Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the “worthless” books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of the thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people’s hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever been expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with “This is a poem” scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write—a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize. If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat’s proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Godel believes Liebnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems—people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensitivity, and moral discrimination than most of the poets—it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, “Well, never mind. You’re still the only one that can write poetry.”
It seems a detestable joke that the “national poet of the Ukraine”—kept a private in the army for ten years, and forbidden by the Czar to read, to draw, or even write a letter—should not have for his pain one decent poem. A poor Air Corps sergeant spends two and a half years on Attu and Kiska, and at the end of the time his verse about the war is indistinguishable from Browder’s brother’s parrot’s. How cruel that a cardinal—for one of these books is a cardinal’s—should write verses worse than his youngest choir boy’s! But in this universe of bad poetry everyone is compelled by the decrees of an unarguable Necessity to murder his mother and marry his father, to turn somersaults widdershins around his own funeral, to do everything that his worst and most imaginative enemy could wish. It would be a hard heart and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe, such poets for anything that they have done—or rather, for anything that has been done to them: for they have never made anything, they have suffered their poetry as helplessly as they have anything else; so that it is neither the imitation of life nor a slice of life but life itself—beyond good, beyond evil, and certainly beyond reviewing.
08 May 2005
Sympathy for Bad Poets
From Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age: