The Yale Series of Younger Poets is a first book competition famous because many of its winners became famous. The prize is both old (it is the oldest poetry prize in the United States) and prestigious (its judges are always famous). As a result, the Series exerts a tremendous influence in the world of contemporary poetry—a world where to sell three hundred copies of a book is normally considered a success.
The relatively low threshold for fame in the poetry world and the relatively high wattage of the Yale award means that The Yale Series of Younger Poets can more or less make an author’s career. A strong headwind for a strong poet is a good thing; if bringing John Ashbery to the world alone was the competition’s sole success it would have done more good than harm for American poetry. It is necessary, however, for critics to serve as oversight for a competition with as much relative influence as the Yale Series. Because of the MFA phenomenon—which enfranchises young poets largely by the institutional patronage of their teachers—contemporary poetry tends towards conformism on both the syntactic and thematic level. The hermetic and solitary tradition of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson has faded into a public, “democratic” phenomena: a poem is only a poem after it has been workshopped. Louis Glück, a former judge of the Series, has admitted that she heavily edited many of her winners after the selection process. One cannot imagine that a book like Ashbery’s Some Trees—an unrepentantly weird book, selected by W.H. Auden—would have been anything other than normalized by an editorial hand—even a hand as steady as Auden’s. If the enigma of genius is obscured so that a first book can become a “Yale book,” the competition has failed—it has brought an unknown author to light, only to replicate a certain strand of DNA already dominant in the world of academic poetry.
We, must then, as readers, serve as critical oversight for the books that are published by competitions like Yale’s, in order to maintain the integrity and worth of the competitions themselves. What follows, then, is a critical assessment of the most recent books in the Yale Series of Younger Poets; Juvenilia by Ken Chen, Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson, and Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral. The first two books were judged by Louise Glück, the last was judged by Carl Phillips.
One wonders how Batman feels about, as he ponders the inevitable finale: Bruce Wayne bleeding on a blue cave carpet. But does his cowl attest to an earlier death? Does that word offer a convenient name for the amethyst star blotting his face, his secret—identity?
One of the most pernicious habits in American writing is what I will call the “inverse Rilke”—taking an object and infusing it with nothing that is not already obvious. I should also stress the following: it is very easy to take a pop culture artifact, or any quotidian observation and present it in pseudo-philosophical, and pseudo-poetic language. The above quotation is from Ken Chen’s poem There Are Two Types of Trees in the Winter. This next quotation is not from Ken Chen; it is something I wrote in under one minute in the course of writing this essay.
Superman unmasks himself. He is not aware that his face is the face that he has always known: inward, the same. Below him, dangling from a forty foot skyscraper, Lois Lane considers fate: how she has always known Death. Somewhere, Lex Luther sips his lemonade.
Parodying a small portion of a long poem is somewhat uncharitable; in this particular case, however, it is useful to unmask a particular technique, a pattern in post-Ashbery poetry that goes 1) statement of object 2) obfuscation of object 3) non-sequitur. This pattern is not necessarily bad—Ashbery employs it to tremendous success, following his own master, Stevens—but it is easily abused. The same is true of all true poetic idioms—the Miltonic was tremendously abused, and among the Victorians a Keatsian strain became almost reflexive.
Glück, in her introduction to Chen’s book, calls his poetry, “anti- cathartic” and “anti-epiphany” which is the definition of “modern”. This is true, Chen is anti-cathartic and anti-epiphany. This may even be modern (in whatever sense Glück means it). This is not, however, good. Chen’s central tropes—childhood and late twenty-something love—are all epiphany and catharsis in the way we tend to experience them. Yes, a poet can try to attain an Eliotic distance from his subject... but distance combined with postmodern irony only leads to surface play, a surface play that can never cycle down into the real depth of human experience. Ashbery is capable of using surrealistic language and non-sequitur to his
advantage; something of the Keatsian sensibility (that is the way of seeing the world) emerges in his best work, despite the vast differences of technique between him and Keats. Ashbery’s poems, in other words, use playfulness as a means and not an end. Chen’s poems share that intention—to use technique to reveal emotional truth—but promising moments often dissolve into disappointment for the reader.
The middle of love—when we forget that love is what describes us—occurs when I turn to you for everything: to learn how to sleep, to remind myself that yes I too possess a body and slowly it seems life conveys forward only so that I have something to tell you at dinner. Time passes and I know you so well that these two terms—I and You (henceforth, “U”)— grow indivisible, are the same—are tautological. Friendship is an expression, love is an equation.
This is from the middle of Love is Like a Tautology in the Same Way Like is Like Tautology, a truly beautiful and complex moment. Yet the poem flees outward from the last line into a jumble of playful logic, the purpose of which seems only to show its playfulness,
Yet even equations can be unhappy. The problem arises when letters are miswritten, when I=X as in an ex-love interest who wishes to change from an ex to a U. Say that S and E fall (collapsing like a weak will) in front of X and we will say that these letters spell out the problem. Or say that you find a letter written from X to I and U asks Why? Why are you doing this to me? Why do you have to talk to her—to X? (Let X be the ex-sex.)
It is no surprise, given the immediate flight from sincerity into play, that the poem ends with, “I go the bathroom and come back and turn off the TV. I forget it is off and stare at it for no reason.”
To explain why this is bad poetry is to explain why poetry exists and must exist in the first place—to bring our own rejected thoughts back to us with a kind of alienated majesty. Poetry should be a breaking through into the deepest parts of human consciousness. That our lives flop down into nihilism and TV watching is not a powerful insight; such a statement, indeed, is only a cipher for something deeper. It is a repetition of only what is obvious about the way we live. It is to reaffirm the quotidian. A poem that begins with an elegant riff on Buber
(the Buber of I and Thou), and threatens to use the language of the everyday to move into something sublime—“to remind myself that yes I too possess a body and slowly it seems life conveys forward only so that I have something to tell you at dinner”—only then to circle back to everydayness; an act of poetic bad faith. The poet begins by promising to reveal something to us, and then pulls up the curtain to reveal only another curtain.
The poet who Chen seemingly most wants to resemble is Anne Carson— a teacher who he thanks in the beginning of his book. And indeed, Chen is capable, in a poem like The Invisible Memoir, of Carsonian moments where he mixes poetry, prose, literary criticism, myth, and memoir into something unique and palpable—something felt. But the difference between them, quite simply, is that Carson is capable of genius, while Chen is only, at his best, good.
If this seems cruel or unfair, I stress that it is not—most of us would be lucky to be only good. Still, it is our duty, as readers and critics, to make that distinction. Carson uses myth—Greek myth—not just to mask herself, but to reveal a daemonic self that otherwise would have no voice. (The same, not incidentally, is true of Yeats.) Ken Chen uses myth (as well as autobiography) to tell us more about Ken Chen; there is no separation between selves, the self never merges with something Other or greater. As Chen writes “I think we become adults when we cannot explain our life to anyone without using appositives.” This statement reveals a poet who sees the self as something that can only be qualified by another word, not changed by it. I have little doubt that Juvenilia was the best book that sat on Louis Glück’s desk in 2009—it is smart, insightful, and well-constructed—let none of my criticisms take that away. Still, something more than novel technique and playful commentary on life are needed in great poetry. What that is, I cannot exactly say, but I know that I have not found it here.
Radial Symmetry is a rich, textured book, and it deserves rereading. This is a bland enough gesture, but only because it is apt. A poet has to expand consciousness and Radial Symmetry does so, if only a little, which is still a rare, and serious achievement.
She is suddenly aware of her desire for him
across the table, next to him on the bus.
But it makes her shiver, the way
those shells split apart—the half-black
moons that gave off no light, only
shadows. And they were legion.
These lines, from the end of Low Tide Evening, are a fair representation of Larson’s strengths. Here, a mussel shell “split and rusty/against the polished ebony of the bowl” fuses with the protagonists image of her lover. She shivers at the “half-black moons that” give off “no light” only “shadows”—a line which describes something physically impossible in order to render a more complex erotic state. This is a rare enough skill in poetry—bad poets tend either to be too literal, or hilariously illogical—the ability to suggest something concrete, while remaining obscure is much more difficult to attain.
