Wednesday, June 10, 2009


There are some poets of established merit whose work I fail to appreciate. The fault is mine, as it were.

Paul Muldoon for one example: I just don't get it. I've tried to read him, and I can't do it. His poems are so mannered, so contrived.

Maybe such immodest ostentation—such brandished coxcomb preciosity—is necessary for a lyric poet of these times.

But Heaney and Duffy don't stuff their poems with that kind of verbal porn-puff. They don't show-off like Muldoon. Craig Raine at his worst is not as bristling with bravura. Even Ashbery doesn't panache it up like that.

It's all flash, all fanfaronade to me. He's a virtuoso, no doubt about it, and obviously many readers of poetry admire and applaud him, but I can't see past his arch airs, his flourishings of knuckle- and nose-rings, his flaunt-ruffles and twee-step shuffles.

You've heard of those comedians who can't leave their acts on the stage, who even in their personal lives are always cracking jokes and doing bits, that's what Muldoon's poetry seems like to me: it's always "on."

It's not just Muldoon; I have a hard time appreciating many poets whose work is adamantly idiosyncratic. I can't stand Berryman.

Uck, why would anyone want to do that, is my response to his usual tricks of diction and syntax.

Okay, okay, Shklovsky, defamilarization etcetera, but most times with Berryman, I feel it's a desperate and sadly pathetic attempt on his part to try to use these exaggerations of style to hype up a content which is mainly banal.

Yes, there are interesting and entertaining phrases and lines ("life is a handkerchief sandwich" et al), but these occasional delights are not frequent enough to suffer the rest of his razzmatazz.

Why can't he be represented in the anthologies by excerpts?

Excerpts?! [Is he crazy, I hear some of you say.]

Excerpts. I'm serious—

Because there used to be, in the past, anthologies that printed not poems, but excerpts from poems. I wish that type of compendium would come back into favor.

It's arrogant and disingenuous of poets to demand that their works must be read only in their entirety. Why shouldn't the highpoints, the best lines and phrases, be isolated and compiled and published?

They do it all the time with Shakespeare, why can't they do it with Ashbery?

Why not pluck out the choice segments, the better bits, from contemporary poets, and put them together in a book of selections.

Don't tell me you'd rather not be read at all if you aren't read in your pristine whole.

Don't tell me you'd rather not be read than read in excerpts.

If we weren't control freaks we wouldn't be writing poetry, I know, but ultimately we can't control which parts (if any) of our poems will survive.

Posterity will allot from our pages the little it requires. The little or, in most cases, none.

One line, one phrase may be our portion.