Friday, May 08, 2009

David Wojahn on Younger Poets

from How Do You Bottle the Lightning?
Anna Journey sits down with David Wojahn

You can find the whole interview here:

Johannes Göransson has written about this interview (from the same issue of Gulf Coast that occasioned my earlier post on Tony Hoagland [see below]) over on his blog. I don’t want to just repeat what he wrote, but I do have similar questions. Here’s my version.

I very much like the general way that David Wojahn talks about a desire for, or way of, writing:

“: . . . Bringing order out of chaos is all well and good, but sometimes it’s a worthier goal to simply make the chaos interesting. . . . Juxtaposition does a better job of replicating real life, and it better reflects the way I think. . . . and the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike images can make for some very fortuitous meetings.”

I was hopeful when I read this, that this interview might go to some intersting places. Juxtaposition is a way of writing that has become increasingly important in recent poetry. It’s the primary method of composition from The Waste Land to John Ashbery, and onward. I would go as far as to say that, as I was just reading a poem on Poetry Daily by Kim Addonizio yesterday that used juxtaposition as it’s major compositional strategy, that it is or is becoming, if not the preferred method, then at the very least the most common way of putting a poem together, across styles (or schools). I might even go so far as to say that “Juxtaposition” typifies the contemporary American poem. But then again, if one would try to pin juxtaposition down, it would quickly evaporate into a kind-of all-encompassing “one thing next to another” that would quickly lose the ability to describe anything (even if it's still not the same as composition by narrative or autobiography or argument). OK, so never mind. But I think this has a lot to do with what Wojahn is getting at when he starts to complain about younger poets (perhaps poets who he thinks take the notion of "juxtaposition" too seriously?):

“: . . . You know, there’s no small degree of charlatanism in contemporary poetry, a lot of facile and merely clever writing . . . . facile and the trivial.” He then places this against the idea of “authenticity.” So, are you a younger poet? Is he talking about you?

OK, so he’s not going to name names when he says this, because he’s mostly, it seems, arguing against something that’s in the air. In the abstract, since he’s calling “facile and merely clever writing” the period style (erroneously, I believe), the names should be all around us. My guess, thinking of poets that have been described in this way by others, is that he’s talking about presses like Wave Books and Action Books, and specifically, poets like Joshua Clover and Joshua Beckman, though I could be wrong. But whatever it is he’s arguing against has a lot to do with lineage, the canon, the writers from the middle 20th Century (which would seem to go against the above, as many of these younger writers are keenly aware of at the very least early 20th Century poetic movements):

“Earlier this summer a friend of mine asked me to participate in an AWP panel that would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Some terrific people had agreed to be on it and we all thought the panel proposal was a shoe-in. Life Studies has been an absolutely essential book for generations of American poets. But—go figure—AWP rejected it. We’re in a somewhat preposterous situation right now. It’s not simply that readers don’t know the tradition, they don’t even know recent literary history. There are a lot of pretty articulate and well-read people who are clueless about the crucial poets of the middle generation. They draw a blank when you mention Oppen or Rukeyser or Roethke, or even Berryman, Lowell, and Bishop. Admittedly, those writers aren’t easy models—they’re militantly self-confronting, sometimes self-lacerating, sometimes self-humbling. The approach to the self that Lowell championed and pioneered in the late ’50s changed the whole game for two or three generations of American poets. He wasn’t the only one to do this at the time; poets as diverse as Ginsberg, Snodgrass and Penn Warren were doing similar things. But Lowell cast the longest shadow; he made possible a new sort of autobiographical urgency, as well as the deep emotional subjectivity that you see in, say, Merwin’s The Lice or James Wright in his best poems. The interior journey is immensely important for these poets, they want to circumnavigate the self.”

So it’s less that young writers haven’t read anything from the past and more that they don’t appreciate enough the generation born around the 20s. I think these things are connected. He’s arguing against Skitteriness (“facile and merely clever writing”), lack of reading knowledge of the middle generation, and the inauthentic (that the writing of many younger writers is theory-driven, not lived). It’s the same anxiety hovering behind Bob Hicok’s poem “Weebles Wobble” that he read on the News Hour the other night, when he starts to tell a story about a woman devastated by recent economic upheavals, and then folds back to a version of “we can’t say it that way anymore”:

“Sadly, I think that in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere—can in fact be an essential goal of poetry—seems to a lot of people a little passé.”

Self-representation abounds in contemporary American poetry. Poets, to me, seem to have no problem with exploring “self-representation” in poetry. But what he means here, I think, is less the exploration of how the self can be represented that is a common concern of many younger poets (Arielle Greenberg / Ben Diller / and on), and more the self-representation that is more flatly autobiographical. It seems he’s making an argument for, to use Ron Silliman’s term, The School of Quietude. And he positions it against a sort of masking he sees in his students:

“I find it maddening when students in graduate workshops write obscurely not for any abiding aesthetic reason, but for mere self-protection. The workshop never gets beyond the rather pointless exercise of trying to figure out the poem’s dramatic situation, and when you finally ask the poet to say something about her work, the answer goes something like, ‘Well, I didn’t want to tell it like it actually happened because that would seem too ‘confessional.’’ And so ‘confessional’ has become an unjustly pejorative word like “liberal” or “community organizer,” so vastly out of fashion that it seems like it’s never going to rise again.’

I find this an amazing moment. Maybe we really are at a crossroads. A good number of students are, for whatever reason, skeptical of flat autobiography, and the Confessional poets in general, but they don’t have an alternative model except to be kind of abstract about it. The accusation he makes earlier that students haven’t read the Middle generation is a little odd to me here, because if the students haven’t read them (well, at least the Confessional poets), how do they know to say they don’t want to write like them? It’s possible that students aren’t reading them deeply (which is fine with me, as it’s not nearly as important and interesting a generation to me than Modernists, for instance), but to say they haven’t read them at all seems hyperbolic, to say the least. To give Wojahn credit, I also have found very few young poets who have read Oppen (and many who’ve never even heard of the Objectivists).

It’s pretty clear why this is happening. In their literature classes, students get a pretty decent education of everything written from Modernism backwards. That’s what the surveys cover. But anything written after Modernism is usually going to be tossed in in very idiosyncratic ways, either in a creative writing workshop, or as the last book or two in some themed seminar. This is always the case. The closer one gets to any present time, the more available literature there is. The more choices. And less agreement on what’s important. Wojahn thinks we should read more Lowell. I think we should read more Spicer. That’s just the way it is.

The other factor playing into this is that living poets will come to your class and talk with your students about writing. And living poets are likely to be the friends of the professor. So, in any student’s education, that student is going to have a blind spot around the generation that is recently deceased.

He goes on:

“Tony Hoagland has a withering label for the way we’ve almost all started to write—he calls it ‘the skittery poem of our moment.’ Don’t get me wrong: I find some of the Language writers very compelling. Rae Armantrout’s new collection is brilliant, and says a lot of wise and frightening things both about selfhood and culture that couldn’t be stated in any other fashion. Nevertheless, I think the current period style has replaced self-confrontation with slipperiness, with various strands of irony. We now have as many gradations of irony as the Inuit have words for snow, and I’m tired of irony being our lingua franca. We’ve become brilliant at cannibalizing the trappings of contemporary culture, but I sometimes worry that it’s all a form of solipsism that blinders us to the workings of the world. I know a lot of the Language poets really talk up Marx and in an oblique way they want to emphasize the social responsibilities of the poet, but I’ve had it with Skitter-ism.”

This is about as close as he gets to naming names, and it’s pretty close, as he does implicate “all of us,” in it, but, more specifically, he’s talking about all the younger poets he sees that he describes as writing in ways where “the social and political” that “are evoked are facile and theoretical rather than urgent.”

So who are some contemporary poets that he admires? The ones who don’t write in this “facile and theoretical” way?

Mark Doty
William Olsen
Tom Sleigh
Beckian Fritz Goldberg
Yusef Komunyakaa
David Rivard
Claudia Emerson

Mary Ruefle
Dean Young
Mark Halliday
August Kleinzahler
C. D. Wright
Jorie Graham

Kevin Young
Major Jackson
Beth Ann Fennelly

Rae Armantrout

And then the earlier writers we should be reading more of and talking more about:


I find the addition of Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, C. D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham to be especially interesting. I would guess that the writers he’s speaking against would also consider at least a few of these writers to be models. So maybe here these four writers stand as the dividing line.

(Rae Armantrout! If I were to nominate one poet as the most likely to enter the canon from our period, I would nominate her. Her work seems to sum things up, much like Ashbery has. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking because I like both their work.)

He then comes to something of a conclusion that shows what he means as the flipside to what’s going on in our moment:

“When I look back on Oppen’s generation and back at the generation born in the twenties—the Levine, Rich, Merwin group—the integrity of their ambition always humbles me; they saw the mission of poetry as something far different from the way we see it. They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave. I also admire how grounded they were in the entire tradition. When I see Lowell in Near the Ocean laboring so mightily to find a way to modernize and contemporize the line of Milton and the line of Marvell, I never fail to be astonished. And who in our century has such lofty goals? We lack them in no small measure because of an imperfect and very limited reading knowledge—but I suffer from that same shortcoming.”

For most of this little tour, I’ve just been trying to get at what Wojahn’s thinking, but here I want to step out and clearly say that I think he’s wrong. Just because you don’t like what you’re reading in the poetry of some younger poets, doesn’t mean there’s no ambition behind it. I recall the same sort of argument against Lowell and James Wright, back in the early 60s. Their turning from the formalism of that period to open their work to more conversational language and interior images had many people calling them all sorts of names.

Wojahn makes that same turn many people are making these days in many guises. It’s the same turn John Barr makes. It’s the anti-academy turn, where the making or art and teaching are conflated: “They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave.”

Maybe I’m being willfully obtuse, but I just don’t see it in the younger poets I know. Yes, AWP has a tendency to become something of a job talk week, and yes, poets do talk about who is teaching where way too often for my nerves, but to say that somehow that has something to do with the poems themselves is going too far. I also recall that the middle generation was the first one to start these conversations? Weren’t they the first generation of university professors? And didn’t they do all sort of gossiping about who should and who shouldn’t have what job, what award?

And since I'm ending on a bunch of questions, here's another, perhaps telling question, going back to the title of the interview ("How Do You Bottle the Lightning?"):

Why would you want to bottle the lightning in the first place?
Therefore, a circular addendum:
Carousel: cops vs clowns, directed by Adam Berg


At 5/08/2009 8:06 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

"Why would you want to bottle the lightning in the first place?"

Because "rubbing the glass rod" has masturbatory connotations?

Verification word: iscet, noun, a cat so small it can drink tea with mice

At 5/08/2009 8:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

All the best questions have dirty jokes buried in them.

At 5/08/2009 12:47 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

You know what I find funny? I would actually be happy to write something that could be called the "skittery poem of our moment," yet Wojahn thinks it's some terrible insult. On the other hand, I wouldn't ever want to write something labeled "School of Quietude," yet Ron claims it's not pejorative.

At 5/08/2009 1:51 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think we should all write skittery poems of the moment and send them to Prof. Wojahn. He could wallpaper his bathroom with them or something.

Still, it's difficult to know who is on which side of Wojahn's line here, in much the way that it's difficult to know who is on which side of SIlliman's line . . .

On the other hand, Silliman has at times come clean that SoQ is pejorative, saying that he gave them that name to force them to come up with one of their own. Very clever. Except that they're pretty much just ignoring him. Sometimes that works.

At 5/08/2009 2:13 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Hmm, maybe it was someone else who said SoQ wasn't pejorative--it's been that kind of day.

Regardless, I like the idea of skittery poems of the moment. For quite a while I was trying to write poems that I self-described as "jittery," which may not be quite the same but seems close in spirit.

At 5/08/2009 5:51 PM, Blogger Johannes said...

I like "skittery" too. That's why I keep writing about it on my blog. But then I thought Ron's "soft surrealism" sounded really pervy too.


At 5/08/2009 7:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks--I'm glad for your defense of 'us' especially about the Robert Lowell thing. Yes, we are aware of Lowell. No, we don't want to write like him.

I'm tired of older poets feeling so threatened by this creative and amazing explosion of language that they label it 'merely clever' and accuse us of being uninformed. Some contemp writing is 'better' than other writing, but that's always the case. I just feel like our generation is being attacked all the time by these folks. And maybe this will be 'us' someday, growling at the youngsters. But it tires me. And I'm glad to hear it being countered this way.

At 5/09/2009 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think poets are always arguing for their own centrality within the context of a literary history. And what I take away from these remarks is a poet defending their own significance against a tide of "younger writers" who are perhaps pulling that context in a different direction. I don't think of this as pejorative, I really don't. I think that it is simply a defensive maneuver by writers who feel that the readers (and writers) who will end up defining the historical moment have begun to turn away from them.
(Which will of course only be re-argued a generation later)


At 5/09/2009 1:09 PM, Blogger jeannine said...

Why, indeed, is this generation (I'm going to roughly say "my generation," though it's probably my generation everyone younger than me) have such problems with straight-up confession, with straight-up narrative? The way I've tried to dodge it has been to use persona, and lately, trying out alternatives to the flat-this-happened-then-this-happened sort of storytelling.
We're between a rock and a hard place, it seems, if we're too skittery but not avant enough? I've always said SOQ and post-avant labels built a false dichotomy.
I'm actually trying to put together a section for a class on narrative, new narrative, and question some of T. Hoagland's assumptions in his essay about "the skittery poem." Tough to find essays answering this, though.
Thanks for bringing up the conversation!

At 5/09/2009 1:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I don't think there is a distrust of narrative in most poets. I do think, though, that there is a distrust of ONLY narrative (or really, of ONLY one way of going about things).

I think that's why the label "skittery" gets applied. The general move of younger poets (if one could even say such a thing), is to shift modes and compositional strategies quickly, often within individual poems.

This irritates people like T. Hoagland. He finds it incoherent. (But apparently his generation has no difficulty with The Waste Land. I don't get it.)

At 5/09/2009 3:18 PM, Blogger Jessie Carty said...

Fascinating post and discussion.
AWP this year did have a panel on Elizabeth Bishop so I don't see where AWP is completely leaving out the "canon" so to speak.

Glad I found your blog :)

At 5/09/2009 5:16 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You're very right. It's true that AWP has a lot of career panels, but it also has a lot of tribute panels and panels that include many figures from the canon. And those decisions aren't made by the "younger" poets Wojahn is complaining about anyway.

For instance, over the past decade I've been on three panels at AWP: one on James Wright (born in the 20s), one on Charles Wright (born in the 30s), and one on John Ashbery (born in the 20s).

At 5/09/2009 11:58 PM, Blogger jeannine said...

Dear John,
I don't know - I love narrative and I don't trust it. Is that even possible? I love story, I love poems that have stories in them, even if they're disjunctive stories, if time slips or the narrator changes or scenes disappear and reappear.
I'm with you on The Waste Land. It's really "skittery."

At 5/10/2009 6:41 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I do think it's possible. I'd even say it's healthy to not trust uncritically something like narrative (but also all the other things one might trust uncritically about poetry: simile, voice, etc.). It keeps us meaning it. (Maybe?)

At 5/11/2009 6:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this post and the comments that follow it are willfully disingenuous or just plain blinkered. In his interview, Wojahn not only wishes that younger poets (whom he hardly disparages) had a better "historical sense" but he also commends to them such poets as George Oppen. And yet you (and the Sillyman) insist that his argument is an anti-modernist one a la John Barr or Dana Gioia. What Wojahn wonders apprehensively (but also with wholesome self-deprecation and doubt) is if the current age, with its exponential sweep of information, has threatened the old tradition of the hard-earning, delving apprenticeship. This is the very process of self-making (not to mention art making) that is not only evinced in the work of a modernist poet like Pound but is in fact his great subject ("to build the city of Dioce...")

Based on reading this "nothing to say," I think Wojahn's suspicions might unfortunately be well-founded. For before using him as your whipping boy in the Procustean debate of school of x vs. school of y (with its crude rationality of a technocrat) you don't seem to have considered his own work at all, but rather to have scrolled down a few pages to gather up the little bites of info that would instantaneously fit. Wojahn's poems, which you make no effort to describe much less understand never show a naive understanding of the lyric self; indeed, they present a self that is at every turn mediated by the forces of history. And yet despite its protean and often frightening porousness, this self still feels and suffers, and yearns. Yes, this self is not the bloodless textual construct of a million little junior Ashberians, but it's a far cry from the image with which you leave the reader of your blog. Wojahn has deeply internalized modernism, and his juxtapositions are both informed by its practice and interestingly different from it. (And anyone who would call "The Wasteland" "skittery" must have read it with a thirteen year old's confusion about the strangeness of modern art and not anything resembling a deep feel for its wrenching and subtle and necessary musical structures.)

Come on, people. If you have any guts as an artist or even as a critic you'll read a series poem like Wojahn's "Dithyramb and Lamentation" or "The Nightingales" and then make your comment.

At 5/11/2009 6:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thanks for stopping by. I could have used some examples from his work, yes, but his work isn't - at this point - what I'm interested in. What I'm commenting on is what he's specifically saying about younger poets and what he sees as a generalizable problem with their work.

(It's true he does label the "skittery" thing as a problem of the age, therefore implicating himself, but it seems to be a particular problem with the young.)

And the poets he lists as something to read and aspire to are not Modernists, but the "middle generation."

He does commend Oppen (a wonderful poet) to younger poets, but he does so in this way:

"There are a lot of pretty articulate and well-read people who are clueless about the crucial poets of the middle generation. They draw a blank when you mention Oppen or Rukeyser or Roethke, or even Berryman, Lowell, and Bishop. "

He's making a pretty large assumption here. His poetry might be wonderful, and it might have all sorts of fingers in Modernism, but what he's saying in this interview is far from that.

At 5/12/2009 4:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a cop out response. Why would you ever consider an interview with a poet if his work were not on the table? The "pretty large assumption" that a lot of MFA students or whoever are not well read is really not that shocking, by the way. Especially after reading a blog like yours where you don't seem to see anything wrong with commenting on poets' obiter dicta but not their work to which it refers.

At 5/12/2009 5:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

You're pushing a button with that one. One thing I really dislike is if someone thinks I'm copping out. Unless I also think I'm copping out. Let me try to convince you I'm not copping out:

In my response to Wojahn, I was only responding to what he was saying about younger poets. I would think his work should be beside the point, as I didn't see that he was posing his work against what he thought of younger poets.

I have a passing knowledge of Wojahn's work. The only book of his I have is Mystery Train, which is now quite old. But I don't see how I should be expected to suddenly go out and read all the rest of his work before commenting on something he's specifically saying about other poets.

You're right, in one way it's always a safe assumption that young poets are going to have gaps in their reading. Such is the position of the young. And I can see his desire to suggest these writers to the young. His tone, though, was, well, crabby, to say the least. He even noted it in the interview.

The first single-author book of poetry I purchased, by the way, was Robert Lowell's selected poems. It was the mid-80s. He, and this middle generation Wojahn talks about was still very in the air.

For a young writer not to have read these writers is the fault of their educations. He's aiming that criticism at the wrong people.

(Until, of course, someone graduates from college - then their reading list is purely their responsibility.)

At 5/12/2009 5:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, yes, my mistake: I should never have assumed you'd be interested in poets' work, but only in their interviews, and out of those interviews only the little quotes that seem to refer to one's own generation. And if you post a big picture of the poet himself at the top of the entry and then impugn him with the charge of being after "authentic" narrative experience, we still should not assume that this has anything to do with his identity as an artist and his work, which of course is not in question. We don't read books of poems, only interviews, and reviews on other blogs (though, okay, Schiavo was right) and then feel perfectly ready to pronounce upon them.

At 5/12/2009 5:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

OK, so it's obvious what you think of me. But please, consider this an opportunity to enlighten me, then. I'm quite serious. I'm ready to admit I'm wrong.

What do you think Wojahn means, then, when he says this:

“Sadly, I think that in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere—can in fact be an essential goal of poetry—seems to a lot of people a little passé.”

This was my response:

"Self-representation abounds in contemporary American poetry. Poets, to me, seem to have no problem with exploring “self-representation” in poetry. But what he means here, I think, is less the exploration of how the self can be represented that is a common concern of many younger poets (Arielle Greenberg / Ben Diller / and on), and more the self-representation that is more flatly autobiographical. It seems he’s making an argument for, to use Ron Silliman’s term, The School of Quietude."

The reason I said that was because he says we don't read and respect the Middle generation writers enough, and because of poems of his own, such as, since you mention it, this:

The Shampoo (From The Nightingales)

How long it must have been, the girl’s hair,
cascading down her shoulders almost to her waist,
light brown and heavy as brocade: the story I’m

remembering of N’s, remembering as my own
hair’s washed and cut, the salt-and-pepper
cuneiform to frill my barber’s smock.

Arts and Science is expanding. The wall
to the empty shop next door pulled down
and a dozen workmen slink improbably

on scaffolds butting the dusty ceiling,
cacophony and plastic tarps, the whirr
of drills that mingles with the dryers’

jittery hums, the scissors’ flash,
veronicas of clicks, the coloring, the curling,
the antique cash register,

melodious with its chime. And best,
the liquid gurgle of hands massaging scalps
the row of sinks, twelve hands and six

wet scalps in a line. I’m next, and leaning back
(let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon)

to the hiss of warm water cataracts
and Andrea’s long fingers. But I’m remembering
the girl in N’s story, the girl

she was at six. This is Birmingham,
1962, Rapunzel-tressed girl
whose parents are more glimpsed than known,

the Family Romance, mid-century American-
style, the child fetching ice
for the father’s drink, the far-off lovely

scent of mother’s perfume. More glimpsed
than known, separate phantom lights
edging from beneath closed doors

those nights she couldn’t sleep. Not the Birmingham
of sit-ins, the firehoses trained on
placard-waving crowds. But the Birmingham

of Saturdays when Anne-Marie would arrive
as always on the city bus by six,
before the parents’ cars would pull away.

Then the cleaning until noon, the cooking smells.
And then the big tin basin filled
at the backyard faucet by Anne-Marie,

the long brown fingers in the child’s hair,
the water sluicing, warm from the garden hose,
the soap suds almost flaring, the fingers

ten spokes over scalp and basin, their paths
through the hair and down the child’s back,
the synesthetic grace notes of the hands,

the stitchery, the trill, the body electric,
the fingertip pressure exquisite as it sings,
the braille of here and here and here.

At 5/12/2009 6:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay (not sarcastic now) I don't really think poorly of you. I was just teed off by the post. Let me answer your fair questions in a minute. The poem you post is (in my opinion at least) a good one. Though I think it's important, in discussing Wojahn, to look at the whole series of the long poems-- this one is the last poem in a series. Especially if we're talking about the influence of modernist juxtaposition, and of the middle generation (this one very overtly offers a readng of Bishop), etc.

At 5/12/2009 6:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Apologies with the formatting errors in the above poem, by the way. It lost some of its lineation and all of the italics (which change the rhythm of the last line quite a bit).

I have no argument with Wojahn's poetry, though in his generation I tend more toward the way Bin Ramke uses memory and story. I really was writing about Wojahn to try to get at just who he's talking about when he's talking about the young poets who arent getting it right. I wish we were forced to add a bibliography of further reading for every time we make a generalization about a generation. As names go, I think Ron Silliman would also call my poems SoQ (though I wouldn't - as who would ever want to call themselves somethign like that?)

And I doubt he's speaking directly at me, by the way, in this interview, just in case you thought my post was defensive. As generations go, I'm closer to Wojahn than I am to the poets he's talking about (I think?), as I'm eleven years younger than he is, and most of them are eleven or more years younger than I am.

The only point where I actually disagreed overtly with him, was when he was talking about ambition, at the end. I do think he misreads how ambition can be manifested in a poet's work.

At 5/12/2009 6:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that key to understanding Wojahn (and some of his best contemporaries-- Sleigh, Alan Shapiro, perhaps Doty when he's not being sappy) is understanding that sincerity and skepticism about the self might not be mutually exclusive. These poets question the integrity of the self as thoroughly as any epigone of Ashbery's-- I think more thoroughly, in fact, since in maintaining a central yearning, suffering core of experience they put a lot more at stake.

The poem you post is a good example. I can imagine a blog reader quickly glancing over this poem and thinking "Ah ha, a poem that begins with an anecdote in the present and then drops back to imagine the poet's wife's past, all in the de rigeur tercets of the day-- seems pretty run of the mill to me." But he or she would be wrong. Look at that scene that begins the poem. The poet is having his hair cut, big deal, but without any fanfare, he's able to establish the underlying uneasiness, the psychic imbalance that occasions the whole narrative. Not only is he graying, but the imagery he sheds around him is a cuneiform, a semiotics that has deep ancient meaning and yet at the same time seems unreadable, nonsense. As nonsensical in fact as the university's noble-sounding Arts and Sciences which is in fact bullying the small businesses in town. (Notice here how Wojahn gets back behind the very stereotype that cursory reader might assume-- graying humanist professor poet telling an anecdote, blind to the system which he lives inside and which determines so much of what he takes to be authentic experience.) The scene itself is established with wonderful cinematic strangeness (twelve hands and six white scalps in a line.) Then comes the memory-- though it isn't a memory of course but a construct. It's partly constructed by the poet's own reading of literature: Bishop is the central reference here, though there's a key moment of Whitman too. It's a construct, and it's also heavily and disturbingly ironized: the wife's memory of being shampooed by a black housekeeper is set beside the Birmingham of fire hoses trained on civil rights protesters. The poem asks the reader to consider both the beauty of the memory and the extreme mediation of it. The self's stories turn out to be constructed by other selves, and deeply contingent, and yet still central, sincere, capable of producing deep feeling.

And speaking of both mediation and depth, the poem is part of a larger series that contains narratives and images of Nikolai Ceaucuscu, Rilke, the poet's own circumcision, a soul-killing department meeting, and a bizzare nightmarish porno film.