Larson is not an erotic poet—she writes that “theories of Love/ have become tremulous and complicated”— but is what I can only describe as a cosmopolitan naturalist; references to Gauguin, Apollinaire, and Chopin are bound together with lime trees, coral, and the flight of birds. Sex is part of the mix, but it is not precisely the focus; nothing indeed, seems to be precisely the focus for Larson. She resembles A.R. Ammons in this respect — both in their backgrounds in science, and the general exuberance with which they describe the world around them.
Quietness that’s solitude
but not isolation. And the windows lit
with displays of red coral
from just off the coast
said to be the blood that streamed
from Medusa’s severed neck
when Perseus laid her head beside the sea.
The cognitive leaping in these lines in Lake of Little Birds is impressive—we move from solitude quickly through to the sea onto the Perseus myth. It is not just that three unalike things are quickly brought together in a sensible way, but that three unalike things are brought together quickly in a poetic way. The meaning is not immediately
apparent, yet the indication is clear enough—the solitude is not isolation because nature is vivid and alive, because the red of the corals is the color of Medusa’s blood.
The control and compaction in the lines from Lake of Little Birds is present everywhere in Radial Symmetry. Abstract and concrete (maybe the two most overused words in criticism, but so be it) are deftly fused.
Every day, it happens like this.
We emerge from the pale nets of sleep like ghost shrimp
The brain humming its electric language.
Touching something in a state of becoming.
This bit, from section VII of Ghost Nets, is both complex and clear. All that happens in these lines, is a description of what it means to wake up—but waking up is rediscovered by Larson as an event that touches “something in a state of becoming.” This achieves one of the goals of poetry: to redescribe the world. Again, Larson—though not as metaphysically inventive—reminds one of Ammons by uncovering the teaming complexity of seemingly simple acts or objects in the world. At times, Larson seems also to be a fusion of Ammons and the Henri Cole of Visible Man, which is to say that she vacillates between poems with Ammons’s cosmic-tending eye and poems with Cole’s erotic pathos,
But in the drain where my heart might have been they’ll find Chopin on the phonograph, a woman magnetized by sleep and hunted by lions in terrible skins.
Compared to the lines from Ghost Net, this stanza from Preparing for Sleep is very different—more grotesque, more personal. If there is a criticism to be made of Radial Symmetry it is that it navigates these two disposition—what Larson herself calls the “dialectic of inside/outside”— without fully bringing either to apotheosis. Nature, in particular the sea, and the poet’s own, seemingly troublesome erotic conscious, are both threaded through Larson’s lines, but not tied together—at the end, we still find both threads loose.
In the field’s center
I crouch near
a boulder engraved
with a number
and stare at a gazelle’s
the rain falling through it.
Eduardo C. Corral is poet—as evidenced by this strange, lovely image— of real gifts; I am not sure, however, that they are properly employed. This statement of course, begs the question, what does it mean to properly use one’s poetic gifts: to make us wiser, to make us more truthful, to make us more alive. This can be contested on theoretical grounds, surely, but very few readers would ask less of their poets. So let me bring this all together: I do not believe that, one is made wiser or more truthful (that is, vested with a deeper understanding of Truth) by reading Slow Lightning, and maybe only moderately more alive (that is, imaginatively revitalized).
In high school I worked as a bag boy. To prevent shoplifting my
boss had me follow the
Mexicans & the Native Americans who came in to shop. I was
slightly troubled by this.
So I only followed handsome men.
This is from the poem Ditat Deus. It is, I would allow, merely clever. The following is the next part of the poem,
I learned to make love to a man
by touching my father.
I would unlace his work boots,
pull of his socks,
& drag my thumbs
along the arches of his feet.
When he slept I would trace
the veins of his neck,
blue beneath my fingertip.
