 1919 has honored promising young poets for their first books, poets such as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Robert Hass, titans whom Larson can stand with. She is that good, and her style captures and expands on some of the most significant stylistic achievements of contemporary American verse. Larson, a molecular biologist, has Hass’s exquisite descriptions of nature (a squid has “no blood / only textures of gills folded like satin, / suction cups like planets in rows”), with a measured sensuousness whose sounds trace our reactions, enticing “satin,” strange “suction,” mysterious “planets.” Larson’s poems say little about herself but manage the felt intimacy of the best Confessional verse (Anne Sexton’s, Robert Lowell’s):
Last night I threw my lab coat in the fire
and drove all night through the Arizona desert
with a thermos full of silver Tequila.
Larson retells Greek myths with the longing, rage, and beautiful brutality of a young Louise Glück (although Larson contains her anger more than Glück, the Yale Series’s judge):
…And the windows lit
with displays of red corals
from just off the coast
said to be the blood that streamed
from Medusa’s severed neck
when Perseus laid her head beside the sea.
Larson has Jorie Graham’s mastery of rhythm and pacing, her looping, involuted meters:
Here are the goblets filled with wine.
The smell of sunlight
fading from the stones.
We must take it on Plunkett’s word that Larson’s “stunning” book partakes of Jorie Graham’s “mastery” and Louise Gluck’s “beautiful brutality.” Plunkett can pick on Dickman, but Jorie Graham and Louise Gluck and Robert Hass and Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery—and now Katherine Larson: hands off! These are “titans!”
The “goblets filled with wine” passage is nice; I admit the possibility of liking “the smell of sunlight fading from the stones,” but Plunkett’s admiration only proves even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut.
Why such a inept critic would tackle a thesis on ‘why we praise bad poetry’ is simply hilarious.