Monday, February 6, 2012

Challenging Readers: A Review of a Review: James Crews reviewing Wayne Miller in New Pages

In recent pages of New Pages, poet James Crews reviews Wayne Miller's The City, Our City (Milkweed Editions, September 2011) with a "critical" eye that manages to clumsily bypass the actual poetry and instead seems to proffer, once again, a very old argument about how and why poetry should do what it does and how a poet fails by being "inaccessible." (Which, in much poetry reviewing means "writing not like I do.")

[I should state outright that I haven't yet read Miller's book, and have only a passing familiarity with his work. Before enountering this review, I had never heard of James Crews but have learned through Google that he was born and educated in the mid-west, recently won a book prize of some sort, and now resides in Portland, Oregon, where he does something, I guess, to do with poetry. If there is any personal politics informing this review, I know nothing of them.  Similarly, as I have no association with either of these poets, my review here is based solely upon, well, the review I'm reviewing.  Still following?   I mention this because in future posts, I will be writing about poets and poetry with whom I have a personal connection or some personal stake--I'll note these connections when necessary.]

Crews begins with a declaration that, while appearing descriptive, is actually a prescription for what poetry should not do:

The principal aim of The City, Our City, [. . .] is to construct a difficult, philosophical poetics that most audiences will have trouble wrestling into meaning.
The assured tone here is admirable; the sentiment is not--not because it's empirically wrong in any sense, or not even because our reviewer presumes to know "the principal aim," or not even because it makes a sweeping assumption about "most audiences," but because it fails to communicate anything other than a vague disdain for a poetry concerned with the rather nebulous project of "difficult, philosophical poetics," that the equally nebulous readers collectively known here as "most audiences," will find too difficult. This is a sentiment that can't be empirically correct or incorrect, as it doesn't deal with concrete concepts, but abstract ideas that stand in for that which we find yucky. Dig? (I'll leave alone the slightly problematic use of the word "poetics" here to describe not "poetics" per se, but simply poetry.)

To put it another way, we have heard this argument before, and it is almost completely devoid of meaning, saying no more than poetry we don't like or can't make mean a certain way (our way, the normal way) is poetry to be avoided, or at least not worth much of our time. Crews proceeds to posit this imaginary audience as one that will not tolerate being "turned off," but may not mind being "unsettled" as long as there's a payoff. So far, our imagined readership here is a cipher, a null. What reader does like being turned off?  Part of this book's objective, we're told, is to almost turn off the fake readers, while unsettling perhaps a bit too much. I guess it does both.  And that's a real bummer.

Finally, Crews faintly praises Miller's "remarkable skill" and as an example, quotes a passage from a poem he deems "successful" because, at least in part, it "establish[es] a scene and context in which his [Miller's] talent begins to shine."  Less-than-adroit turn of phrase aside, this seems reasonable.   Here's the passage:

The sound of the wind--but the wind
has no sound, we hear
only the vibrations
of whatever it touches. How silent
this room would be
without the creaking trees...

My own first impression is that it recalls Stevens and early Ashbery, though stripped a bit of the mystery characteristic of say "The Snow Man" or "Some Trees."  Crews praises the language here because it "appeals to the ear" (whose ear, I ask?  I listen to Black Metal a fair amount of the time. My mother likes New Country) and "has the power to change how we think of something as simple as the wind." Okay, Crews.  Let's get this straight.  This language has "power."  Awesome.  I hate wimpy language. And it can change how we think about the wind.  Crews has never, it seems, been caught in a windstorm, or even noticed that an errant gust can indeed make trees creak, strip them of limbs, and so forth.   What Crews praises here is not the power of language to change anything but the fact that this language is quite direct--nothing here to think too hard about.  That might, after all, ruin our fun, unsettle us too much, and ultimately, turn us off.

He praises another piece because its title, "Those Boys," is "helpful" in indicating what the poem is about.  If only he had named ALL the poems so helpfully!  It might then even be suitable for your mother's book club.

Crews finally turns to the real work of the review which is to show all the ways in which Miller's poems do not work, the myriad strategies they employ in a deliberate attempt to turn off the imaginary reader.  In a preface to a section of a (watch:  this is important) poem that is untitled and "illogically broken up," Crews bemoans the inspecificity of it all.  This poem has no title, and it fails to "locate readers in a specific time and place" and the sky is falling but you forget to pencil in the sky! To disrupt, he helpfully reminds us, one first must establish stability.  (In this case, I guess this would start with giving the poem a title.)  Then, he says, the poet may stray.  Before I turn to that poem, I'd like to point out this observation he makes a paragraph earlier about a poem he does like, one he calls a "gorgeous, affecting elegy, which stays with the reader."  The poem places the speaker and his father in a large city, and, Crews tells us "Miller does not even need to specify the place here [. . .] he creates a vast literal and emotional landscape."  Mmmmkay.  And a bit later he sternly instructs us:  "Writers cannot have it both ways [!]" (overenthusiastic punctuation mine).

The poem ultimately fails because the reader isn't told which city this is, can't tell if it actually exists (London?) or is fictional (Mordor?).  Oh, and some of the poems are allusive. Some of them have notes. (Insert groan and sigh here.)  Crews looks out for the little guy when he opines that most readers, even avid readers of poetry, won't have the patience to read the notes simply to understand the poem. And, you know, the notes aren't all that good anyway.  We are still left "scratching our heads."

So I've tried to cobble together a rough crib sheet for Crews' anti-philosophical poetics.  Think of it as A Few Donts for an Imagiste, a century later.

1. Don't be philosphical. Whatever that actually means.

2. Names, people!  Titles.  Poems with titles, good.  No titles, bad.

3. Places.  See 2 above.  Disregard this rule if your poem is about your dad.

4. Your language should have the "power to change!"

5. The poem must not successfully resist the intelligence.  In fact, it should require very little intelligence. And please don't bore the reader with notes, references, allusions.  "The reader" has been at work all day, his feet are killing him, and he needs to get dinner on the table by 6 pm.

6. Address, whenever possible, other poets condescendingly by referring to them by way of backhanded compliments.  For example, "young writer" is a good one.  This is really fun if you are actually younger than the poet you're reviewing.

7. Disregard #6 as it is really a handy tip not for the poet but for the reviewer.

8. Five O' Clock shadow is always sexy.


I could go on.  I could conjure some clumsy metaphors about frozen food vs. homemade pot pies, or draw parellels between James Crews and Simon Cowell.   Instead, I'll end with two quotes.  The first is the entire final paragraph of the review.  The second is, (thanks John B. for looking these up), a pair of lines by James Crews himself.


One hopes that, in future volumes, Miller will find ways of including more readers by crafting poems that are both accessible and complex, both heart-wrenching and intellectually astute at the same time. A poet need not be obscure or detached to make work that challenges readers. He can choose to invite us into a piece, to share the wonder of experiencing our world more deeply.


Her mouth pondered the sweet crush of wet grass
as I approached.

--James Crews, "Palomino"

1 comment:

  1. "Inaccessible writing" as writing not like I do, yes--and the related "incomprehensible poetry" without a hint that others may find it comprehensible--even the critic himself if he really tried. I try never to label any poem inaccessible although I will confess I can't figure out a poem when that's the case.

    Good words on the so-called "principal aim"--but I would add that I would like to know why a poetry for the few should be denigrated. Should no one compose operas because, in Crews's words, "most audiences will have trouble wrestling (them) into meaning?" Or cook really far-out gourmet dishes? Crews should have said he couldn't say anything intelligent about Miller's book, and ended his "review."

    Can't say I think much of Crews's example of Miller, when he's good. Wind does have a sound, it seems to me, since--as I understand it--sound is what happens when something causes the air to vibrate which in turn causes mechanisms in the ear to vibrate. The wind, being air, would do this directly. Or, in the poem, indirectly, by causing trees to vibrate which causes the air to vibrate which causes the auditory mechanisms to vibrate. But myabe I'm wrong. In any case, all the poet seems to me to be saying is that the room is silent except for the sound of the wind in the trees.

    Good question, whose ear does it appeal to. Seems to me a competent critic would say what the lines do auditorily that will tend to seem musical to most people, such as repeat words and syllables, which this passage does; but it doesn't seem to me to do much else. The critic need not point out what I call a poem's "melodations" as good, just point them out, since some readers may miss them--or hear them but not fully appreciate them.

    I do agree with Crews that a poem needs some kind of point of stability--what I call a unifying principle--to deviate interestingly from. I'm big on titles, too, but certainly don't think lack of one can spoil a poem. I'm not confident that Crews can recognize the most interesting unifying principles, some of them quite delayed.

    Like all critics with readerships (as I believe Crews may have, for I think I've heard of him), he seems not to say much about poetic technique--subject matter and points of view seem to be for him all that matters in a poem.

    I think you captured him quite well, young Anthony. Thanks for a report that got me involved enough for all this.