At 5/12/2009 10:22 AM, Blogger knott said...

the problem i have with narratives like the shampoo from the nightingales

is my problem, not theirs,

i just don't get it:

How long it must have been, the girl’s hair, [WHAT GIRL? WHERE?]
cascading down her shoulders almost to her waist, [CASCADING? CASCADING? YOU'RE REALLY GOING TO USE THAT WORD?]
light brown and heavy as brocade:[CASCADE/BROCADE: I GET IT] the story I’m

remembering of N’s, [N? WHO THE FUCK IS N? N? WHY ARE YOU TELLING WHO N IS?] remembering as my own
hair’s washed and cut, the salt-and-pepper

cascading cuneiform, on it goes throwing in these absurd words, absurd because wrenched out of their authentic context and used to hyperpoeticize the content:
"veronicas of clicks" etcet . . .

and where's the "story" these first few inept "set-up" lines have promised? when does the poem get to that story, and what the hell happens in that story? Hunh? "N" [AND, AGAIN: WHO THE FUCK IS THIS "N" ANYWAY? FOR CRYSAKE, WOJAHN, IS THIS POEM EVER GOING TO TELL ME WHO "N" IS?] told me a story about what?——

"the Family Romance, mid-century American-
style, the child fetching ice
for the father’s drink, the far-off lovely

scent of mother’s perfume."

How many cliche phrases can you pack into one sentence, but is THAT the "story"? No, no, that's not it, the poem is more than half over, and the "story" it's promised me in the beginning has still not appeared, so what is the "story"?

I give up. Is THIS the goddamn story:

on Saturday nights Anne Marie would wash my hair


the "story" told to Wojahn by the mysterious "N" on what occasion I wonder, I'm trying to imagine the scene where Wojahn and "N" are swapping shampoo memories . . .

I give up.

—I just don't get poems like this. Trivial idle anecdotes, their prosaic plodding lines larded with out of the vestpoetrypocket words like cuneiform and veronicas, stuck in like the raisins in raisinbread,——

fuh! phuc! ugh!


At 5/12/2009 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we all know, far to well, the narrative of Bill Knott's narcissism.

At 5/12/2009 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So much for in media res. Sorry, Homer, Knott right now.

And sorry, Wojahn, that's a fine image of the cuneiform hair, and nicely tinged with a self-deprectaing tone. But Bill doesn't hear tone. And he doesn't like boring anecdotes, unless of course they involve endless peroration about eating salad with Star Black.

Poor, Bill. Sitting up there in Pennsylvania not having to work. If only he knew how to read poems, oh the fun he'd have.

At 5/12/2009 10:35 AM, Blogger knott said...

anon says "N" is Wojahn's wife——

but where in the poem is such information given?

the poem says "N",

it doesn't say "my wife N"——

so how can anon say "N" is Wojahn's wife?

i don't understand——

literally, I don't understand how anyone can derive "wife" from the poem . . .

maybe I go into these kinds of poems with the wrong expectations : i get exasperated and impatient when they suppress basic vital information,

like the identity of "N"——


At 5/12/2009 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to know sometimes when Bill is playing faux-naif or just being a genuine (authentic, to use the word of the hour) dumbass.

Okay, I.R. Richards, "N" is at the very least a woman he's thinking of with great affection, who has told him stories about her childhood, including the psycho dynamics of her relationship to her parents and the name of her housekeeper. He also enjoys imagining her wet hair. You might not need to know "wife" vs. girlfriend... but my God. If Knott has trouble with this narrative, I'd love to see him reading Henry James.

At 5/12/2009 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that should have been I.A.

I'll trade you for an N.

At 5/12/2009 10:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


(Well, the anon with the explication)

For me, you've done a persuasive job of illustrating how Wojahn does a very good job with this mode. It's still the mode that Silliman (yes, yes I know it's a terrible phrase) calls the SoQ, though. The mode that Tony Hoagland (Sharon Olds, and on and on) and many others write within.

This is not to dismiss it, but just to say that it does put forward the story of the I (even as it's under stress), juxtaposed with memory and story in what some other poets see as artificially conventional ways. These are the poets I think he's talking against in the interview. I just wish he'd name them.

I see Bishop's waiting room in there, yes, but also Lowell's "Memories of West Street and Lepke" is an important precursor.

This poem is a good example of what I think is the dominant mode of contemporary American Poetry. He does it well, and it's very, very different from the lineage that comes through Stevens and Ashbery (that it's often placed against).

This said, I still think that when he says, “Sadly, I think that in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere—can in fact be an essential goal of poetry—seems to a lot of people a little passé,” he's saying that self-representation comes only from this use of the seemingly autobiographical and the images of class and race, etc, though overt and received images and scenes.

Under pressure, yes, and done well, yes, but still from those basic assumptions.

There are many strong writers out there, and I don't want to have a fight with Wojahn, but I like a lot of what I feel he's dismissing.

At 5/12/2009 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Bishop poem in question is "The Shampoo." I mean, duh.

At 5/12/2009 11:05 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, isn't that too easy? And Bishop's shampoo seems so different to me, with the imploring at the end. The desire.

This scene seems more like "In the Waiting Room" to me, as it's the identity of the public space that seem more at issue.

But you're right, yes, at the base content level: The Shampoo.

At 5/12/2009 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that at least is the poem he's quoting.

And I don't see how you jump from his defense of self-representation to the idea that he finds this only in received forms of auto-biography.

Remember, this is the last poem in a series, the first poem of which is entirely about... Nikolai Cuceascu. And not in some Sharon Oldsy way: Wojahn is often stressing the gaps between the things he's juxtaposing not the similarities (of course I'm thinking of that infamous Olds' simile about Stalin.)

He's a much different poet than Olds or Hoagland in that regard. Hoagland, for example, is just a goofy rhetorician. An NPR poet.

I'm not sure if that makes him still a poet of the dominant mode. Are there statistics about this? Is Sillyman out there with his slide rule collecting data? Perish the thought that we wouldn't have a category to stick a poem into.

On the issue of names in interviews (which is a dinky issue if there ever was one) who cares? Wojahn gives an example from Joe whats his name the Wendy's poems guy in a current essay in APR. And I'm sure there are any number of people who will jump on him for using names, etc. Who cares. I'm not his lawyer. I just think he, and the others I mentioned, are far savvier and riskier and better than anyone would assume from reading Procustean bs about dominant mode vs. what, submissive mode?

At 5/12/2009 11:25 AM, Blogger knott said...

Wojahn's unattributed quoting of Bishop's poem is

just more smarm, nudge nudge wink wink to gratify the reader's ego,

but pathetic really in comparison——because

one of the things Bishop does so brilliantly is to contextualize, circumscribe, delineate her subject——

and I disagree, John Gallagher, that "Wojahn does it well." Hass and Olds and others do it well, evidently (based on the recognition they receive) but not Wojahn . . . nobody ranks him that highly.