He would lift me each morning
onto the bathroom counter,
dot my small palms
with dollops of shaving cream so I could lather his face.
is more than clever—it is clear, deep, and moving. Within this single poem by Corral, one can see the existential problem that exists for most contemporary poets—the choice between being clever and being earnest. This is a much more complex problem than my statement possibly can capture—it is even more deeply, the choice between using language to display the poet’s command of it, or using language to reveal something about the poet, and therefore, about us all. The poet, in other words, great poets that is, dare to universalize themselves, while lesser, but still linguistically alive and sensitive writers, can only give us a collage of surface play. Corral is capable of the former, but largely settles for the latter.
an autopsy on my shadow.
My rib cage a wall.
a crack in a wall,
a foothold. I’m tumbling
a French acrobat. I’m judder
and splendid. I’m spinning on a spit, split
in my mouth. I know
didn’t know: a serpent
is a fruit eaten to the core. I’m
of the dreamers,
a terra cotta soldier
his emperor’s return.
When I bow,
a black fish leaps
from the small of my back.
I catch it.
These stanzas, from Self Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso, are not so much bad, as they are irrelevant. One of the great and terribly cliched things taught in creative workshops is to “use concrete images”. This is a watered down corruption of Pound-ism that ought long ago to have gone away. Another cliché, that hasn’t quite reached the stage of theoretical “truth,” is to pepper the reader or listener with sounds, as if the frequency of sound was equivalent to its complexity. Anyone who has hung around people studying creative writing, taken a workshop, or read contemporary poetry will agree that these are common tendencies; tendencies exhibited—more skillfully than in an undergraduate workshop—annoyingly by Corral. This poem shoots very low—to be surreal maybe... to suggest something about the poet, surreally. Catching a fish leaping from his terra cotta back is... it is what it is, and that’s the problem. No one, I would imagine, would read this poem for real understanding of themselves, or to experience beautiful language— because those things exist beneath the surface of language. Corral all too often remains on the surface and builds nothing underneath it. One longs for the Corral of the second part of Ditat Deus, who in Whitman- esc cadences transforms his father into a complex trope of homosexual love. There, image and sound—the brick and mortar of a poem—are not tossed about for kicks, but patiently, and simply compounded to reveal something very sad, and very mysterious about the essence of homosexual eroticism. The second part of Ditat Deus has a point, it has a discernible cognitive skeleton. This is not to say that it is obvious or somehow unmodern, but that it is—like all great poems—its own mode of thinking. We can think about all sorts of relationships, father son, son and lover, man and man, via this poem; we can understand something more because it exists. Many of Corral’s other poems, however, offer nothing of the sort.
After a storm saguaros glisten
like mint trombones.
Sometimes a coyote leaps
The sand calls out for more footprints.
A crack in a boulder
can never be an entrance
to a cathedral
but a mouse can be torn open
like an orange.
The arroyo is the color of rust.
Sometimes a gust of snow
floats across the water
as gracefully as a bride.
This poem—reprinted here completely— To a Mojado Who Died Crossing the Desert is certainly strange, but one wonders—can we change or grow in relation to it? My feeling is noNo. Like far too many of Corral’s poems, we are left with nothing more than a moment of engagement with some curious, bizarre language.
I can render no ultimate judgment on the past decade, or whole history, of the Yale Series of Younger Poets based on my reading of its past three publications—but I can make the following observation: the Series reflects the limits of our current culture of poetry—it reflects the commitment to craft produced by creative writing departments (Larson and Corral have MFA’s, Chen minored in creative writing at Berkeley) as well as the glass ceiling that such mastery of craft produces. Poetry has been so broken down by the twentieth century that no experiments in form are truly exciting or new—nor is a return to strictly metered form anything other than a reactionary measure. No kind of verse or form is good or bad—form, ultimately, is just a tool.
The three books reviewed here—including Larson’s, though it is by far the best—all reveal a fundamentally unpoetic contentment with their own playfulness. None get at the despair that is at the core of the experience of writing; none get at the despair of being a poet (or for that matter a person) in the world.