Monday, July 27, 2009

On the Old-Fashioned Anxieties of Alfred Corn and J.D. McClatchy (PART ONE)

Is it possible to feel deep nostalgia for a poet who is still alive? Is it possible for a poet to become even more essential to the gay literary cannon at the same time he is gradually vanishing? Is it possible to feel a poet's work dating itself as it also seems to deal with topics not often talked about in gay circles like aging itself?

These are the sort of questions that I ask myself when I read the work of queer heavyweight poets like J.D. McClatchy or Alfred Corn. They seem interested in the same sort of content and form: description of love affairs, high-culture, literary allusions, strict prosody, a control freak's use of metaphor.

You could say they’re the same writer. Is that what Time ultimately does to a poet’s work? Does Time make us more or less interchangeable?

This isn't to say I don't like some of their poems. But still.

Time reveals that at a particular historical moment everyone pretty much does the same kind of thing. What once seemed like vast differences in subject matter and form shrinks, making it easier and easier for anthologists. For the most part, everyone (un)accidentally copies everyone else.

This is the tragic fact: once you are dead, the true heartbreak begins: within a few moments, you’re forced to accept that you’re already forgotten. But when alive, you can take comfort in that fact: when you fail as a poet, no one minds. There is already someone else doing it better. Or not that much worse.


Alfred Corn has charmingly dated himself on his blog:

“There is a high correspondence between prize-winning and favorable reviews in the Times and the New York Review of Books. If the reviewer is a person with great prestige, like Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, a review can form the basis for lifelong career prominence.”

Who is reviewed by Vendler or Bloom anymore? Does it really matter if The Times or New York Review of Books has something to say about your poems? May it even work to your disadvantage to have the popular, mainstream publications review your book? Critics like to find what others have missed. They then think they have a unique perception.

In the poetry world, there is no centralized power center anymore. It seems weird that Corn, an engaged man of letters, refuses to let go of a bad memory: a time when all who mattered was Vendler and Bloom, a moment when he himself, no matter how wrongly (as I believe) was automatically considered a second-tier critic.


You’ve got to admire Corn for starting a blog. He’s not at all self-conscious about boasting that he has chosen to “work” full-time as a writer. (It’s telling that Corn uses the word “manual” in the subtitle of his book on prosody. I can’t help but wonder if he feels the need to justify his middle-class poetic life through employing working class rhetoric.)

On another level, I love him for admitting that he has completely dedicated himself to the art of writing, teaching as few classes as possible and still managing to jettison around the world.

If the Universe was wholly kind, then vacationing would be a full-time job.


Here’s the truth: I own a lot of McClatchy's and Corn’s books. From time to time, I take them out and feel a genuine fondness for them.

When I read younger poets, I always notice their influence right away. Without the encouragement from McClatchy and Corn's poems, would Rick Barot have written his poems often rotely infused with high-culture/literary allusions? McClatchy has the best sense of humor when he allows it to come forth; I would claim those poems are the most pleasurable of the trio. I must say that, as of now, I like Barot’s actual sentences more. Sometimes Corn and McClatchy’s feel awkward especially when you feel their need to heighten the faux philisophical value of their weakest poems. On the microlevel Barot almost typically writes a sentence with more energized verbs and nouns.

Recently, I’ve been scouring the web to find Corn and McClatchy’s most current stuff. I found a McClatchy poem on Poetry Daily and later tried to find it again. For some reason, I was convinced Corn wrote it. I asked Corn where I could find his poem. Corn seems to be a nice man and tried to make sense of my inability to find his poem.

In fact, I was reading a lot of McClatchy and Corn, and completely associated a poem called "ER" to the wrong poet. A friend of mine and I recently played a game. She read me key passages from their work and I had to guess who wrote what. I got it wrong at least half the time

This is what bores me about a good portion of their work: Like Barot, Corn and McClatchy’s anxiety forces them to incorporate high-culture as a justification of an inquiry into daily life rather than as a vehicle to make more comprehensive inquiries. McClatchy falls victim to his poetic anxiety in his poem “Er.”

Next time I will analyze McClatchy’s poem “Er” in order to uncover his own writerly panic.

1 comment:

  1. Corn and McClatchy were partners once. Maybe you are just picking up onthe fact they like the same things.