Blackbird Bye Bye
The Night Parade
The Daylight Moon and Other Poems
These books are by poets that arrive recommended in various ways. April Bernard’s book won the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award for 1988; Edward Hirsch’s last book received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he has had grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation; Michael Hofmann’s’ Acrimony was the 1986 Poetry Book Society’s Choice in Britain and won the 1987 Geoffrey Faber prize; and Les Murray is widely praised as the best living Australian poet. Something in each of them has attracted notice beyond what most poets achieve; and if I feel some disappointment turning the pages—“Not what I want,” I think, “Not enough,” I think, “Why can’t he/she…?”—I also will remember some poems from each of these books.
It is borne in on me, reading these poems, how much more I want from poetry than many other readers apparently do. They seem pleased with a plangent story, or an infusion of indignation, or a cascading shower of words, or a moral neatly drawn, or a precise description of an object, or a confession, or a piece of colloquial language embalmed for the future, or a venture into ethnic nostalgia. They are responding to poetry as they might respond to any piece of writing: a war memoir, an autobiography, a sermon, an ethnic reminiscence, a recollection of a neighborhood. I could read these books this way, too, as pieces of writing. Do I now know about the Murphy bed Edward Hirsch’s grandmother had when he was a child? Have I had passed on to me through Les Murray some tall tales from the outback? Do I feel what it was like for Michael Hofmann to grow up the exiled son of an adulterous, self-absorbed father? Do I understand why April Bernard thinks biographies of writers are beside the point? Yes, yes, yes, and yes again: these are all good enough writers to make me imagine their pasts, sense their atmospheres, glimpse their stories, know their temperaments. Shouldn’t that be enough?
As soon as I say “no,” and ask myself why, the multiplicity of answers discourages me. It is rarely something present and accounted for that is the cause of my dissatisfaction; it is something absent. A reader of a book, at this point, is rather like the chef in the kitchen tasting the dishes for the dinner—this doesn’t have enough salt, this sauce is too thin, this has curdled, and who ever decided to put skinless chicken breast, cauliflower, and rice all on one white plate? With books one wants to say “not enough music,” or “not enough vivacity,” or “not enough variety,” or “not enough originality.” These remarks come down to the fit between content and form. However interesting, profound, moving, or enchanting their subjects, poets are after bigger game than the writing of memoirs or reminiscences. Poets are addicts of form, martyrs of the perfect fit. The fit is to something invisible, half in the past, half in their head. Whitman forgot nothing he…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.