Expansive Poetry & Music Online Mini-Review

published in Talk, December 1999/January 2000 issue
Arthur Mortensen

                "Yes, Fortunatus, these are the dogs days...."
                                      from "Under Sirius," W.H. Auden

When a large American, commercial magazine prints an 800-line poem, one's eyelids peel back.  Perhaps it doesn't help that the magazine is Talk, a periodical that has had heaps of abuse from a variety of sources, as has its editor-in-chief.  A certain suspicion may upset those when confronted by a poet who's sold hundreds of thousands of books, and received at least one heroic-sized advance.  The writer trudged past those without feeling mired.  Poets should sell books and get advances;  all they have to do is write poetry that people want to read.  The problems began when confronted with the editorial copy preceding the poem, which proclaims it "epic."  It isn't; it's a very long, confessional poem.   Comparison to Auden's "New Year Letter" and Berryman's "The Dream Songs" did not help either.  Raine himself says that he was remaking "what the elegy might be in English," a slightly fantastic claim.  But then, the term elegy has been misused for a long time.  (For fine contemporary elegiac verse, A.D. Hope's elegies in Orpheus, his last book to date, come to mind; there is also Richard Moore's Pygmies and Pyramids.)  Interest was piqued by the promise of "every physical nuance of a long-term love affair that would evoke "intimate details that Shakespeare and Donne could only hint at...." according to a cite in the introduction from biographer Richard Ellmann.  Only a careless reader of either Elizabethan would say that; the vivid truth of a detail is not from its being on the list of once-proscribed words but in its context.  Well, one expects public relations broadcasts in a magazine of this kind.  It's an expensive, high line version of People, regardless of what editors claim; as such, advertising is as much a part of the editorial copy as of the advertising pages.  But what of the poem?

Raine takes great pride in his off-rhymes and in the use of essentially non-metrical lines which together appear like classical couplets.  Such affectations are very common nowadays, especially among academics whose posture is to refer to classical means if not actually use them.  While the art is designed to affect a certain, rough reality -- who speaks with real rhymes and metered lines?  -- for this writer the result is generally cloddish, even idiotic, as though a brain-damaged author had performed surgery on someone else's work.  Tony Harrison, a working class poet of immense power (akin to his mentor-in-spirit Louis MacNiece), and one no less shy about subject matter than Raine, creates beautiful couplets, often with perfect rhyme, yet manages a tone that one would never mistake for an Oxford don trying to pass for a longshoreman.  And such "passing" for one of da guys is really at the heart of what's wrong with such an approach.  While Harrison (or Frederick Feirstein  in the U.S.) uses elegant poetic art to transmit often rough content with unmistakable clarity and passion, in Raine the deliberate fracturing of poetic art transmits the sensibility of a lout trying to tell a story about a love affair.

Note that the criticism is not directed at Raine's various physical descriptions of himself or of the anonymous lover.  Who would bother criticizing those?  It's been nearly a century since the first of Lawrence's stories and nearly seventy-five since Ulysses, nevermind Henry Miller or e.e. cummings.  Among contemporary American poets, Feirstein is at least as vivid, as is Marilyn Hacker, and there has been a parade of poets, straight or gay, going back to the 1930's, who have celebrated sex without feeling the need to cover up details.  The difference between the two poets mentioned and Raine is that both Feirstein and Hacker are unashamed to speak that way using traditional means, and in doing so they sacrifice nothing of the humor, pathos, sweat and other sticky stuff that Raine employs in The Way It Was, yet do manage a vivid, narrative clarity and coherence while Raine presents something akin to a string of barely-connected notations.

Indeed, the strongest sense this reader had throughout could be summed as follows:  couldn't you have taken the time to make a poem of these, to do more than chop the notes up into ragged lines with rhymes so distant that they seem more like a private joke on rhyme than a method?   Considering the subject, an elegiac meter might well have been a good choice; it might also have encouraged something more than simply the details.  Perhaps we might have gotten a better sense of the story and of the love, if there was one.

                                                       Arthur Mortensen

Note: The absense of cites reflects the sensitivity of commercial magazines; when the book is released, there will be a more complete review.

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