Saturday, April 27, 2013

What are virtues in a person can be liabilities of poems. Diffidence, gentleness, satisfaction with one's self, a certain sort of immediate sympathy for the troubles of the world and of others: all these can keep a poem from rising above the merely pleasant. Frost once remarked that poetry was a way of taking life by the throat, but for so many contemporary poets it seems a way of taking life by the hand. Certain tactics become deadeningly familiar: the privileging of specific subject matter ("Relate to me," you can almost hear some poems cry); the primacy of personal experience and the assumption that language can contain it; the favorite foreign country that becomes a sort of grab bag for subject matter; the husk of anecdote cracked for its nut of knowledge; the serious intellectual and psychological issues that do a soft-focus fade-out into imagistic unknowingness; the ease, even pride, with which the poet accepts such unknowingness. much of this poetry isn't "bad," exactly; you wish it were worse, in fact, because then you could more clearly explain to yourself why a large dose of it--a batch of books to review, say, or an hour spent browsing magazines--leaves you feeling not simply numb but guilty for that numbness, as if you were the only tainted thing in a world where everything was perfectly clear, perfectly pleased with itself. Intensity is the only antidote--of language, of experience, of ambition. In the presence of that intensity, all that is merely pleasant falls away.
--Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival

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