And this particular poem seems pitifully bad to me.

At 5/12/2009 11:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh the dominant mode thing is mostly from the Hoagland, I think, not the Wojahn. I only mentioned it, because Hoagland (I think in the essay that Wojahn is quoting with the "skittery" thing?) calls these poets, these skittery types, the dominant mode, which doesn't fit my experience. And there has to be something Wojahn means when he says these things about other writers, saying, "there’s no small degree of charlatanism in contemporary poetry, a lot of facile and merely clever writing . . . . facile and the trivial."

I'm fascinated by this, and I want to know specifically who he's talking about. I mean, it's a pretty big shot, just to shoot it out into the sky. And it's obviously true. We can all fill in who we think he means. But I want to know who HE means. He might mean Kay Ryan for all I know. But I think not. I think he these younger poets who write skittery things . . .

By the way, I certainly wish Wojahn would replace Hoagland (or, better, Collins). I think he's a much more subversively clever writer.

At 5/12/2009 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ya, okay. Well that's what you get from most interviews: some generalities along with some interesting nuggets.

At 5/12/2009 11:34 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


If I were to list the poets who do this well, yeah, Hass would be pretty near the top, if not number one. Good thing I don't have to make such a list. But I can be generous to Wojahn. His work, by and large is not my cup of memory, but I think he's clever. I disagree with you about Olds.

At 5/12/2009 11:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well the whole reason I read the interview was because it started off with this:

“: . . . Bringing order out of chaos is all well and good, but sometimes it’s a worthier goal to simply make the chaos interesting. . . . Juxtaposition does a better job of replicating real life, and it better reflects the way I think. . . . and the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike images can make for some very fortuitous meetings.”

I found that very interesting.

At 5/12/2009 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Psst, don't say that to Bill about Olds. He actually thinks she's good. Thinks that the cornier and more sensationalistic and facile the narrative the better. That's why he's holed up in PA versifying The Da Vinci Code into his inimitable, Cat in the Hat style.

And we want to *keep* him there...

At 5/12/2009 12:29 PM, Blogger knott said...

"anon" seems so adamant and hurting,
i suspect he must be Wojahn himself . . .

John, if you re-read my comment, you'll see i said "evidently (based on the recognition they receive", deferring my personal opinion to the general . . .

Wojahn will never have the audience of Hoagland and Collins
(or Olds or Oliver)
because he's, essentially, a snob . . .

At 5/12/2009 12:56 PM, Blogger knott said...

"anon" is so angered by my comments, that he has to insult me ad hominem . . . (what's his problem with Pennsylvania, anyway? i don't even live there, so what's his point?)

what am i supposed to do, change my opinion of this poem because he can explicate it, because he can snake out its content . . .?

yes, anon can add up the clues and INFER that "N" is Wojahn's wife,

but so what? I repeat my objection: why doesn't Wojahn simply tell the reader that?

i could do all that explicating/inferencing also, if there was anything in the poem to compel me to that effort . . .

At 5/12/2009 1:38 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Maybe he has you confused with Silliman, who (I think?) lives in PA.

My wife (whom I'll call "N") goes to school there (in PA) in the summers, and I bring the kids out to visit. I rather like it. The mountains are beautiful.

I don't know if Wojahn is a snob or not. I'll reserve that for the selected, that I've now put on my ordering list. This way, we all win.

At 5/12/2009 2:08 PM, Blogger knott said...

no, he's not a snob, i shouldn't have been so cursory as to say that,

but didn't you find his comments about young poets

snobbish and condescending?

as for Pennsylvania, that's where Wojahn is published from, Pitt Press,

so maybe "anon" is placing me there in litotes, ironically implying that my da vinci cat verse will never reach the Pennsylvanian peaks of achievement that Wojahn's has, that Pitt would never pub my inferior poetry no matter how near I lived to its towers . . .

(how many Pennsylvanian poets does Pitt have on its list? how regional are they)


At 5/12/2009 2:19 PM, Blogger knott said...

the title of my next book:

The Da Vinci Cat

At 5/12/2009 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen you skulking around Honesdale, Knott.

And, no, I'm not Wojahn, not even Kaiser Sozje.

Bill, don't you get it that people are very very very tired of your perpetual self-regard? Stop. Just stop. No internet anymore. Turn it off now, please. Take up matchstick models or tittlywinks or something.

Your preference for the cruder likes of Olds and Billy Collins shows in your question about "N" vs. "my wife." The latter would make it a rhetorical one-of-the-guys poem addressed to an audience, much like the work of those poetry tent Poobahs you claim to admire. As it is, we have a more interior voice, one that is not very hard to "snake out." I mean, if we can read Joyce and Proust and Henry James we can figure out a pretty straight forward narrative like this one.

Also, I take the Bishop quotation to be (though, okay, it verges on the cutesy) an acknowledgment of how even our most "authentic" experiences-- joy, attraction, whatever-- are mediated and even enabled at times by, among other things, art, the poems we've read.

But maybe I'm just being overly generous to Wojahn, which is what mean guys do, right?

Or perhaps snobs.

And Bill should know about snobs. Did you guys see that execrable Galassi poem in the New Yorker about eating at Montrachet with Frederick Seidel? An insight into the mind that would publish Bill Knott.

At 5/12/2009 2:38 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I hated every second of "The Usual Suspects."

Other than that, I've not seen the Galassi, so I don't catch the ref, though now I feel like writing something called "In Litotes."

I think Pitt has published some PA authors, but I don't think it has an area mandate.

Other than that, I'm just waiting for Interrogation Palace.

At 5/12/2009 3:29 PM, Blogger knott said...

"anon" will never be able to insult me or Jonathan Galassi enough to convince me of the merits of Wojahn's verse,

but he's managed to get you, John Gallagher, to buy that Selected . . .

we have to rely on things like publishers editors critics to guide our attention——

the very fact that Pitt puts out Wojahn indicates a standard test of quality which has been met——

the fact that you must purchase his poetry confers value upon it——

i mean it's not like Wojahn is some worthless vanity poet whose self-published books

can be downloaded for free

off the internet,

no, you have to actually pay cash to read the great Woj . . .



At 5/12/2009 3:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm looking forward to the Selected. Will I love it? Doubtful. But I'll be glad I have it.

Well, I bought The Quicken Tree. Though that was several years ago.

I also have some free stuff up on the Internet. I don't even think you can download it. To get it, you have to go the the website and read. And it's long, too.

One must suffer for the art of others.

