Jamey Hecht is the author of Limousine, Midnight Blue: Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film and other books. You can visit his website, and check out his blog, POETRY, POLITICS, COLLAPSE.
A line of poetry by Jamey: “God is logic’s corpse, a wound in reason, grammar’s empty skin.”
At AWP in NYC last year I saw a book for sale with a poem in it that included seven blank pages. When I read it and John Cage came to mind, I felt sophisticated. Then I got hungry and ate some wood, just to be original.
When there’s a particular type of poetry book you want to criticize, it helps to give as many different examples of it as you can find. That way, as the examples heap up, their areas of overlap start to resolve into the outline of the target. The drawback of that method is that it makes more enemies, jabbing a number of poets before breakfast. I’ll spare them those jabs and spare myself their enmity by simply omitting their names, the titles of the books, and the quotations from the poems. That way nobody’s annoyed, and yet I still get to call bullshit on a composite of overrated 21st Century American poetry books known herein as:
[Book X by Author Y] was not for me. Having written a dissertation on Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas, I was no stranger to difficult poetry. But the poems of Crane and Thomas are always about something beyond their own language, and you get to find out what it is when you read the poem. To appreciate Book X, by contrast, you have to experience the language primarily as a flow of auditory stimuli, not necessarily as meaningful discourse. Does it ramble in search of phonetic surprises, without creating a picture, asking a question, or making a point? Does it have the dissociated, aimless quality of Camus’ The Stranger, where no real motives arise? Is it good for some purposes, but no fountain of wisdom? Call it language poetry.
Not all practitioners of that art like to admit that this is indeed what they do; I doubt Author Y would accept the term. Y’s amorphous, fragmentary, desultory poems can create atmospheres and impressions, but only rarely do these cohere. Each of the poems in Book X is an array of fragments; each fragment is off on its own little jag. There are plenty of beautiful moments in these pages, but they aren’t often memorable because they rarely fit into anything that’s got much detectable insight or joy attached. Conversely there are moments of pain but they don’t snap into place either; they, too, float like the dollar after 1971. Book X is not on the gold standard; it is “backed” not by life but by theory. That is to say, the poems don’t activate in the presence of the reader-as-person; they only turn on when they are held up at the correct angle and illuminated with a special wavelength of lit-crit that Author Y also happens to have demanded ex cathedra one fine day.
Whitman begat Williams and Stevens. Behold, Stevens begat Ashbery, and Ashbery begat Author Y. S/he has imagination, but the poetry doesn’t make enough sense for me. S/he’s all over the place. Even when the reader is done with the set of chores Y has assigned as the price of admission, the poem still amounts to little more than a semi-random stream of thought, cast in a “post-apocalyptic” conceit and/or a post-modern fragmentary mode and/or a Post-Supersugarcrisp Warhol Way.
There is plenty of excellent American poetry being written today. But [Book X by Author Y ] isn’t it.