Oct/Nov 2019 Nonfiction

Pretty Little Lies

by Michael Milburn

Image courtesy of The British Library photostream


I keep a protective eye out for poetry, which is ironic because to judge from its many publishers and praisers, poetry hardly needs my help. But here's what I mean: I'll read a poem in The New Yorker and find much to complain about—it's too flowery or abstract, or lacking in emotion, or remote from lived experience. Then I'll think of someone who rarely reads poetry sampling it, the way such people use The New Yorker to check in on the genre now and then. They wonder if they've been missing anything, if poetry has gotten more or less this or that since they last looked, say in a previous New Yorker, or at one of Obama's inaugurations, or in their high school English class. I imagine them reading this poem that in my view doesn't do justice to the art, and want to wave them off, saying "Don't base your judgment on this. Sure, it's in The New Yorker, but it's not good, and you'll spend another month, year, lifetime thinking that you don't get or like poetry."

Something similar happens when poems that disappoint me receive a prestigious prize, the kind even non-poets hear about. To the non-poet, these poems stand for quality according to people who know quality—i.e., the judges, typically well-known poets or critics. So this trusting reader reads the prize testimonial followed by the poems, and again my protective hackles rise up and I want to shout, "No, that's not quality, and whoever says it is isn't reliable, regardless of credentials." Now it's personal, as I think of my friend, sibling, or student disliking those poems instead of reacting the way I did upon first reading Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop, with an immediate understanding of why they were considered great.

In order to acquaint oneself with contemporary poetry, one must contend with two unreliable influences: the judgment of influential arbiters, and the hyperbole elevating the poems above their actual merit. In the latter case, it's common to shrug at such effusiveness, dismiss it as distracting background noise, but the shrugging, like the hyping, devalues legitimate praise. This affects infrequent or reluctant readers most of all. When a poem is not as good as advertised, they end up disappointed—in the poem, in the genre they gave a chance to win them over, and in themselves for not liking what the experts say they should. By discouraging these non-specialists from reading more poetry, the hypers accomplish the opposite of what they intend. But then some members of the poetry fraternity don't care about pleasing anyone outside of it. In an interview, one successful poet claimed to have no use for untrained readers, presumably meaning those who do not hold English or writing degrees. My answer to this guy would be to steer those readers toward poets with a broad "crossover" appeal like Larkin, Bishop, or Seamus Heaney, whose poems are superior to his anyway.

I envy readers who can tune out extraneous considerations. During my brief stint as a manuscript screener for a literary magazine during college, everything influenced me—the writer's credentials, the texture of the paper, the font. My middle school English students suffer from my suggestibility as I ask them to wait a hundred pages before reading the jacket copy on a new young adult novel. It's both opinion and plot spoilers I want to shield them from: for every front cover that blares a comparison to or blurb by the YA superstar John Green, a back cover synopsis gives away the story. For our first few class discussions, at least, they base their responses solely on the author's words. With classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, Austen, and Woolf awaiting them in future grades, reputation will encumber their judgment soon enough.

Hype always detracts from my initial reading of poetry. At best, I'm distracted trying to decide whether it falls short of or lives up to its praise; at worst, resentment makes me hope it will fail. It takes very little to get me rooting against a poem, though my hate-reading never blinds me to quality. In fact, I wish more people took a grudging attitude toward poetry, forcing it to prove itself beyond the claims of its boosters. For example, I always expect poems in The New Yorker (surely the most hate-read forum for poetry around, at least by poets it has rejected) to disappoint me, partly out of jealousy and partly because they so often do. But a few times a year, a New Yorker poem overcomes my petty biases so conclusively that I talk it up to friends, as bullish as any blurb.



We cannot expect contemporary poetry to exist as a general cultural virtue, with the mere fact of it being written and read deemed sufficient grounds for celebration. Unlike baseball players, poets don't hit for average; good poems are too hard to write ever to appear with regularity. Therefore, if a lot of poetry is being produced, most of it must be mediocre. Yet every time a new Poet Laureate goes to Washington or a philanthropist donates to a poetry organization, all of the talk is about quantity—more readings given, books published, magazines launched, workshops held, and poems and poets recognized. These campaigns confuse abundance with accomplishment to the point that Bishop, with her sparse output and two decades of start and stop progress on her poem "The Moose," looks like someone in need of a more congenial vocation. I have yet to hear any of poetry's benefactors call for making it better rather than bigger, broader, though surely another way to promote it would be for its practitioners to spend less time drumming up business and more time improving their verse.

A newspaper recently published a week in the schedule of a prominent American poet, listing a headlong rush of readings, talks, panels, speeches, radio broadcasts, travel, classes visited and taught. According to the accompanying article, this tireless ambassador for poetry left behind a trail of converts to the cause. But I couldn't think of any previous era in which a poet would devote so much time and energy to cultivating an audience for the art without actually practicing it, or at least writing criticism as a more relevant means of recruiting readers. Nowadays, the business of advocating in person for poetry, one's own or everybody's, has come to matter almost as much as the product itself, allowing some charismatic spokespeople to advance faster and farther than writers who only write.

When an impressive new book of poems comes out, the response can resemble that of the farmer whose hen lays the golden egg: more bounty will follow if he just makes the bearer comfortable and waits. Besotted with the new star, the poetry community bestows prizes and jobs, while the poet, freed from having to submit his or her next manuscript to a slush pile, is tempted to publish again (and again) quickly, as soon as enough poems accumulate to fill a book. This is a missed opportunity—as all struggling poets know, repeated rejection allows them to update and improve a collection until it is accepted. This may not build character, but it leads to more discriminating poets and better (and fewer) books.

Acclaimed older poets benefit from publishers accepting their poems on the basis of reputation; their new work comes pre-qualified as it were, as if a combination of talent, experience, craft, and past success makes good poetry inevitable. But it's no more likely that septuagenarian Poet A will deliver another book as good as his 1968 masterpiece than that Paul McCartney will match "Hey Jude." Looking at the oeuvres of two prolific poets who died recently, both of whom published books in quick succession during their later years, one wonders if their editors did any culling at all. Given how many honors these two had received, they could be forgiven for believing that whatever they wrote would be revered, but their publishers had no excuse for indulging them.

Such compromises foster a climate of excessive, unprincipled praise. At one reading I attended, a critic gave a flattering introduction to a poet, who reciprocated by citing the general trustworthiness of the critic's views. Most, if not all, audience members knew that the poet and critic were both colleagues and close friends (the reading took place at the university that employed them), that the critic had written laudatory essays about the poet's work, and that the poet had dedicated a subsequent book to...and so on. This particular example of mutual literary backscratching bothered me less than some, as I admired both writers' work, but I wondered how to trust any praise if two exemplars of their craft saw nothing wrong with this kind of thing.

The easiest response to such behavior is to shrug it off as politics as usual—everyone knows the game is rigged. Besides, obscure poets need, commercially and psychologically, the boost provided by a splashy blurb, and established ones look and probably feel like jerks if they refuse to provide it. It's an unfortunate cycle, especially when readers start to believe these views inversely—in my experience, if five famous poets call a book magnificent, it often isn't. But it's hard to discount the opinions of writers one respects. Several of my heroes called a recent first book "astonishing," "essential," "outstanding," and "urgent," while comparing the author to past masters who had earned nothing like these raves for their own debuts.

In this case, I should have resisted my impulse to turn to the acknowledgments page, which confirmed that the author had studied in an MFA program with two of the blurbers, but by then I was well into hate reading mode, skeptical of the writing's vaunted excellence even while hoping that it might prove me wrong. After a few pages these competing feelings grew so distracting that I had to stop; the hype and my ambivalent response to it made it impossible for me to detect, much less enjoy, the book's quality. Usually my susceptibility to such extra-literary factors diminishes over time, allowing me to revisit the work more objectively. Still, readers, reviewers, and especially poets routinely weigh their appraisals against reputation, even outdated reputation, demonstrating its lasting effect.

If we question praise of other people's poetry, do we still listen when it's directed at our own, still speak up in recommending what we like? Evaluation is the heart of literary criticism and of the kind of taste-making that brings poetry to a broader audience. Randall Jarrell's essays introduced me to the work of Bishop and Williams Carlos Williams, and his reassessment of Robert Frost, "The Other Frost," caused me to look beyond the latter's anthologized lyrics. Jarrell's comments sound a lot like blurbs, and he did not shy from plugging his friends' books, but his words had authority among contemporary readers and came backed up by quality.

It is full of the deepest, and most touching, moral wisdom—and it is full, too, of the life we have to try to be wise about and moral in. (On Frost's "Provide Provide")

One of the strangest and most characteristic, most dismaying and most gratifying, poems any poet has ever written is a poem called "Directive."

One or two of these poems, I think, will be read as long as men remember English. (On Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle)

They are quiet, truthful, sad, funny, most marvelously individual poems; they have a sound, a feel, a whole moral and physical atmosphere, different from anything else I know... Occasionally you meet someone and feel in astonished joy: "Well, this is what people ought to be like"; this is what poems ought to be like. [On Bishop]

When this process of naming excellence loses credibility, as it threatens to today, then the value of criticism decreases.

I feel sheepish about expending so much indignation on the thin substance of hyperbole, which most writers consider at best a necessary evil and at worst beside the point. But reading, writing, submitting, and teaching poetry for the past 40 years has made me mindful of the value of praise, which has governed my relationship with the art. At a point in high school when I was poised to direct my ambition wherever approval pointed—to sports, music, scholarship, poetry—encouragement from my English teachers kept me writing, and still mitigates my struggles with rejection today. Finally, my talented student writers are at an age, 13 or 14, where I am often the first to identify their gift, for which they had little corroboration before my class.

In these instances, praise is an act of affirmation. Presumably, even the most gushing of blurbs and nepotistic of compliments reflect the bearer's taste, just exaggerated to the point of insincerity. How could so many think so highly of so much? Acquaintance also has a way of shaping response; we're more eager to like someone's writing if we'll have to stand by our opinions in person. Unfortunately, the names of prolific blurbers seem to lose no luster regardless of how much middling writing they endorse, which may show how little attention readers pay to them. As for their beneficiaries, the hunger for readers and the pressure of publishers is too great for them to rebel. The coziness between the previously mentioned poet/critic colleagues is more disheartening, given that conscientious restaurant and drama reviewers eschew this kind of thing as a matter of policy. The creep of favoritism from classroom to review to dustjacket leaves few venues where readers can find unbiased evaluations.



Literary hype purports to tell us what is good, or in the case of blurbs, what to buy, since no one composes a blurb except to entice a prospective customer. Liberally elevating new poets and canonizing old ones, it reflects our impatience both to discover and proclaim quality, which leads to the question of how anyone arrives at this verdict. Is it as straightforward as Williams's dictum that "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem?" Or does one need training in history, prosody? Should instructors confine themselves to these categories, which contribute to pleasure, or recommend as well? But recommending involves taste—one might find Keats and Browning equally adept in technique, but enjoy Keats's odes more than Browning's dramatic monologues. Similarly, influential critics tend to write about poets they like. Someone who only keeps up with contemporary poetry through Dan Chaisson's essay-reviews in The New Yorker or David Orr's in The New York Times benefits from their expertise, but is also subject to their taste in choosing whose work to consider.

I took the term "liberal arts" literally in college, majoring in English and enrolling in survey courses in art and music history in my freshman year. Experts in the latter fields taught me to look and listen with greater awareness, enhancing my appreciation of Renaissance paintings and Bach cantatas. My classmates with no previous literary bent had the same experience in their English classes. Studying the cultural context of Alexander Pope's satires and the rhythmic variations in his iambic pentameter lines increased, in some cases created, their regard for his poems. I felt this way, too, but the training added to my knowledge more than my pleasure. I have never fallen in love with a poem through a teacher's teaching or a critic's criticism. The only time I have been "experted" to this end was in a class on Anglo Saxon poetry, which required us to learn the language in order to read Beowulf in the original.

