Tuesday, July 20, 2004

To elliptically insist on the topic of profiling: what are we to make of a middle-aged woman in a sunhat browsing the poetry section who looks only at books by Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Mary Oliver? If it were not for the Graham I would snobbishly assume she was looking for pretty verbal baubles, though that's probably unfair to Gluck as well. But somehow looking at a Graham book (Never) still leaves this poor woman accused in my mind of looking for poetry that tells her what she already thinks she knows--she's not looking to be changed or blown away. Who is Jorie Graham's audience these days, anyhow? I mean, I still think of her as an important poet and very influential on my generation--but it's been a long time since I've read her myself or gotten excited about a poem of hers.
Earlier today a customer asked for Mark Doty and seemed shocked when I said we didn't have any. (And we should have some too, because he sells.) But he also strikes me as a poet of reassurance and affirmation (though his memoir Heaven's Coast was remarkably sad and brave about grief). Maybe what really bothers me about these poets is their language--it just doesn't carry the word-by-word charge that I demand. I like some of Gluck's work, particularly The Wild Iris, but her vocabulary and diction don't sizzle and pop enough for me. (One might say the same about George Oppen, but a) I think there actually is considerable verbal surprise in his terseness and b) his engagement with the larger political world compels me more than Gluck's sometimes melodramatic self-intimacies.) Mary Oliver is, in my opinion, a second-rate Wordsworth; I'd rather read the original. Graham is often intellectually exciting, but her long, discursive lines often fail to hold my attention as raptly as it wants to be held. I open up Never and I'm primarily struck by an impression of endlessness, an experience of sheer verbosity. Unfair! This is all pure gustibus and hardly based upon the kind of sustained reading these poets deserve. But somehow I feel they're read just as shallowly cover-to-cover as I'm "reading" them here. They're read for what they signify; I fail to read them because I can't get any purchase of pleasure on the surface of their language. If they were situated within a tradition I find intellectually interesting (such as Language poetry) I'd pay closer attention; but I might still, ultimately, feel the books slipping from my hands because, on the surface level, they promise so little. (And I'm often more interested in the promise than its fulfillment: what I'm being set up to expect. A broken promise can be very interesting, poetically.)

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