Franz Wright fans gather excitedly for the big match.

James Tate and Franz Wright, born in the booming, volatile middle of the 20th century, grew in the intellectual climate of the partying 1970s when the Iowa poetry workshop took control of poetry and America went from heroic and expansive to bureaucratic and self-pitying.  Well, America was never heroic and expansive, except when we were fighting the British; since Emerson, American intellectual life has been solidly and politely apologetic and anti-heroic. 

Sometime between the insanity that was WW I and the insanity that was WW II, American poetry became an Africa, and Paul Engle became our Cecil Rhodes. 

The basic elements of literary life are pretty simple when it comes to savvy male poets like Tate and Wright.   Tate and Wright would make great clowns, or fools, in a Shakespeare play: Tate, sarcastic, Wright, sad.  The Romantic poet, or Hamlet—which the modern poet has never escaped—was pathetic/heroic; our contemporaries like Tate and Wright are merely pathetic, and of course I don’t mean pathetic in the modern, slangy sense, but aesthetic pathos.   But pathos is never enough: with Tate, the heroic has been replaced by a rueful humor and Tate’s poetry is wicked, fast, and fun, written on-the-run and off-the-cusp and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t and where’s-the-next-party-anyway?  Franz Wright chooses a different path; the nerdy kid not invited to the party, Franz broods on his poems, he writes them slowly and contemplatively and instead of adding something else to pathos, he’s crazy enough to think that he can keep up the romantic trope and do the pathetic/heroic—in a grand, vengeful, wise-man, nerdy sort of way.

Wright and Tate were only given one poem in Rita Dove’s recent Penguin anthology—which they both triumphed with in Round One, but now their selections must come from elsewhere as they attempt Sweet 16. 

Note here how Wright plays the Romantic pathetic/heroic card.  You can see the heroic in the adjective “vast” and in the stunning image of Romantic-era Walt Whitman at the end of the poem.  Sure, the pathetic exists here, too, but Wright is one of the few contemporary poets who goes for the Romantic heroic trope as well.


The vast waters flow past its back yard.
You can purchase a six-pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee
a block down. It’s twenty-five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours.
The river is like that,
a blind familiar.

The wind will die down when I say so;
the leaden and lessening light on
the current.

Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.

With Tate, we are fully in the 20th century—no Romantic heroism for him.  This poem reminded me of Becket’s Godot,  and note the pathos combined with the rueful humor:


I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is

inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
none. It’s been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he’s the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
of shit and vomit,
and I’m sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.

A conductor’s horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
like anesthetized
fleas, ruffling the
ideal locomotive
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
Gerald shouts
terrifically as
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
destination. I
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.

“as fast as my boots will allow; as always, neglecting to drown” captures the whole pathos essence of James Tate and the replacement of the Romantic pathos/heroic with the Modern alternative of pathos/self-deprecating humor.

Here is the origin of Slam poetry—as written poetry evolves into stand-up comedy before a live audience.  

Pure poetry is something that is read by one person alone, and there is no design upon that person except that they enjoy a poetic experience, far removed from everything else, and, hopefully, in some way superior to that ‘everything else.’ 

Slam poetry, which, ironically, truly developed out of the poetry workshop atmosphere, and not the tavern, embraces the ‘everything else,’ stoops to it, revels in it, and the ‘live poetry’ experience is all about one person’s design on another, whether to impress a teacher in a worshop seminar, or to get laid in a bar.  Of course reading poems aloud in bars or in the street might seem like something which has always occured and has nothing to do with academics, but this, I maintain, is a romantic falsehood, and the people who go to bars and walk down the street in bygone days had the good sense to know that poetry does not belong in bars—only drinking songs do.

Wright is obviously infected with Slam (his reference to Tammy Wynette) but the irony here is that his reference to Whitman is Slam pathos, too.  Whitman is not pure poetry.  He, too, has designs on us.  Walt was the first Slam poet, before the horror of Slam existed. Whitman has become a circus in himself, and now represents the same cheap, honky-tonk Slam poetry atmosphere which the schools unconsciously promote.

But Wright’s a smart poet, and his “examining a tear on a dead face” is an attempt to reverse this Slam trend and bring Whitman back to some Romantic semblance of heroicism and feeling.

Tate tells better jokes, the guy with boots who “neglects to drown” is brilliant, and perhaps Wright is just sorry and pathetic, but we need to give Wright points for his brooding insights and sensibility. 

Go, men in black!

Wright 75, Tate 73


  1. May 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Poor poetry, it is the Darfur of twenty-first century literature. Everyone wants to do something about it, but nobody quite knows what is to be done. Money is poured into it (think Miss Ruth Lilly’s $100 million bequest to Poetry magazine), prizes and titles are awarded to poets roughly every thirty-five minutes (think Poet Laureate of the State of New Jersey), new poets are produced roughly at the rate of rabbits (don’t think, lest serious depression set in, of all those endless MFA programs turning out more and more people who will themselves go on to teach in MFA programs). I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that in the United States today there are more practicing poets than members of the National Rifle Association. Poetry societies, poetry foundations, something called poet houses, everything but poetry soup kitchens are currently up and running, and yet it is fairly clear that none of it seems to have made for better poems.

    The New York Times Book Review, in an act of literary citizenship, has been giving more and more space to reviews of books of poetry. One of the side effects of this is to cause a bad review of a poet, living or dead, in its pages to look as if it were an act comparable to closing the door on the fingers of an orphan child. (See here William Logan’s deflation of Hart Crane.)

    “The strength of American poetry,” writes a reviewer in a recent NYTBR, “depends on the fact that hardly anybody notices it. To emerging poets, eager for an audience, this marginality may seem frustrating, but it is the source of their freedom. Because nothing is at stake except the integrity of their medium, poets may write about anything in any way, from decorously rhymed couplets to sonically driven nonsense.” Nobody notices—what a strange strength, what an odd advantage!

    Contemporary poetry has an air of crushing intramurality. Poetry has become a schoolhouse affair, with poems being, as they say in the MFA programs, relentlessly “workshopped,” an empty word which means no more than discussed in a classroom setting. The only people who read contemporary poetry appear to be those who write it. Stories circulate about magazines with more would-be contributors than actual subscribers. Poets of reputation meet to give Pulitzer and other prizes to pals. Contemporary poetry begins to seem like a club to which one is lucky to escape membership.

    “Writing poetry is the most beautiful thing one can do in this godforsaken world,” says a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, and so it is. Yet so much contemporary poetry seems weightless, without gravity, free-floating, language flying around the joint. How did things for poets come to seem so unhinged, so that so much of what they write, not being memorable, doesn’t seem much to matter, at least not in the way that poems written fifty and more years before did seem to matter—never, to be sure, to a large readership but to a genuinely devoted one? I continue to read a fair quantity of it—at the individual poem, not the full book, rate—and keep an eye out for poets whose work I admire: Timothy Steele, Galway Kinnell, Peter Porter in England, Kay Ryan, a younger poet named Joshua Weiner.

    Yet one feels that Gresham’s Law has set in, and too much poetry is now being written for any of it to leave a mark. Has something in the culture put poetry, at least recently created poetry, out of bounds, so that even those who wish to be receptive to it find it difficult, if not impossible, to have much enduring feeling for it? Might it be that the culture has been speeded up beyond the point where the repose required for absorbing poems is not longer possible?

  2. thomasbrady said,

    May 14, 2012 at 2:34 am

    “might it be that the culture has been speeded up beyond the point where the repose required for absorbing poems is no longer possible?”

    But a ‘sped-up culture’ should appreciate the poem—simply on account of its brevity. People ‘repose’ for 2-hour films and hefty novels.

    I don’t think the numbers are to blame. Think of how many Newport mansions there are…too many to tour and enjoy…but is this a problem? Quantity itself can not be blamed. Writing a bad poem cannot possibly occur because there are X number of poems in existence—a bad poem is written from a faulty method. We need to explore the errors poets have made in expanding their art to the point where it no longer has any function or form which identifies it.

    • noochinator said,

      May 15, 2012 at 10:44 am

      But 2-hour films with CGI
      Requireth not a penetrating eye.

      • thomasbrady said,

        May 15, 2012 at 12:39 pm

        But the true poet knows if the poem can fly
        This, too, is because it’s easy on the eye.
        The modern ‘difficulty’ really has it all wrong—
        Poetry’s not a pricker-bush, but a song.

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