Sunday, June 6, 2010

On Charles Simic's Review of Koethe, Armantrout, and Hoagland in the June 24, 2010 issue of "The New York Review of Books"

Note: While I am somewhat familiar with all three of these authors, I have not read these particular books. I am simply engaged in writing a review of the review.


There's something undeniably entertaining in the June 10, 2010 issue of "The New York Review of Books." Poet Charles Simic writes a review of three poets: John Koethe, Rae Armantrout, and Tony Hoagland. Even though he rarely explicitly compares them, Simic's ars poetica become all too clear and symptomatic of what may be wrong with a lot of the older poets who are trying to remain hip and current. Simic doesn't possess the unabashed panic of a poet like Franz Wright, who argues for a particular aesthetic in order to fortify his presence in a canon that was ruined a long time ago. But that doesn't make Simic's opinions any less troublesome, and perhaps even more so, because they seem, I'm sure to some, so reasonable.

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Perhaps a part of that reasonableness comes from Simic's strategic choice to first talk about Koethe. It gives him an opportunity on one hand to pay tribute to the long tradition of the Romantic lyric, and to offer a critique that tries to make him look less stodgy for "admitting"--a verb that Simic repeatedly uses in sometimes mildly deceitful ways-- such a valorization. Understandably fearful of his views being seen as antiquated, Simic quickly says that there's no doubt Koethe "sounds like an older poet." But then Simic tells us that the advancement in Koethe's work is that he relies on the autobiographical for his intellectual inquiry into old age (!) It's good to know that the incorporation of a middle-aged white man writing about the drudgery of old age is a novel idea. John Updike, where are you?

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Simic praises a poem of Koethe's that's so self-aggrandizingly sincere I thought the lines from the poem and the commentary was parody, ridiculing the self-involvement of middle-class, older men.

Here's part of Koethe's poem that Simic describes as containing "disarming directness"-- a positive quality for Simic. It's from a poem called "Chester":

Another day, which is usually,
how they come:
A cat at the foot of the bed,
noncommittal
In its blankness of mind, with the
morning light
slowly filling the room, and
fragmentary
Memories of last night's video
and phone calls.
It is a feeling of sufficiency, one
menaced
By the fear of some vague lack, of
a simplicity
Of self, a self without a soul, the
nagging fear
Of being someone to whom
nothing ever happens.

Simic praises the poem: "It trusts the language we use daily to convey the complex state of mind of someone getting up in the morning, vaguely troubled by the events of the night before and by the feeling that something is missing in his life." You have to wonder whether or not Simic finds pleasure in the poem because of its language-why isn't commonplace language just common?- or because the "aboutness" of the poem is easy to gloss. Simic essentially sums up his mild praise of Koethe as saying that there needs to be a few more inventive similes, a tad more figurative language, sharp images to add a "bit more range" to complement his "fine mind." This is an odd suggestion. It seems undeniable that Simic affirms Koethe's ars poetica, but inserts just enough (for some) criticism in the review to make himself seem fair. The self-monitored affirmation he offers here is much more unabashed in his critical comments of Hoagland, a hipper, younger, and more popular man.

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Out of the three poets up for discussion he most admires Hoagland, but is sure never to mention that Hoagland may be operating from the same aesthetic-political camp as Koethe. It's no surprise that Hoagland is saved for last. As Simic says about Hoagland's poems, "It's all there." The question then is two-fold. If Hoagland is in some ways the antidote for Koethe and Armantrout's failings, then what is the "It" and the "There." The "it" seems to be definitely thematic in regards to Hoagland: "He is a poet aware of the hard lives most Americans lead to a degree rarely encountered in contemporary poetry. This is his subject. And so is his sense that something has gone deeply wrong." I found this somewhat odd, especially since it could be said that Armantrout's "aboutness" is essentially the same thing. Simic's main argument against Armantrout is not completely one of content (although her abstractions to Simic sure are troublesome), but definitely of form. Simic writes:

"Even her most admiring critic, Stephen Burt, admits in an essay on her work that her poetry is almost never unambiguous. 'The sounds and tones of its stanzas are memorably crafted,' he writes, 'but it's large-scale arrangement can seem opaque: it can be hard to know why four segments, say, of a thirty-two lines poem requires the order they have and not one another.'"

