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.
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?
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,
In its blankness of mind, with the
slowly filling the room, and
Memories of last night's video
and phone calls.
It is a feeling of sufficiency, one
By the fear of some vague lack, of
Of self, a self without a soul, the
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.
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.
It's a book
full of ghost children,
where dead means
or not wanting
to be known.
Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.
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-
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.
A writing update
19 hours ago