I Surfed—I’ve just returned from Hawaii, remember--my way today to the newest issue of Boston Review, in which there is, at least to my way of thinking, an extremely incisive review of LEGITIMATE DANGERS by Katie Peterson. In her assessment of what she perceives as some of the major trends, and ticks, in the poems collected here, Peterson makes a number of winning characterizations of aspects of many young poets’ work that turn me off to their poems, that see like easy ways out of difficult problems. This passage grabs me particularly:
“Even though poems like these say they’re about us, the readers, they’re not really. They are performance scripts that demand our presence, but not our personhood. That is, we are not asked into the poem to react to a specific event or set of identifiable feelings; as Marvin and Dumanis write, “Neither of us feels that a poem needs to hold the reader’s hand or be ‘about’ something, especially about a specific event, thought, or experience.” Poems like Smith’s and Davis’s also seem to value our anonymity. They speak from little context and immerse us in an ambiguous emotional condition, one whose drama is most possible on the page or in the imagination.”
In the rest of the review—which I highly recommend reading—Peterson puts this paragraph in the context of a larger explication of a frustrating weakness in many poems. She goes on to say that most of these poets have demonstrated a capacity for more powerful work elsewhere. I think part of what she’s arguing against is the easy leap—for a writer of poems—into a poetic world that has little implication off the page, meaning that there is a tendency today, a trend, toward poems that are closed systems. The kinds of tragedies they describe are enacted solely in the language, not in the lives of those who use the language. The selves in the poems don’t come into focus because they do not refer to selves outside the poems, but to selves which only exist, in a piecemeal fashion, in the individual poems. This is more or less the problem I had—described yesterday—with the Peter Carey novel. Once the book is closed, the writing ceases to affect my life, because the world in which it’s set is only habitable within the narrow confines of the individual novel or poem. It’s as haunting as a game of checkers is the day after it’s played. Perhaps that’s too general and harsh a statement—and I’m aware that I’m not backing myself up here with specific examples—but I’m finding myself more and more drawn to writing that has an implication—and there are many ways of connecting sufficiently with a reader to foster a real implication—for my own sense of selfhood. I don’t mean I want all poems to be about me, but I do want a poem to elucidate, create, point out, a sinkhole that I’m capable of falling into, a risk that I take by reading the poem, rather than one that I could only take were I to live in a hazily shaded fictional world that exists only in the poem. I hate to close a book and never feel forced back to it, simply because I know I have no fear of encountering the same vulnerabilities in my real world.