What is disconcerting about that pulled quotation is that Simic never engages Burt's take on the material, that she is engaging as palpable socio-political themes as Tony Hoagland. The possibility of that intertextuality is underminded by Simic's questioning of Armantrout's method: "As maddening as that can be for the reader, the parts of them are often interesting in themselves, so one is usually willing to put off for awhile the question of how they link up." It seems that Simic's unwillingness to accept the openness of possible readings of a poem is what's frustrating. The abstractions employed by Koethe are suitable, even if a bit bland, and never get in a way of one being able to making a definite thematic comment.

I always ask my students when they are assigned to read a poem to note the particular places where they are confused or bored or frustrated. A lot of teachers hate when students talk about those things, because it seems to be anti-intellectual. I would claim it's just the opposite. I love when students are being aggressively whiny ("I can't understand this poem and that's not fair"). They are usually the most fun to engage in class. There's tension, and I thrive on it as a teacher. It's revealing what Simic does after he quotes the Armantrout poem "Heaven." Here's the wonderful poem.

Heaven

1.

It's a book
full of ghost children,

safely dead,

where dead means
hidden,

or wanting
or not wanting

to be known.

2.

Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.

It's beautiful
when one thing changes

while another thing
remains the same.

This is what Simic says, "If a single point of view and tone is suspect, how is one to sustain an emotion in the poem? I mean, how does one write a love poem or an elegy if one regards any sort of continuity as untrue to the fragmentary way in which we experience language and consciousness? As far as I'm concerned, it's the individual part of her poems that are memorable and rarely the whole poem."

But yet when talking about Hoagland he seems to contradict himself or at least show some visible gaps in his argument. He praises Hoagland for the exact thing he sees in Armantrout. Isn't channel surfing as unstable as any of Armantrout's rhetorical strategies. Pay attention to the following for Simic's sanctimonious position:

"Reading Hoagland's poems is like surfing channels on TV. On one channel they are showing a 1950s sitcom, on another, soldiers are running past burning and overturned cars; on still another, diamonds are being sold at a fabulous discount; there's a baseball game; a preacher is telling his congregation to consult Jesus on how to invest their money; and so one for hundreds of more channels. All this is beyond comprehension. No wonder there are more poems still being written about pine trees and trout fishing than about teenagers with blue hair, tattoos, and tongue studs."

And then he praises a Hoagland poem that deals with "this ignored reality." Here's some of the lines from "Food Court" that Simic uses to make this argument:

"If you want to talk about America, why not just mention Jimmy's Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?-the cloud of steam rising from the bean sprouts and shredded cabbage/when the oil is sprayed on from a giant plastic bottle wielded by Ramon, Jimmy's main employee, who hates having to wear the sanitary hair net and who thinks the food tastes funny?''

The poem goes on and makes a few digressions that make you think Hoagland is going to deal with the intersection of race and class in his poem:

...where two boys from the suburbs
dropped off by their moms

with their ghetto pants and skateboards
are getting ready to pronounce
their first sentences in African-
American?

Or class:

And the secretaries from the law firm
drifting in from work at noon
to fill the tables of the food court,
in their cotton skirts and oddly sexy running shoes?

According to Simic, Hoagland is writing about the mysteries of the world around us, "what we have avoided looking at closely"! Not only does Simic make that claim, but he also says that one of the purposes of this poem is "to liberate us from poetic convention." What liberation? We have the goofy, long, discursive lines; the flat, colloquial language, the predictable litany, etc.

Simic tells us that Hoagland has "too much sympathy to mock any of these people." But does he have the conviction to investigate far reaching questions? Here's the end of the poem:

Oh yes, everything
All chopped up and stirred together
in the big steel pan held over a medium-high blue flame

while Jimmy watches with his practical black eyes.


How are we supposed to interpret the word "practical"? Does it mean that the Chinese? white? owner of this hole-in-the-wall (or just plain mediocre) "American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium" has no choice but to sit with necessary resignation at his own fated future? Or is it a celebration that he's managing to support himself in a world "populated" by little groves "of palm trees maintained by the small corporation?" How does one make sense of that bizarre final metaphor? Is it saying that all of us of a different races, genders, classes are assigned to a "melting pot" and no matter how much we may try to carve out our own idiosyncratic self, we're doomed?

What is "practical" about Jimmy, the owner of this restaurant? That he has a quasi successful small business enterprise? Or that he has refrained from questioning his own role in the world? Or that he's a passive voyeur to the inevitable assimilation of various cultures, after all it's a "American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?"

