Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Wild and Whirling Words

Wild and Whirling Words

Edited by H. L. Hix

Etruscan Press ($22.95)

a semi-anonymous symposium, organized by Brian Clements

Out of "discontent over the dialogue in our world about poetry," H. L. Hix has attempted to devise a mode of criticism (or perhaps, more accurately, of critique) by "reinventing the conditions of the dialogue." Specifically, Hix is dissatisfied with the reluctance of critics and poets to argue over poetry, dissatisfied with the assumptions that poetry is primarily self-expression and that criticism is doomed by the poem's subjectivity, and dissatisfied with a tendency he perceives as a stifling tribalism whereby poets avoid publicly discussing work unlike their own.

Hix's experiment begins with the premise that given the opportunity to comment publicly but anonymously poets might be more willing to converse about the work of their peers. So he solicited a single poem from 33 poets, then circulated each poem to six of the poets consecutively for comments. The commentators knew neither the identity of the poet nor the identities of the previous commentators. The reader gets the poem, the poem's author, and the comments—but not the identity of the commentators. Anonymity, perhaps because of its novelty in this context, becomes as much a topic in the book as the poems and the critiques.

We have adopted Hix's device as the compositional model for this review. In the book, the reader finds herself guessing at the identities of commentators, just as the commentators guess at the identities of the poets. Similarly, we are identifying the reviewers here—they are, in alphabetical order, Charles Altieri, Susan Briante, Elisabeth Frost, Arielle Greenberg, Frederick Turner, and Lorenzo Thomas—but we have not associated the reviewers with their comments. While one of the reviewers wanted to come out from behind the mask of anonymity by identifying him/herself at the end of his/her comments, in the interest of more accurately imitating the dynamic of the Hix book and preserving the guidelines with which we began the review, we have elected not to identify that reviewer.

We invite further discussion from interested readers, who may send their letters to New comments will be posted weekly throughout the summer.

                    —Brian Clements

I agree with the assumptions Hix starts with: that current poetry scenes in the U.S. function as closed systems of the like-minded. Conversations about poetry too often consist of praising one's own. However, anonymous reading has the unfortunate effect of erasing questions of context and community. After all, is it really a problem that differing communities read different sorts of books? Hasn't the myth of writing for everyone (or for eternity, as voiced by one writer here) had its day?

The poems here that provoke disagreement provide the most interesting, and disturbing, reading. The confession of various "biases" troubles me—against nature poetry, poems using myth, prose poems, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (almost universally mislabeled), self-reflexive poems. I also feel voyeuristic, as one writer's inability to interpret a poem is made clear when a later commentary illuminates the poem's sources. What does any of us really know? From what standpoint do we respond? Many refer to their students; what sort of engagement is implied when reader turns teacher? Further, even though Hix solicited eighty poets to take part, seeking as diverse a group as possible, the results are less varied than I would hope for. Just a handful, for example, eschew earnestness for humor, and these provoke disagreement about the merits of what is oddly labeled "light verse"; similarly, there are few that express direct political engagement, and these, likewise, provoke sharp debate (as if the other poems were not implicitly political as well).

Which returns me to the problem of anonymity. Of course, this is the anonymity of the academic world—of peer reviews, letters of recommendation, grant committees. But it is also an anonymity with a New Critical assumption: that one can understand and appreciate a literary work fully without knowledge of history or biography—in short, without context. The poets question this assumption time and again, pointing out, as one writes, "It sounds democratic, as if this would allow us to read poems for themselves. But artworks, like people, are not self-sufficient but part of a series, embedded in contexts that give them not only meaning but resonance, depth." The writers yearn to know the gender of the authors, whether the poem belongs to a sequence, and so on. One opens a comment: "All this discussion begs the questions: What is the occasion of this poem? What are the demands of this poem? And what are we, as readers, demanding from it?" Anonymity assumes that a lack of context is, if not ideal, at least an adequate starting point. What the book proves to me—and this is the comfort I take from it—is that this has never been the case. Our poetic cultures exist not despite but because of the reading communities, and the histories, to which they belong.

The cautious and kindly tone of the previous review cannot conceal the sad fact: this book is proof that mainstream American poetry is in real trouble. The reviewer's word "voyeur" is symptomatic; for me the book had the horrifying fascination of a freeway pileup.

The poets in the book themselves know that something is deeply wrong. I need only summarize here their own collective misgivings about what they are doing. The book is the creative writing workshop from hell, a contemporary Inferno written by the inhabitants. Only one of the poems has any real pretence to poetic form, though some have a sort of annoying ghost of meter. Two others—David Mason and Annie Finch, good poets who really should know better—submitted unusually flabby poems. So the pleasures of poetic sound, the quality of memorability, and the precise specification of the poet's intended tone and cadence are lost from the start. The subjects of the poems include the usual suspects: cancer surgery, suicide, masturbation, death, predatory sexuality, the poet's self, and the failure of love. But they are basically an excuse for the real subject—which is poetry itself. Or rather, the poems are about the poet's thoughts about his or her own analysis of the process of writing poetry, so that by the time one has read one poet-critic's hostile comment on a previous commentator's "take" on a poem about the poet's process of writing poetry, one is beating at the mirrors to get out.

But these are the poems that have a subject at all. The largest proportion of the poems is in the "language poetry" mode—essentially nonsense verse without the jaunty wit, weird logic, and infectious beat of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. It is as if all the structures that make language meaningful—syntax, lexical coherence, logical argument, large ideas, themes of public interest, stories, drama, religious experience, advocacy for moral or cultural progress, heroism, natural science, economics, history, philosophy, anthropology, politics, and theology—had already been burned down, and all a poet can do is bounce the rubble.

As critics the poets adopt the pose of the New Yorker gent with the monocle, with a nasty undertone of the new American snobbery that is only happy when it is slumming. The worldview of the writers averages that of the New York Times op-ed page (I counted eight references to the NYT in the book). The level of ignorance about any subject other than creative writing is depressing—and the ignorance of basic metrics is shocking. What becomes clear is that for the most part poets themselves do not have the faintest idea of what each other's poems mean, and there would be rich comedy in their contradictory accounts, if the implications for American writing were not so sad.

The anonymity of the process was experienced by all except this reviewer as an impossible handicap. What it does is reveal that unless one knows which creative writing school the author teaches at and what gender s/he is, the poem is meaningless. And this is the stark truth about most contemporary poetry. Hix has actually done the literary world an unintentional favor—here the emperor stands naked, laid bare by his own acolytes.

In large cities anonymity offers some people exciting opportunities to shed their inhibitions, to experiment with wearing a new personality. Anonymous literary criticism, on the other hand…could it maybe allow a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet to see what it feels like to be a New Formalist?

There are many fine poems in this anthology but few real standouts. The focus after all is on the criticism. Noticing which poems provoke the most intense critical anxiety is both amusing and instructive.

Which critics will cite the Wallace Stevens poem that was most likely the inspiration for Annie Finch? Is Charles Bernstein's "Every Lake Has a House" a version of the house that Jack built or is it more akin to those word games that—like an M. C. Escher design—prompt minor substitutions until a formula morphs into its opposite? What I find fascinating about that poem is that each line—except for those that might be proverbs or references to mathematics—describes an object imagined by the poet but unnamed. If I discussed this with students, I think I'd say, "Pick a line. Do you know what he's talking about?"

One fact that emerges from this conversation is that there is no single way to read all texts. Some texts clearly resist the reader who cannot trace allusions or recall analogs; others baffle those who discount surface and insist upon finding hidden profundity. In this exercise, though, poems are mostly puzzles; and the critical commentaries are like entries in an essay contest waiting for the book's readers to select those which display the closest match to some unstated standard of relevance, timeliness, and aptness of thought.

There is less stylistic and aesthetic diversity among the poets than the moderator would have us believe. The conversation does not fulfill Hix's wish that we be disabused of the ideas that poetry is "essentially emotional" and "always primarily a vehicle of self-expression" because the poems included seem to firmly endorse those Creative Writing workshop postulates. When—as with Rachel Blau du Plessis—the poets refuse to march under these standards, the critics reinscribe them anyway.

H. L. Hix's possible (perhaps even subconscious) intention to expose how badly we might stumble by accepting the authorial invisibility and discard of context required by New Criticism and a few other interpretive paradigms is, however, a useful effort.

Unlike the first reviewer, I don't agree with Hix's premise: he claims poets don't talk about their taste in poems, but in my experience, such discussions are a favorite pastime. And far from expanding the audience and methods of poetry conversation, the book reifies its provinciality: the same tired arguments—Language vs. Narrative, Comedy vs. Sincerity—executed in standard workshop mode, without illustrating a sense of history for the uninformed and only rarely broken by unbridled enthusiasm or loose riffs. Like others here and in the book, I think poets—myself included—benefit from less insularity and greater engagement with other communities, something this book does not do. How much more fun it might be to have a book which asks all sorts of people—children, seniors, blue collar workers, business people—to respond to all sorts of art, and for artists to work from materials provided by the lives and thoughts of all sorts of people.

That said, the conceit of this book is fun, a sort of "Dating Game" for literati. Unfortunately, the reader spends more time guessing who's who than carefully reading the work. One thing that does come across, and which some of my peers have noted, is the weaknesses of New Criticism, of analysis without context. But I wish more had been revealed, because no one hypothesis can be gleaned about contemporary poetry by what's included here: the choice of poets is eclectic but random, and more importantly, the method by which the poems were selected seems haphazard. Were poets required to submit unpublished work to insure anonymity? (Several of the selections were published, though perhaps after this project was completed.) Which of my own poems would I have subjected to this experiment: a "finished" poem? A poem in need of workshop? A poem which typified my style (whatever that might be)? A red herring?

As one reads, the book's premise grows thin, and lacks the coherence and arc that might make such a roundtable discussion genuinely constructive. In participating in this review, I am subject to and complicit in the same failings the book has: like being in a packed, anonymous and virtual chatroom, I have both too much and too little to respond to for there to be a substantial conversation.

More than a literati "Dating Game, " the anonymity of the project reminded me of voyeuristic TV. It smacked of "Boy Meets Boy," the queer reality dating series in which a handsome bachelor not only tried to find Mr. Right, but also attempted to avoid picking one of several straight boys posing as queer.

So we watch our anonymous critics flirt with poems that appeared to them—like the well-groomed bachelors on the Bravo TV series—without social or historical context or companions. The critic contenders miss intertextual references, fumble with theoretical underpinnings, and struggle with assumptions about the poets behind the work ("I'd wager this was a straight man speaking," one reviewer writes about a Rebecca Seiferle poem). Several reviewers want to hold the whole exercise up as an example of the failure of the New Critical method; others use it to point to the failures of contemporary poetry to live up to New Critical ideals. At worse, when some respondents confront a poem they don't understand they turn catty, insisting on the failure of the writer instead of their own inability to read the work: "I think this poem needs to go back to the drawing board." Perhaps my favorite critic (critics?), responded (ironically?) by relating each poem to a sort of lyric autobiography: "I visited my mother out in Stony Brook last week…" or "I do not live in California..." casting some doubt on the entire critical enterprise.

But in the end, what have we gained?

On the last episode of "Boy Meets Boy", the leading man picked a bachelor who was (whew!) gay. And while the happy couple jetted off to paradise, gay and straight contestants exclaimed: "We are all more alike then we could imagine!" Unfortunately, there's no vacation getaway at the end of this experiment, and participants seem no less entrenched in performing aesthetic difference. Still the project raises many issues. Some respondents enjoyed confronting a poem they might not normally see and reading its criticism. "Maybe I would have failed to appreciate [Timothy Liu's] "Homo Ex Humo," one participant writes, "but now I'm glad of its presence, because it hones my appreciation of possibilities…" And that is the best we could hope for from a forced reading across aesthetic camps—or a glance from a beautiful, anonymous stranger across a room.

I share the view that H.L. Hix's experiment turned out to be mostly a disaster. I confess that at first sight I loved the idea: how might contemporary poetry fare if we invite comparison with more argument-based discourses and if we challenged prevailing assumptions about the priority of expressing an individual's emotions? But Hix's tale of two tribes seems to me to focus on a narrow dichotomy between disciplines rather than asking what vocabularies (rather than habits of mind) would match the resources of poetry to felt needs in contemporary social life. And the gap between Hix's high-minded aspirations and the reality of the poems and comments made me slightly ashamed of my investments in contemporary poetry.

I take consolation in the likelihood that no experiment about the social relevance of contemporary poetry can work when most of the important active poets refuse to participate. Most of the poems seem to deserve the criticisms they receive. And I would add my own disappointment at the overwrought diction that in many of the poems take the place of formal intricacy and imaginative power. More important, I was struck by a disturbing religiousity that made Charles Bernstein and Julianna Spahr stunning for their refusal of such rhetorics—why were the critics silent on this point? For me many of the poets seemed to think grandeur of reference could compensate for poverty of insight.

But if many of our best poets won't play, what can one do? Perhaps the best poets won't play because the experiment limited them to one poem. Fewer poets, more poems. Then critics could be asked to focus on how each poet's imagination establishes imaginative investments and brings the distinctive powers of the medium to bear in projecting those investments. As it is, I took heart from the fact that most of the criticism (with striking exceptions) was even worse than the poetry because it seemed myopic, exhausting itself in guessing details and affiliations rather than seeking significance. Hix's experiment at least proves we need better critical vocabularies and practices than these poets are accustomed to. Ironically, he also proved to me that there are good reasons for sticking to our own tribe, since the poems fail primarily because they settle for mediocrity on the level of craft. Perhaps the situation will improve if critics find their ideals in literary history because this creates the possibility of working to produce writers who will make those in other tribes want to participate in our vocabularies.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents