Pay attention to the poetry world, and you’ll notice a kind of false advertising: most of published criticism is positive even though so much of published poetry is bad. (This is probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.) One reason for the dearth of critical comeuppances is that even bad poems are often hard to understand and harder to understand conclusively, so negative critics risk missing something and looking like fools. They misinterpret what they malign, they butcher what they slander. A way to acknowledge the problem without giving in to it is to qualify criticisms with an implicit “unless I’m missing something.” As in, unless I’m missing something, the line “At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness” sounds like a parody of a pop song. It describes an emotion without conveying it, exaggerates images without making them interesting. “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?
The lines I quote are egregious, but not atypical of poems that really are quite bad, from Michael Dickman’s new book, Flies, his second collection and a case study in failed difficulty. Dickman is a young, talented poet with a gift for pacing and for lucid images, a gift he displays in his first collection, The End of the West (2009), which earned him fame for its stark, hopeful poems mostly about Portland, Oregon’s mostly white underclass and his time growing up in it, his family, his friends. His twin brother, Matthew, is also a poet, and the two siblings achieved fame even outside the poetry world when the New Yorker ran a profile of them in April 2009.
The poems in Flies follow the main form of his first book, whose poems at many formal levels open problems but often don’t close them. Their page-long sections are unnumbered, non-linear, associative, with pieces of stories and recurring themes. In the new collection, sentences and phrases are split, even words (“Flying around / the room / like a mosquito”). The effect is to develop patterns of thought and of feeling and to clarify and dramatize Dickman’s conflicts about those thoughts and those feelings, as well as the conflicts the thoughts and feelings lead to. “The swing sets / aren’t really / there,” he writes in “Imaginary Playground,” as if he’d thought to say that they weren’t really real but settled on “there,” as if they could be elsewhere. The style at its best points out its own incompleteness and suggests clear meaningful ways to complete it. The reader can weigh the different ways to think, the different stories to tell, which makes for great mental music in some poems of Franz Wright, Dickman’s former teacher, whose "Year One" needs no explanation:
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
of your existence?
There is nothing
It’s too bad, then, that Flies fails to reach its style’s potential. The poems are imprecise: they aim for inconclusive resolutions and show unclear problems. Take the first section of “All Saints”:
I made the mask
also the wings
all by myself
in the shape of a sick child
or newly cut
It was hard to stand up at first because the wings were so heavy but
I’m getting more and more used to them
More and more ready
waves of silver paint
they shine like
But the beak is real
A real beak
instead of a mouth
How does a bird outfit resemble a sick kid? Why are blind people glowing? Blinding things glow, such as angels, but why would anyone confuse them with the blind? His childhood self (whose point of view he moves in and out of) thinks that he’s gotten “More and more ready,” ostensibly to fly and to do whatever flying is a metaphor for, and he covers his mouth with a beak so that he won’t have to speak, so he can escape through flight or through silence. We know this, but the poem doesn’t embellish these conventional metaphors—flying, silence—or tell us anything dramatically interesting about the source of the child’s shame or about the intricacies of his reaction, or mimic any childlike feelings about flight and shame, or render any distinctive childlike phrases or habits of mind, or, as it should, set us up to imagine metaphors or stories or feelings or childlike idiom. The section gives us no good reason to wade through its nonsensical images to read what amounts just to Dickman’s saying that he dressed up as a bird as a kid to imagine escape from his shame. Why would anyone want to jump through rhetorical hoops to read a poem no more thoughtful than its cliché of a paraphrase?
A welcome contrast is Katherine Larson’s lucid incoherence, which invites reflection as it escapes paraphrase:
The Milky Way sways its back
across all of wind-eaten America
like a dusty saddle tossed
over your sable, lunatic horse.
There’s no simple literal sense to the simile (The Milky Way is to America as a saddle is to a mad-horse), but the visceral descriptions draw the objects together (“back,” “saddle,” “dusty,” “wind-eaten,” “lunatic”) with an associative certainty the final rhyme secures (“tossed” / “horse” is a Yeats rhyme, imperfect but accruing). Her image of the Milky Way is a perfect point of comparison with Dickman’s, which is literally incoherent but frustratingly rather than breathtakingly so. Hers is so charged with a depth of sensuous associations that it feels raw and unconscious, dreamlike and primeval, exciting precisely because you can pleasantly think it over endlessly without ever making sense of it or having it lose its mystery. Dickman’s image aims for this, fails to please the reader, and just looks silly, a failure absent from Larson’s stunning first book.
The book, Radial Symmetry, earned Larson the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, which since it started in 1919 has honored promising young poets for their first books, poets such as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Robert Hass, titans whom Larson can stand with. She is that good, and her style captures and expands on some of the most significant stylistic achievements of contemporary American verse. Larson, a molecular biologist, has Hass’s exquisite descriptions of nature (a squid has “no blood / only textures of gills folded like satin, / suction cups like planets in rows”), with a measured sensuousness whose sounds trace our reactions, enticing “satin,” strange “suction,” mysterious “planets.” Larson’s poems say little about herself but manage the felt intimacy of the best Confessional verse (Anne Sexton’s, Robert Lowell’s):
Last night I threw my lab coat in the fire
and drove all night through the Arizona desert
with a thermos full of silver Tequila.
Larson retells Greek myths with the longing, rage, and beautiful brutality of a young Louise Glück (although Larson contains her anger more than Glück, the Yale Series’s judge):
…And the windows lit
with displays of red corals
from just off the coast
said to be the blood that streamed
from Medusa’s severed neck
when Perseus laid her head beside the sea.
Larson has Jorie Graham’s mastery of rhythm and pacing, her looping, involuted meters:
Here are the goblets filled with wine.
The smell of sunlight
fading from the stones.
“The smell of sunlight fading from the stones” is antiquated, Wordsworthian—in imperfect iambic pentameter—but the “sunlight” / “fading” line-break gives a pause just long enough to save the familiar rhythm and to make it feel strange. Graham is known for grand abstract proclamations (“But there are, there really are, things in the world, you must believe me”), proclamations Larson makes and then turns into questions she explores further: “Either everything’s sublime,” she writes, “or nothing is” (meaning that there aren’t sublime things or that the absence of things is sublime?). “Science,” Larson writes,
beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,
every time I make love for love’s sake alone,
I betray you.
“Betray” as in “break faith”? As in “reveal”?
Larson gives a clear image of her poems’ mystery, of how she explores like a sailor and builds like a craftsman and analyzes like a scientist, and of how she, as an artist, renders and deepens the problems that caused her to wonder. She complicates the ideas she offers most clearly, to enrich the basic mysteries. Her meanings, the vessels of her poems, “expand even as [they] fall apart,” like a quantum universe that fixes itself when it’s observed, and as the puzzle of knowing her world gives way to the mystery of how to observe it and of how to live in it:
The astronomer gazes out
one eye at a time
to a sky that expands
even as it falls apart
like a paper boat dissolving in bilge.