It’s easy to forget that American poetry was not always as friendly to the middle class as it is today. In the first half of the last century, a generation of poets who grew up reading Flaubert accepted “Épater le bourgeois as the Second Commandment of their art, just after Pound’s “Make it new.” The postwar economic boom changed everything, of course. Flaubert’s motto continued to animate some, but poets like Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and James McMichael proved that the life of the middle class could truly be a subject (and not merely a target) of real art.
Campbell McGrath’s Seven Notebooks offers dispatches from a year in the life of its newly middle-aged author, and like his previous six books, it stands squarely in this latter camp. Unlike those books, however, Seven Notebooks includes dated, diarylike prose passages that provide loose narrative stitching between poems. The January-to-December arrangement structures the work, but the absence of an actual plot means it reads more like a daybook than a memoir.
Seven Notebooks is in large part a record of McGrath’s many pleasures: waking at dawn, swimming in the sea, watching his sons’ surfing lessons. A few serious events occur—a hurricane blows through, his wife is treated for ovarian cysts—but things always turn out fine. It seems only natural, then, that McGrath would ask, “Tell me . . . how shall I express my gratitude for the good fortune of this life?”
Unfortunately, the problems begin here. Counting blessings is a difficult business for poets, more difficult than McGrath seems to have reckoned. He deploys rank after rank of exclamation points to convey his enthusiasms—“No cheese steaks today!” “French people are having a party!”—but this Whitmanesque exuberance often feels forced, even coercive. Similarly, McGrath’s paint-store adjectives, which aim to be expressive, frequently end up smug and sentimental: “Surely this is one of life’s little-noticed pleasures, showering in dappled sunshine beneath a cerulean sky after a month-long siege of hurricanes.” Still, it would be easier to accept McGrath’s helium lightheartedness for what it is had he contented himself with a digest of his minor joys. (Who wants to live in a world that can’t make room for “Ode to a Can of Schaefer Beer” or “Long Day’s Journey into NyQuil”?)
Yet McGrath tries hard to give his book intellectual heft. He writes without irony of the uppercase Historical Moment and sets page-long quotes from J. M. Coetzee, Johan Huizinga, and Dipesh Chakrabarty among his own poems. And he has big hopes—big political hopes—for his weighty phrases:
the testimony of the senses;
against the rhetoric of power the reproach of
Such ambition is admirable, maybe even imperative, in a poet of serious intent, but McGrath in Seven Notebooks simply isn’t up to the task. “Now,” a poem that sits opposite a passage from Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, is clearly supposed to respond to the historian’s provocative argument against historicism, yet the poem’s lines might have been lifted from the lyrics of an undergraduate rock band:
The past does not exist.
It is a myth, a dream, a ring of ancient stones
on the plain; it is chert, granite, flint; it strikes
a spark and the forest burns.
But the trees remember their claim upon
McGrath has never been a terribly deep thinker, but these lines betray something more dire than a failure of intellect. What cripples them, fatally, is a lack of self-awareness, which is to say a failure of irony, an inability to recognize the point at which earnest intentions tip over into bathos and travesty.
It’s tempting to blame the myopia and bien-pensance on the affluence McGrath so blithely celebrates, but the examples of Hass, Pinsky, and McMichael prove that would be a mistake. Call it the legacy of Vietnam, or of Yvor Winters, but these poets never suggest that the life of the living room is impermeable to the life of the world at large.
In earlier work, McGrath seemed much more willing to accept the invigorating complicity between micro- and macrocosm, but Seven Notebooks shows few signs that the author of Pax Atomica (2004) remembers the price of his peace. In “Surfers,” he wonders, “How many times have Elizabeth and I watched late-night surfing shows and slept, in the afterglow, like ocean-rocked babies?” If even the ocean is benevolent, as domestic as a nursemaid, what possible harm can the rest of the world do? The failure of that simile epitomizes this book’s capital failing.
There is only one place in the present volume where the poet recognizes, albeit implicitly, that there might be a universe out there not automatically predisposed to love him and his way of life. The poem “Rilke” begins,
How can the frost-tinged narcissus not ring
with some echo of what I am feeling?
How can it remain undivided in its loyalty to
when the perfect weather of the self beckons
the isolation of consciousness whirling its
creating its own moon and sun, Ganymede
One wants so badly for these lines to be a tip of the hat, the signature of a Flaubertian master ironist who has created his speaker as a send-up of a self-satisfied narcissist. But that’s not to be. Seven Notebooks’ last line (borrowed from a Klingit wedding song) reads, “the world has flooded over me. After so much of McGrath’s frustrating complacency, we’re left to wonder, somewhat cruelly, what kept the waters waiting.
Robert P. Baird is the editor of Chicago Review and a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago.