I attempt to read, on occasion, the Contemporary Poetry Review. Attempt only, because CPR is often made up of prose that rubs me so much the wrong way it takes off skin — prose that is as bad as all that. The most recent edition, delivered with the promptness of a entrepreneurial paperboy with the jones for a new bike, contains James Rother’s gem of doctrinaire criticism on Mark Doty:
Much more picayune, to adopt Yoda’s order of speech, reality is, especially that branch of it decreeing that what goes up must eventually fall back down with a sickening thud. Now, as to whether falling stars within the ranks of the poetically inclined feel returns (often abrupt) to terra firma as intensely as they do their balloon-like ascents to whatever region of the empyrean they are permitted to sample—that must remain among those questions over which it is best to pass, or on which to take a pass, the subject being embarrassing to more than just the bipolar. Still, one needn’t be Werner von Braun to see where all this is going, and you are of course right if you guessed that the news from Lake Wobegon about Mark Doty’s latest entry in the American verse sweepstakes, School of the Arts, is neither joyful nor disappointing but somewhere south of the first and north of the second. Though as a contribution to letters way above average, the airworthiness of this latest offering lacks the necessary luft to keep the law of above-averages (as legislated by Garrison Keillor) from being somewhat neutralized by the Anankē of diminishing returns (as policed by the second law of thermodynamics).
I’ve had past arguments with people about silly words. I suppose admitting this marks me as less of a wordsmith, but I can’t stand words like picayune. Or wordsmith. Or even empyrean when used fast and loose. Or the mixing of such highbrow nonsense with references to pop-cultural icons like Yoda. Or the pedantic tossing around of living and dead foreign words for the sake of tossing around living and dead foreign words. The result of such efforts strikes me always as garish at best, and obscurantist at worst. Who, I wonder, would bother reading clouded, mixed metaphors, and who, if anyone, could be brought to care about poetry by such a muddled lump of prose? It may just be that this sort of review is not written for me, but rather for someone who has either the will or the misled desire to force meaning from the following sentence: ““Fire to Fire” is only one miraculous instance where artfulness coupled with particolored ingenuity of tilework serves to rear a peristylistics of verbal architecture whose self-sustaining equilibrium is reminiscent of an H. D. or a Robert Duncan at his best, which is of course to say, his least Orphic and most sparingly (albeit rare for him) Apollonian.”
We are treated here to a metaphor of language as edifice, something that is not really intelligible, but one gets the sense that such things are let to slide quite often in the business of language — and on better, less cranky days I would erect a couple similar teetering façades. But metaphor is a tool of language meant to offer a demonstrative comparison, not simply be an object of display (uhoh, my aesthetics are showing). They can be more or less artfully applied, and more or less insidious or revelatory, and are always indicative of a value judgment. I certainly wouldn’t say that Rother’s critique is more insidious, but neither is it more artfully applied or revelatory.
Why bother reading something like this? Is it a prerequisite to enter into the world of poetry? If the nasty, tangling prose of this article were an exception to the rule, it would make the popularity of the the CPR more understandable to me. But by and large, conclusions like this are what one can expect from its articles:
At the heart of Doty’s continuing search for some modus vivendi by which to cope with AIDS’s declared moratorium on promise—did not Plato attempt something of the same?—is the aggravating circumstance of its having to be sought for by those for whom contemporary life has become largely indistinguishable from being sealed up not just inside a tomb but a hecatomb. How else to honor the dead than by urging the immediate demotion of that runaway demotic that has become the rap of all bathhouse symposiasts for whom Socratization is not a way to reclaim Atlantis, but only a back road to the sort of grubby incontinence that, like those who probe such dirt-strewn viaducts, refuses to get lost.
With proponents like these, it is no wonder poetry is dead.