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Modernism's Last Gasp?

A Review by Jan Schreiber

David Ferry, Of No Country I Know. University of Chicago Press, 293 pp.
J. H. Prynne, Poems. Bloodaxe Books, Dufour Editions, Inc., 440 pp.
Sherod Santos, The Pilot Star Elegies. W.W. Norton, 103 pp.
John Koethe, The Constructor. Harper Flamingo, 61 pp.
Louise Glück, Vita Nova. The Ecco Press, 51 pp.

Imagine yourself in a vast asylum where you know only a few people. As you walk the corridors or stroll out on the paths over the seemingly endless green and rolling grounds (the place is limitless but you can never get out), you now and then encounter other inmates who speak articulately to themselves or, if you will listen, to you. They speak of matters that appear to concern them urgently, that sometimes move them to tears, or make them laugh. It is evident that they want you to listen. But you, for your part, are already acquainted with some compulsive talkers, and while you find them interesting, even moving, it has been an effort to adjust your interests and your moods (you have your own neuroses, after all) to accommodate their obsessions. Experience has taught you that many such talkers are unrewarding over the long haul, that only a few offer a combination of novelty, insight, and entertainment so poignant that you might call it artistry. So by and large you ignore them and go on your way.

But now and then curiosity or boredom makes you pause and ask yourself, "Am I missing out on something?" Or you may ask the question of a friend whose judgment is sufficiently jaundiced to prevent his recommending an acquaintance you might come to regret. There are, we all recognize, too many articulate madmen in the asylum; to know and hear them all would destroy even the strongest personality. So, torn between your natural gregariousness and admiration for fine talk, on the one hand, and your need for peace and sanity on the other, you step cautiously through the precarious days of your infinite recovery ...

As part of the celebrations of itself that the New Yorker set in motion in 1999, the magazine announced a set of prizes for "literary excellence" recognizing the best book published in that year in each of three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Each of the winning books was to be selected by votes of readers from a field of five titles, and the five were chosen by writers the New Yorker describes as illustrious; for poetry the nominators were Mark Strand and Susan Wheeler. The five books under review here thus represent the judgment of taste makers at the end of the twentieth century. They constitute the pool from which, it seems, any aspirant to canonical status ought to ascend. What can we learn about our Zeitgeist by reading them? What is the status of poetry, as viewed by those in a position to anoint its newest knights, and by those of us who view, more in puzzlement than in awe, the process of anointing?

Let us start with David Ferry, whose book Of No Country I Know collects poems and translations written from 1960 to the present. I quote in its entirety a short poem called "A Walk in the Woods."

Sweet bird, whose song, like all natural things,
Is but the saying aloud of what is withheld from me,
The knowledge of what it means,

I have known times when one who is dear to me,
Spoke to say something as lovely as what the sweet bird sings,
Alone, in a green thicket.

You can perceive the elements of Ferry’s style in this poem: the lines that imply a meter but are in fact without meter, the touch of rime, the offhand last line that just ends. The repeated invocation of the "sweet bird" seems to hark deliberately back to Shakespeare (or to Tennessee Williams), but it is not clear why. The poem says that nature is at some level impenetrable by the intelligence, and it implies that love, when it comes, can be equally mysterious and elusive. It is a nice comparison, but muted by the phrasing, which is not finely honed. The penultimate line cries out to be compressed.

Now and then this offhand manner actually works, as in a little poem called "Augury":

Beautiful alien light, the lovers lie
In trouble in the park, whose summer leaves
Obstruct their sight of what’s been shaped for them
In icy configurations of the stars.

The last line is pretty good (one wants to chip off an extra syllable), but the poem’s real strength and mystery come with the words "in trouble" in the second line, which color the entire piece.

But often the effects are more subdued, as in "At Lake Hopatcong," from which the book’s title comes. The poem is a meditation, over four pages long, on an old family photograph. Here are the last few lines:


Somewhere in this picture there is inscribed
The source or secret, somewhere inscribed the cause,

Of the anxious motherly torment of disapproval,
The torment not resisted by my father,
Visited by my mother on my sister,

The baby in the picture, torment that was
Perhaps in turn the cause of the alcoholism
That, many years later, the baby in the picture

Won out over. But it’s all unreadable
In this charming family photograph which, somehow,
Perhaps because of the blankness of the sky,

Looks Russian, foreign, of no country I know.

The virtues of this passage, and of the poem as a whole, are the virtues of prose, and the movement of words and thought is a prosy movement: "... the alcoholism that, many years later, the baby in the picture won out over." There’s nothing wrong with this, but it has no compression, no coiled spring. One is tempted to say that the mechanics of verse would help here: a regular meter to keep the poet alert to his syllables. A rime scheme to force attention to word choice. But what we really seek is distillation.

When Ferry strives for rhetorical effects, the results are not always encouraging. He strings adjectives together, evidently seeking a striking juxtaposition: "a strange, solemn, silent, graceless / Gaiety" ("Photographs from a Book: Six Poems"). Or "Reflectionless, swift, intent, purposeless, flowing." (The same poem, two pages later.) He tries the device of repeated phrases:

I can see her unhappiness in the flowers she wears

In her hair; it blooms in her hair, like a flower
In a garden, like a flower flowering in a dream

Dreamed all night, a night-
Blooming cereus....

If words were a dance, this would be a slow one, endlessly turning.

His closest approach to form, perhaps, is a loose sestina, as in "The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People" – but though the subject is human misfortune, one senses that the poet’s sympathies are with the rhetoric more than the person. The "guest Ellen" remains strangely abstract.

I do not mean to be dismissive. This is a solid and respectable book. Its virtues are the virtues of good prose. But the offhand manner and throwaway lines appear to mask a genuine uncertainty. What really is the emotional point of this or that observation? Through some of the longer poems we hang on for dear life, waiting for the revelation. From time to time there is a tone of profundity. We admire, but often we are not convinced.

The other long book, by the Englishman J. H. Prynne, is a considerable contrast: elliptical and often obscure, but fascinated by language, relentlessly experimental. The first poem in the book, dating from a collection first published in 1968, gives the flavor of much of this writing. Here are the first few lines:

The whole thing it is, the difficult
matter: to shrink the confines
down. To signals, so that I come
back to this, we are
            small / in the rain,
            open or without it,
            the light in de-
light, as with pleasure amongst not merely
one amongst them; but the
skin over the points, of the bone ...

This poem is saying something, though one has to work to tease it out. The matter is philosophical: to symbolize (as in writing a poem) is to reduce and distill. For language is a system of symbols ("signals"), after all, and interpreting it is a creative act on the reader’s part, stretching "skin over the points, of the bone." But this, says Prynne, is a good. It forces writer and reader to choose what is important. There is no other way to gain control. Therefore, the process of writing begins, or should begin, with an inner moral conviction.

Here is the elect, the
folds of our intimate surface.
            They call it peace
            or history. Give it
            nothing: to them
            it is the elect,
            the principal,
            the voice.

This is definitely not prosy. It is close to the hierophantic high style. Prynne possesses a genius one admires through exasperation: an ability to meditate at the edge of incoherence and thereby suggest a profundity almost, but not quite, within the reader’s grasp.

It is a style and a stance remarkably unchastened over more than thirty years. It might be called relentlessly playful. But Prynne has the rhetorical tools, and the wit, to bring a lot of force to bear on a perception. Here is one of his successes, called "Love":

Noble in the sound which
marks the pale ease
of their dreams, they ride
the bel canto of our
time, the patient en-
circlement of Narcissus &
as he pines I too
am wan with fever,
have fears which set
the vanished child above
. Cry as you
will, take what you
need, the night is young
and limitless our greed.

Despite its title, this poem is about need and wanting, about that which caters to our self-regard and our anxieties. By the time we get to the cliché "the night is young," we see it as a rather sinister statement: what comes after can only be equally dark. And though the rime that matches the poem’s last word is embedded in the previous line, it is unmistakable, and the poem gains immeasurably in effect from it.

By no means all the writing in this lengthy book is equally coherent. Much has the feel of deliberate double talk, spoken fast to confuse the rubes:

At leisure for losing outward in a glazed toplight
bringing milk in, another fire and pragma cape
upon them both, they’ll give driven to marching
with wide fiery streaks able. Will either sermon
sift over, down with his line, ripped away on a plain
deception: nothing to save on the boiling turn....

This is about one-quarter of a poem called "The Stony Heart of Her," one of the last (thus most recent) poems in the book. The Greek root pragma means deed or business, if that helps you. I confess to being one of the rubes: I find the language impenetrable, unlike that in the two poems previously cited, but unfortunately like a great deal else in the book. Prynne is a writer one wants to like, because he is intelligent and sometimes engaging, but he is not interested in meeting the reader half way, and indeed many of the poems appear to be private games whose rules, if any, he has not seen fit to share with would-be fellow players.

But do not put this book aside without sampling a few of its pleasures. The problem is that the man has simply published too much, including poems that by rights are simply notes for poems. There is a poem called "Write-Out," for example, arranged in tabular form on the page so as to be unreadable in any direction. But the lines are phrases that may have been culled from correspondence or business memos. Seen as entries in a poet’s notebook they are amusing: "As a circumstantial infringement again loaned off ... / To provoke distraught readiness in uprated advice ... / And at disposition prior to early default agreement ... / Sporadically by bus into the heart of the country." One might well mine such lines for poems of one’s own.

And there’s a hilarious prose piece called "The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts" which purports to be the proceedings of an academic conference of botanists, centering on one Professor Quondam Lichen of the Edinburgh Institute for Plant History. "Sleep movements in the common bean seedling (leaf folding) are in phase with diurnal light-dark rhythms and are triggered by photoreaction; but the ‘in phase’ is not exact and the diurnal periodicity is not causative with respect to bean sleep." These sober pronouncements soon give way to spirited rivalries between Professor Lichen and Dr. Cypress over lunch. Later a Dr. Gale ("please call me Myrtle") gets involved as well, and there are impertinent comments from a student (a young blade) at various points. The academic prose gets stranger and stranger: "Time-averaged protein tubes comprise the meshwork of willbeen functioning, held in semirigid array by double reverse backflow or ‘dream membrane.’" Later we are given the reassuring intelligence that "a fully relativistic composition of velocities must be invoked to set ‘stop’ and ‘death’ as part-events within the containing bilinear reference frame."

That’s Prynne in a nutshell. He delights in mastering an obscure language, be it botany or business, then playing it for fun while now and then shedding genuine light, or giving genuine pleasure. But a few sturdy plants require a lot of manure, and in Poems we get the whole garden.

In The Pilot Star Elegies Sherod Santos has written an earnest, honest book. He writes in a rough accentual meter, not counting syllables. His poems are like a distant memory of a form, one which cannot quite be heard. They are felt as emotional statements, but they are not concise. (I note in passing that most poets have a preferred length for a poem, and in most of our relatively formless poets that length is well over a page. It is as if, lacking a principle forcing concision, the poems grow until the poet decides he has had his say, or until he has mined a particular idea for all that is in it. The epigram, the quatrain, the sonnet have the virtue of forcing writers to be inventive in cooking the fat out of their lines.)

To give a sense of Santos’s style, let me quote the opening section of "Wing Dike at Low Water":

The Corps of Engineers bulldozed it out
from the limestone bluffs at a point between
a towhead and the shallows, a conscript
calm which pays out water so gradually
its scudding surface seems an image of
the mower’s motion, of pale, upended
green stalks tumbling heavily from the scythe.

The best lines in that stanza are the fifth and the first half of the sixth, in which a regular meter is briefly sustained, and the alliteration is handled gracefully, giving point and force to the images. It is a low-key style, capable of sharp description and an access of keen feeling.

Unfortunately, not all the writing measures up. At times it falls into mere prose:

Like an old idea that’s lost for years, then taken up again,
against new claims, the waters swelled their failing banks
to flood this little river town, whose fuel-oil tanks,
abandoned cars, raw-wood houses and gardens
sank back beneath that shallowed world one road led out of
hopefully, as if out of that great abundance from which
all things come to make their lives escaping from,
relinquished to, a fate grown darker in the light of day.

("The River-God of Rocheport," first stanza)

This starts promisingly but ends badly, if you believe that poetry should be at least as well written as prose.

But there are poems in this book that justify themselves. Santos often casts his situations in terms of classical mythology. In a poem called "Calypso" he imagines a dialogue between Odysseus and the goddess as they are on the point of parting. The poem invites one to muse on the function of classical reference in contemporary verse: to introduce that which is at once exotic, familiar, elevated, universal, unreal, and archetypal. The primary danger is, and was, that such allusions can replace accurate observation of one’s own psychological realities.

However, the immediately following poem, despite its title ("Orpheus in the Underworld"), is a careful description of a contemporary situation answering the classical one. A man stuck in an airport hotel between flights recalls through a Nembutal haze the lover from whom he has just parted for what they both know is the last time.

And so, having settled her mind, having risen
to say goodbye to him for the second and last time
in her life, she turned around to face this man
without any expression of longing or fear,
and this almost as if by stealth passed out
of the lifting shelter of the dream and into
the waking spirit of the man who was rising
slowly through its counterpanes....

This is good writing. It is not great writing, and I believe it cannot be, because it renounces too many of the tools poetry needs. Chiefly, it is not written for the ear, that direct connection to the seat of emotions. So we admire without being swept away.

There are books, and this is one, that seem to have been published mainly to give voice to a poem that lay close to its author’s heart. "Elegy for My Sister" is the centerpiece of this book, cited as such in the flap copy and introduced by three epigraphs and an italicized proem. An elder half-sister, Sarah, who committed suicide in mid-life, obsesses the author and draws him into her often tortured but self-aware and frequently moving life. Santos is capable of capturing some of her essential nature in his lines:

Visiting her in the hospital, I became increasingly aware
of a narrowing silence in the way she spoke,
a silence in her gestures, a silence in her face and eyes,
a silence between, but also
through, her words,
as if her being were somehow carried along
on the soundless current that composed her mind.
This added to her already enormous fund of anonymity,
and gave her speech, not an air of distraction,
but the unexpected sharpness of someone who,
having something to say, says nothing at all.

The rhythms of this passage are the rhythms of good prose, and the emotional effect is not that achieved by Frost in one of his psychological story-poems, but that of Henry James.

Unfortunately, it is a difficult tone to sustain. At times the lines take on a merely generic academic quality, as when Santos seeks to justify his subject:

But I began this for another reason as well,
a more urgent and perhaps more selfish reason,
to answer the question which day by day
I fear I’m growing less able to answer:
Who was she whose death now made her
a stranger to me?

The lineated portions of the poem (I will not call it verse) are broken up in certain places by sections that are frankly prose (i.e., they are set in justified type), and these sections are on the whole a relief, because they signal that the writer is not at the moment trying to be poetical, and we for the moment need not try to hear the lines as verse. We can all relax and attend to the matter at hand.

Yet the best passages of the elegy come when the writing approaches verse:

A small pot of pink impatiens, and the belled
fire of evening as it drained off slowly
from the windowsill (her lamplit, high strung
folding bed like a river-rounded island city
against which the darkness lapped and rose).
And then the full bodyweight of it: the pin-
prick of consciousness breaking on the skin,
and the suddenly unroofed outreach in.

The elegy can perhaps best be understood as a cantata, with arias, recitatives, and an occasional choral number. Because it is an environment in which highs and lows can coexist, and because the subject is evocative and at times heart-rending, the poem commands respect, even though it is a very uneven performance.

In a jacket blurb, Edward Hirsch calls John Koethe an heir to Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. This is one of those artful compliments that, when analyzed, says very little. In this case it may mean simply that Koethe starts his book with a poem called "Sunday Evening" in which oranges and a sunny chair appear. There are bright, green wings, too, but there is no cockatoo. I fear these relics of greatness are like the swearing of Mark Twain’s wife: the words are there but not the tune. Koethe’s natural genius is far from Stevens’. It is for discursive self-analysis in the mode of quasi-philosophical rumination. (Koethe teaches philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.) These lines give a sense of his manner:

Life ends on a particular day, and at a particular time, and yet I thought that
I inhabited a world existing entirely in my head, in a constructed space
Where it was never any special time, or hot, or on a Tuesday
When the phone rang, or with the television on....

This is from a poem that tempts invidious comparison by calling itself "I Heard a Fly Buzz...." Like most of the poems in this book, it is longish, constructed of long lines, and relentlessly self-obsessed.

The affinity of the philosophical mind for poetry should surprise no one. Poetry steps away from the immediate and tries to discern, and convey, the shape of experience. It associates feeling with the archetypal more often than with the individual and unique. Poetry goes to our understanding of universals. But just how does this happen? It is not enough merely to state "a truth universally acknowledged." How does a writer make the reader care?

In fact there are myriad ways. One can invest the small details of life with larger significance, stating them so that they conjure associations. One can clothe the statement in beautiful language. One can create allegories or parables. One can juxtapose human actions or situations with more general statements. What one cannot do is ponder one’s own philosophic conundrums in lines that lack force to carry the reader along. If that is done, then however distinguished the issue, however sober the expression, however earnest the writer, the reader will lose interest and drop away.

Yet now and then I’d have a dream in which a feeble light was visible beneath my door,
And unfamiliar voices mumbled in the kitchen; and then I’d wake up in a sweat
And feel the language closing in like traces of the people who’d been
Close to me at different stages of my childhood,

Mouthing a kind of rhetoric I thought I’d long ago outgrown,
Whose undisguised appeal could reach me like a popular song,
Directly and without any hesitation; or like a movie,
Strong and sentimental, filled with images of faces I could feel.

("The Saturday Matinee")

The people he refers to are not evoked, nor is their language, nor are the songs and movies that are supposed to be touchstones of direct feeling. All that is real is the poet’s self, the perceiving mind, but that is not enough. Further, the language of these lines has no distinction or rhythm, certainly not meter. The book needed a sharp-minded and ruthless editor.

There are some virtues. A poem called "Pining Away" has a novel structure evidently based on the theory that the universe is expanding till it reaches a theoretical maximum and will then begin to contract. The first half of the poem depicts the expansion ("No one wondered / Where anything went") and the second half depicts the contraction ("steadily getting nearer, / Asymptotically approaching its interior destination"), until at the end of the poem, "the hourglass is inverted" and presumably it all starts again.

Occasional internal rime in this poem (as in others) provides interest, if not structure. The problem is that the actual human situation is not clear, and though we can make up possible stories to accompany the general statements, they remain blurry and insubstantial.

There is very little music in these lines. They are too long, too laboriously reasoned. There is no quickness, not darting, no flash of wit or insight. Instead there is a relentless focus on the self, an endless examination of the nuances of thought and of its meaning for the writer. One longs for the image that will cut through and dissolve thirty lines of meditation.

But what do poets have, after all? Only their poor island consciousness, their little assemblage of feelings and perceptions and inferences not so dissimilar to everyone else’s. They also have language, of course, and in an earlier time that would have been their glory, but we live in the waning days of a literary ideology that has made its traditional uses suspect. Under such conditions it is hard to construct anything memorable. So we must give some credit to Louise Glück, the lone woman poet in this group, for an achievement against considerable odds.

Here are lines from her poem "Lute Song":

I made a harp of disaster
to perpetuate the beauty of my last love.
Yet my anguish, such as it is,
remains the struggle for form

and my dreams, if I speak openly,
less the wish to be remembered
than the wish to survive,
which is, I believe, the deepest human wish.

It is a relief to see a figure of speech used to advantage, as in making "a harp of disaster," and to see meaning enlarged through ambiguity, as when "survive" is used in a way that can apply to either the person or the poem. By "the struggle for form" I believe she does not mean the struggle to write (say) iambic tetrameter, but the struggle to give coherence to her experience. It may or may not occur to her that iambic tetrameter (say) might help her in this endeavor. Yet she does intermittently give coherence to her experience, somehow wrenching it out of the intensely personal and private, and this is no mean accomplishment.

The poems in this book re-examine a failed relationship from the perspective of a new life (vita nova), but the fact of survival does little to mitigate the pain of the earlier experience. In spite of the pain, the tone is not uniformly somber or anguished. Occasionally it is that of a stand-up comic:

I lived in a tree. The dream specified
pine, as though it thought I needed
prompting to keep mourning. I hate
when your own dreams treat you as stupid.


She is by no means always successful. A poem called "Lament" is studded with clichéd images: "dark wood" (a lute, but also by extension a forest), "The willows shimmer by the stone fountain." The poem is about the death of love and thus of a part of life. The images, besides being unoriginal, place it in an earlier tradition, that of the Renaissance with its sad fountains and song-like lamentations. But Glück’s poem is overshadowed in another tradition by the tight abstractions of Dickinson, who wrote on the same theme with greater mastery, and in far briefer compass, in "My Life Closed Twice before Its Close."

And yet in her best poems there is a precision of analysis and of language that transcends the constraints of modernism and becomes truly impressive. For me her crowning achievement in this book is "Earthly Love," which contrasts two ways of viewing a stable and committed relationship such as marriage (though it may not in fact be formal marriage). The first way is the traditional view, most often associated with an earlier generation

            ... in which
the heart once given freely
was required, as a formal gesture,
to forfeit liberty: a consecration
at once moving and hopelessly doomed.

This ethic, which the poet might make sport of but does not, is seen against a contemporary ethic, wherein

            ... what we had for so long
was, more or less,
voluntary, alive.
And only long afterward
did I begin to think otherwise.

And she observes, acutely,

We are all human—
we protect ourselves
as well as we can
even to the point of denying
clarity, the point
of self-deception

Such a deception can occur within either ethic, within either generation. Glück moves into a penetrating analysis:

And yet, within this deception,
true happiness occurred.
So that I believe I would
repeat these errors exactly.
Nor does it seem to me
crucial to know
whether or not such happiness
is built on illusion:
it has its own reality.
And in either case, it will end.

That final, surprising, inevitable and unsentimental line has considerable force, unaided by formal devices of rime or meter. The poem is remarkably fine.

Despite the differences of style and form, these poems are in the same country as Robinson’s "Eros Turannos": the anatomy of passion and its devastations. They are not all equally good. They could not be: they are too personal, court solipsism too avidly. Yet none is without depth and urgency. Even the weaker poems are backgrounds against which the strong ones are etched.


So, after all, what can be said of these five books? They are honest – a minimal virtue but one for which we may be grateful. Some of them show flashes of wit, though here as in the rest of life wit is unevenly distributed. None embrace form as a principle of composition, though many flirt with form in various ways. As a consequence, none of the poems has the feel of a well made object that must be exactly this way and could not be otherwise. None has the solid click of finality.

Two of the books sum up the better part of their authors’ working lives. The other three are the traditional slim volumes. Only one is by a woman, and in this respect, as well as the authors’ unanimous whiteness, the slate surely does not represent the demographics of contemporary publishing. Should it? Not necessarily, but neither does it represent the best of what is out there, so one wonders about the principle of selection. A glance at the other books reviewed in these pages over the past year indicates an alternative world of poetry that has been largely ignored by the apostles of modernism to which the New Yorker and other mainstream media still owe fealty. That world is one to which their readers are given little access, and from which they are not invited to select a "best book of poems published in 1999."

But that will change. I believe we are witnessing modernism’s last gasp. We are unlikely to see a resurgence of interest in orthodox traditional verse, but we are likely to see metrical composition return as a primary modus, whether influenced by rap, folksong, rock lyrics, or Seamus Heaney. Already writers are relearning the craft. Shortly, in just a few years, this crop of the "best poems published in 1999" will seem quaintly old-fashioned and surprisingly uninspiring, except for a few loners that will stand out like mica in dust, and they will join the slow-growing, yet-to-be-produced anthology of solid works, while the fashion-seeking editors, whoever they are at the moment, scurry to discover the next new thing.

[This article originally appeared on Expansive Poetry & Music On-Line.]