A skeptic's take on my life's work
by Molly Peacock
“Poetry,” drawled the American novelist Madison Smartt Bell in a conversation about poets’ oeuvres, “that’s a young man’s game.” I—a poet and femme d’un certain age—ruefully agreed. Yet, from the sideline (have I become a version of the Velveteen Rabbit?) I empathize with opinionated young men—and a few opinionated young women—duking it out online and even on paper about the narrow, marginalized art I, too, practice as if it meant everything in the world. Small art; big cultural load to carry. When I agreed with Bell, the Southern novelist (married to my American friend the superb and underrated poet Elizabeth Spires), I really didn’t think that any of those young fisticuffers would be interested in what I had written. My poetry seemed so connected to my past, and even to a past century, that I wasn’t certain it had much of a place in the world any more. Might my oeuvre be more of a corpse than a corpus? Marjory Williams, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, kindly writes, “when you are Real, shabbiness doesn't matter.” (My poems shabby? Never! But they may no longer seem Real.)
A reckoning was at hand. A small American publisher, Story Line Press, had proposed me as the next subject in their series of critical monographs. The hitch was that I was to select my own monographer. Who? A flatterer? A sycophant? Hagiographer leapt to mind—I’d noticed others who’ve been monographed by students and friends. Perhaps I could cull a candidate from those for whom I’d written a favorable review, or an over-the-top grant recommendation…
But what secures a reputation?
Nothing in my control. What others think of what you’ve done is never in a poet’s power. One can only manage certain choices in life—and not a multitude of those, either. But one choice an artist has is how she works. Deliciously, a poem gives the poet control, if only over fourteen lines, their shape and sound. What if I considered my monographer in the way I might choose a word?
“Go through the names of your sympathetic reviewers,” my husband sensibly suggested. “Or ask one of the scholars who wrote those comprehensive essays on your work.” He was right; I had my admirers in the world of late-20th-century feminist criticism. Yes, I had broken ground as a poet who admitted she had a ladypackage, written sonnets about abortion (yes, I had one), masturbation (an underrated topic, still), tercets about my alcoholic father, villanelles about my broken sister, etc. But did anything of what I thought was immortal at the age of thirty-five matter in the least now as art, even if it might still matter as part of my own historical record? Feminist scholars had gone on to other issues than me.
I became afraid. What of? Not being able to control someone’s opinion? If I picked a toady, the project would be a puff—certainly not Real in the Velveteen sense. What does Real mean in poetry criticism except to dare to have a full palette of responses to the art? I was going to have to choose a monographer as I would pick a mutable, volatile word. In the same way that words, like “clear” or “light,” can act as different parts of speech, my critic would have to name, and act, and modify. Like the word “cleave,” my critical assessor would have to be unafraid to have contradictory meanings. Now I was terrified. Once chosen, such words act on their own.
A young man I had never met, but whose poetry I liked (and had blurbed, at the request of his editor) had written a much-discussed essay called “Going Negative” in Poetry magazine. I recalled his line: “But negativity, I’m starting to think, needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture.” In the larger realm of oeuvre-assessment, should one take this as one’s go-to stance? Oh Gawd. I thought mournfully about my beleaguered little oeuvre. “Why go into mourning before you’re confirmed dead?” my husband reasoned. “It was as if I had died,” the American poet Robert Creeley said to me after he assembled his Collected Poems and was ready to be critiqued.
“I stood at a place, an end game if you will, where people of accomplishment do have to stand. The stance must allow negativity in—as assessment.” I thought, even my initials stand for Minor Poet. “Shouldn’t we retire the adjective ‘negative’ in favor of something far more accurate, if a little awkward, like ‘necessarily skeptical’? ” the young essayist also wrote.
The kid was not old enough to have been battered into kindness. I, on the other hand, have aged to a place of abject empathy with everyone and everything from infighting young poets to colony-collapsed bees. If I’m not careful, I can hear the shriek of the carrot into which I sink my teeth. But years ago I arranged what I thought would be a contentious discussion between Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, two fierce American scholar-critics with nearly opposite aesthetics who had made and broken poets’ reputations earlier in their careers, and who then might have been just about my age now. I couldn’t get them to say a single word to one another that wasn’t gracious and cordial. The audience came for a boxing match; they got the Perloff-Vendler version of afternoon tea. When someone in the audience finally asked them directly about their former bristling polar oppositions, Vendler reminded the querier that one ages out of those things.
One sees suffering, and one suffers at the hands of others. The PTSD of poetry.
I never thought I would identify with either Helen or Marjorie (neither of whom thought much of what I do), but I have climbed onto their raft in this respect. Clearly I don’t have—or perhaps never did have--the personality of someone who would, with steely nerve, write a critical monograph. There’s Madison Smartt Bell echoing again, “Poetry is a young man’s game.” I would add young women, also. But could I, incapable of being a literary pugilist, empathize with one? Why not identify with the valiance it takes to determine that hard, not harsh, judgments are necessary in the assessment of anything in the world, and certainly the world of art?
Perhaps submitting (there’s a Shade of Gray verb…) myself to someone’s opinions who had, as he has described himself, a “pigheaded soul,” would give me the test I felt that my poems deserved? What would “a necessarily skeptical” critic make of them?
I did not love the poets that the young essayist loved—though he convinced me that Samuel Menashe (whom I only remembered as a perpetual Manhattan party crasher) had indeed something to tell me. He’d never convince me not to like Alice Oswald, but he cherished Dorothy Parker. Me, too. Thus, even though I was not a codger, or British, or a Round-Table icon, only a woman with a monograph mission, I picked up the phone.
“Feel free to fire me,” my future monographer said, agreeing to a skeptical read of my lifework. Several months went by after I dumped in his arms six volumes of poems as well as essays and reviews and the script of a one-woman show in poems, and a memoir, a book about reading poetry, anthologies, even a biography I wrote, not to mention those heavy Dictionaries of Literary Biography one winces at. And then a draft arrived. He had proceeded to rediscover parts of my work I had ignored, picking up techniques, subjects, gestures I had not thought important because those gestures in my poems were so embedded in my personality. He delineated subjects I hadn’t thought of as categories (gossip, for instance, or friendships, and yes, he went as an arrow right to those abortion poems I fear I’ll forever be identified with), but he never saw them as Subjects. They seemed universal poems that came from a lived life. He highlighted poems I’d put my whole heart into but never thought anyone would pay attention to—and no one of my own era had. He was sassy, provocative, and (largely) right. A few of his “don’t bother with’s” are my faves. He utterly ignored the weighty confessional “Say You Love Me,” about my father’s alcoholism—children of drinkers, passé, right?—and snubbed “The Fare.” Who cares about an elegy to a poet’s mother, even if it featured a jaunty pair of clip-on earrings? He made clear distinctions about what is really good (my earlier work, it turns out, and I have to agree) and what, especially after writing prose slackened my lines, was mediocre (my more current work—well, it’s true about those loosened lines, fair enough). Reading the independent, fierce monograph he finished was like a very private appointment with direct lighting and a magnifying mirror: the truth of a face.
And now the monographer—not to be coy, just to withhold the name till I’d had my say—Jason Guriel is one of the instigators of this enterprise: Partisan. To be a partisan, of course, is to choose sides. Yet as a subject of his assessment I had to free myself, both from sides I had taken and that others had taken before me, in order to ask that he not be on my side. The skeptic has to move from side to side. That is his job. Small art. Big cultural load. “For the love of poetry,” he wrote, “be skeptical.” As we perceive ourselves in a surreal or even an unreal, shabby world such as the one we inhabit in 2015, skepticism makes things Real. How interesting that, after this enterprise, I who began in fear of wobbling stand so comfortably. Skepticism can become one’s champion, and poetry, a game one keeps playing.
MOLLY PEACOCK's latest book is Alphabetique (2014). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and other magazines.