Maya Angelou's A Brave And Startling Truth
reviewed by Monica Sudo

No other poet gets the privilege of publishing poetry books as short as Maya Angelou's. Ever since the inaugural poem came out, she gets little hard-backed, single-side printed, thick papered editions that cost twelve bucks a pop! This includes A Brave And Startling Truth, her commemorative poem for the United Nation's Anniversary.

I think Angelou wants this to sound like Lincoln or Jefferson, but it actually reads more like dialogue from The Day The Earth Stood Still. It is a simplistic and banal truism, which will stir no controversy. Its lack of power lies in the absence of any detail. The poem goes on in this vein for its entire length. Come on, she cannot come up with a more original image than a minstrel show? Let's really go out on a limb and take a stand against Nazism! Etcetera etcetera, if you need to kill a little time in a poem, put in a list. Besides, this is for the United Nations and you cannot leave anybody out! So human beings say some nice things and some not so nice things, do tell! And the rest of the universe is bigger that the Earth; I believe I heard that somewhere. Well that comes as a rude shock. Some of our more overrated poets not withstanding.

These speeches Angelou writes for ceremonies are not really poems, at least not poems of note. They are like the sculptures and paintings in airports; they exist to fill an empty space and cause no trouble. Angelou appears to be specializing in such pieces, and why not? the money is good. Books like Phenomenal Woman read about the same even though they were not written for any particular event. Maya Angelou's reputation is a creation of critics who are either contented by her sentiments however poorly expressed, or critics who do not want to take the heat for being the first one to dump on her.

I have no career to kill; let me be the first, skip her.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 2, Jan-Feb 97


Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Far Rockaway of The Heart reviewed by Erich Vogel

The title of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's new book is a reference to his most famous work A Coney Island of The Mind, which established him as the clearest and most accessible of the Beatniks. In many ways he has cruised on the basis of that initial success as Ginsberg did with Howl, never attracting any great quantity of critical attention with his subsequent work; he is perhaps hoping that A Far Rockaway of The Heart will do the trick. I would concede that Ferlingetti's work is an improvement over the likes on Ginsberg and Kerouack (not Burroughs), but that is not saying much. Of all the literary movements and schools of the 20th Century, the Beatniks are consistently the most pointless, childish and dated.

The best poems in the book suffer from being too personal and sentimental, but at least reflect some genuine feeling in the writer. Somehow one can tell that Ferlinghetti is sincere in his warm hearted nostalgia, even though he is incapable of providing his recollections with the kind of detailed context that might let the reader feel along with him.

Unfortunately, my software does allow me to duplicate Mr. Ferlinghetti's unusual and pointless end-stops. When the criticism 'too personal' is made of a poem, it usually means that the poem is obscure, an inside joke. But there is another adverse way in which a poem can be personal; they can have a poignancy which is only visceral to the author. Reading such poems is like looking at the family photographs of someone who has never told you anything much about his family. In an intellectual sense we can assume that Ferlinghetti has reasons for being fond of his parents, but to plug in the emotional memories from our own lives we need to be given the specifics of what his parents were like; Ferlinghetti gives us hardly a peek.

The bulk of the poems are even less effective. The book-jacket proclaims them to be "parodying" the likes of Eliot and Pound and other important "pre-Beat" writers; evidently the aging and dead kids are all right. The problem with calling these poems parodies is that they lack humor, or even any measurable commentary; they are more like mediocre imitations. Take his attempt at Lorca:

If Ferlinghetti is criticizing Lorca for his use of repetition, or his repetitive use of pet-images then he is missing the point of poetic forms and styles derived from traditional music; he is also ignoring Lorca's obvious power. First look at this old Spanish ballad cited in Lorca's lecture "On The Play And Theory of Duende": and now a poem/song of Lorca's taken from "A Poet In New York" (Both can be found in the volume Deep Song And Other Prose): Far better poets than Ferlinghetti, such as his non-Beat contemporary Robert Bly, have had only the most limited success attempting to capture, or adapt to a western idiom, the sublime beauty of Lorca's technique.

He also at times invokes the writer's name in the midst of his mimicry, just in case we do not 'get it'.

Pound may be somewhat more deserving of scorn, but coming from Ferlinghetti in this form, any criticism of Pound is hippocracy.

Ferlinghetti also uses some of the poems to paradoxically claim equity for some of his beat contemporaries with the very greats he apparently considers overrated.

I want to emphasize that Ferlinghetti merely proclaims stature for the likes of Kerouac and Keasey (who is a clown and not to the best of my knowledge a writer) rather than make a case for them; if a poem is even an appropriate medium for such material. While Ferlinghetti is never as painfully vacuous and juvenile as Ginsberg, his message is not impressive. I encourage you to forgo this and all previous efforts of his.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 4, Jun-July 97


Allen Ginsburg's Illuminated Poems 
with illustrations by Eric Drookes 
reviewed by Monica Sudo

These poems were terrible when they were new and 'unilluminated'; they are no better in this collection. Allen Ginsburg qualified for Worst Poet In The English Language when he came up with "Howl" back in 1956 and he still holds the title. His role in the poetry world is to give hope to truly rotten poets everywhere, that they too may have sucessful poetry careers! If I could, I would dump every scrap of his verse into a landfill and build midnight basketball courts on top.

Consider the beauty and complexity of:

'Simpleminded' is too kind a word. The lyrics of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" have more substance. Let us take another skin sample: This poem even fails as camp. It is hard to believe he intended it to be taken seriously. Perhaps it sounds deep if you are really stoned, but I doubt it.

Occasionaly Ginsberg will pour a little giberish into a poem, hoping the reader will come up with a meaning for him.

The sad fact is that Ginsberg is not even a good enough craftsman or mimic to create an aesthetic suggestive of meaning in the absence of meaning. I supect him of being unintelligent as well as fundamentally untalented.

The illustrations are banal woodcuts such as any B average art student might execute. They reflect the modicum of imagery in the poems with little invention.

Give this and the rest of Ginsberg's many books a miss. If you are already a fan, commit suicide, or just quit reading altogether and take up macrame.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 1, Nov-Dec 96


Nikki Giovanni's Love Poems
Reviewed by Monica Sudo

Nikki Giovanni is not a poet that I have ever considered moving or profound, but her latest book, Love Poems, is embarrassingly bad; reading it is like watching someone make a complete ass of themselves at an open-mic.

I suppose most poets come out with a volume dedicated to love poems eventually; Anne Sexton's book so titled is probably her best. However, many poets are not at their best in this genre, more concerned with saying something about their feelings to their sweetie than writing a good poem.

If a poet must write such garbage they should keep it to themselves and their unfortunate love-object. It is hard to believe that anyone over the age of sixteen could write the preceding poem, with or without a straight face. Throughout reading the book I wondered if Giovanni was deliberately trying to write in the voice of an adolescent, or if such statements show the depth of her ideas about love. Either way, it does not improve or excuse the poems.

The crude and awkward rhyming of several pieces is a new technique for Giovanni. Perhaps it reflects an interest in rap, or an attempt to jump on that bandwagon. Love Poems is dedicated to the newly murdered rapper Tupac Shakur. Her memorial poem for him is not a love poem and sticks out like a canker sore.

She goes on to rank Shakur with Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Medger Evers. It would be offensive if it were not laughable. I have never seen a eulogy that so ignored the deceased. It is obvious she never met Shakur, and probably knows next to nothing of his work. Her only interest is in his standing. She must have had to work quickly to get the poem and dedication into the book; it seems like a callous move to attract reader and reviewer attention.

When she stops rhyming the poems are less painful, but the amateurish simplemindedness of her love poetry is just as apparent.

It sounds like the kind of poem unintrospective teenagers write to their boyfriends and girlfriends. Giovanni is fifty-five though, and she has been writing poetry for about a quarter of a century. How can she not have learned anything more about love than this? For that matter, how can she write this crudely whatever her feelings? How can she make such a beeline for metaphors that even a complete tyro would consider cliche? Cliche is not even an adequate word. "lighthouse in the fog?", "troubled waters" What the hell is she thinking? Where is her brain? I recommend you leave her alone on her trapeze. Her other books are not this bad, but you can comfortably glide past them as well.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 3, Apr-May 97


Louise Gluck's Meadowlands 
reviewed by Erich Vogel

Louise Gluck is my favorite poet; she has been since I first began reading modern poetry in earnest. I think The Wild Iris is the most perfect book of verse ever written. That it should be followed by a mediocre book like Meadowlands is depressing. Gluck's work has been so consistently brilliant for so long that her latest false step comes as a rude shock.

Louise Gluck's poetry has always been strong on unity of theme, image and style. In Meadowlands she tries for a greater level of unity yet by using poems to tell a narritive story in fragments; the idea is a good one, but in this case it fails. She redraws characters from The Odyssey with latter day motives and sentiments. This basic technique of recasting mythological material is at least as old as Euripides, is overused today, and Gluck finds no valuable uses for it here as she did in The Triumph of Achillies.

She also juxtaposes her Oddyseus and Penelope with a modern couple who are Gluck herself and her newly ex-husband in no uncertain terms; in "Quiet Evening" she refers to her son Noah by name. Pairing classical characters who think like yuppies with actual yuppies is redundant and creates little effect. Penelope and Oddyseus are described in current terms from the first poem; she is "passionate like Maria Callas" and he "suntanned from his time away- wanting his grilled chicken". On a petty note, I might add that chickens were not introduced to Greece until well after the Peloponesian war as an import from Persia.

Both modern and classical characters here are dissapointingly shallow. Cerce is a caricature of 'the other woman', as if drawn from an angry wife's point of view.

Meanwhile there is no clear sign of infidelity or any other serious conflict between Gluck and her husband. They appear to be getting divorced over petty annoyances with each other's habits. So why compare them to Penelope and Oddyseus? In "Ceremony", one of the poems made up of dialogue between husband and wife, we see the triviality of their differences. I can accept this material as someone's excuse for getting divorced, but from a poet of Gluck's usual insight I expect to be shown deeper reasons as well. The only character with interesting observations to make is Telemachus, and he suffers from being assigned no equivalent in Gluck's modern family. Her uncharacteristic unwillingness to use her son in this book is indicative of its lack of the brutal frankness which has been a factor in her best poetry.

However, the saddest loss evident in Meadowlands is Louise Gluck's sublime turn of phrase. In the past her poetry has seemed to fashion gorgeous evocative imagery out of a seemingly inadequite number of descriptive terms, with a talent that was impossible to pin down to mere technique.

This grace has been supplanted by an awkwardness, which is probably a deliberate attempt to find new style. Even where her imagery remains abstract, it retains none of its former originality and deftness. Even her occasional use of nature imagery, which she has used so commandingly in the past, feels forced and ignorant here. To a limited extent, Meadowlands is a return to the style of the only other Louise Gluck book I dislike, The House On Marshland. In her collected first four volumes, Gluck described The House On Marshland as a deliberate attempt to force a change in her writing style; Meadowlands feels like a similar experiment. I can see how her later books evolved from Marshland and I find reason to hope that Louise Gluck's next book will show similar development.

If you have never read Louise Gluck, then go right to the nearest decent bookstore and pick up The Wild Iris, Ararat, or her collected first four volumes; Proofs And Theories, her essays on poetry, are also well worth getting. Skip Meadowlands altogether, and try to wait the two to three years for her next book patiently.

"I wished for what I always wish for. I wished for another poem."

When she published Meadowlands, Louise Gluck was lost in wishful thinking.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 1, Nov-Dec 96


Maxine Kumin's Connecting The Dots
reviewed by Erich Vogel

Maxine Kumin's great failing is that she lacks insight. She can describe her familiar New England farm scenery adequitely, and the poems where she sticks exactly what she knows and is comfortable with are tolerable.

But even in these poems, her lack of insight keeps her from original ideas about her subject, and so from any original expression. I never feel inspiration at work behind her poems.

When she tries to break into more interesting subject matter she loses whatever genuinness her better poems have. When she gets into matterial which ought to be disturbing, especially when personal, all sensory detail dissapears.

This description of adolescent sexual abuse seems like it could have been copied out of a pamphlet; she can tell us what happened, but not what it was like. At least she no longer apes her friend Anne Sexton's style as she tried to do in some of her early books. The body focused imagery which flows so naturally from Sexton always feels forced and embarassed when it is coming from Kumin, as do Sexton's rhythms.

Poems written about wars and like events as seen on television are almost never powerful, even when tackled by an otherwise excellent poet like Sharon Olds; for my money only Robert Bly ever succeeds with such material, by moving it onto a grander philosophical plane. Kumin's poems in this genre, such as "After The Cleansing of Bosnia" are among her worst.

We do not see people when we read these words; whatever image of a crippled Bosnian seige victim you may conjure up is the product of your imagination and not Kumin's. A well chosen metaphor could show us a foot in one of those overshoes, describe its painful motion. If Kumin had actual experience of the war, I doubt it would impact the poem or change that genericl feel which pervades any poem not about her recent home life. Kumin writes a lot of 'tourist' poems like "Looking For Luck In Bangkok" from her book Looking For Luck, all of which demonstrate her inability to capture scenes from outside her day-to-day life.

Anne Sexton had the good sense to keep her 'tourist' poems on familiar turf; "Somewhere In Africa" is about her dead mentor John Holmes. Kumin speaks of her departed friend Sexton in a poem along similar lines "October, Yellowstone Park"; neither her memories of the park or Sexton have much impact.

I am sure Kumin has strong and genuine feelings of grief over Sexton's death, but these words do not bring us closer to her feelings of loss or our own.

Alas, the excellent Anne Sexton's most frequently anthologized poem is one of her worst, "Sylvia's Death", which is a deliberate and painfully honest document of jealousy, but not well written. Maxine Kumin's work in the same vein "New Year's Eve, 1959" has even less to offer its readers: textbook reflections on the period "Coke was still a carbonated drink", the persons "madcap Anne" and herself "I alone am saved to tell you how they could jive".

Kumin's poems do not usualy contain speculative analisis, and this is merciful thing considering her few poems constructed out of abstract thought. Her ideas, like her images, are tired to the point of being cliche, or at least stock.

Yes, communications technology might have altered an agorophobic woman poet's life, for that matter anti-depressant technology might have changed her a good deal more, but so what? Kumin's observations on this subject are nothing new, and she finds no new language to point them out with.

When she sticks to her forte, Maxine Kumin's poetry has some merit. She has a genuine passion for the details of her farm life, even if she has no imaginative thoughts about that life to share with her readers. The other poems in Connecting The Dots have nothing to recommend them. I advise you to avoid this and the rest of Kumin's books..

PPoetry Harsh, Issue 1, Nov-Dec 96


W.S. Merwin's THE VIXEN
Reviewed by Erich Vogel

It is not easy to define what is lacking in W.S. Merwin's work. His poetry rarely fails out of awkwardness or poorly chosen language. It is this smoothness together with a complete lack of disturbing material that makes him the favorite son of the new New Yorker. His work is uniformly dull, without any passion or even energy. Not every poet is meant to have the violent subject matter of Sharron Olds, but there is no drama without conflict on some level. Even a disagreement between a man and a lilac over the niceness of the weather can be enough to give a poem the necessary tension to keep you reading. The absence of even the most mild everyday stress between characters is what renders Merwin's poems boring and false, makes them a cliche of what poetry "is". Merwin's work in this decade has even less to recommend it than his earlier books. He has become set in his style, even formulaic. The Vixen is another volume of his well written, but largely uninteresting poetry.

No one would vehemently disagree with an statement like this; that is a big part of why it is not worth saying. It is not untrue, but hardly surprising or profound. A bit like saying "I did not look where I was going and I stubbed my toe." Most of Merwin's philosophical observations are about on this level.

On rare occasions he will have a nugget of real eloquence, as opposed to just facility, in one of his descriptions.

And it is only in these infrequent examples of really good description that he achieves anything like meaningful and engaging content. Compare Merwin with Robert Bly in this regard. The quality of Bly's work is uneven, but he achieves magnificent epiphanies of expression and understanding which vindicate the less successful parts of the poem or book. One has an awareness that a lot of the "failed" passages and poems are necessary pieces of framing for the best moments. Merwin's good lines do not achieve this. They are just isolated examples of what the entire poem needs to be.

More often, his descriptions will be so straightforwardly bland that it sounds as if he were giving you directions.

The dullness of the individual poems and the novocaine-like effect of the collection in its entirety do not come across in short quotations.

Perhaps the easy fluidity of Merwin's language is a trap he lays for himself; keeping him from seeing when a poem has no substance. Some passages feel as though the poet got caught up in the flow of his words while writing and never went back with a more critical eye towards meaning.

It seems likely that the remarkable seemlessness of his language, which is a worthy achievement, is the product of some revision. But I find it difficult to believe that Merwin ever revises his thoughts, either for clarity or merit.

On a more petty note, he uses sloes entirely too often in this collection. I suppose a devil's advocate might accuse Garcia Lorca of referring to oleanders too often. But Lorca is using a charged cultural and personal symbol, whereas Merwin is just referring to a vegetable. I am not partial to his placement of line breaks either; they do not provide either clarity or meaningful juxtaposition.

Now turning to W.S. Merwin's new anthology Lament For The Makers, I will compare him unfavorably to Robert Bly once more. When Bly edits an anthology it is almost invariably worth getting. Even if you are familiar with all the poems, which is unlikely when Bly picks them, you find new value. Through his commentary and arrangement Bly will trace thematic threads from one poet and era to the next, as he did expertly in News Of The Universe. He also has excellent taste.

Merwin finds three unifying factors to link the poets he jams together in this volume: they are supposedly influences on his work, they are all mentioned in his title poem, and they are all dead. The first two are egotistical and the third is true of all of us, eventually. The poems he selects are unrelated in theme and style and are for the most part not the best examples of the poets' works.

Merwin's only commentary is very curt biographical sentences at the end of each poem, and a long title poem. His one poem here is a stylistic departure for him, and not a positive one. It lacks the word flow which is typically his best feature and reads awkwardly.

At least he did not rhyme "Plath" with "path";thank God she did not slit her wrists in the "bath". Elsewhere in the poem he describes himself, as pretentious people so often do, as having been somehow "rescued" by the reading of poetry in his youth; from what he does not specify. Poets often make this sort of aggrandized claim for poetry, as filmmakers do for film, as Lou Reed does for Rock And Roll. They want what they do to be important, and talk themselves into the notion that they may be somehow redeeming souls with their writing.

Stevens "The River Of Rivers In Connecticut" is the only example of Merwin selecting a good, if not great, poem to represent a poet.

The other great poets represented here are not so fortunate. For Eliot he uses "Little Gidding", a poem which Eliot considered to be among his best, but actually much inferior to pieces like "The Wasteland", "Ash Wednesday" or even "Whispers Of Immortality". Little Gidding may actually be an influence upon Merwin in its lack of strong emotion. It is Eliot's passionate fear and loathing that gives other works their energy and modernity. For Sylvia Plath he picked "Words". The broad and generic images here are hardly the equal of the more personal and intriguing ones in poems like "The Arrival Of The Bee Box" or "Mary's Song". I have trouble believing that Merwin's work is in any way shaped by Plath's.

Traditionally overrated poets like Ezra Pound, James Wright, the Roberts Lowell and Graves are no better represented here than they should be.

In regards to both these books, and W.S. Merwin's work in general, save your money.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 2, Jan-Feb 97


Bill Moyer's The Language of Life
reviewed by Monica Sudo

There is nothing I like less than the cliched, stereotypical image of poets as lofty people who understand the mysteries of life and whose minds dwell constantly on higher things. If you give most poets half a chance they will try to portray this unlikely character for you. Bill Moyers handed several of them this opportunity on a platter when he made The Language Of Life series for PBS.

I had high hopes for the show initially. Moyers has damn good credentials as a journalist after all, and if he had approached poetry with an iota of the skepticism he has for politics then he might have produced a good program. I guess Moyers is incapable of distrusting something that has not personally bitten him in the ass yet. Instead he approaches a slew of known poets with the reverence that might be expected towards the Dali Lama.

And most of the poets eat this kind of treatment up; after all, the desire for such deference was a big part of what they wanted to get out of being a poet all along. I am sure that they have lain awake at night since they were twenty, dreaming up the pithy little quotables they spew at Moyers.

Movies are a conversation with the world; some novels are a conversation with the world; the most popular living poet has at best a conversation with a small and eccentric sliver of it. It is a pretty one-sided conversation too. But you see the tone of it already. To be honest I did not see every moment of the show, as I kept getting annoyed and muting the sound. I went back to the printed companion volume to write this. I am going to crack open the book version at random and see if I cannot find something to get pissed about on every page. Moyers uses this quotation in his foreword. I doubt that he even sees what it implies. That poetry is out to "make" the world something it is not. Certainly, that is what most of the poets here do. Nauseating Buddha-like tone aside, does she really think poetry is more popular in 1997 than in 1967? Today the big publishing houses are rapidly retreating from poetry publishing at all, as are mainstream magazines. We have thousands of small presses and magazines devoted to poetry, but they have no circulation to speak of and exist on a shoestring. Ordinary people are as alienated from the very idea of poetry as they have ever been in our history. Well, I sure wouldn't trust a boy who took that line with me in the backseat of a 57 Chevy. I would like to seal her in poetry free and then oxygen free containers to compare the effect. Seriously though, poetry is always getting portrayed as absurdly important and powerful. I always think of Rik Maynal from The Young Ones overdosing on laxatives and moaning about how all "the kids" will cry when they learn that "the people's poet" is dead. Poets as a breed want what they do to be more important than it is. Poetry is an amusement, a distraction, just like novels and movies but with a much smaller audience. Even when it does take your breath away with its beauty or relevance it does not justify your existence, or the poet's. I think it is this kind of "Can Poetry Matter?" bullshit that keeps so many people from taking poetry seriously. Not only does poetry reading not save souls, it does not start revolutions either. Poets like Neruda may have been useful celebrities to political movements, but their political poetry was just more preaching to the converted. Historically, controversial novels get banned, films and plays get banned, essays get banned, poetry just gets ignored. Dove is presenting how influential she wants poetry to be as fact. Pretentious people often describe their process this way; its a complete lie. Poetry does not possess them, or haunt them. They want to write poems, get antsy and depressed when they have no ideas, and spend a lot of their time trying to come up with something. Many of the bad ones try to come up with something specifically to please the New Yorker or The Paris Review.

Robert Bly at least has a few interesting things to say about not throwing out classical western culture as we become interested in multiculturalism. Jane Kenyon speaks of her life in an honest and down to earth way. Galway Kinnel and Sharron Olds have poems in the book, but no interviews; they are not represented in the television show. They might well have had more interesting and honest statements to make.

I have known a number of poets. They are not lofty minded folks; if anything they are more petty and materialistic than average, not even particularly mature. They do not need to be in order write good poetry. I am not suggesting that they should be saints and sages; I am suggesting that they stop using those personas both when they talk and write. Poets are by-and-large greedy for glory and acceptance. They watch the mailbox with baited breath. They get mad when the national book award goes to somebody else. They divorce their first wives in favor of their prettiest graduate students. They are normal Geraldo type folks, often with a little more brains and always with a lot more ego and ambition. More people might be able to relate to poetry if more poets owned up to the truth about their natures.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 2, Jan-Feb 97


David Rivard's Wise Poison
reviewed by Monica Sudo

David Rivard seems like he's trying to find a middle ground between two tiresome schools of poetry: the shallow, Generation Xy, phoney street life poetry written by the likes of David West and the uninspired, non-threatening, 'lofty', yuppified poetry of W.S. Merwin and his ilk. In so doing he may have found the ideal "formula" for being published in the current poetry climate, but the formula shows through the poetry like a paint-by-the-numbers Mona Lisa.

"only as far as the mountain meadow" is your garden variety 'unexpected' twist, like "Turn out the light and put the cow out"; it fills space and tries to create a feel of significance in a passage which has none. Rivard would like you to think air brakes are high-context cultural symbols, the equivalent of Oleanders in a Lorca poem, but I don't think air-brakes hold many connotations for those of us who are not shady tree mechanics; I am also uncertain whether it is the grate which is whistling or the kid who is supposed to be snoring. "The fence around a rocket launching pad" is an image so simplified that it becomes ignorant, suggesting some vague notion of aspiration? These lines are all the result of petty writing tricks, used to fill in a poem with nothing to say. A generalized suggestion is made that media images of violence affect the development of children in some indefinable way, but Rivard has no ideas about what that might be.

He uses a lot of pop-culture references which stick out with an awkwardness which reflects the intention behind them.

He wants you to know he is a hip young gentleman, who listens to the same music you do. He also feels compelled to remind you that these poems take place in 'the city', even if an urban setting has no relevance to the poem's meaning. Well, It surely is city life that gives poetry that 'edge' which makes it 'real' is it not? It is just as forced when Rivard throws in a hydrant as when Maxine Kumin throws in hydrangea, for no other reason than to reinforce the respective poet-personas each consciously tries to fashion. The most artificial thing in the book is the pose Rivard works so hard to maintain throughout: a middle class poetry loving gent, not unlike you who he hopes will buy the book, who will take you on a little tour of the poor neighborhoods he is familiar with, because he is also a happinin-on-the-edge kind of dude. It is voice tailored to the wants of the modern poetry editor, comfortable grit; it comes as no great surprise that David St. John and the Antioch Review love him so dearly.

I strongly suggest that you give both this and his first book a miss; they are as disingenuous and meaningless as his constant use of "&".

Poetry Harsh, Issue 4, Jun-July 97


W.D. Snodgrass' The Fuhrer Bunker
reviewed by Erich Vogel

W.D. Snodgrass is a poet whose reputation stems entirely from one out-of-character poem, "Heart's Needle". It was the title poem of his first book and propelled him directly from obscurity to what passes in the poetry world for fame. While "Heart's Needle" is quite a good poem, it is not remembered for itself so much as for its profound impact on Anne Sexton, and through her on the confessional school of poetry. He abandoned confessional poetry in subsequent books, along with all subject matter over which he had any command. His output since 1960 has been less than prolific, and since the early 1970's it has been mostly work-in- progress segments of this book.

The Fuhrer Bunker, The Complete Cycle is a long book of poetry at 202 pages; after all, it was about 25 years in the making. What saddens me about the book is that its central idea had real promise. The history of Germany and the Nazi High-Command are related by various participants, in snippets resembling diary entries, letters, etcetera. I like to see chronological cycles of poems which can be followed in linear novel fashion and I also enjoy epistolary forms in poetry. All that was needed to make the concept work, was some original ideas about the nature of these individuals, who remain history's most important villains.

Unfortunately, Snodgrass has no new thoughts about either the mental lives of the Nazi leaders, the experience of their defeat, or the societal phenomenon of Nazism. Snodgrass's Hitler is the Hitler of most popular films and documentaries, likewise his Himmler, Speer, et al. His generalized poems about the German people as whole depict them relating events broadly, like a Greek Chorus. His vision of these figures may be correct, if simplistic, but Snodgrass tells us nothing new and his conceptions do not call out for poetic expression.

Nazis are the 20th Century's archetypal villains, and rightly so, but unfortunately this often leads to broad and un-psychological portrayals by writers. This is not a great problem when the work in question is a cheap spy thriller, but a poetry cycle has no explosions and car chases to offer; it must supply original and powerful characterization. We all know Goeing was fat. We have all seen him portrayed as a petulant crybaby in everything from novels to Bugs Bunny cartoons. There are deeper possibilities to explore in the man's behavior which in no way mitigate the vileness of his deeds. One might try to apply something of what psychologists now know about the interior life of those with eating and addictive disorders to Goering, or Germany for that matter.

The simplistic approach to personality only accentuates the mundanity of Sndograss's language. His descriptions, even his imagery, is very common and matter-of fact. I think this is an attempt to enhance the epistolary feel of the collection, and I would be more inclined to forgive it as such if he was able to sneak in a line of real eloquence here and there, much as people do unwittingly in their conversation. But even as plain dialogue, Snodgrass's language does not work; it reads like the script from a bad docu-drama on A&E.

His use of ellipses in the last couplet particularly reads like a bad piece of film or television. Again, the simple portrayal of Hitler's likely impotence and dubious sex life with Eva Braun seems downright silly in this context. And again, it is not as though no one had ever suggested a link between sexual inability on Hitler's part and the lack of realism in his strategy.

The forms in this collection vary widely, at times into the experimental. Himmler's poems always take the same eccentric cube shape, initially supposed to portray his casting himself a horoscope, but also suggesting a telegram coming into the bunker from outside. The asterisks here are used to represent a large centered dot.

(from "Heinrich Himmler Reichfuehrer S.S.")

Speer is always depicted one stairs as he enters or leaves the bunker, and so the lines are given a triangular arrangement.

Many of these forms may have been an outgrowth of The Fuhrer Bunker's theatrical production. They neither harm nor help the poetry.

Snodgrass begins, ends with, and frequently returns to a character he calls "Old Lady Barkeep", who Snodgrass describes as "a figure from renaissance song and verse...for satirical verses about their leaders." What these poems contribute to the collection is obscure; like the rest of the poems, they simply relate events banally.

The material covered by The Fuhrer Bunker is inherently interesting, significant, and powerful. Snodgrass' great mistake in taking on these events and people as his subject is to depend on the inherent value of the history to supply all the worth of his creation. It is the artist who must supply worth in the form of insight and eloquence, which is at least equal to the inherent value of the chosen subject. I advise you to give The Fuhrer Bunker a miss, check Heart's Needle out of the library for its historical value, and what little else remains of Snodgrass's work you can pass over with impunity.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 3, Apr-May 97


Galway Kinnell
interviewed by Erich Vogel

I ambushed Galway Kinnell recently and got this brief but interesting Q-&-A out of him.

Q: Is there anything you see coming up in a lot of poetry lately that you don't like?

Galway Kinnell: I suppose there are things in some poems here and there that I don't like, in poems written now or two hundred years ago. I'd feel more confident talking about the ones written two hundred years ago than the ones written today. There's always some poet out there thinking "huh? is he complaining about me here with this or is it someone else, and who are you Galway Kinnel to judge what is great and what isn't?". What's more I'd have to be possessed of a kind of a cruel streak to say it in a public forum. And if you are going to do it, then you have to say what poems it is you're talking about. We don't know what is going to be considered great a hundred years from now. So I have to say that I'm not going to answer your question.

Q: How much revision do you do on your own poems?

GK: Before the reading I'll be sitting out in the cafe scribbling and thinking people are going to be listening to me in twenty minutes; I rise to new insights about what is wrong with my poem. It is necessary to be in an alert state to do revision- and there's no more alert state than being about to read in public. But I'm not sure I answered your question. I revise a lot. If you can see my personal copy of Imperfect Thirst here, it's all beat up and dog-eared; there is a lot of scribbling in the margins.

Q: Do you think poetry criticism serves a useful purpose? and if so, what is it?

GK: I think it can introduce someone to a poem. Sometimes if a person doesn't know much poetry, if someone doesn't know Wallace Stevens and they pick up a book of Wallace Stevens for the first time-

Q: It can give them access to an understanding they wouldn't otherwise have?

GK: It provides an opening, yes.

Q: That said, do you think negative criticism serves any useful function?

GK: Sometimes, if there is a poet who is famous and a lot of people call him great, but really he is not a good poet.

Q: Or maybe if a great poet is not up to form lately?

GK: No, I don't think negative criticism is called for in that case. But if the emperor has no clothes?

Galway's latest book is Imperfect Thirst, and he remains safe from us...for now!

Poetry Harsh, Issue 2, Jan-Feb 97


L.R. Pettus
Interviewed by Erich Vogel

Q: What kind of poem do you really detest?

L.R. PETTUS: Badly written, badly thought out, I don't know.

Q: What makes a poem qualify as badly written?

LRP: Oh, amateurishness of the kind you might have at an open mic. I think what appalls me that some of the younger poets do is that they don't read! and so they don't have any idea of what people have already done. Or they try to work within classical forms they don't really understand. I'd like to see less art and more craft. Art is when you scribble something down on a napkin on the bar, and craft is when you go over and over something till it becomes worth showing to other people.

Q: So self criticism plays a big role in your creative process? You do a lot of redrafting?

LRP: Oh yes.

Q: Is outside criticism, feedback from other people something you rely on much? or are you mostly your own critic? LRP: Hmm...I don't call myself a performance poet, because they have a lot more bells and whistles than I do. But I think telling people stories, reading poems and stories well is important. Being a story-poet I think having people enjoy the poem is important.

Q: What do think of the 'spoken-word' scene in the San Francisco Bay Area and some of the people who identify themselves as spoken word performers rather than poets?

LRP: Some of them are quite good. I've come to the conclusion that it takes everyone involved, even the really bad ones, to make art happen. You can't have just the cream off the top.

Q: Errr, that doesn't fit in very well with the philosophy of our magazine.

LRP: Hm.

Q: Tell me the story of your "I'm a Robert Bly Groupie" t-shirt again.

LRP: The t-shirt I retired?

Q: Yeah, just tell me again how it came to be and how it came to be retired.

LRP: Robert Bly as a poet is pretty damn good. Wonderful with an audience too and he had a wonderful catalytic effect on me. He would come to San Jose to give a reading and I would typically hear him and go sit up and write poetry all night. I would look at my own work and find it had taken a new direction each year or so right after his visit. So I had this t-shirt custom made that said "I'm a Robert Bly Groupie" and wore it to his readings. He took notice of it eventually and would look for it and say "Where is the woman who always wears that t-shirt? There she is!".

But when he came out with Iron John...Iron Hans was not a wild man; he could not have been. I went off on a quest to find what kind of a man Iron Hans could have been. The story of Iron Hans does not fit the interpretation Bly puts on it. There are other stories from non-european traditions that would fit his message, but he is too much of a snob to use those. He did not do his homework and he does not care whether what he is telling his audience is true or not. I think he has a real contempt for his audience. These people have not done the reading, the original research; they are trusting that he has, that he knows what he is saying and that he is telling them the truth. I have a much smaller audience than Bly, but the people who do listen to me tend to trust what I say, so I do my homework and try to tell the story right before I do anything else.

Q: Do you think Anne Sexton got the Grimm's tales right in her Transformations poems?

LRP: I've never read them. If Bly had just written his own Iron Hans poem with that interpretation that wouldn't have bothered me.

Q: But he wrote a supposedly scholarly prose book pertaining to tell the original allegorical meaning behind the fairy tale. If any fairy tale can even be said to have such a thing. Do you think Joseph Campbell is accurate in his interpretation of myths and fairy tales? Bly claimed him as the inspiration behind Iron John.

LRP: If you listen to Campbell and you listen to Bly they are not saying the same thing at all. So I stopped wearing the shirt and wrote him a letter telling Bly why. I also think there is a growing mentality in this country, that we are becoming a nation of crybabies and that Iron John is encouraging that. Now he's got a new prose book telling us all to stop sniveling!

L.R. Pettus won the 1993 Phelan Prize for her book Seven Harp Songs. Her latest book of poems is The Golden Ball, A Partial History. Any of her books are well worth checking out if you can find them.

Poetry Harsh, Issue 4, Jun-July 97


Commentary: Manifesto-Masthead
by Erich Vogel

I know a lot of poets and poetry fans who think that Poetry Harsh is a bad idea. They would rather I devote a magazine to reviews of poetry I like. Aside from the fact that I could not find enough good new poetry to supply material for a bi-monthly, I firmly believe that what poetry as a whole most needs is to purge itself of a glut of bad and mediocre work.

I do not mourn the passing of old fashioned notions of what is or is not a poem, but with them disappeared all firm criteria for evaluating poetry's worth. Standards of merit have become as abstract as the most abstract poetry, and this too is a good overall development. Unfortunately, this lack of firm rules has fostered a climate where readers have no confidence in their own ability to judge what is good or bad. How often have you heard someone qualify their opinion with "I don't really know anything about poetry."? Would they say the same thing about novels or films? probably not. The sad truth is that most poets encourage this attitude since it makes them invulnerable to the painful experience of being criticized. This not only keeps poets from the rough lessons which would improve their work, but it drives readers away by intimidating them. Is it any wonder that poetry sales are so poor? or that the thousands of poetry magazines which exist today are lucky to have circulations of five hundred to a thousand? The critics who ought to be helping us toward a sense of what makes a modern poem good are writing articles more abstruse than any poem. They too are afraid of being the emperor with no clothes; that there is a secret trick to understanding poetry which they have missed.

Poetry Harsh is here to put its two cents in about some examples of poetry best forgotten. We want to encourage you to have high standards and to be hard judges when confronted by inferior work: on a bookshelf, at a reading, or even on the screen of your own word processor. You cannot write poetry, or read poetry, until you learn to identify what fails and excise it.

In other words, be harsh.


Commentary: On Self Publishing, Web Publishing, And Hypocrisy On Our Part
by Erich Vogel

Our first letter leads us into the subject of my latest editorial.

In investigating the web for poetry content and discourse I stumbled on Monica Sudo's comments about poetry scams, etc. It was disheartening to find someone displaying such bald examples of slavishness and hypocrisy. First, the notion that one should just submit their creative work and hope for acceptance from the publication machinery demonstrates a cynical attachment to establishment acceptance hierarchies. Secondly, I would like to know just how many editors she had to suck up to in order to "publish" her ideas on the web. I suggest that she stop and think next time before she attempts to think.


In spite of all my complaints about how a system of professional publication works in practice, I still prefer it to a world stuffed with the work of the self-published and the vanity pressed. While professionally published poetry is about 90% awful, privately published poetry is more like 99.8% awful (figures courtesy of the statistical firm of Ratfocher, Hinesmoocher & Schtonk).

Bad poets do get past the gauntlet of professional publication with an alarming frequency; excellent poets also get squashed. But even a patchy and corrupt filter for the great bales of poetry generated every year is better than no filter at all. This is a why I avoid reading web-published poetry as much as possible; its quality is comparable to most of what gets read aloud in open-readings, without any of the charm that format provides. Even the work of most of the poets we trash is better than the bulk of the self-published work in print and on the web. While I don't think that editors always show the best taste in my work, either by what they reject or accept, I do find that the very effort of submission leads me down a more self-critical path that improves my efforts. Personally, I am grateful that none of my earliest efforts at poetry exist in any printed form.

Self-Publishing is itself a scam, one that works from the bottom up.

I should add that attempts are being made to create respectable literary magazines on the web, and I applaud the effort (if not always the poetry therein). The Hawk, for example, is to my knowledge the first electronic publication to pay poets for their contributions. I think that is an effective way for them to separate their publication from web-magazines which exist to publish a small circle of friends, or publish all submissions indiscriminately. It is a shame more print magazines do not pay their poets; good poetry is work after all, like any other form of writing.

To address Demian's second question, I am the only editor here, and I am immensely grateful for Monica's contributions. If you show her your ass she is unlikely to kiss it. I wish I could clone her. How do I justify the apparent hippocricy of publishing my own articles? Personally, I have never considered criticism to be an art form; that sort of attitude leads to reviews that read like bad poetry themselves. Criticism exists in service to the art form, a kind of consumer report. As such, Poetry Harsh is an unpaid showcase of informed opinion for a specialized audience; which is just what web-pages have always been most useful for. I get little or no creative satisfaction from this kind of writing, and I'll be happy enough to do less if I ever have enough outside contributions to retire behind the editor's desk. (Ye gods! I haven't written a new poem since I began this miserable enterprise).


Commentary: On Poetry In Buses And Trains
by Monica Sudo

At this risk of being a jerk, I am going to discuss something which is not so much a scam as just a bad idea: poetry in commuter vehicles. I cannot call it a scam, because it does not do any real harm; the problem is it does not do any good either.

Putting up posters with short poems in trains and buses is an idea that got started in London. In 1992 the New York subways started doing the same thing with their Poetry In Motion program. Poetry In Motion now also puts its posters up in trains and buses in other parts of the country. The poems are selected mainly by the Poetry Society of America, which does not welcome unsolicited submissions. Their stated purpose is "to make bus and subway riding more pleasurable experiences". I think the experience of subway trains could be more effectively improved with more security and cleanup personnel, but anyway that is not the real idea or purpose behind this program.

The notion which underlies "poetry for the subways", as well as spoken word at concerts and a lot of other poetry programs, is that they will somehow generate a vast new audience for poetry among people who would never otherwise read it. The theory is that there are great hordes among the silent majority who would become rabid poetry fans if only given the chance; they will look up from their benighted commuter lives at a poster to see some verse about morning coffee and say "my God! what has been missing from my life!" then immediately run out to buy books, take classes, and attend readings.

Poetry is not a popular medium in modern times, for the very appropriate reason that is by nature a rarefied and acquired taste. It creates emotions subtly in its readers, through ideas and thought-provoking styles. It does not have the clear and easy appeal of a film, or the novel's ability to enmesh you into the lives of its characters over a long period. Sure the Iliad was considered pretty hot stuff in its day, but then the competition was not real stiff. Lollapaloza-type poets think they can make poetry interesting by filling it with routine sex and drug humor, but end up creating work which is neither exciting nor profound.

My question is, what is so terrible about poetry having a small attentive and discriminating audience of intellectual people? Intellectuals also need catering to in this life. They do not always like Star Wars and The Client; let them eat poetry. Let me rephrase that, let us eat poetry. I make no bones about it, I am an intellectual snob and proud! I like Antonioni movies, wine tasting, boys with PHDs, and poetry! So what if a poetry career won't support most poets in the lifestyle to which they would like to become accustomed? They should marry rich!

Poetry doesn't need a vast national PR campaign. The good poetry exists, and those who truly require it have the brains to locate it.


Commentary: On Celebrities Who Publish Poetry Books
by Monica Sudo

Why does a lot of public success in any field qualify someone to write and publish a book of poems? What entitles movie stars to larger and more widely distributed editions than a poet who has won a pulitzer prize? An astronaut may have seen some things that are well worth writing a poem about, but since when does a lifetime of rigorous military and technical training prepare you to express yourself in metaphor? It never fails to infuriate me that in about half the bookstores I visit, these are the only books by living writers on the poetry shelf! (but of course I am forgetting Where The Sidewalk Ends).

The most glaring examples I can think of are a pair of Jimmys, both literally and figuratively. Jimmy Stewart's poetry qualifications are his 200 odd years as American movie icon and supposed nice guy. For this service, readers are supposed to put up with his "Funny Little Puppy" and "Kitten My Pal" poems that Dana Carvey mocked so well on SNL. Jimmy Carter gets to be a poet because of his contributions as elder statesman, befuddled negotiator, and liberal saint (I assume his actual Presidency had little to do with it). Couldn't he have just written his memoirs or a manifesto? something he might be trained to write and which his public might actually enjoy? Couldn't he have just put the poems in a shoebox and hidden them in the back of his peanut-Tara presidential library?

There are plenty of others, the aforementioned astronaut, Jack Palance's Love Poems, Linda Goodman's Love Poems and her 'verse- novel' Gooberz; I think Gooberz may be the Necronomicon of bad poetry.

Do these damn books even sell that well? I find it difficult to believe that they do; surely even the most die-hard admirers of these public figures can only be embarrassed by their poetry. What do the publishers have to get out of it? modest sales, a new name for their stable, perhaps a hope of getting a better-selling manuscript later. When the benefits consist of a mere 30 pieces of silver (or perhaps 'magic beans' would be a better image) is it too much to expect of publishers that they show a little integrity about what they will and will not publish?

Yeah, it is too much to ask, silly question.


Commentary: On Poetry Contests 
by Monica Sudo

I was in a used bookstore on B street in Hayward last week; they had only a couple dozen books in the poetry section, but what they had was cheap. There I found the crummiest looking chapbook I have ever laid eyes on: the print looked typed, the imprint put on with a rubber stamp, and the duplication looked to have been done with a mimeograph (it even retained a little of that old grade school purple ink smell). I expected it to be a typical small press product of the Sixties, but no; it was only a couple of years old. The flyleaf announced grandly if palely that this was the winner of the XXXXXX chapbook contest. The haiku inside were not bad. It was selling for fifty cents.

I went to Erich's house and looked up the shall-remain-nameless competition in his copy of the Poet's Market; sure enough, it was still extant. It cost $15 to enter and the winner gets a 200 copy edition of his or her chapbook printed plus 20 personal copies free! The chapbooks are described as "printed on high quality paper".

There are hundreds of poetry contests in this country. A small number of these are legitimate endeavors, with sufficent endowments to pay for their prizes, judges, administration, etcetera. Only a few of these legitimate conests, like the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship, are open to unknown poets; the rest, like the National Book Award, require a poet to have a book already published, and often require the publisher to make the nomination.

Unfortunately, most contests are profit making ventures, which prop up unprofitable magazines, presses, and the quasi-established poets who act as judges. They require entry fees that can run from $2 for a single poem, to $30 for the privilege of having a book length manuscript considered. They offer modest pots of prize money, mostly under $1000 with honerable mentions that can get as little as $5 and/or some form of book, chapbook, anthology, or magazine publication. Only slightly more legitimate, some contests will require you to subscribe to the sponsoring magazine in place of an entry fee. The real lure for the contestants is not the cash, or even the printing, but the "respectability" of the prize, the hope that mention of the prize will give them a foot in the door with editors and publishers.

The sheer quantity of awards prevents any but the most firmly established from having any significance to publishing professionals. To paraphrase Beau Geste, poetry prizes are like hemorrhoids, every asshole gets one if the just bend over often enough. The only thing sadder than an aspiring poet who empties their piggy bank on entrance fees, is one who wins a prize only to find that no one gives a damn about it. They will mention it expectantly at their next open reading, to be met with the ususal smattering of indifferent applause.

How do you tell if a prize comes with any glory? Poets And Writers announces the winners of cash prizes over $500, but most of those winners will never be heard from again. If you see the prize in question touted on the dust jacket of an established poet's book, it is almost certainly worthwhile and just as certainly not open to unknowns. The name of a famous dead poet attached to the prize means little or nothing. A well known poet acting as judge for the contest is being paid, needs the money, and does not care if the contest is a scam.

I say a good rule of thumb is not to enter any contest with a fee. For me it is an issue of principle; these competitions feed on the naive ambitions of young poets as if they were krill, and are no better than vanity presses in this regard. If a poetry enterprise can find no better way than this to maintain itself, then it should simply be allowed to perish; there is no shortage of magazines, small presses, and "poetry centers". If an established poet, with an enviable career, cannot support himself with poetry in a more acceptable fashion, then they need to start flipping burgers; a little burger flipping might even improve their work. There is no shortcut around the glut of poets, talented and untalented, clawing for a bit of the limited quantity of acclaim in the field. All you can do is read, write, and submit.


Commentary: On The "New" New Yorker
by Erich Vogel

For better or worse (and lately it is worse), The New Yorker occupies an important and unique position in the poetry world. More than thirty years ago, Sylvia Plath observed that poets measured their success in the thinness of return envelopes and fatness of checks from this magazine; it remains true. Poets are generally considered to have real careers only after they have published there.

While the overall quality of the magazine has suffered since Tina Brown took over as editor, its poetry (now edited by Alice Quinn) has taken the worst hit. Most obviously, the magazine has gone from printing four or five poems an issue to only one or two; I suppose they need room for fashion segments and photo essays. More significant, their poetry desk has lost its guts. The New Yorker introduced us to the likes of Dorothy Parker and Anne Sexton. It has always had its share of soothing and well established poets, and I do not object to this. But it now includes no work more intimidating than that of W.S. Merwin, and if you had not been published in the New Yorker before Quinn took power you are unlikely to be in it now.

I think Tina Brown would as soon remove all the poetry from "her" magazine. She knows the recipe for Vanity Fair, and sees no practical need for the New Yorker to taste differently. I shall offer a clear reason; the core audience of the New Yorker liked it the way it was. The Vanity Fair readership cannot be courted but at the cost of longtime subscribers. I know families with every issue since the first in their attic, who are now on the edge of canceling their subscriptions. I propose that we all cancel our subscriptions. The world has plenty of Vanity Fairs, and only one New Yorker.