Tuesday, April 13, 2004

I was stunned to pick up the Sunday Chicago Tribune and see (on the cover of the as-always woefully thin Books section) two massive poetry reviews taking up nearly the entire front page and jumping to swallow page 4 too. The reviews were by Maureen McLane--a scholar and poet who's affiliated with Harvard and MIT but seems to have some Chicago connection, as she's been reviewing poetry regularly for the Trib and is speaking at a workshop here next week; one review covered Yale Younger Poet winner Loren Goodman's Famous Americans, while the other highlighted Matthea Harvey's Sad Little Breathing Machine, Mary Szybist's Granted, and Tony Hoagland's What Narcissism Means to Me.

McClane's reviews are generally smart and sympathetic, but maybe the most remarkable thing about them is their mere existence. Trib arts writing is pretty weak--architecture critic Blair Kamin fancies himself an intellectual but is mostly just pompous (a shame, since Chicago's probably the most architecturally impressive city in the country, at least if you like modernism)--with only rock critic Greg Kot rising above the crowd. So I can't imagine what Trib readers think when they come upon McLane's massive blocks of prose:

Structuring these poems [this is on Matthea Harvey] we find a pervasive perceptual-cognitive operation, a figure of reversal, of confoundment, in which tenor and vehicle, subject and object, cause and effect are reversed or inverted...A weird animistic vitality makes these poems move; the poet arrogates the power to let all things live and move and have their being, organic or not...

I guess one thing that's happening is that the utter vacuum in poetry reviewing in national publications means that a critic like McLane can step in and tell unsuspecting Chicago readers that this is "what's been going on in the nation of U.S. poetry"--with an invocation of National Poetry Month, no less (the only reason, I assume, that the book section editors let her get away with these huge reviews). I guess I have to take some pleasure in this; Goodman and Harvey are a lot better, and younger, than the usual suspects, though I have reservations about both their books. I don't know if I can separate my feelings about Goodman from my utter loathing of the whole "Younger Poet" apparatus, so that I liked the book at all was a minor miracle; my feeling was that the goofy play of historical and pop-culture figures was very funny at times but ultimately didn't seem to have any bite to it, maybe because Goodman relied on his own somewhat hermetic imagination to come up with these constellations, so that we felt we were following a series of in-jokes rather than some actual or critical refraction of our culture--which I think a lot of people are doing, and doing well.

McLane, though, seems to buy Goodman's project as a perfect synthesis of comedy and critique, and maybe lets Goodman (and W.S. Merwin, his YYP patron) off a bit too easy in claiming his own genealogy (I don't see anything all that Oulipian, for example, in his work). Incidentally, Jordan's also done a review of Goodman's book, which operates in a totally different register--that of placing Goodman in a social (or even coterie) context, abetting Goodman's own trickster self-presentation by charting his periodic vanishings and nebuous current employment.

No comments: