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Anis Shivani

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Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What it Takes to Ascend to the Poet Laureateship

Posted: 08/13/11 02:05 PM ET

The truth about American poetry is that it is in very bad shape. The professional poetry establishment has taken care to mark serious criticism coming its way as sour grapes, but the quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude.

One reads Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Philip Levine, and their camp followers to come away diminished, as a reader and as a human being. Their very project is to participate--as the front guard of a regressive political elite--in the annihilation of common decency at all levels. Their poetry is garish, troublingly content-free, indecorous, and emotionless. Readers are smart not to read this trash.

One would think that a celebrated female poet like Sharon Olds would show some signs that she had assimilated the key ideas of the twentieth century--or even most since the late eighteenth century. But Olds is like a time-trap in medievalism, stuck in her obsessions with bodily flows, the pain of childbirth, and the witchery of men who love like it hurts, in a universe that might as well be populated entirely with priests and oracles. Of course, she sets her poetry in modern American suburbia (not that there are any specifics about where any of the inflated traumas of the brittle poetic self take place) but it might as well be in a land before constitution, consultation, and communication.

Sylvia Plath's baroque Daddy, overseeing her imagination of herself as the archetype of wandering suffering, is the great gift that never stops giving, and Olds has no shame in exploiting this figure over and over. But confessional poetry has regressed a lot in the last forty years. Whereas Robert Lowell had a secure sense of himself as a conductor in the vast orchestral schema called History, for Olds and the post-feminist writers of our era womanhood as it exists is an unfathomable conspiracy, a calumny against some ideal nature that must nevertheless be embraced.

The difference between the gross complaints of the early confessionalists, who, steeped in serious appreciation of psychoanalysis, were down on Daddy, is that now the confessional poets don't know who to turn to but Daddy, even in the midst of their worst depressions. One wants to sleep with Daddy, for Daddy, within his sight, but rather than be angry about it, one wants to somehow assimilate him into adult, healthy love for the socially acceptable partner--such a tall order to meet, when the certainties of Freudian psychoanalysis have vanished into the ether of Derridean uncertainty!

In her early poetry, such as in Satan Says (1980) and The Dead and the Living (1984), Olds watches her father, along with her son and daughter, in various states of undress, lavishing attention on their private parts. She goes out of her way to make it clear that she is attracted to the father and son's cocks, and to the daughter's vagina, but it is not an overtly sexual attraction. There is no pure attraction, as there is no pure repulsion, in the postmodern worldview.

It's as if Olds has seen prurience, child molestation, and incest in the phenomenal world, and now can't wait to reduce it to an archeology of fantasy and fetish in her poetry, so that the threat of things going haywire in the cozy domestic realm is defused, for us and her. We don't really know why she returns obsessively to the private parts of her family members, but we understand that she is helpless about the things that make her feel alive.

In all her poetry, unchangingly from 1978, Olds remains the little prefeminist girl, utterly overwhelmed by biology. The idea these days is for writers to appropriate demeaning words like cunt to defuse them of their verbal charge; but for Olds to talk of women helplessly wanting to feel men's "hard cocks" against themselves suggests more than a measure of involuntary commitment. Sensationalism would be a charge mislaid against Olds; she seems to want to strip the sensationalism of television melodrama of any emotional effect.

The flat language, unimpressive diction, predictable rhythms, and barely passable metaphors, lumped together in herky-jerky fashion across intentionally unclean line breaks, are meant to place the anti-heroic female at the center of her own attentions; who cares how the world reacts to her persistent complaints? To write poetry with these means is to insult and punish oneself, over and over.

Victimization must be found wherever it can. In an early poem, Olds identifies herself as a Jew, putting the onset of menstruation in the same breath of survivorship as Auschwitz; decades later, in "the Window," from her recent collection The Unswept Room (2003), poet and daughter have a good cry together after the daughter accuses her of falsely appropriating Jewish identity. The world revolves around our cosseted poet. She is grateful that "Mrs. Krikorian," the school teacher in Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), escaped the Armenian genocide so she could "save" our budding poetess. "May, 1968," in the same collection, seems to have occurred for no other reason than to fleetingly distract our adventurous poet. In perhaps the crudest work in recent literary history, in The Father (1992), Olds treats us to the minutest unsavory details of a father's slow death from cancer, bravely filling in that lacuna in her chronicling of the family helpless against biological destiny.

The trauma of giving birth is something Olds returns to again and again in her poetry, a process she articulates as a merger of identities among the poet, the poet's mother, and the poet's daughter, a regression across three generations, where the poet's daughter is really the poet's mother, and where the poet is really her mother's mother when the poet was a child. Every level of this poetry is a plunge back into the womb, where dark fears and unplaceable anxieties inform each waking moment. Here, the poet is the tribune of the fascist underbelly of the vast, sleeping population, verbalizing for their benefit their worst nightmares, the physical inescapabilities behind the production and maintenance of family. The family--potentially incestuous, violent, carnivorous--exists in a total political vacuum. There is no attempt to justify the truth of these perceptions; Olds says so, and we must take it as authoritative writ.

Of course, this poetry is loudly appreciated by the poetry establishment as a daring feminist's effort to present the realities of a woman's physical existence, areas of life that male poets might not be interested in exploring. It does say a lot about the awarding committees that the unfeeling--vampirish and vulturous--narrator in Olds's poetry is taken as the paragon of womanhood these days.
If Olds is utterly dominated by the objective world, then Jorie Graham makes light of materialism in any of its forms. Graham doesn't ever let us forget that she is trained in philosophy, has an exotic background, and is beyond the range of petty emotions provincial American poets seem to exploit for a readership.

Graham seems to see herself doing poetry a great service by elevating its thought content, which for her means an elusive search for a "unified field" of thought that will reduce all material objects to fantasy. This third-rate student of Wittgenstein and Derrida is as hung up on the idea that it's difficult to make language communicate as a freshman at an elitist liberal arts college first made aware of it. Graham wants to purge poetry of every trace of emotion, being content to engage in swirling spirals of thought that abruptly dead-end.

Graham may be the most unreadable poet of our times. In her recent work like Swarm (2000) and Never (2002), her interminable lines have so spun out of control, and her thought process become so impossible to follow, that the reader throws up his hands and begs for release. Graham, however, wouldn't but want the reader to feel frustrated and alienated to that infuriating extent, since language serves no useful purpose anyway. Over time, Graham's work has become freer and freer of concrete images, flat declarative statements constituting almost the sum of her poetry, unlike the mere cute accessories they are for poets like Olds, Glück, Levine, and others straining for cheap epiphanies.

Materialism of any sort is delusion, Graham seems to say in the unironically titled Materialism (1993). Narrative can be of no help in constructing a materialist account. There are only disembodied voices, coming from nowhere and compelling the poet to take one cul-de-sac after another of half-hearted narrative lines. Whereas for an early confessionalist like Sexton, mental illness had its objective reality, for Graham schizophrenia is inherent in language itself. Whenever the poet gives reign to her inner voice, she practices madness.

In Region of Unlikeness (1991), the schizophrenic voices command the poet to "make detail withdraw its hot hand, / its competing naturalness." Not only details, but the whole scaffolding of narrative, must be dismissed, ending in such drivel in her late work, as: "...it is a place / holding a place: it is an eclipse of: of holding / on: of on: or in: or what a here can be / if what one is / is finally reduced to here: it is not 'now,'" and on and on, from "High Tide," in Never.

Apparently, narrative has no business in a serious poet's arsenal because it is founded in detail (which must be dismissed because materialism has no basis). Language itself is compromised because--well, because Derrida told us so. At no point does Graham, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, seem conscious of her own role in stripping language of meaning. It came stripped and shredded, in a box labeled poststructuralism; to talk about its uselessness is the fashionable thing to do, and she'll take this irritating discourse to its limits. The unreal self, if it can draw inspiration from anywhere, must do so from ephemeral media.

Part of the project of leading American poets today is to purge public memory of all excitement. If and when the external world does impinge on the poet's private thought processes, it is only to illumine some internal dilemma of the worrying poet, to strengthen or invigorate some pitiful struggle of his. Here's part of how Graham reacts to the Kennedy assassination, in "Fission," from Region of Unlikeness: "what is, what also is, what might be that is, / what could have been that is, what / might have been that is, what I say that is, / what the words say that is, / what you imagine the words say that is--." Sorbonne-educated Graham, if she no longer uses images in her poetry, must know better than us provincials!

So history, personified as a stuttering, slobbering old man, has been banished to the green room of a vast television studio of pamphleteer-poets, awaiting earphoned instructions from their handlers and managers. If a great public event happens, we must care about it only insofar as it traumatizes the ever-fragile poetic self--the contemporary minor poets who have written for Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets (2002), seem to have learned this lesson well.

Louise Glück's poetry follows the familiar pattern. She starts off in Firstborn (1968), interested in the image, the external world, but soon shuts down the perceptual apparatus to see only herself involved in her grief. Oh, and what grief! An insensitive husband--with whom, however, she seems to have had a long marriage; and the children, bit players in a domestic drama beyond their grasp; and the flowers in her garden, little Freudian psychoanalysts all; and herself, Penelope and every other woman in myth who ever had to delay gratification.

Again, from 1968 until now nothing in the real world seems to have impinged on Glück's domestic melodrama. And then the infuriating modesty! The assumed self-deprecation, as of every other key literary figure today. The humble posture is geared to make us identify all the more with her pain, and to think that beyond this domestic hurt, nothing else matters as subject for poetry. Judge poets by the sturdiness of their defense of poetry, and today's poets come off as singularly shallow.

In Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994) we learn of Glück's education as a poet as being a hodgepodge of recovery from anorexia, the Electra complex, analysis. Why not? Why should the poet acknowledge the impulse to write poetry as something that might have come purely from love of literature? No, the idea being shouted from the bully pulpit today is that poetry is yet another form of therapy. So get in line at the open mikes and poetry slams, it's everyone for himself.

Unlike Plath, Glück isn't revoltingly depressed. She just has a steady case of the blues. What writing program student wouldn't adore the fact that Glück doesn't let the psychological dive spin out of control? It's a low-level shriek over four decades, rather than a fierce shout and a quick burnout. In Firstborn, she derives energy from the surrounding exuberance of the sixties, and presents concrete images, if a little too obscure to understand because of their derivative nature. Then, silence, until The Triumph of Achilles (1985), unless one counts the paper-thin The House on Marshland (1975), where she merely clears her throat in the lowest possible key. She's had extended writer's block, and we better get set and ready for her mind having assimilated the new political fashions after the disillusionments of the sixties.

We aren't disappointed. Glück comes up with a new collection every few years, once she's past a major milestone in life, a trauma or recovery--the prelude to divorce, divorce itself, the post-divorce adjustment. The prompting for art is always inner turbulence. Ever the child wanting to please, Glück's tone remains saccharine sweet throughout, without any verbal riskiness that might invite parental or spousal displeasure. She seems to be in love with wanting to please her male patrons, just as Olds is in love with the fact of her biological destiny.

By the end, Glück seems to write almost entirely in honeyed abstractions, the obligatory platitudinous epiphany (typical of our leading poets) at the end of the poems now leeching its way upward into the heart and soul of the poem, until sometimes it can be the beginning, middle, and end.

It seems as if the seventies were a prolonged period of transition for Glück, and for the other poets of her generation, during which they made peace with the new cultural standard of all therapy, all the time. Often, what the poet now drags up from the bottom of the well is nothing more than trivial childhood memory, or more accurately, pseudo-memory. Like Olds, Glück also has a sister to bash around when her poetry runs out of steam. "Labor Day," from The Triumph of Achilles, is occasion only to remember her father's death a year ago, which the poet processes conclusively with this profound insight about the length of a human life: "Not a sentence, but a breath, a caesura." Look for not a whiff of irony in these mutterings of the self-important!

