Online Edition: Spring 2000

Pure Poetry Binnie Kirshenbaum

Pure Poetry

Binnie Kirshenbaum

Simon and Schuster ($22)

Making Love to the Minor Poets of Chicago

James Conrad

St. Martin's Press ($25.95)

by Peter Ritter

It was no mere oversight that your high school guidance counselor did not mention "minor poet" as a potential vocation. Here is a career path, after all, that leads even the bright and the disciplined into a wasteland of anonymity. And it hardly needs to be said that announcing one's intention to pursue the lyric muse is equivalent in the eyes of most sensible adults to taking a monastic vow of poverty. There must be something fascinating, then, about those who give their lives over to something that the average citizen of the republic can't be bothered with. How else to explain the frequency with which indigent poets strut and fret through the fiction of their prosy brethren? Even the most wretchedly destitute novelist, it seems, needs someone to pity.

Such schaddenfreude pervades Pure Poetry, Binnie Kirshenbaum's thoroughly acrid rumination on middle-aged distaff despair. Lila Moscowitz, the subject of Kirshenbaum's inquiry, is a formalist poet whose appearance in the august pages of "People" has briefly made her a succes d'estime in New York City's overpriced bohemian ghetto. "I am a famous poet," she announces early on, "which is but a degree of fame. It's not famous like I get stopped on the street for my autograph, but I am as famous as any poet in America can get without being dead and having an intermediate school named after you."

Middling celebrity and college teaching job notwithstanding, Moscowitz is constantly and irreconcilably miserable. The cause would seem to be her failed marriage to a German immigrant, whom she blames for both historical anti-Semitism and every manner of personal indignity, and a failing romance with another man, who is nice enough but far too normal for Moscowitz's aberrant erotic predilections. More likely, she is simply profoundly meshuggena. Late in the novel, Moscowitz outlines her pathology for the benefit of her transgender therapist: "The tantrums, the inconsolable weeping, the rage which could only be characterized as infantile, the insatiable need to be loved, the inability to love for fear I would lose it."

Certainly, lives of unquiet desperation often prove guiltily captivating. Yet the protagonist of Pure Poetry, whose afflictions include angst, weltschmerz, and possibly many other things with guttural German names, is such a morose sod throughout that it remains unclear whether Kirshenbaum intends us to empathize with or grimace at Moscowitz's self-obsession. Ditto for Kishenbaum's novel, which, while suitably sarcastic, takes its protagonist's whining altogether too seriously. By book's end, we're left feeling very much like Moscowitz's therapist, unsure whether to embrace the snide neurotic before us or prescribe some psychotropic balm and tell her to shut the hell up.

Upbeat only by comparison, James Conrad's debut novel, Making Love to the Minor Poets of Chicago, shares the presumption with Pure Poetry than one can be a pathologically unstable schlemiel and still secure a fairly lucrative post in academia. Among Conrad's extensive cast of inconsequential versifiers: Joanna Mueller, a poet-in-residence at a small-town Illinois college who changes lovers like most people change underwear; Sink Lewis, a gifted student who changes underwear like most people change lovers; Vivian Reape, Mueller's rotund and scheming mentor; a mousy militant Marxist librarian named Rose; and a gaggle of gay hipsters who hang around poetry slams and coffee shops to talk about writing verse and couple. If caffeine and lots of sex were the only ingredients necessary to produce a poet, this motley crew would be formidable indeed.

Alas, as one of Conrad's characters points out, there is less than voracious demand for the sonnets and sestinas of love-sick twentysomethings: "American poetry is truly proof that the more poets a society creates, the less poetry anyone bothers to read."

Even in a culture indifferent to poetry, however, poets have their uses. As illustration, Conrad invents a delightfully ridiculous premise: the U.S. government has decided to gather all the nuclear waste produced over the last half century and bury it beneath a mountain in Nevada. In order to warn inhabitants ten thousand years hence away from the radioactive crypt, federal bureaucrats have decided to commission a poet to write the verse equivalent of "Danger. Keep Away." Of course, the legitimacy afforded the project will also presumably silence concerned reporters and environmentalists. The chosen poet, in turn, will ensure that his or her work goes unappreciated in someone else's lifetime as well.

As Conrad's cast of ink-stained wretches jockey for a spot at the government teat, "Minor Poets" turns into a sly satire of state-subsidized art. Poetry may not be a dying art because of talentless young poets, Conrad suggests, but because of talentless canonized poets who care more about grants and tenure than rhyme and reason. Fittingly, by the end of Conrad's smart and satisfying story, not a word of verse has been committed to paper, and Joanne Mueller, best of Chicago's bad poets, has turned to ungainly confessional short stories. She may have sold out, but at least she now has a chance of getting paid for writing lousily. And, really, what more can minor poet hope for?

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