Friday, February 04, 2005

Be Kind to your Web-footed Friends

The formalistas are up in arms about some short reviews in Poetry. They’re picking up pens and storming the letters to the editor. Some of their own have been criticized, they think, unfairly. Well all criticism can be viewed as unfair. And the poets in question here, David Mason and Catherine Tufariello, are indeed accomplished and deserving of much praise. But the examples that Brian Phillips uses to point out their shortcomings are reasonable.

Mr. Mason, he thinks, is uneven. He complains of Mason’s “deviation from zero,” which the formalistas mock as some crazy incomprehensible comment, when it just means an adherence to strict meter over tight language. And the example he uses is indeed a slack one: Mason’s “much like” fleshing out the meter in order to get to the rhyme. The other lines that Phillips highlights do seem too cultivated for their own good, bringing in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the voice of a drunken, half-Indian murderer. Even the Reaper would question that narrative act: “No character and no action may violate the essence of that character or act.” These examples from Mason’s work are indeed missteps from one otherwise walking in the right direction.

As for Tufariello, Phillips criticism of her original poetry (her translations he praises) concerns “the tinny antiquarianism, the sense of program taking precedence over art, the absurd quaintness of contemporary life slipped too blithely into iambs.” And the examples he uses, again, I think are fair, especially the line, “While plaintive crickets quavered in the yard.” If that line is not a parody of the worst in Victorian poetry, it should be. His comparison of her work to a girl in finishing school is an unfortunate one that does ring of sexism, but his concluding observation is sound:
Formal discipline, unless bound up in the higher discipline that brings form into a sufficient relation with content, is an apprentice goal. This has always been true, of course, but the intensity with which we feel it should now be at its height. The twentieth century did have the audacity to take place.

Criticism can be a useful tool if fair and I believe Phillips’ is fair. But maybe that’s because his objections to some of the formalist agenda are much like my own, especially:
Adherence to strict meter over tight language (slackness)
Too cultivated for its own good
but also to an extent:
Antiquarianism
Program taking precedence over art
The absurd quaintness of contemporary life slipped too blithely into iambs

As I work my way to some formalist understanding, I do wish to remember that the 20th century did take place, as well as those previous centuries of course, and forward that vector to somewhere in the 21st century where contents are under pressure can explode to some metrical accompaniment.

1 comment:

Michael Snider said...

Greg, my Feb Poetry is waiting for me in North Carolina, and I know precisely one poem by Tufariello ("Free Play"), so I'll stick to the two things I do know something about — David Mason's "The Collector's Tale" and drunken criminals. I've heard Mason read the poem in a large auditorium full of several hundred people, and the reading ended in the kind of silence that comes from utter spellbound attention. It was half a beat before the room exploded in applause. The only objection to a reference to Fitzgerald by Mason's drunken, half-Indian murderer (who is also educated and a fairly successful dealer in antiquities) comes from the kind of middle-class arrogance that assumes literature is beyond the experience and even the reach of the poor and the lost — the people I spent my forties with. It's an attitude the self-styled avant garde has worked hard to promote, with disastrous results.