At 5/12/2009 3:59 PM, Blogger knott said...

the fact remains that one must pay money to obtain Wojahn's books,

whereas all my books of poetry can be downloaded for free


——which means his work has value and mine has none . . .

maybe "anon" has delusions that i'm omnipresent skulking-wise,

but honestly i don't live in honesdale or pittsburgh or any other part of PA


At 5/12/2009 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Bill appeared, we all knew it would end in advertisement.

Foreman Grill anyone?

Cash 4 Gold?

At 5/13/2009 6:36 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/13/2009 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh oh, here comes Cherry Koch, the self-appointed spaniel of fourth drawer NY School.

And man, he's really gonna school us!

Or not.

There's a huge difference between the passages you rather ham-handedly sum up and those Oldsy similes. And you obviously have absolutely no understanding of how Lowell works the divide between the self and history. It's enough just to say his name among your pals for some good self-satisfied contempt. Nothing to Say mentions "West Street and Lepke," quite smartly, as that's a foundational poem here. Foundational because the "air of lost connections" on which the poem ends refers both to Lepke and the poet, whose connections work successfully because they work incompletely, they're not analogies or similes, but overlays.

It never seems to strike you that someone comparing an ATF strafe to an undergrad's sestina might joking: that the disjunction is kind of the point. Personally I find that tone, bathetic as it may be, pleasing, companionable even.

I agree that the faculty meeting poem ends rather tritely (the brie part reminds me of Bush Sr.'s old quip.)

You misread the tiger poem in a similar way to the ATF poem: it's presented and acknowledged as a too obvious joke.

Same with the Cuceascu. Your inability to follow up on your own argument makes the counter argument perfectly: how is it Oldsily related to the man remembering his wife's story? You don't say. Because it's not really related. Like the ATF moment, or Lowell's Lepke, it's a disjunction as much as a connection.

Really, it's kind of sad how instantly you guys bristle at anything resembling the category of autobiography, How do you guys deal with Schuyler?

At 5/13/2009 7:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

When I started college, it was back in the 1980s, when Sharon Olds, Tess Gallagher, and Larry Levis, among many others, were very popular, and I had to continually make arguments for inclusion for the poets I was starting to discover, like Michael Palmer and Jorie Graham.

The argument always followed the track of "different modes discover things differently, and we're all betterd by what each can discover." At that time, I had to make arguments for including Schuyler . . . and now perhaps I have to make the same argument to include Schuyler once again, from the other side?

The poets I found then are still the ones I most admire, but I grew a respect (even as I fought with their dominance [at least in my world]) for poets like Wojahn, Dave Smith, and Shapiro, etc.

I don't turn to them often, as I feel I already know what they continue to discover (the way they work autobiography/memory to allow them entry into a moment of epiphany - perhaps that's my hubris), but I'll also not deny them out of hand. Maybe that's what I was not hearing improperly in the Wojahn interview. It sounded to me that he was shooting wide at younger poets, by reducing them to essentials that I don't agree are accurate.

At 5/13/2009 7:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kind of wonder why everyone takes so much umbrage, or pretends to, from the shots at younger poets. Perhaps, in a weird way, Wojahn and those who make similar remarks, are doing young poets a favor-- reinstating the old Oedipal dynamic, replacing the current tribute system. Just a thought. Kick the tires of your poetics, and see if the vehicle holds together.

At 5/13/2009 7:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


There's an extra negative in the last little paragraph.

At 5/13/2009 7:49 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, if someone's shooting at you (well, I'm not sure if he was shooting at me. I thought not. But now I think maybe he was.) you can either take evasive action, retreat, or shoot back. Ignoring it isn't any fun at all.

At 5/13/2009 8:02 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Hi, Anonymous. Your candor is refreshing. Kent Johnson was right! Anonymity is already ushering in a new era of insightful critique.

So, the Wojahn poems are supposed to be funny ha-ha jokes?

At 5/13/2009 8:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sestina phrase is certainly supposed to be. Also the "Harder They Come" for the tiger semen. Not the whole poems. We're learnin ya, Jordan. Soon you might even catch a subtlety or two.

But admittedly these poems might not be for you. You who who admit to being shocked and disgusted by CK Williams. We will try and protect your innocence. Since I know David Lehman only brings you to G rated movies before taking you for a sundae.

It's good to see that you've learned all the stock responses of a NY School kid. Your feigned shock at, oh my god, semen and guns and stuff, is a copy of Frank O'Hara's feigned shock about Skunk Hour. But isn't it time to get your own m.o.?

At 5/13/2009 8:12 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Thanks for footnoting Wojahn's Lowell cite, by the way. That's not something I would have known. I'm innocent of Lowell, so I'm not sure how it makes any hay in the poem, but if it does something for you, okay.

I'm not impressed by your name-calling, and the flipping of Wojahn's and your contempt back on me. But then, I thought better of my note about Wojahn's book, too.

I can see why he has his fans. I have trouble with the undercurrent of anger and incomprehension, of pointless juxtapositions and one-upmanship appeals to human suffering. (I have that last problem with a lot of poetry that I like otherwise.)

At 5/13/2009 8:18 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

That's a lot of anger you're directing at a generalized New York, isn't it, anonymous.

I happen to think O'Hara had a point about Lowell, but as I say I haven't read enough in Lowell to defend it. I appreciate your attempt to cast me as an O'Hara clone -- imagine! -- eventually though, you'll find out that I'm my own man.

What you are, anonymous, who knows. I'd rather not learn where this nastiness is coming from, actually. You can mock that, and I expect you will.

At 5/13/2009 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm sorry about the name calling. (Though "spaniel" and "school kid" are kinda cute...still, sorry.)

It seems to me that anger is as good an occasioning emotion as any, unless it becomes merely rancorous, or self-satisfied or self-righteous.

You don't need to know the Lowell poem to know the Wojahn poem-- I was simply citing the foundational moment for the kind of very un-Sharon-Oldsy juxtaposition Wojahn uses. And yes, you should know that Lowell poem if you're going to be a part of a discussion about contemp. American poetry. My God. Would you lend credence to someone commenting on the NY School who hadn't read "Houseboat Days" or "Hymn to Life?"

It does seem a little weird to me that you admit your ignorance of Lowell, and yet you still use his name to summon contempt.

Which I guess suggests that my own anger (and possibly Wojahn's in the interview.. I dunno) comes from seeing art we admire and find complexity of feeling and intellect in, routinely and fashionably disparaged by people who haven't even read it.

It's also strange how the NY School, so vital as a source of genuine subversion (and that's an over used work most of the time) has developed this weird emphasis on decorum. You can't have suffering in poem, you can't have anger, John Ashbery's mother told him not to talk about himself, and leave the salad for on the outside, etc., etc.

At 5/13/2009 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not anger at the city itself...

I want a part of it...

At 5/13/2009 8:40 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Your comments about the New York school betray the same kind of ignorance you correctly identify in me (and which I am all too quick to corroborate) in re Lowell. Don't worry, though -- obviously there are no consequences to follow glib remarks made anonymously.

I admit I've said "no thanks" to a poetics based on Lowell without having given Lowell a fair shake. I do have his collected poems. I've been pointed at different parts of it by many readers I respect. I have on hand essays about him by several critics I admire -- among them Helen Vendler, William Logan -- and I will probably try four or five more times before my reading time is up to see what everyone sees in him. So far, everything I've seen in his work I've seen done better by his precursors. (So I read Bloom, sue me.)

Depressive types depress me. I avoid them. Still, I wouldn't dismiss a major city without spending a few days there, and goodness knows Lowell is a major city.

At 5/13/2009 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My ignorance of NY School. How?

I've said you guys should account better for Schuyler. I've said people should read him and Ashbery (and O'Hara and Koch, I think too, and Douglas Crase's wonderful one book.. don't much like Barbara Guest, but if you do, cool.) I've said people should read "Houseboat Days."

I've said NY School poets tend not like ugly feelings in poem (depressives depress you: what wonderfully nuanced and sympathetic view.) Although there are Schuyler's Paine Whitney poems.

At 5/13/2009 9:36 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Depressives depress me, yes. Are you a medical doctor, anonymous? I'm saying something real, not parroting back your glibness.

Your emphasis on decorum and the avoidance of suffering is off. You treat Schuyler as an exception, but he's more of an emblem. The constant presence of death and loss in Ashbery's work barely needs mentioning. O'Hara certainly isn't afraid of dark feelings, but neither is he impressed with them. The whole point of Koch's work after 1960-something is to come to terms with suffering without becoming a professional sufferer. There's still a touch of what Winnicott called the manic defense, but he incorporates an awareness of it into the work. (See On the Edge.) David Shapiro, Joseph Ceravolo, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, these poets all deal with pain and loss in their work extensively. Some of them also happen to be funny, and not in the make-fun-of-your-students'-sestinas way, either.

At 5/13/2009 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Isn't afraid of dark feelings, but neither is he impressed with them." is a very good description, I think. It probably applies well to all the poets you mention. It's different though than constant presence of death and coming to terms with suffering.

As I said, I love much of the work of the poets you mention (not Notley and her ex hubby who bore me to tears. Sorry if that's glib. Maybe it's just me.) And I hate the Lowell vs. Ashbery schema. But I guess I perpetuate it at least a wee bit because I find a good deal of the work you cite, despite my respect for it, sometimes feels like chardonnay too early in the afternoon. I start to drift in my Emersonian cloudiness, and even the odd Duschampian bicycle wheel when it appears only spins me closer to drowsiness. I don't want poems to be somber necessarily. But I think the not being impressed with dark feelings thing is a little too telling of certain weaknesses. I find it really hard to look at the age we live in and not be impressed with dark feelings. The point is not then to turn into Anne Sexton. But Emersonian drift starts to feel like good old capitalist choose your illusion: creative destruction. Something is not being reckoned with. And despite the happiness of the poems, the humor that you mention, real Whitmanian, messy, sweaty *joy* seems missing.
These are impressions, and prejudiced certainly. But they're not ignorant readings.

At 5/13/2009 10:31 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I share your point of view about Emersonian drift.

That said, your readings are ignorant. And your argument is neither here nor there, like your phrases -- "Certain weaknesses" "It probably applies well." With that kind of rhetoric, you'll never have to bother to find out, will you.

At 5/13/2009 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, whatever. Unlike you with the poets you disparage routinely, I've read those poets, learned from them, published on them, met them. In short, unlike you, I *have* bothered.

My impression was admittedly that, an impression. You say it's ignorant but don't say how.

This whole thing started with your insulting a poet you didn't even "bother" to understand on the basic level of meaning and then erasing it because you didn't even bother to let your own words stand.

I'm tired. Sorry. Goodbye.

At 5/26/2009 1:53 PM, Blogger Kells said...


Lots of comments I couldn't read all, but your post was wonderful to read and just what I needed today.

A lot to think about and I leave here full. Thank you.

At 5/26/2009 1:55 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thanks for stopping by!

At 6/03/2009 10:58 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I guess you can say I'm a younger poet. 35, done the writing program thing. And I have to say, I agree with him 100 percent. I read a lot of contemporary poetry and much of the stuff that gets categorized as great is merely clever and seems terrified to say anything of consequence. Don't get me wrong, there is some really good stuff being written by younger poets: Steve Scafidi and Malena Morling to name two. But one only needs to look at the winners of the most recent Whitman awards to see how academia is not good for poetry. Much of the work is simply language gymnastics that tries to use theory as a mask for lack of sincerity. What this is, I think, is the fear of not getting a job, and academia is a political realm, which gravitates towards the writing that offends the least. If you can use language well, but never actually say anything, you don't run the risk of agrivating people on hiring committees.

There is also this movement of voluntary segregation going on. I'm a formalist. I'm a poet of identity. I'm a Latin poet. I'm a narrative poet. Such segregation is also political, yet, it does nothing for poetry. All it does is diminish poets to simple labels. I think Wojan is just trying to say that poetry must be about more than these things to be truly great.

I don't claim to be a great poet at all, but there is a lot of truth to what this "old poet" is saying. I do disagree with him about the irony thing, though. I don't even think that a lot of it is about irony. In fact, it's more about pure sarcasm than anything else. "Why care" is the feeling I get from much of it. "It's just poetry."

At 6/04/2009 5:05 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


The point you make is a good one, but it's also the very same point everyone can make at any time in history. In fact I did read someone post almost the very same point (with the clever and academic bits as well) on another blog, written by Theodore Roethke nearly 50 years ago.

This is what makes me wonder what Wojahn is really talking about. He's either, one, saying something obvious, as if he's just thought of it, or, two, he really is damning the whole next generation, which a lot of poets [and people] often do when they get to a certain age: "why these kids these days!"

I can see more where you're coming from, than where he's coming from. To write formal verse these days, puts you on the other side of a lot of fences!

At 11/28/2009 9:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 12/21/2009 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...





At 3/13/2011 7:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a bunch of blather, from every front and angle. Go write your best poems, put them out there for others to read,like,hate,love, enjoy,despise, judge ... and then shut up and let your work,good or bad, be your mouthpiece. Those who go on and on (as you have) are usually secretlyworried about one thing -- that their own work is neither loved or despised, but rather that the most common and pervasive reaction to it is boredom and indifference. Please, all of you, please, stop crying in your beer.

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