Thursday, January 03, 2008

Poetry Reviews - Six New Books Reviewed by Willam Logan

William Logan, writing in The New Criterion, December 2007, reviews six new books of poetry by well-known and major authors.

The Biplane Houses, by Les Murray
Gulf Music, by Robert Pinsky
Expectation Days, by Sandra McPherson
Littlefoot, by Charles Wright
Waterlight: Selected Poems, by Kathleen Jamie
Time and Materials, by Robert Hass

Logan is known to be a harsh critic, and that is definitely on display here. Only Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie comes out pretty much unscathed. One wonders how his own rather pedestrian verse would stand up to one of his reviews. Wright and Hass are both more highly regarded than Logan as a poet, so maybe there is some ego involved here.

Here are some snippets from each review:

Les Murray:

This is typical Murray: over-baked metaphors, the occasional oafishness in tone or diction (perhaps that should be dictionhood), the list that becomes a longing, the long view across centuries, the deep intimacy with the past—his history has a dark physicality reminiscent of Heaney's. Murray often seems the Diderot of contemporary verse: the world is everything that is the case, and all of it ripe for poetry.

Robert Pinsky:

Robert Pinsky's poems are so professional, you feel he dresses in a suit and tie before sitting down at his desk. Even when he goes a bit wild, as he does at times in Gulf Music, merrily discarding verbs, yodeling when he feels like it ("Mallah walla tella bella. Trah mah trah-la, la-la-la"), or simply making things up, his rashness is the soul of caution—he has all the reckless daring of Walter Mitty. Pinsky's new poems are often political, politically political in that contemporary way, kowtowing to the golden idols of the moment, casting dung upon the correctly incorrect villains, all without a breath of cross-grained opinion.

Sandra McPherson:

Too many of these new poems, however, are private and elusive, rising into quasi-religious vacancy—the world is cast down in fragments, thought cast down in fragments, too. Though meaning may be the more valued for being won bitterly, the cloudy and broken phrases emphasize the difficulty McPherson has in rendering whole a talent for discrete glances. Her poems are so often about happenstance, it seems odd when she has in mind a particular subject—the illustrations on an old book of needles, say, or the death of a bat from the bat's point of view.

Charles Wright:

Wright isn't writing poems any longer—he's laying down a coat of sensibility, as if sensibility were somehow enough; but sensibility isn't like house paint. You have to have a house to paint. America is a forgiving country, and old geezers can write old-geezer poetry for decades without suffering any punishment worse than having a sack of awards dumped on their heads. Wright's late poetry has fallen into a kind of dumb rumination—like the beasts of the field, he has to be prodded not to chew the same damn thing over and over.

Kathleen Jamie:

Jamie's English poems, however, offer a mind with a mortal view. There's nothing preplanned about their architecture—they seem accidental, full of the random imposition of the ordinary. She loves long, implicating sentences that take time to catch her restless intelligence—like Amy Clampitt, she treats syntax as the machine of thought. If many poems seem slight or offhand, Jamie is a poet defined by her limitations as well as determined in them. She's a poet of senses as well as sensibility, interested in the sculpted presence of the world but in little she cannot see. (Scotland has a long tradition of skeptical thought, though Hume would not have written these poems.) The poems look better the more you know of them, and the more of them you know—they live halfway in the shadows, like a predator waiting to strike.

Robert Hass:

Hass wants to say the unsayable; yet his poems imply that happiness must always be guilty, because someone somewhere is dying. The poems are often novel in conception, full of wrenching juxtapositions for which the term discordia concors might have been coined—after a while, though, you recognize that he possesses a rigid set of mannerisms: if he mentions poetry, it's to belabor the self-consciousness of it; if a woman, to spring into bed with her (there's a lot of heavy breathing in this book); if war, to condemn the inhumanity of it. No one would deny him his tastes, but why does he think they're in any way remarkable?

Despite his tendency toward meanness, Logan is a pretty good reviewer, so this whole article is worth the read.

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