The Way We Write Now


by Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin, 81 pp., $22.00

Going Fast

by Frederick Seidel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 99 pp., $22.00

On Love

by Edward Hirsch
Knopf, 86 pp., $22.00

Poets must often write to cheer themselves up, and in so doing the good ones can cheer up their readers as well. Thomas Hardy’s passionate love lyrics to his dead wife, the wife to whom when she was alive he had paid very little attention for thirty years and more, are also an acknowledgment of himself as he was, an acceptance of what he had done, or failed to do. So moving are these poems, and in a sense so self-delighting, that the reader too feels calmed and blessed at second-hand, endowed while he reads them with the same sort of self-acceptance.

This is the art that moves Donald Hall’s poems to and for his dead wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. These, too, are poems addressed to the dead which in reality can only have been written for the poet and for his reader. Unlike Hardy’s they celebrate a marriage of deep intimacy and great happiness, but all things come to the same in the end. Hardy mourned that his wife had abruptly left him, just as she sometimes did when callers came to the house. She had departed finally “in the same swift style,” as if to say “Goodbye is not worthwhile.” Like all who have been bereaved, Hall in his poems lives among the same sort of memories.

I want to sleep like the birds,
then wake to write you again
without hope that you read me.
If a car pulls into the drive
I want to hide in our bedroom
the way you hid sometimes
when people came calling.

So many poets—Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Tennyson, the one following the other—have pointed out that nothing is worse in a bad time than the memory of good ones. Hall adds his own variant:

Remembered happiness is agony;
So is remembered agony.
I live in a present compelled
by anniversaries and objects.

But the paradox holds: the poets were incorrect, at least where their poetry is concerned. For the reader, and surely for the poet too, Hall’s extraordinarily clear awareness of what is over and gone is more present and more appealing in words now than it could have found room to be in life. The house, the hospital, the course of his wife’s leukemia, the dog Gus, the cemetery, the mountain and lake nearby, “Perkins,” Jane Kenyon’s nickname for her husband, the gothic horror of her complex and meticulous treatments—all these, together with the sense of an unbroken human intimacy, make the poems almost mesmerically readable. It is as if they were not poems at all but experiences undergone with and by another human being. And yet art remains of course; for

Art was dependable, something
to live for.

And we can only be together in the saving dishonesty of art, the hypocrite lecteur and the poet who makes poetry out of what he has suffered, even out of the grotesque medical rituals which can be inflicted on us today to keep us going.

…blood-oxygen numbers dropped towards zero and her face went blue.
The young nurse slipped oxygen into Jane’s nostrils and punched
a square button. Eight doctors burst into the room, someone
pounded Jane’s chest, Dr.McDonald gave orders like
a submarine captain among depth charges, the nurse fixed
a nebulizer over Jane’s mouth and nose—and she breathed.

The symbolism of technology leaks into the verbal patterns of Hall’s poetry like the chemicals from an intravenous drip, seeming native as well as natural to the mode, just as their own state-of-the-art life-handling technology did to Lowell’s Life Studies and Berryman’s Dream Songs. As in Hall’s last collection, The Old Life, the mosaic of a whole period, with all its inner moods and its physical accessories, is masterfully accomplished: a time seen in the sad debris which seems to survive all the changes and chances, as the prayer book calls them (Hall and his wife were both believers), of our fleeting world.

I cleaned out your Saab
to sell it. The dozen tapes
I mailed to Caroline.
I collected hairpins and hair ties.
In the Hill’s Balsam tin
Where you kept silver for tolls
I found your collection
of clips from fortune cookies:

The clock given “our first Christmas together” keeps bad time.

…Now it speeds
sixty-five minutes to the hour, as if
it wants to be done with the day.

This poetry is too meticulously aware of itself not to know how much it must itself be comforted by the past and its losses, even luxuriate in them, as Hardy did in “After a Journey,” his magic poem for his dead wife, Emma. When Jane Kenyon is in remission and seems on the road to recovery

He felt shame
to understand he would miss
the months of sickness and taking care.

In such crises it has to be one’s own feelings that count. No poem here misses the irony of Jane’s cry: “I wish you could feel what I feel.”

It must have been unbearable
while she suffered her private hurts
to see his worried face
looking above her, always anxious to do something when there was
exactly nothing to do.

The truest misery of terminal conditions—cancer, Alzheimer’s—is the isolation they enforce on each once non-separate partner, and the concentration the still intact partner can only feel on his or her own feelings. Both in this case were poets, but one poet cannot console another with art, any more than believers can with belief. Both were practicing Christians, but in the poetry that fact emerges only in accounts of happenings, not in affirmations.

Technology, like God, is not mocked here; but today a poet can make wonderful use of it if he is good enough as a poet. Both Donald Hall in Without and Frederick Seidel in Going Fast employ the technical awareness of our time royally and as if unconsciously, so that each word they use has today’s date on it. One cumulative impression left by Hall, as it were in passing, is the terror that our society has come to feel at the notion of the incurable: the function of medicine now must be to make us live forever, and all its fantastic gadgetry seems devoted to that end. To the modern ear there is something blasphemous, as well as undignified, about the fact that medicine may not work, that its spin-doctors may not be able to come up with the answer. Without is very much aware of the fact that life will always remain precarious and dreadful, no matter what; and in Going Fast Seidel positively revels in the concept, making of it a vigorous and dynamic poetry of occasion.

The god in the nitroglycerin
Is speedily absorbed under the tongue
Till it turns a green man red,
Which is what a poem does.
It explosively reanimates
By oxygenating the tribe.

Poetry works immediately, as Seidel intimates, or it doesn’t work at all, however much its reader may need at a later stage to understand and savor its effects. Its function must be, as Mallarmé said, to give a purer meaning to our tribal language, and also a more concentrated one. Poems like Seidel’s “Heart Art” (“Swinging in the hammock of the Internet”), “Israel,” “Milan,” “Vermont,” “Candle Made from Fat” (featuring a Ducati 916 motorcycle) fulfill the injunction with speed and relish. And speed is the refrain of “Poem Does,” its repetitions sounding not unlike the Ducati’s engine.

They dress them up in the retirement centers.
They dress them up in racing leathers.
They dress them up in war paint and feathers.
The autumn trees are in their gory glory.
The logs in the roaring fire keep passing
The peace pipe in pain, just what a poem does.

Stanza No. 5. We want to be alive.
Line 26. We pray for peace.
Line 27. The warrior and peacemaker Rabin is in heaven.
28. We don’t accept his fate.
But we do. Life is going ahead as fast as it can,
Which is what a poem does.

Like Hall and Seidel, J.D. McClatchy also finds it natural to use his medical experiences in poems, or rather as poems. Will future literary historians speak of the period in which the Radiologist was Muse? The title “My Mammogram” seems to call for irony and self-amusement, but mercifully does not get it. Instead, and with that unforced simplicity and energy which can be the most admirable feature of today’s American poetic style, McClatchy describes an examination and diagnosis. No sign of cancer, good, but a mild enlargement of the left mammary gland. An estrogen problem, possibly with its source in the liver (all those bygone scotches on the rocks?). The implications fascinate the poet, and he meditates on them with an alert naturalness that reminds one of the way Montaigne or Donne meditated on metaphysics, or the Progress of the Soul.

The end of life as I’ve known it, that is to say—
Testosterone sported like a power tie.
The matching set of drives and dreads that may
Now soon be plumped to whatever new designs
My apparently resentful, androgenous
Inner life has on me. Blind seer?
The Bearded Lady in some provincial circus?
Something that others both desire and fear.

Still, doesn’t everyone long to be changed,
Transformed to, no matter, a higher or lower state,
To know the leathery D-Day hero’s strange
Detachment, the queen bee’s dreamy loll?
Yes, but the future of each of us blankly awaits
Was long ago written on the genetic wall.

Mammograms might seem an odd topic for a collection called Ten Commandments (appropriately enough they come in the section “Thou Shalt not Make to Thyself any Graven Image”) but that is part of the readable and ragbag charm with which McClatchy’s book is constructed. He is a poet who has learned a lot from Auden’s later poems, but he has successfully developed his own individual voice, modulating easily between allegory and the colloquial, dramatic monologue and wryly personal revelation.

Monologue of a less dramatic sort is also the method of Mark Strand’s poems, Blizzard of One. Like most poets today he feels he is one of a brotherhood (his poem “In Memory of Joseph Brodsky” is particularly affectionate and moving), and an interesting technical symptom of this brotherliness is use of the same conversational iambic line. Its danger lies in the dissolving together of individual poetic personality and also the loss—but this applies to most if not all contemporary poetry in English—of the old-fashioned quality of memorability, which still makes Russian audiences remember and quote by heart from their classic or even their contemporary poets. Nonetheless Mark Strand’s poems, like John Ashbery’s, can be read with great and almost dreamy pleasure, and phrases from “Some Last Words” are certainly memorable as well, echoing in the mind like its refrain.

It is easier for a needle to pass through a camel
Than for a poor man to enter a woman of means.
Just go to the graveyard and ask around.

Eventually, you slip outside, letting the door
Bang shut on your latest thought. What was it anyway?
Just go to the graveyard and ask around.

If you think good things are on their way
And the world will improve, don’t hold your breath.
Just go to the graveyard and ask around.

You over there, why do you ask if this is the valley
Of limitless blue, and if we are its prisoners?
Just go to the graveyard and ask around.

