American poets have, on the whole, a distrust of fantasy or fictions; they tend to give even invented stories a coat of circumstantial and gritty realism, full of aggressive details—identifiable, limiting, specified items. Jared Carter’s well-written new book Work, for the Night Is Coming specifies down to the fingers the look of men doing make-work in the Depression:
They had their shirts off,
Down on their knees—old scars
Flared in the sunlight, tattoos
Glistened on their arms. Men
With no teeth, with noses
Turned and bent, fingers missing.
Without a break, the poem veers from the shirtless, scarred, tattooed, toothless, gap-fingered men to the equally carefully specified bricks:
The bricks were tan-colored;
Each had a picture on the bottom:
A scene of ships, a name, a date.
The import subliminally conveyed by such fine brushwork is the metaphysical significance of the men (individuated) and the bricks (faithfully rendered, underside and all). Since the poem is about the unimportance, in worldly terms, of the men and the bricks (the anonymous men, out of work, being employed by the government to give each anonymous brick in the street a quarter-turn and replace it), the aesthetic choice of multiple detail implies that poetry exists to rescue the otherwise-forgotten humble and despised things around us. Carter’s is a poetry of a resolute middle distance, firmly of this world: between the dust under the earth and the dust of space there exists the place that the poem can illumine:
What light reveals
Here, in this room, is the grain of the bare oak floor
And the shadows of leaves moving with the grain.
Carter trains a steady gaze on this middle ground of nature and architecture. But he is pulled away from it in two opposite directions—one more “realistic,” the other more “symbolic.” He tries, in some poems, to speak as a historical character, endowing his own present-day voice with “realistic” historical weight by speaking, say, as John Dillinger; in yet other poems, the apparently realistic surface proclaims itself, by open declaration, as in fact the façade of a symbol. The forced quality of Carter’s conscientious “historical” realism is visible in Dillinger’s speech:
I stick in your craw, O Hoosier Commonwealth,
Because I made it look easy.
I cleaned out your tinhorn banks and arsenals,
I bamboozled your redneck sheriffs and jailers—
Precisely why the yawning and bamboozling and sticking in the Hoosier craw seem so unconvincing in the mouth of this “desperado” (as Carter’s headnote calls Dillinger) is a little hard to say. We feel perhaps that Dillinger would not say “O Hoosier Commonwealth” like some latter-day Whitman; the poem consequently becomes an utterance without a credible speaker—like most, if not all, poems written recently in a “historic” voice.
The technique is now a favorite one among poets looking for a topic: you find an old military diary, or the journals of a pioneer, and you write about the Great Fire of ’08, or the deaths in the Pass, or crossing the Divide, or some taxing endeavor. History—“true” history—seems truer to these poets than the imagination (whatever one may mean by that) or than the imprecise and unfinished chaos of their own lives. And history seems to offer a way to choose sides, to come down on the side of proven virtue, the side of daring or stoic fortitude:
It took three days for me to bleed to death.
People crowded around the shack
Where they had me, but I never talked.
If a man knows anything
He ought to die with it in him.
Thus the hard-bitten words of Sam Bass (“train robber and outlaw,” says Carter’s headnote, but Bass is a hero in the poem nonetheless). Since Carter does not comment authorially on these “Tintypes” of his, we take his silence for moral consent. (I should add that the present rage to imitate historical voices does not always mean approving of them: Hitler and his subordinates have also entered the gallery of reproduced voices in contemporary American poetry.)
There is a pathos of self-mistrust in the belief that history, unlike autobiography, is “objective,” and that the lyric poet should subordinate himself to this “objectivity.” An alternative doctrine of “objectivity” recommends subjecting oneself to the impersonal presence of nature—but however useful these disciplines may be, the poet has no recourse other than to hope that both history and nature will become doubles of himself, while remaining themselves (as they did, for instance, for Lowell). “Objectivity” is a trap for the lyric; all lyrics are fatally subjective, even when most objective in appearance—especially when most objective in appearance.
It is entirely understandable that a poet should wish to escape the predictability of the single voice, the confines of the personal life. Carter’s “symbolic” poems turn away from personal narrative, and make circumspect and lightly touched points about transiency or happiness:
Then all turned dim—
Grass holding to the seams, redbud scattered
Across the cliff, dark pool of water
Rimmed with broken stones, where rain, now
Falling steadily, left no lasting pat- tern.
