Strange Good Fortune
Essays on Contemporary Poetry
University of Arkansas Press ($21.95)
by Susan Smith Nash
David Wojahn has to be one of the crankiest poet-critics alive. Even at his most glowing, he counterbalances his observations with the occasional barb or wry comment. This is not to say his arguments are unfounded, although he is fairly clunky in hinting that Marjorie Perloff could be the creator of the hoax-poet "Yasusada" after he himself begins his essay on literary hoaxes by faux-perpetrating his own about Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes. But, in a decade more characterized by oblique theoretics or tendentious apologies for one literary camp or another, Wojahn's direct writing is a relief. Further, in choosing to write primarily on poets whose work lends itself to the consideration of larger issues, Wojahn does not hesitate to approach controversial events or reveal juicy tidbits from the poet's life and times.
Drawn to writers whose lives were marked by scandal, controversy, or unremitting bad luck, and driven to explain the phenomenon of their work given their contexts, Wojahn extends the genre of the literary review. His essays are as much investigations of cultural anthropology as careful and well-researched works of criticism. He provides the reader biographical background and places the author's individual poems within a larger chronology.
Perhaps what makes these remarkably intelligent essays most compelling is Wojahn's willingness to incorporate personal, even confessional dynamics. He speaks with courage and candor about the often-romanticized underbelly of poetry: mental illness ("madness") coupled with extreme poverty and isolation. Not stopping with the usual suspects, Plath, Roethke, etc., he speaks of his own family and the terrible impact on the individual psyche. In other parts of the book as he examines poetry through the lens of larger issues (such as representation in poetics, or how certain poets were influenced by photography), Wojahn's analysis is technically proficient, but not as riveting. In the 15 essays contained in this collection, he deals with an impressive array of poets and their words, including Robert Lowell, Carolyn Forche, Lynda Hull, Anne Sexton, James Wright, David St. John, Weldon Kees, W. D. Snodgrass, "Yasusada," Jeff Clark, and others.
If I had any complaint about this collection, it would be that Wojahn seems to slavishly adhere to the notion of "canon," and he regularly positions writers within a hierarchy as though there were some sort of agreed-upon absolute standard. While academic publishers and anthology editors would like this to be so, I found myself arguing with Wojahn's designations, and rebelling against his bias in favor of realism. Of course, that is not a bad thing--any writer who makes you think or "talk back" has earned the ultimate reward: a reader who wants to discuss his or her book.