The strange thing about Hoagland's poem is that it creates less coherence than any of Armatrout's work he reviews. In fact, Hoagland predictably excuses himself from politicizing his poem with phony closure and the absence of that coherent "I" Simic so desperately craves.

It is no small surprise that what might also scare Simic off from Armantrout is, for him, her refusal to deal with the domestic. (Stephen Burt names Armantrout poems that deals with the domestic in his essay from "Close Calls with Nonsense" --maybe Simic would feel more comfortable if he re-read Burt's take on her.) The final poem Simic chooses to celebrate is a Hoagland poem about a father and son. The domestic should be written about, but I would argue that the poem is mean. Here's two sections of the poem called "My Father's Vocabulary":

In the history of American speech,
he was born between "Dirty Commies" and "Nice Tits"

He worked for Uncle Sam,
and married a dizzy gal from Pittsburgh with a mouth on her.
I was conceived in the decade between "Far Out" and "Whatever";

at the precise moment when "going all the way"
turned into "getting it on."

I don't understand why Hoagland doesn't put "dizzy" and "mouth on her" in quotations as well. Who sees their life like this? Are we supposed to be swept up be the cleverness of the language? Is Simic covertly telling us that Hoagland is more of a language poet than a language poet except that he can embed all that stuff in a conventional narrative/lyric as well?

Of course, pathos is used for closure to the poem which comes full circle. As Hoagland writes that the last time the narrator's father was alive: "For that occasion I had carefully prepared a suitcase of small talk." (Is this the sort of eerily forced language he wants so badly in Koethe's poem, the kind that would expand his "range?) Hoagland's poem continues:

-But he was already packed and going backwards,
with the nice tits and dirty commies,

to the small town of his vocabulary, somewhere outside of Pittsburgh.

The irony is simple. Hoagland's poem may seem to be more coherent: he's not interested in line breaks that open the meanings of the poems, they may not be divided into fragments, but the peculiarity of the language, his pathos-filled closures don't embrace any definite thematic either. Are we supposed to see that the poem's speaker by the end of the poem views his father's idiom as less distancing (no quotations or capitalization appear around the words tits and commies)? That his father's imminent death has transcended any alienation created by generational language difference which reflect ideological shifts? Or are we supposed to see the presumably working class life of his father as something he now can charmingly categorize as "quaint"?

The irony is that Armantrout's intellectual, framgmented inquiries provide a more definite thematic reading than Hoagland's superficial slick surface.

You can't help conflate Jimmy's "practical" eyes with that of Simic the critic here. All these various aesthetics, some more "exotic" than others are boiling in that saucepan. Simic serves the meal to himself, removing anything from his dish that looks odd, and then boasting to himself how he ate everything on his place with the utmost adventurousness.

15 comments:

  1. Steve,
    I love this post. I find it interesting that in the call for more "political" poems, there's really a call for the litany of the possibilities for political engagement and then a running from them. To destabilize the I seems like an actual political act, although I think there too one can seem disengaged. I wonder if there's a way for real emotional engagement without the very knee-jerk "I am so observant" posturing of psuedo-political poems. The stable I so effectively makes the reader cry. In the end, I wonder if we're just re-fighting the intellect versus the emotion debate. Of course, you have your own solution.

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  2. Ruined canon, eh? Am I feeling panicky? Not in the least. As Louise Gluck says, all you little fellows will sink like stones and nobody will have to listen to your helpless squeaks anymore, after a very short time. The real work will remain. I've figured out one reason why you people who keep mouthing that "the canon is dead" cliche that got started in the English Departments a couple decades ago. I didn't ask to be born the son of James Wright, but I was (and paid for it, too, pals--and keep paying for it) but if for no other reason than that I have published over twenty books and am, along with him, the only father/son winners of a certain prize, there's no question that my name will be around long after y ours have been swallowed up forever. Ouch. Don't blame me, I just gave up my life for poetry. What the fuck did you give up for poetry, Put your work where your loud whiny little mouths are. Every time I look up the work of one of you guys, if I can find it, I realize where the hatred is coming from. You know you're bad writers. And I have experienced envy, and know what it can do to the mind. FW

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  3. Not tonight dear, I have a headache . . .

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  4. Franz,

    I'd be more than happy to send you my book. I'll even sign it. Send me your address at sfellner@brockport.edu

    I'm flattered that you read my blog.

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  5. There are a lot of people who have given their lives up (or over to) poetry. Some of them are in hospitals, some of them are dead too early, and some of them win prizes. But none of them, none of us, knows who will be "part of the canon" in fifty years. Or who will give a rat's skinny ass in five or ten. Or which names will be "swallowed up forever." Well, thinking in terms of centuries--all of them. Nearly. Look at a list of Pulitzer Prize winners from 30 years ago, or Yale Younger Poets, or National Book Award Winners, and see how many writers are known and respected now. Then think about all the poets writing in the Beat era, or the San Francisco Renaissance, or any other mini-movement you care to consider. One or two stars, a lot of meterorites flashed and gone. And no one, when in that time, knew who the lasting lights would be. Literary reputations rise and fall and rise again, and plenty of wonderful writers languish in obscurity or hide away. Plenty of others wave the banner of their pride, and offer grad workshops to night students who've never read their books, or show up to a reading with six people attending, and three are related to the organizer of the evening. The thing is, there is a lot of amazing writing out there, a lot of great poets doing great work. 99.9 percent will be forgotten. Prize winning or not.

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  6. I enjoy your work, FW. Very much.

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  7. I can understand what Hoagland's poems are about, but I can't understand what Armantrout's poems are about—

    sorry ...

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  8. you call that Armantrout poem "wonderful"——

    what makes it wonderful?

    I've read it several times, and simply can't understand what it's about on a literal level, or what it's supposed to mean— it makes me feel stupid, which I must be——

    at least with Hoagland I can sort of grasp what's he writing about, though maybe I'm deluding myself

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  9. it reminds me of Hill both in subject matter and in its air of nobility and noli me tangere

    Hill/Armantrout intimidate me, I always feel inferior to their highminded manner

    their presence finds me lacking

    and what's disturbing is I know they don't care

    their verse will never condescend to my poor level, nor deign to beckon me upward toward its exaltitude

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  10. there are poets I feel welcomed by, Szymborska for example,

    whose verse greets me at the door takes my hand and invites me in—

    but at the Hill/Armantrout manse I knock knock no answer finally it cracks with the chain on and peers suspiciously at my shoes—

    poets like Szymborska and Hoagland seem to actually want me to read their poems, they open their arms to approach,

    but Hill and Armantrout are above such catering to the rabble—

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  11. Feel free to engage in energetic debate on ideas others have written in the comments section, but posts that devolve into simply personal attacks on other commenters will be deleted.

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  12. I used to think it a symptom of youth to wholeheartedly believe that, simply because one's been awarded and/or lauded, that also means one's art/work is, inherently, valuable and will continue to have value through time.

    Now I realize this: it is a human disease; it strikes the young; it kills the old.

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    I think that Armantrout poem is, also, wonderful. She is queer in the most wonderful ways, if only because she continues to trouble (the water). Hoagland is so, so straight. I don't mean that necessarily how it sounds. He writes in an important "American" idiom/voice, but is a voice that, frankly, aggravates me, if not oppresses me.

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    No words for Koethe or Simic.

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  13. Do poems have to be difficult to be good? No. I'm thinking of Auden's "Musee de Beaux Arts," which is as clear as anything in Hoagland but more urgent and elegant and memorable.

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  14. Though I've always been fond of Hoagland's poem about D.H. Lawrence (I forget the name) and another poem called "Dickhead," which is about the empowering use of that epithet. Both are from "Donkey Gospel."

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  15. I enjoyed your review of Simic's review.

    The Armantrout poem slays me. Slays me in the spirit. Of our doubt. This much belongs to all of us. It's here in the comments section too. Our doubt. And our wondering. These are proably two of the few things we will probably all share.

    How many have died (by choice) to be "hidden." And we can never (even in our best philosophy and poetry) decide whether the world wants (or not) to be known.

    Has the world or the word really "given it up?"

    Or did it conceal itself?

    Armantrout's poetry is probably the corpus most given over to epistemology right now. It's pretty much epistemological lyricism. And that's what throws people for such loops, I think. She doesn't compartmentalize that sort of thinking (which all of us do). She said it belongs in poetry. Through her poetics.

    And because she pulled it off, it does.

    Philosophers reifed these problems one way. And poets like Armantrout do it another way.

    "Heaven" has all the economy (and relevance) of the best Creeley, the best Niedecker.

    The language and thinking are indeed This Condensery.

    And I don't think Rae Armantrout has ever been laid-off.

    Probably not a day in her life.

    No rest.

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