This passage (from Carter’s title poem) is Japanese in its economy of parts and in its leading of the eye, via the redbud, from cliff to pool to stones. In this clarity of beauty and dissolution, Carter knows how to leave well enough alone.
Sometimes, though, Carter draws his allegorical morals too explicitly, as he does at the end of a gifted reminiscent poem about laborers, called “At the Sign-Painter’s.” Carter’s belief in the power of detail to render a scene justifies itself fully here: he sees (he is a child at the time),
tables caked and smeared
And stacked with hundreds of bot- tles and jars leaking color
And fragrance, coffee cans jammed with dried brushes, skylight
Peppered with dead flies….
The scene converges on the sign painters themselves:
…those solemn old men with skin
Bleached and faded as their hair, white muslin caps
Speckled with paint, knuckles and fingers faintly dotted—
This is finely done, as the old men bleach out almost into colorlessness, their skin and hair and muslin caps pale against their leaking colors. But the poem goes on to make its drift explicit; the sign painters become like poets, and the poem ends in praise of their signs as “words / Forming out of all that darkness, that huge disorder.” Such an ending implies a distrust of the realist premise summoning up the muslin caps. The disjunction between words and things becomes complete in the last line of the poem, where the world is “disorder” and signs are the presumed light in the “darkness.”
The earlier premise of the transparency of writing—that through those words “muslin caps” we see the things themselves—is dishonored as the poem becomes self-reflexive and self-conscious, as though “realism” could not take it as far as it wanted to go. The poem would have been better had it stayed within its descriptive faith, leaving the symbolic weight of sign painting to declare itself implicitly. As it is, the faith in description, in art as a mirror, suddenly turns into a faith in art as a hieroglyph needing an explicit gloss. One cannot, with any aesthetic consistency of treatment, have it both ways.
Both Philip Levine and Adrienne Rich, too, distrust fantasy and invention, or perhaps I should say the look of fantasy and invention. (Since I am not in any position to know how much either is telling autobiographical truth; my point is that everything, even if invented, has, they feel, to be made to look “real”.) Lyric of course must start as the self’s concentration of itself into words; but (as Keats said about Shakespeare’s sonnets) a poem can be full of fine things said unintentionally in the intensity of working out conceits. What Keats meant is that the process of composition, by its own interest, intensity, and demand, often draws the poet away from the original autobiographical or narcissistic impulse, even away from the original matter that concerned the poet. The most famous modern comment on this process was made by Yeats: he wanted, in 1917, to write a poem on the Russian revolution, and took as his symbol the birth of a new era from the conjunction of Zeus and Leda. But as he wrote, “bird and lady” took over the poem, and the Russian revolution faded from his mind.
Nothing so wayward seems to happen to Rich and Levine. They are stern, even grim, ringmasters to their poems, and the hoops, once aligned at the beginning, remain in place in the poem for all subsequent jumps. One longs, reading Rich’s A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, for the poem to take an unexpected byway, to reverse itself, to mock itself, to question its own premises, to allow itself, in short, some aesthetic independence. In Rich, the moral will is given a dominating role that squeezes the lifeblood out of the imagination. Rich deserves the rebuke of Schiller to Rousseau:
No doubt his serious character prevents him from falling into frivolity; but this seriousness does not allow him to rise to poetic play. Sometimes absorbed by passion, at others by abstractions, he seldom if ever reaches aesthetic freedom.
The moral will is deplorably given to stereotypes. So Rich’s mother-in-law appears as the stereotype of the discontented idle older woman who lives “on placebos / or Valium,” and who appears incapable of understanding her son’s strange and restless wife, whom she addresses in placating clichés:
A cut lemon scours the smell of fish away
You’ll feel better when the children are in school
One might see these sentences as symbolic gestures of understanding, mutely, if awkwardly, helpful; but they do not satisfy Rich, who has an unholy desire to say the baldly exposed things she finds truer than deflected symbolic interchange:
Your son is dead
ten years. I am a lesbian,
my children are themselves.
Mother-in-law, before we part
shall we try again? Strange as I am,
strange as you are?
Though this seems even-handed (in the admission that they both are strange) the only true even-handedness, the only true imaginative play, would be for Rich to stop setting her own terms for family intercourse. She writes the script for what she wishes her mother-in-law would say to her (instead of the present vague “Tell me something”):
Tell me something
Not: What are you working on now, is there anyone special,
how is the job
do you mind coming back to an empty house
what do you do on Sundays
But these casual, and even prying, questions (“Is there anyone special?”) are not the common coin of our mothers’ more formal era; why should older women have to come into our own far too intrusive “confessional” mode? “Do you mind coming back to an empty house?” and “What are you working on now?” could surely both be construed as cruel questions, at least by someone feeling unloved or unable to work. A poet who could conceive a topic other than autobiographically might have written the poem imagining herself as mother-in-law one day, when some daughter-in-law would find no easy way to address her inaccessible poet-mother-in-law, and vice versa.
I take up this instance only to raise the question of Rich’s inflexibility of stance. Elsewhere in these new poems we meet, as before, the innocent victimized woman, the brutal sadistic cop: “he pushes her into the car / banging her head…he twists the flesh of her thigh / with his nails / …he sprays her / in her eyes with Mace / …she is charged / with trespass assault and battery.” And, as if to affix a stamp of authenticity, “This is Boston 1979,” says the poem—as if the only attestation to the genuineness of art is a newspaper dateline.
This sort of propaganda poetry generates a counterproductive aesthetic result: the reader, comically enough, becomes an instant partisan of policemen and mother-in-law. It is for the sake of Rich’s own good intentions—to show the gulf between women of different generations, to protest the helplessness of the wrongly arrested citizen—that I wish she would consider more closely her aesthetic means. Stereotypes (the uncomprehending mother-in-law, the vicious cop) not’ only exist, but exist in sufficient numbers to have given rise to the stereotype; but they have no more place in art in their crude state than the grasping Jew or the drunken Irishman. Shylock, in Shakespeare’s imagination, grows in interest and stature so greatly that he incriminates the anti-Semitism of Belmont: the dialectic of mutual violence (criminals to police, police to criminals—a system in which the brutalized police brutalize the innocent along with the guilty) is less present in Rich than it would be in a writer of more comprehensive imagination. In the sentimental black-and-white terms of these poems, men are exploiters, women helpless pawns who never chose their role:
…when did we ever choose to see our bodies strung
in bondage and crucifixion across the exhausted air when did we choose to be lynched on the queasy elec- tric signs
of midtown when did we choose
to become the masturbator’s fix
This, from the title poem, begs many questions of biology, history, economics, and social change. But even if we assume that evolutionary roles (and women’s complicity in them) could be changed overnight, this passage assumes that in the present women no longer (by seeing themselves as bargainers with sex) have any complicity in how men see them; and it equally assumes that men are always the victimizers, never the victimized. Later in the poem Rich has a chance to reflect on Christ as victim, male though he was; but she chooses to think only of his mother in her iconic form as Pietà. There follows an unrelenting indictment of form in art as a mystification of violence. If, Rich argues, a Pietà (or a Passion) has been rendered beautiful, art has performed a disservice; a disguise has been imposed, by a pattern “powerful and pure,” on the reality of blood and sacrifice:
I can never romanticize language again never deny its power for dis- guise for mystification but the same could be said for music
or any form created painted ceilings beaten gold worm-worn Pietàs reorganizing victimization fres- coes translating
violence into patterns so powerful and pure we continually fail to ask are they true for us.
There is, as anyone can see, something wrong with this argument. In her first book, Rich had, rather wrong-headedly, praised Bach for his austerity, asserting that “a too-compassionate art is half an art.” Now the argument claims that a too-beautiful art is half an art. This position would admit as proper art only the tortured and twisted crucifixions of the more gruesome Spanish masters, not the hieratic crucifixions of, say, the Byzantine tradition. The adamantly realist aesthetic of the on-the-spot news photo (“This is Boston 1979”; “This is Judea 33 AD”) leaves out a great deal (chiefly the mediation of reflective thought) in its fascination with transcription tout court.
The dangers of unmediated transcription are accompanied, in this volume, by the dangers of self-dramatization. To call a poem “Integrity,” to begin it with the theatrical sentence “A wild patience has taken me this far,” to add that the “anger and tenderness” breathing in oneself are “angels, not polarities”—this is to make oneself one’s own heroine. There are dangers in the melodramatic enshrining of one’s own capacities, of “these two hands”:
…they have caught the baby leap- ing
from between trembling legs
and they have worked the vacuum aspirator
and stroked the sweated temples
In a moment of distraction, Rich misreads a title, THE HISTORY OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE, as THE HISTORY OF HUMAN SUFFERING, and ratifies her mistake:
OF HUMAN SUFFERING: borne,
tended, soothed, cauterized,
stanched, cleansed, absorbed, en- dured
The last line is incomplete: it should read “by women and men”—otherwise it is a lie. Whitman tending the Civil War dead; Keats tending his dying brother; Arthur Severn tending the dying Keats; these and all their innumerable male counterparts rise to refute the sort of history Rich here retells. Truth has its claims. And though Rich adapts Whitman’s line, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there,” to her own “I say I am there,” her great predecessor said it of the sufferings of men and women alike, of runaway slaves, of the old and of children, of the ill and the deformed. It is hard to believe in an empathy reserved for one segment of humanity alone.
Rich’s form in this volume is essentially the form of realist oratory. She presses points, she pursues an argument, she cites instances, and she pitches her voice above the conversational or narrative level—not always, but more often than not. Conscience, as she says, hurls questions at her; she hurls, in her turn, accusations at society. Her fierce Utopian desires are at their best when most unsettled, as in a poem which looks back to the days when she thought of the constellation Orion as a king or brother. In “Orion” (1969) she had written:
Far back when I went zig-zagging
through tamarack pastures
you were my genius, you
my cast-iron Viking, my helmed
lion-heart king in prison.
Years later now you’re young
my fierce half-brother, staring
down from that simplified west.
Twelve years have passed, and Rich’s perceptions have become more rash and violent:
Orion plunges like a drunken hunter
over the Mohawk Trail a paral- lelogram
slashed with two cuts of steel
All the figures up there look violent to me
as a pogrom on Christmas Eve in some old country
Then, in a turn unusual for Rich, the poem settles for the knowable earth, both in its present and in our attempts to know it and ourselves:
I want our own earth not the satellites, our
world as it is if not as it might be
then as it is: male dominion, gangrape, lynching, pogrom
The world as it is: not as her users boast
damaged beyond reclamation by their using
Ourselves as we are in these pain- ful motions
of staying cognizant: some part of us always
out beyond ourselves
knowing knowing knowing
The painful motions of staying cognizant are, as they always have been, alive in Rich. Her impatience, her railing, her scorn, her brusqueness, her didacticism, have been in her poetry from the beginning. One of her earliest poems envied the fanatic who believes himself touched by God into truth and prophecy. She did not reprint, in her 1975 Poems: Selected and New, the 1951 sonnet “A Revivalist in Boston,” but it has in it the germ of her own vocation, as she says of the obsessed preacher:
Something loosed his tongue and drove him shouting
Compulsion’s not play-acted in a face,
And he was telling us the way to grace.
The compulsion is real; but not everyone wants to be told a single mandatory way to grace. Inner lights differ, after all.
The line-form Rich uses in most of the new poems derives more from the older English alliterative line with a heavy pause in the middle than from the old seamless Norman pentameter. Rich’s lines usually stop somewhere in the middle, halt, add a thought, pause at the end of the line, and take up the skein of thought anew as the line turns around. This halting progress suggests, interestingly enough, an intellectual process rather different from the one which produces Rich’s intransigent diction and social cartoons; it may win out in the long run over more programmatic agitations. There are many more poems here than I can mention; all of them (and I do not except the poems putatively about “other people”) strenuously pursue what it is to be Adrienne Rich in middle age—her investigations, her commitments, her memories, her outrage. I wish these poems were not so exclusively bound to that single realist vision.
Philip Levine is, though it may seem odd to say so, in the same camp with Rich, believing that realism is the only credible base for verse (even his allegories are painstakingly tailored to a realist origin, a realist frame, and a realist linear progression). Often Levine seems to me simply a memoir-writer in prose who chops up his reminiscent paragraphs into short lines. Here he is on the subject of his first suit, a brown double-breasted pin-stripe with wide lapels:
Three times I wore it formally: first with red suspenders to a high school dance where no one danced except the chaperones, in a style that minimized the fear of gonorrhea…. Then to a party to which almost no one came and those who did counted the minutes until the birthday cake with its armored frosting was cut and we could flee. And finally to the draft board where I stuffed it in a basket with my shoes, shirt, socks, and underclothes and was herded naked with the others past doctors half asleep and determined to find nothing.
An American Fifties’ autobiography—is there any compelling reason why it should be called poetry? Certainly it is not notably improved by being cut into the short lines in which it appears in this volume of poetry:
And finally to the draft board where
I stuffed it in a basket with my shoes,
shirt, socks, and underclothes and was
herded naked, etc.
Levine’s line breaks (unlike Williams’s or Ammons’s) are not particularly witty or arresting. Levine’s notion of a poem is an anecdote with a flush of reflexive emotion gushing up at the end, like “that flush / of warmth that came with knowing / no one could be more ridiculous than I,” with which Levine ends the tale of the brown suit. Levine does attempt poems of mythical or symbolic status, but he is not happy without his clenched toe-holds of circumstantial evidence. He is entirely aware of the division in himself between “items” on the one hand, and yearnings on the other; and he mocks his own notion (a still ineradicable one in him) that “poems”—real “poems”—are about love or the rose or the dew, and are sonnets “in fourteen rhyming lines.”
He writes a somewhat petulant account of this affliction in a poem of thirteen adamantly unrhyming lines called “Genius.” In it, he first enumerates a characteristic list of his sordidly and surrealistically realistic “items” (“An unpaid water bill, the rear license / of a dog that messed on your lawn,” etc.) and then says that with these images “a bright beginner could make a poem / in fourteen rhyming lines about the purity / of first love or the rose’s many thorns.” This opposition of the squalid and the rhapsodic seems to me, even in jest, a deficient aesthetic. It owes something to Stevens’s notion of making poems while sitting on a dump, using language to deny the refuse that you see; but Stevens did not linger long in that crude view.
When Levine shades off into the various forms of his sentimental endings (togetherness, doom, death, the sad brown backs of peonies, what have you) it is easy to lose faith in his good sense. The writer who thinks up these disastrous endings has never, it seems, met the writer who writes the beginnings—or indeed who writes whole poems. We are either on the loading docks at the Mavis Nu-Icy Bottling Company (or at the airport where the porter is mopping up)—or we are at these stagy dénouements.
The airport poem, which has a convincing atmosphere at the beginning, ends with a passenger, now returning home, dreaming
of tears which must always fall
because water and salt were given us
at birth to make what we could of them,
and being what we are we chose love
and having found it we lost it over and over.
This is only a step away from Lois Wyse or Rod McKuen. It combines the false lachrymose, and the false vatic, and the false unctuous all at once, trading on vague echoes of religion (“were given us at birth”) and philosophy (“being what we are”). I prefer any day, even when he is disavowing it, the Levine of a vivid America—
…the oily floors
of filling stations where our cars
surrendered their lives and we called
it quits and went on foot to phone
an indifferent brother for help.
I am not convinced that Levine’s observations and reminiscences belong in lyric, poems, since he seems so inept in what he thinks of as the obligatory hearts-and-flowers endings of “poems.” Perhaps if he didn’t think he was writing “poems” he could leave off his romantic organ tones and be truer to his stubborn earthiness. “All of me,” he says with some truth, “[is] huddled in the one letter [“n”] that says / ‘nothing’ or ‘nuts’ or ‘no one’ / or ‘nobody gives a shit.’ But says it with style.”
Levine’s moody shrugs of disavowal mask a dismay at being an intellectual; he seems to find it a disloyalty to his origins. His definition of style, in the poem I have been quoting, betrays the problem of his unintegrated nature (poet and truculent boy) better than I could do:
…But says it
with style the way a studious boy learns
to talk while he smokes a cigarette or pick
his nose just when the cantor soars before
him into a heaven of meaningless words.
This—another failed ending—takes the easy way out by calling style picking your nose (in an affectation of indifference) while at the same time finding real style in the cantor’s ascent (meaningless though it may be) into the heaven of words. The chip on Levine’s shoulder has become the beam in the eye of his poetry. He believes, as a poet, only in what he can see and touch. That much is believably rendered; the rest—all those portions of the human world that we label philosophical, or phantas-magorical, or playful, or hypothetical, or contrafactual, or lawlessly paradoxical—escape him. They seem to escape Carter and Rich too, if we look at them whole. Probably they escape our solemnly sociological culture, for the most part; and a culture gets the poets whom it nurtures. The poets of a different persuasion—Merrill, Ammons, Nemerov, Ashbery, to name only four—are in the minority, and seem likely to remain so.
December 17, 1981