Otherwise, poems have always won me over on their own, though teachers often made the introduction. The first poem that I fell for in this way was T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," handed out as a mimeograph in my ninth grade English class. It interested me to learn that "Do I dare to eat a peach" related to Prufrock's physical deterioration, and that my teacher viewed the women talking of Michelangelo as dilettantes, but that information fed my head rather than my heart, and did no more to endear the poem to me than Eliot's footnotes to "The Waste Land." "Prufrock" had me at its first lines, as did "Birches" and "High Windows," two other poems that I first encountered in a classroom.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table...

from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter, darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them...

from "Birches," by Robert Frost

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm...

from "High Windows," by Philip Larkin

English teachers are the original blurbers, stamping poems with their authoritative endorsement. Similarly, Jarrell had his most profound effect on me through his naming of Frost's great poems, not his close readings. The readings deepened the attraction, but only after I was smitten. If we ask why actual blurbs don't work this way, the answer might be that when we start out discovering poems, we strike gold repeatedly with the masterworks of the canon, strengthening our trust in our recommenders. Inevitably, as taste plays a greater role, poems start to disappoint and praise becomes indistinguishable from hype, which assumes that the literature in question won't make its own way. For Jarrell, Frost's lesser known work justified this attitude, but it feels patronizing when applied as broadly as it is today. Granted, much of what small presses and literary journals publish might go unread were no one to advocate for it, but some promoters exacerbate the situation that they seek to remedy. They celebrate so much writing that readers, especially those with a casual interest, have no motivation to seek out alternative work elsewhere.

The following words and phrases appear in the citations for several recent American prizes, bestowed on poets ranging in age from 29 to 82:

stunning; fearless; heartbreaking; enduring revelation; gorgeous; ultimately essential; visionary and revelatory; searing passion; a magician; virtuosic; pioneering; sublime; one of the most important poetic achievements of our time; among the major astonishments of contemporary poetry

My goal in quoting this language is not to question its good intentions, but its sense of proportion. If we describe a young poet of the moment as virtuosic, how do we elevate our rhetoric to fit the precocity of Rimbaud or Auden? And proclaiming a body of work by a living poet one of the most important of our time ignores the role of time in determining that stature. Finally, I wonder how many of these rapturous commentators will still be reading their "essential" poetry ten years from now. Will it sit by their bedsides? Apart from any dazzle of talent or topical subject matter, a poem must make us want to return to it and reward us anew each time. When it comes to canonizing literature, I like re-readability as a standard, a notch below... I was going to say posterity, but aren't they the same thing?

If all of poetry's cheerleaders had Jarrell's track record, the genre would be as fertile as they claim, and poetic excellence as plentiful as entertaining shows on Netflix. But no poets I know heed blurbs or marketing copy, or take prize-givers at their word, or regard any current critic with the respect that Jarrell enjoyed in his time. None of them, not Chaisson or Orr or even Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, consistently points to contemporary poetry that gives pleasure. As a weekend movie fan, I look to my local newspaper's movie reviews for guidance. The occasional perplexing opinion notwithstanding, I find them trustworthy. I can't think of any comparable poetry appraisers, no one to whom I would refer an inexperienced reader. Nowadays, criticism is better at showing me what I don't like, when I disagree with a critic's judgment or find his or her parsing irrelevant. Nothing exposes the aesthetic limitations of scholarship more than its application to lifeless poems, or the burnishing of a poet's stature because the work makes for meaty analysis.

One of my favorite college professors was an 18th century specialist whose lecture course on Samuel Johnson was oversubscribed every year. Yet my most enduring memory of his teaching comes from a recital he gave of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets in its entirety, purely out of his affection for the poem. Ever since, this performance has defined Four Quartets for me; my mental recording starts to play as soon as I begin reading it. A similar epiphany occurred during a course on British and American literature taught by Seamus Heaney. The erudition that Heaney brought to bear on famous lyrics by Hardy, Yeats, Auden, Bishop, Hughes, and Plath survives in my notes, but it was his saying of an unfamiliar poem, Wilfred Owen's "Futility," the alchemy of one poet's words in another's voice, that fixed it in my mind.

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

from "Futility" by Wilfred Owen

It's unrealistic to expect publishers to let an unknown author's words alone sell his or her book, but established poets have more leverage. Already blessed with name recognition and accolades, they could insist on replacing blurbs with judicious excerpts from past reviews or even better from the collection itself. As for the relentless drive to extend poetry's reach, why not allow it to find its own level of popularity? The constant campaigning on its behalf betrays an insecurity, a lack of confidence in its power to attract readers, or at least enough of them to sustain an image of the genre as flourishing. Recommenders need not stop recommending nor academies honoring living poets—just tone down the hyperbole. As Jarrell wrote about Frost: "Nothing I say about these poems can make you see what they are like... If you read them you will see."


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