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Embarrassing

July 21, 2009

Sometimes I find a poem that makes me want to avert my eyes. Either it’s telling me too much, or it’s so pitifully awkward, or it’s hilariously badly written—but I stifle the impulse to laugh (sometimes not-so-successfully) because of my sense that the person who’s written it is surely embarrassed and doesn’t want any more attention.

Then again, the poem is in the American Poetry Review or The New Yorker*, so you figure the poet wanted you to read it. Even wanted you to admire it.

First case in point is Edward Hirsch’s “Milk,” on the back of the recent APR. Here is the first line: “My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing.”

Get it? OK, so sometimes puns can be funny. And sometimes they can just make you cringe. Given the author and the publication, it’s fair to think this line is meant to be taken absolutely straight—we’re in a No Irony zone, and this wasn’t something somebody found using Google.

I sometimes like to imagine what goes on behind the scenes—for example, when they were filming the movie Cujo, you know that somebody had the job every day of bringing a St. Bernard to the set, covering his mouth in foam, and ordering him to attack a car. And you know, as well (if you’ve owned a dog), that that animal has to be thinking something about humans while being put through that exercise. So I imagine editors sitting around a conference table nodding their heads at line one, saying, “Ooh. That’s good.”

My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing
and decided that formula was healthier
than the liquid from her breasts.

I count a 4/3/3 stress stanza. We’re in confessional free-verse territory, but this isn’t a confession of the poet’s—it’s rather a cranky (grown-up) kid’s complaint against his mom and (we see later) a paean to “a woman who had a baby daughter” and, using what might be the only stock cliché referring to nipples**, “tipped her nipple into my mouth.” I can’t help hearing Adrienne Rich: “I was constantly struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation. The columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three-stress line, can be narrow in more than a formal sense.” (from “Defying the Space That Separates,” Adrienne Rich, in Arts of the Possible)

This happened a long time ago in another city
and it is wrong to tell about it.
It was infantile to bring it up in therapy.

It bugs me that I can actually hear the faux-solemn reading voice in which this stanza would be intoned, even as the poet begs us to imagine him as a nursing baby with his grown-up head. Well, bub, you’re well into it now, so—erm—you don’t get to be forgiven for telling it yet again, let alone publishing it in 24-point type on the back of a tabloid. And, gosh darn it, we all know how this ends, yes?

She lifts my face and I taste it—
the sudden spurting nectar,
the incurable sweetness that is life.

Cue the audible sigh! Life is incurably sweet—as long as you don’t step outside your apartment, read the news, look for a job, or check your retirement account. And as long as you aren’t female: none of the females in this poem, including the baby daughter, fares as well as the poor, psychoanalyzed poet.

In The New Yorker, Donald Hall publishes “Meatloaf,” a poem that tells you (in stanza 1) that it’s in nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables. (Thus, Hall’s deceased famous-poet wife, Jane Kenyon, becomes “Jennifer” for the sake of the form.) I don’t like knowing this. I much prefer discovering form as I read along—with the possible exception of James Cumming’s sestina instructing one on writing a sestina, which throws up its own hands in frustration because it’s decided to use “thirty-nine” as an end-word (“and thirty-nine / isn’t exactly rife with associations, The Thirty-Nine / Steps excluded,” as I no doubt imperfectly recall). OK, so for the rest of the poem you’re thumping along counting 9, 9, 9. If, for whatever reason, you’re still reading.

The poem name-checks Kurt Schwitters, Auden, Ted Williams’s cryonically preserved head, and the delectable “Lauren,” a woman lithe enough to climb Mt. Kearsage while the elder poet sits in the car writing this poem. And, in case we’ve begun to forget, stanza 5 begins “When I was named Poet Laureate….” (At least Ed Hirsch didn’t write, “When I was named president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation”—whoops! He did, in the author’s note at the bottom of his poem. Never mind.)

You just wonder how confessional literature went from something like Plath’s sly and torrid descriptions of suicide in “Lady Lazarus” to these lines:

In fall I lost sixty pounds, and lost
poetry. I studied only “Law
and Order.” My son took from my house
the eight-sided Mossberg .22
my father gave me when I was twelve.

This is why, in one final and true confession, Hall is forced to admit “my stanzas [are] like ballplayers sent down / to Triple A, too slow for the bigs.” Nobody at The New Yorker is going to send Hall back to the minors, regardless of how minor the work, just as nobody who dreams of a Guggenheim dare diss Hirsch. Stan Apps recently wrote that the poems not included in the Flarf section of the latest Poetry were worse than the intentionally bad Flarf. Could it be that Gary Sullivan et al. are the little boy shouting that the Emperor has no clothes?

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..
*I know. I have New American Writing #27, so why oh why am I talking about this stuff?

**Though Kathleen Woodiwiss, in her blockbuster romance Shanna, wrote the unforgettable sentence “Her breasts were like short-fused bombs,” it never took off as a cliché.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2009 3:37 pm

    And let’s not forget the immortal line which I’ve heard attributed to Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “I stand with my breasts pressed to the earth.”

  2. Carlen Arnett permalink
    July 23, 2009 12:37 am

    Janet, loved your remarks about the sad devolution of the confessional and about Hall’s “Meatloaf.” When I read it in the NYer I could hardly believe anyone would publish it at all. Much student work I read is superior to this.

    • July 23, 2009 10:02 am

      Hate to say it, but I think it’s either lazy or cynical editing. One of the stupider accusations thrown at poets is that we only write for other poets—the truth is, we write for people who read poetry. Poetry like Hall’s “Meatloaf” (and like Meghan O’Rourke’s “My Aunts,” the other cliché-ridden poem in the issue) is for people who don’t read poetry—who are afraid they won’t understand it—so they can come across something like this and think, “Oh, that’s not too hard—I got it!” At least, that’s the only reason I can think of to publish stuff like this.

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