Life is a dream which is never recalled when the sleeper awakes.
If this is beyond you, Magnificent One,
Just go to the graveyard and ask around.

In one sense the tone is simple, metropolitan, almost commonplace—it seems appropriate that Strand, US Poet Laureate in 1990, has also written a monograph on the paintings of Edward Hopper. Like that of the artist, his is a commonplaceness which has been unobtrusively and personally stylized. In the second line of “Some Last Words” most poets would have written the expected “to marry a woman of means”: Strand’s choice of verb is exact, homely, and faintly disturbing, like the poem itself or indeed like Hopper’s pictorial art. Similarly, the familiar hectoring tone of “You over there,” in the penultimate stanza, seems like the voice of authority taking itself seriously, until it meets with the reader in a chuckle of irony over the apostrophized “Magnificent One.” We know from the Bible that a rich man may find it hard to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but it takes a poet as good as Strand to remind us, by means of an almost invisible metaphysical conceit, that “entering” a rich woman is also a tough proposition; just as “asking around” in a cemetery seems a more proper rural practice than merely looking around.

Edward Hirsch’s On Love is equally readable (and how often has that been an outstanding feature of verse in the Eighties and Nineties?) partly because he uses with such dexterity the well-tried device of dramatic monologue. Developed by Browning, admired by Henry James, toyed with by the young Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, monologue can make a poet an instant novelist, so long as he sustains the tension of a created personality, with its complex of revelation and self-deception. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” throws light equally on the lady and on her dubious lover and friend. With questionable wisdom, however, Hirsch forgoes the convention’s most valuable asset, making his spokespersons—Diderot, Heine, Meredith, Baudelaire, Margaret Fuller, many others—discourse “on love” from a metaphysical standpoint, rather than involuntarily reveal themselves and their human weakness. Some of his poets, such as Marina Tsvetaeva, do it anyway, not as if by mistake but out of compulsion. She is obsessed (as indeed the poet was in life) with having been through it all, carrying the insatiable goddess everywhere and into everything she did.

I have held a boiling teapot, a frying pan,
a broom, an iron, three babies, and a pen
that stutters with knowledge of the genuine:
I have been hollowed out by sexual longing,

and I’ve paid for my transcendental passion.
What poet actually isn’t a Negro, a woman,
or a Jew who has been slain by gentiles?
I know because I’ve lived among gentiles
as an outcast, a White, an émigré, a woman
despised for her deep and wayward passion.

Admitted: I have been devoured by life—
gathering firewood, feeding my small family.
I have a child who died in an orphanage
(how’s that for being “a woman of the age?”)
And I’ve tried to resurrect my family.
But I’ve never really cared for “life”—

unmediated, insignificant, all by itself.
Life has to have the plenitude of art…

It was a shrewd move of the poem to bring out Tsvetaeva’s disdain for “life,” as such, a disdain in sharp contrast not only with the Russian and Dostoevskian tradition of zhivaya zhizn (the living life) but with the notorious gospel of another of the speakers in this series—D.H. Lawrence.He gives us “A Short History of Love,” expressed in a parable of himself (who else?) and Frieda in an old castle library, making love among the books.

And when we lay naked among the books,
the bookshelves enclosed a sacred garden
for Adam and Eve safely restored to Eden,
ourselves immersed in a paradise of books.

Witty and intellectually satisfying as most of these poems are, the risk in Hirsch’s approach is that some of his love studies tend to run their course a little too obviously. Poetry should always surprise us, and the poets who speak here are too settled into the groove of their received selves to do that very often. Nonetheless the series as a whole is finely composed, as are the poems that precede it—among them “Blue Hydrangea,” “Ocean of Grass,” and the quietly subtle stanzas of “The Unnaming,” in which Emily Dickinson is inspired by Eve’s imagined deletion

…of the names
Adam had given the beasts, haunting Eden
By returning the animals to their first splendor

And treating the garden as a page for revisions.
She took heart from a snowfall blanketing the earth,
An oblivion outside matching the oblivion within.

She, too, moved through a garden of cancellations
(No more monarchies of Queen Anne’s lace, she chanted
To herself, no more dead elms branching into heaven)

And what was when she felt the dizzying freedom
Of a world cut loose from the affixed Word or words,
Appallingly blank, waiting to be renamed.

A general impression from all these, in their own ways, excellent collections: how quietly but firmly civilized much American poetry has lately been becoming. It is partly of course the influence of the campus, but, more than that, it may reflect a general nostalgia for civility and civilization as being in the end an inevitable source for poetic culture. Poetic learning in America today is worn easily, seldom irritatingly academic, but also not making apologies for any lack of vox pop elementariness. What would the founding fathers of modernism, and those who wanted with Carlos Williams a plain poetry for cats and dogs, think about these developments? How would Walt Whitman respond? With surprise? Dismay? No, I think he would have liked these poems.