In the decades since The House on Marshland, Glück has discovered the dangers that await the littlest childhood transactions; monsters stalk the trusting child on every bright corner and lighted street of suburbia. She has discovered that long-lasting marriages settle into patterns of insensitivity and carelessness, truths she must recruit poor Odysseus and Telemachus and Penelope to enact within the bounds of her household, the mythical figures lending added importance to Glück's familial upsets. But enough grief of a violent-sounding nature. Glück settles back into pleasing New Age pacified grief in Vita Nova (1999), where "Descent to the Valley" informs us of the poet's state of mind after divorce:

How sweet my life now
in its descent to the valley,
the valley itself not mist-covered
but fertile and tranquil.
So that for the first time I find myself
able to look ahead, able to look at the world,
even to move toward it.

Moving toward the world means for Glück, as it does for Graham, seizing on abstraction. She becomes quite the expert in piling generalization upon generalization, freeing her poetry of images, in the Graham style, in The Seven Ages (2001). The abstractions go along with a total regression into the banalities of childhood in Glück's seven stages of grief. Here in America, poets age by becoming playthings of their own imagined childhoods.

Is there any poet left who believes in the American Dream anymore, naïve and flatulent as this notion might sound to the postmodernists? How about the acclaimed poet of the Detroit working class, the Fresno bard alleged to have memorialized the ordinary moments of hardworking Americans? Philip Levine's attitude toward the working class, it turns out, is the same as Wal-Mart's toward workers hard on their luck: tolerate them, describe their trivialities in semi-poetic language (in company bulletins and corporate newspeak), so that their tribulations seem worth it, earned, the denouement of a just world, where a just God rules over all his creatures, great and small. In other words, total resignation. Not a trace anywhere of discomfort at the inequalities of wealth and resources, not even a token gesture toward reinvigorating the American Dream.

Levine doesn't commemorate the working-class life as much as spit back its images in unchanging form: confirming our ingrained idea of Levine's idea of 1940s Detroit working life. Since One for the Rose (1981), his style has remained constant: the same columnar page-and-a-half poem with arbitrary line breaks, composed in the same flat tone barely qualifying as good prose, and ending in spry epiphanic bursts.

Of working-class life today, Levine wouldn't know a heck of a lot about, since in his early twenties, after a brief period of factory work, he was already in touch with some of the leading poets of the day, and enrolled at the Iowa Writers Workshop. As late as Mercy (1999) and Breath (2004), Levine keeps offering half-imagined uncles and aunts, assembly-line stiffs and shipped-off soldiers, set in a foggy thirties and forties climate that probably didn't significantly touch him and that he was too young to recall, presented however in the most sincere memoirist terms, as if it really happened.

Unlike Olds, Graham, and Glück, Levine does possess some measure of genuine skill. In early poems like "Animals are Passing from Our Lives" and "M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfree Intermediate School," he shows traces of cosmic humor. In early interviews he would talk of himself as an anarchist, and his work did have anarchic elements. But this was before he was appointed by the poetry grand poobahs as their very own Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Levine had by then made the turn toward accommodating the conservative spirit of the eighties and after, when one once again takes one's station in life as given. There has been no misery, no tragedy, in Levine's poetry for some decades. There is only acceptance, and tolerance, an otherworldly stare, a Buddhist calm that can't tell when one has slid into being an arch-conservative.

So pervasively flat is Levine's outlook that even when taking a ride across the awe-inspiring landscape of the American Southwest, in "Getting There" from The Simple Truth (1994), all he can think of is feeding his six-year-old son, and other little domestic worries. Levine shares none of the belief in the frontier myth, the rediscovery of self and the reinvention of mind, that have informed so much great American literature. Like his lauded contemporaries, he is not a believer in rugged individualism, in liberty at all costs. Like them, his art exists to record insights on a scale so small that were it not for some of the superficialities of poetic craft it might be missed altogether, and to write it in language so unambitious that were it not for line and page breaks it might be thought of as second-rate prose.

Whitman posited an America boundless in its possibilities of reconstituting useful myths about itself. That lent America inflexible strength of a kind that set it apart from all other nations. In Levine's poetry, America is a land unjustifiably proud of its frontier myth, its everlasting liberal ethic. America was always mechanistic (the mechanization motif is a recurrent one in the late work of Levine's contemporaries as well) in producing men and women, members of families, who behave predictably in certain unclamorous ways, incapable of surprising the poet's imagination. Levine begins "The Escape," from The Simple Truth, by stating: "To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured / without the power of speech."

This poetry doesn't really seek to explicate misery; it's too weak-spirited for that. What it does is reconstruct fatalism, describing in dull, platitudinous terms, allowing for no other state of mind, the incorporation of the human will into various forms of mechanization. This passivity comes dressed up in heroic clothes, heroic because the poet is able, we're told, to face reality. But the last American romantics are certainly not among our poets, who seem to write their major work as if with the approval of their workshop students in mind. This mindless audience is most easily satisfied these days when all work is presented as memoir. Unfortunately, so are the critics.

Olds, Graham, Glück, and Levine started off writing poetry that matched their marginal talents, taking inspiration from what was left of modernism between 1960 and 1980. Then the poetry establishment's outsized accolades gave them too big an idea of themselves, and they each turned into an image of what they were supposed to be like: Olds the intrepid forager among women's dirty little secrets, Graham the Old World philosopher-deconstructer of language, Glück the pithy celebrator of the domestic everyday event, Levine the working-class sage with no chips on his shoulders.

Each of them soon discovered an unchanging style and content, to which they have stayed faithful regardless of shifts in the wider Zeitgeist. If they were to deviate from their style, the Academy of American Poets and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award committees wouldn't know what to make of it.

Poetry can be a highly profitable business. Between them, these four poets have claimed three Pulitzer Prizes, four National Book Critics Circle Awards, one National Book Award, and just about every other major American poetry award. The working-class hero Philip Levine has been a professor of poetry for more than forty years, although to judge by his poetry you wouldn't think that he'd had any acquaintance with academia beyond a rudimentary high school education. The others claim prestigious endowed professorships, the ownership of the lecture and conference circuit, and the privilege to award and recognize other poets from their own writing programs who write poetry just like theirs. Poetry, because it can be so profitable, is also a highly incestuous business these days.

What to do then? Where do poets of broad imagination, genuine classical mooring, wit and irony and humor, and sympathy across the class lines come from? Can a culture, so decrepit and inhumane that it boasts of its own periodic death at every turn, produce broad-minded poets? Or are these the best we have to live with? Will their work survive, or will they be footnotes to a transitional age, where history took a break, prosperity made their kind of work possible, and lapsed standards of judgment let them get away with their fraud for so long?

It's not as if there were promising alternatives out there. Billy Collins professes disinterest in writing about the trivial tribulations of the private self, and he stays close to his creed; but his poetry can often slide dangerously close to intellectual masturbation of a sort, imaginative game-playing for its own sake. Collins seems to be settling into the role of Collins the jester, the anti-Glück, the establishment browbeater, in the gentlest of ways, of course. Every other stylist quickly congeals into his well-defined role.

The major formalists write poetry of such insatiable calm, such soothing tones, such placid removal from the tectonic shifts of contemporary American culture, especially as they get older, that one doubts their lasting value. Another escape from confronting reality, particularly in the writing programs, is language poetry; people will keep writing such poetry, with nothing beneath the surface, but its impact on the social register seems negligible.

Genius, it seems, can't necessarily be produced in factories. A strike just might be in order!

This essay was originally published in London Magazine. The author's debut book of criticism is Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (Nov. 2011).