Expansive Poetry & Music Online Mini-Reviews

by Joseph S. Salemi
Review of:
poems by Paul Lake
Ashland, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1999 ($12.95)
ISBN: 1-885226-72-3
review by Joseph S. Salemi

 Click Here See Paul Lake's Response To This Review

      Paul Lake's new collection Walking Backward (Story Line Press, 1999) comes forth with the triple-crown commendation of Richard Wilbur, Rachel Hadas, and Mark Jarman.  The book gathers together nineteen of his poems, the majori- ty of them reprinted after their appearance in various prestigious journals. This is the second book for a young man who has already made a name for himself not just as an award-winning poet but also as a critic and a novelist.  With such backing and such a reputation, Lake can command our respectful attention.

      Nevertheless, Walking Backward is a disappointment.  It's not that Lake lacks talent--quite the contrary.  He is a skillful metricist.  He employs so- phisticated vocabulary without hesitation or apology.  He has a good ear for the rhythms of colloquial speech, but does not limit himself to that mode.  His flair for dramatic presentation allows him to handle complex abstractions without being ponderous, and concrete immediacy without collapsing into haiku-like snapshots. That is plenty to be said for any writer these days, and Lake is certainly a poet of serious talent and capacity.  So why do the pieces in this book--with some exceptions--strike me as weak and uninspired?

      Despite their technical proficiency, these poems seem to have been written in such a way as to suppress or mute any recognizable authorial voice. Lake is very concerned to get his material right, to capture every nuance of what he has heard or seen, but he does so at a cost.  Each poem in Walking Backward might have been written by a different person, insofar as they fail to show a cohesive signature or style.  You can't mistake a poem by Byron or Poe or Swinburne--their unique creative fingerprints are on every line they penned.  But far too many contemporary poets seem to think that such distin- guishing identification is atavistic, naive, or uncool--the relic of an earlier age that actually believed in a stable self and enduring personality.  The notion that a modern poem should have a kind of built-in anonymity is one of those unquestioned assumptions that hang in the literary air.

      Authorial voice should dominate a poem, just as painterly vision should dominate a painting.  Without it, poems are anemic, drained, colorless--in short, the pallid, word-miserly telegrams that pass for free verse today.  In New Formalist and Expansive poets, who allow themselves the breadth of vocabulary and metrical amplitude that free verse poets are denied, failure of authorial voice usually means that story line, subject matter, or characters dominate a poem in an esthetically unsophisticated way.  Beware the Expansive poet who enthuses in the following manner: I have a great story to present, and the story is so powerful that it will practically tell itself!  No, it won't.  No poetry is created without the guiding and controlling hand of the author, whose skill and ingenuity alone determine whether what emerges is art or drivel.  A real problem among too many Expansive poets is the notion that the raw ore of subject matter doesn't have to be processed or refined, that the world and life are in themselves sufficiently dazzling.

      In Walking Backward, the problem is related but somewhat different. Here the failure of authorial voice manifests itself in the implicit clash between the decorous good breeding of the poet and the brawling vulgarity of his subjects.  The poet's eye becomes the cold eye of a camera, which catches things in their unchanged quotidian dreariness, rather than the sympathetically imaginative eye of an active author who recreates reality into art.  Art never just records--it always re-imagines and distills its material into something new.  I don't say that Lake hasn't re-imagined his material and transformed it. But he makes it seem as if he hasn't.  The result is that the reader gets the slightly unpleasant impression of a poet-observer who looks upon the world with a combination of timidity, voyeurism, curiosity, and even some real interest, but who is a little put off and embarrassed by its glaring actuality.

       "But, but..." you splutter indignantly, "what about the sacred dictum Ars est celare artem--art is supposed to conceal itself?"  Well, it's simply wrong.  I've never seen a great poem that wasn't a floridly obvious product of elaborate artifice.  One of the most poisonous precepts of modernism was that a literary work should not appear "literary"--it should instead present itself as an unvarnished bit of real life.  This fetish of authenticity has become a rock-hard orthodoxy in contemporary poetic theory, and even New For- malists still quail before it.

      Lake seems to have decided that authenticity is best served by subordi- nating (or even demeaning) the poetic voice in favor of the material being presented.  A number of poems in Walking Backward suggest a diffident authorial presence, somewhat abstracted from the world being viewed and commented on. The powerful stories and important voices come from older, wiser, and more hardened types than the poet--all of whom, despite some very rough edges, are in closer sympathy and connection with reality than he is or could hope to be. Has Lake deliberately concocted such personae?  Possibly, but even if he has, that esthetic choice would tell us something about his approach and attitude. In this book he has taken pains to make it appear that he is merely holding up a microphone and recording things.

      It may be objected that since a number of the poems in Walking Backward are dramatic monologues or narratives with dialogue such a procedure is normal. I disagree.  A dramatic monologue is not just a recording of a voice--there is usually an implied interlocutor or listener whose imagined response or re- action is integral to the poem.  In Lake's poems he is there, but only as a sort of on-the-spot reporter who listens with amusement or horror to the shock- ingly real human beings who actually live life.  His response to what he hears is weak or nonexistent.  He pays attention and records, but he is not a signifi- cant part of the life he witnesses.  I believe this is why a number of Lake's poems are about random encounters in automobiles--this sort of transitory meeting is perfect for peeking into a world that is not actually one's own.  It is also the key to why the poet-interlocutor is given short shrift by his own characters.

      For example, in "The Inspectors" a toughened survivor of the Bataan Death March regales the narrator-listener with gruesome memories, spiced with the jocular vulgarity of a military raconteur.  As the survivor talks, he seems to treat the narrator-listener with a kind of good-natured contempt, as if the latter were a silly, anemic sort who could never experience life fully or robustly. The same thing happens in the poem "In a Parking Lot," where the poet listens to an older man in a pickup truck as they both wait to drive out into a busy street.  The older man goes on about cars, trucks, driving, auto maintenance, and his family, but every so often says something to indicate a dismissive attitude toward his listener.  When commenting on the listener's car he says

    So what'd you pay for it?  Three hundred bucks?
    I guess they saw you coming.

Later in the poem, he prefaces his goodbye with a patronizing "Here's some advice to send you on your way," while characterizing the listener as "just a kid."  Even in Lake's historical monologue "Seeing the Elephant" (which is based on incidents that occurred during the Donner Party's trek), the "old, half-addled woman" survivor who speaks seems to berate her interrogator- listener, as if he were foolish, inexperienced, and incapable of understanding the horror of her tale.

      What are we to make of all this?  The persons whom Lake encounters seem either frightening, obtrusive, vulgar, or threatening--and for that very reason more alive and more real than the weak poetic voice that describes them and relates their stories.  Consider also the first poem in Lake's collection, en- titled "Thorn."  Here the speaker describes a poor family of junk-dealers living next door, whose noisy dog, incessant metal-banging, and general seediness get on his nerves.  What is most noticeable in the poem is the speaker's barely suppressed social disdain.  The family has "bad teeth, lean bodies."  The women are dressed "in shapeless gowns."  They live in "small untidy rooms."  Their lawn is "a parking lot" for decrepit old cars.  This sort of language betrays the typical yuppie snobbery towards social inferiors, but also a kind of fascination with them, as if they partook of a palpable reality that somehow escapes the speaker.  When Lake says, somewhat superciliously,

    If in their eyes and the eyes of their wives and children
    the specious beatitudes
    of poverty weren't quite so manifest

he is not just looking down on a less-than-fashionable family; he is also letting slip the fact that their commonness and squalor give them a vitality that is suitable for poetic treatment.  This is what used to be called nostalgie de la boue, i.e. a middle-class yearning for the imagined vigor and zest of slum life.  Here, however, it is transformed into something much more to the taste of baby-boomer yuppies: we can turn up our noses at poor white trash, while at the same time using their picturesqueness and verbal color as grist for the poetic mill.

       I'm not imagining this, since the issue comes up again in two other long pieces.  In the book's title poem Lake recounts the story of a man who spent much of his life wearing bells, walking backward, and picking up litter as some sort of obscure expiation.  He uses this strange story as a lead-in to a meditation on his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War.  But as he recalls that time, his thoughts turn to those who did fight:

         ...They drafted someone else.
        That's what I thought of that night as I watched
        The blank-faced television--of that someone
        Who went instead of me, that nameless other
        Too dumb or forthright to resist...

Note here the combination of contempt for those who could not dodge the draft, with an equally strong sense of having missed out on something genuine that the draftees had.  Lake goes on to say:

        If I had done things differently--stood up
        And borne the consequences at some cost
        To peace of mind or body, I'd feel better--
        Different at least--

This is not guilt, but envy--envy of an imagined poetic subject (the wartime draftee) whose existence was somehow more vital and more potently real than the poet's.  The speaker would like to be a part of the authenticity that he imputes to his subject, to make up for a sense of emptiness and lost opportu- nity.  Feeling this way is a terrible cross to bear, but the suffering is ex- acerbated by allegiance to modernism's fetish of authenticity, which sunders a poet from his subject matter while at the same time insisting that he defer to it at all costs, rather than follow his esthetic judgment.  Can you imagine Shakespeare losing sleep over not having served with Drake against the Armada? But he was fortunate to live at a time when no one trumpeted the bogus claims of "authenticity" into poets' ears.

      Distance from subject matter and authorial diffidence come up yet again in the poem "Two Hitchhikers" (note Lake's penchant for using automobiles as poetic backdrops).  The narrative describes the pickup one evening of two lowlife toughs by the speaker and his friend, and their subsequent abduction by these strangers.  As it happens, the speaker and his friend are released unharmed--the toughs just wanted transportation to a liquor store--but this allows the poet to fantasize about what could have plausibly occurred: an attempted escape, a bloody brawl at the liquor store, murder in the woods.  Having avoided all these awful possibilities, the speaker and his friend laugh joyously, and Lake ends the poem like this:

        That's how a tale should end--in dizzying laughter,
        Though some won't be arranged to end that way.

One is tempted here not to congratulate the speaker on his luck but instead to make an irritable comment on this rather smug finale, which treats real life as an adventure movie in which two naifs have the frisson of skirting death, the pleasure of laughing about it afterwards, and--of course--the opportunity to use the experience for a poem.  This kind of authorial distance tends to trivialize the seriousness of the subject matter.

      When this issue of voice and distance doesn't come up, Lake produces some very powerful poems.  "Pieces,"  a delightful little allegory in three quatrains, uses chessmen to illustrate the basic divisions of worldly power--political, reli- gious, and military.  Queen, bishop, knight, and rook move across the world-board in their peculiar ways, exercizing power.  The conceit is sustained right to a devastating close, when Lake says:

        Only the pawns, bald-domed as army ants,
        Urged to the common good by stripes and prayers,
        Regard the board, cursed with their consciousness
        Of all the horror of those empty squares.

This is a magnificent piece of poetry, which tells what it means to be cannon-fodder in this bloodiest of centuries.  Using all the force of description, trope, and abstract statement, it shows what New Formalist poetry can do when it is not apologizing for its strengths.  "Pieces," by the way, is a much better poem than "Gauntlets," another longer poem in Lake's book on approximately the same subject.  "Gauntlets" is metrically irregular, somewhat preachy, and makes the fatal mistake of dropping two rhetorical questions on the reader.

      Lake also has a fine poem in ten iambic tetrameter quatrains entitled "Concord," in the voice of Henry David Thoreau.  It is excellent, except for the third quatrain, where the ABAB rhyme scheme simply evaporates from both eye and ear.  Some people in poetry call this sort of thing near-rhyme.  I prefer to call it off-rhyme, on the analogy of off-milk: it generally stinks.  Lake is far too good and competent a poet to fail in finding good rhymes when necessary.  An even better piece is "Additions," eight iambic pentameter quatrains that meditate on the old Gnostic notion of spiritual light imprisoned in the darkness of material creation.  It is an absolute knockout of a poem: erudite in subject matter, ra- diantly  intelligent, rigorously composed with grammatical and metrical precision, pregnant with implications and suggestions.  Poems of this caliber postpone my despair over the current state of poetry.  It is also the kind of poem that is almost impossible to get published these days--I'm sure there was a real catfight at the Yale Review before it was accepted.

      Walking Backward is not as good as Lake's first book, Another Kind of Travel, which had unforgettable pieces like "The Boat," "Introduction to Poetry," and "While Watching the Ballet folklorico."  But there are things in Walking Backward that deserve scrutiny.  My only advice to Lake would be this: Authenticity is not something out there in the real world.  In poetry, authenticity is a fictive construct.  Remember that, and your characters will never bad-mouth you.

                                Joseph S. Salemi

As is periodically the case, EP&M Online presents the following response by the author to the review of his book Walking Backwards.   J.S. Salemi may in time respond to this.

Response by Paul Lake to "The Fetish of Authenticity," a review by Joseph Salemi of Walking Backward.

     Although it’s always a bit unseemly to respond to a review of one’s own work, I feel justified in this instance for a number of reasons. In his review of Walking Backward, Joseph Salemi makes several unwarranted, and rather odd, assumptions about my poems, aesthetic of composition, and personal character.  If such comments occurred in another magazine, I would simply let them pass, but since Expansive Poetry & Music On-line is dedicated to formal and narrative poetry and has published work by both Mr. Salemi and me, I’d like to clear up some apparent misunderstandings.

     From his title on, Mr. Salemi suggests that my primary goal in the book was to achieve "authenticity" and attributes to me a desire to "capture every nuance of what [I have] heard or seen." He opines that "Authorial voice should dominate a poem . . ." and faults me for trying so hard to capture this putative "authenticity" that I fail to achieve a "cohesive signature or style."

     As to poetic style, we are free to disagree. Mr. Salemi writes: "I’ve never seen a great poem that wasn’t a floridly obvious product of elaborate artifice." He commends Byron, Poe and Swinburne as poets who have achieved a "cohesive signature or style." For my own part, I prefer a less florid style in my lyrics, one rooted in the English Native Plain Style as modified  by later poets such as Jonson, Donne, and Shakespeare in reaction to the elaborate artifice of the Petrarchan tradition.

     A genuine problem occurs, however, when Mr. Salemi measures the success of my dramatic monologues and narratives with this same rod of "authorial voice." In applying such a measure to dramatic poems, Mr. Salemi entangles himself--and the reader--in various confusions. Repeatedly he treats characters in the poems as if they were actual people, and dramatic monologues as if they were metrically transcribed conversations of living persons. Mr. Salemi states, for instance, that

 Can a poet voyeuristically observe--and be put off by--his own fictive creations?

     In asserting such an odd idea, Mr. Salemi is forced to invent a character of his own: a priggish poet, voyeuristic, timid, and appalled by the "glaring actuality" of the "subjects" to whose "brawling vulgarity" he has, paradoxically, given voice.

     This paradox is manifest in other places as well, as when Mr. Salemi writes:

     He allows that the author might have "concocted such personae" but then complains that the poet ". . . has taken pains to make it appear that he is merely holding up a microphone and recording things."

     Mr. Salemi then defines the nature of the dramatic monologue and comments on mine:

Why does Mr. Salemi invariably identify the poet with the less-active listener of the monologues instead of with the more vividly presented speaker? To manage such a reading, he must invent an odd hybrid creature of his own, which he calls the "poet-interlocutor." (Why not instead a "poet-speaker"?)

     Again and again, Mr. Salemi treats fictive characters as literal "persons," reducing the poet to the role of "weak poetic voice" who records their histories:

     Must I remind Mr. Salemi that the characters in dramatic poems are--either wholly or in part--imaginative creations? Even in "In a Parking Lot"--a monologue based on an actual encounter I had as a teen with a truck driver--I had to reimagine and shape the trucker’s talk, nearly twenty years after the event.

     A more telling case in point is my long narrative/monologue "Seeing the Elephant." One has only to read the story’s source (cited at the back of my book) to see how much of the tale was actual and how much invented. The poem presents a character who is older, wiser, and possessed of the vulgar vitality and earthy wisdom Mr. Salemi admires, but this vitality and wisdom do not appear in the rather pedestrian account published by the historical character Elizabeth Reed Murphy. Yet Mr. Salemi lumps her in with the book’s other speakers, making the poet once again merely a microphone-wielding "poet-interlocutor." In fact, in composing the poem, I identified with the speaker, not her sensation-seeking listeners.

     In addition, Mr. Salemi is not even consistent in his identifications. When it suits his purpose, he identifies the poet as a the speaker of a monologue, a tactic which leads him into obvious silliness in his discussion of "Walking Backward," where he refers to the character--a professional painter from upstate Minnesota--by my name:

Actually, the painter-speaker recounted the story and used it as a lead-in to his meditation.

     Even more disturbing is the way that Mr. Salemi moves without pause or transition from his comments about what "Lake" says in a fictive character’s monologue to what I say in my own person in an autobiographical lyric entitled "Thorn." Here, Mr. Salemi distorts the poem to complete his fictive portrait of callous reporter-poet:

In fact, the poem opens and ends with an elaborate description of the dog’s incessant barking. It was this dog, not the neighbors’ "general seediness" that got on my nerves, as anyone who has ever lost sleep to a yiping dog can easily imagine. Salemi describes "the speaker’s barely suppressed social disdain" of his neighbors, and then suggests that this disdain, and a putative yearning for the "imagined vigor and zest of slum life," are "transformed into something much more to the taste of baby-boomer yuppies; we can turn up our noses at poor white trash . . ."

     Mr. Salemi further argues that the language of my description "betrays the typical yuppie snobbery towards social inferiors . . . ." This comment, combined with Mr. Salemi’s earlier ones about the contrast between "the decorous good-breeding of the poet and the brawling vulgarity of his subjects," mischaracterizes me as yuppie prig. Though I risk shattering the reviewer‘s preconceptions, let me assure readers, at least, that I am not the well-bred "yuppie" of Mr. Salemi’s imagination. I’m not Young (at 48) or Urban (I live in a small southern town); and though now a professor in a small college in the second poorest state in the union, I didn’t always occupy such an exalted position. I am a child of the lower-middle class, the son of a life insurance salesman, and worked my way through college. Before becoming a college teacher, I worked as a laborer on a road crew, fast food cook, pipeline construction inspector, and ghetto junior high school teacher. At all of these jobs, I enjoyed the mutual respect and friendship of my coworkers. I am not someone who uses the term "white trash," as Mr. Salemi implies.  In considering my poem, he might at least have asked what a "yuppie" was doing in a neighborhood like the one in my poem.

     Most of Mr. Salemi’s uncharitable characterizations of me appear to derive--in part, at least--from his mistaken notions about dramatic monologues and the importance of "authorial voice" to their success. While he is partly right to suggest that the listener, or his implied presence, in some monologues plays a slightly more active part (as for instance in Browning’s "Andrea del Sarto" or "Fra Lippo Lippi") in giving shape to the poem, there are many classic examples in which the auditor plays an almost invisible role. Even in the monologues I just cited, it’s arguable how much the relatively passive listeners affect the speakers, who are invariably more dynamic and vivid than they. In Browning’s poems "The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" or "Porphyria’s Lover," for instance, the listeners are completely unidentifiable, seemingly absent from the poem. The listener in "My Last Duchess" has so little impact on the speaker that the Duke exposes himself as an egotistical monster and defeats his own plans to marry the daughter of a rich count.  In Frost’s "A Servant to Servants," to cite another example, the field hand who listens to the disturbed female speaker is all but void of character or presence in the poem.

     Much the same obtains in Frost’s narratives. Where is Frost’s "authorial voice" in "The Witch of Coos," for instance, a poem in which the narrator betrays all of the passivity and silence Mr. Salemi finds in my interlocutors; at the end of Frost’s poem, after hearing an appalling tale of adultery, madness, and murder, the narrator concludes by noting that the name on the speakers’ mailbox matches the name of the now-deceased husband of the tale. Talk about your on-the-spot reporter.

     In his letter to Richard Woodhouse, John Keats gives classic expression to his own attitude to authorial presence in poetry.  Distinguishing his own approach from that of poets like Wordsworth, who give voice to the "wordsworthian or egotistical sublime," Keats asserts about the "poetical Character" that it ". . . is not itself--it has no self--it is every thing and nothing--It has no character--it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated--It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen."

     The poet, he adds, ". . . has no identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute--the poet has none; no identity--he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures."

     Sharing Keats’s view, I take Mr. Salemi’s failure to find an "authorial voice" in my poems as a compliment. Instead of intruding in the poem as active participant, I’m pleased to hide my unpoetical character and "camelion" nature behind my characters, preferring to live in the gusto and vulgar vitality of their imagined lives.

                            Paul Lake

Joseph S. Salemi replies:

      Lord, there's just no pleasing some people.  I write a review of Paul Lake's book wherein I call him "a poet of serious talent and capacity."  I say that some poems in it are "very powerful."  I quote from one and say that it is "a magnificent piece of poetry," and refer to another as "an absolute knockout of a poem."  I make additional specific comments about his strengths as a writer.  And yet because I criticize other pieces and express general disappointment with the book, Lake feels impelled to produce four pages of self-justifying response.  No wonder so many people think of modern poets as crybabies and whiners.
       As Lake says, he and I are free to disagree over poetic style, or even the proper way to compose dramatic monologues.  But for Lake to suggest that I have impugned his "personal character" is ludicrous.  Let's get something straight--I wouldn't know Lake from a cord of wood, as Tip O'Neill used to say.  We've never met or corresponded.  I have only read his poems and reviewed them.  In what rational sense can I be said to have gone after him personally?  The simple fact is that when writing at length about poetry, one sometimes says "the speaker," or sometimes "the poetic voice," or sometimes "the narrator," depending on the type of poem discussed.  Occasionally one even slips into the imprecise shorthand of saying "the poet."  In the same way, one sometimes refers to "the persons" in a poem rather than to "the fictitious characters."  Lake has seized upon this shorthand to charge me with judging his real character from his poems, and treating his fictive characters as real persons.  His argument, based as it is upon this weak reed, is simply implausible.
       Lake misses the whole point of my review, which was to question the myth of authenticity and the unconscious homage that too many poets still pay to it.  He conveniently ignores the crucial comment that I made on his treatment of and approach to subject matter: "I don't say that Lake hasn't re-imagined his material and transformed it.  But he makes it seem as if he hasn't."  Certainly Lake's creations are fictive, and of course he has not just held up a microphone to real-life speakers.  But he has tried very hard to give readers the impression of that sort of documentary reportage, and this, to my way of thinking, is a fault. It is due entirely to a parochial modernist prejudice, reinforced by certain cultural currents of the 1960s.  The really radical question of my review--namely, why should a literary work try to hide its literariness?--is one that Lake declines to address.
         Instead, Lake asks "Can a poet voyeuristically observe--and be put off by-- his own fictive creations?"  Yes, he most certainly can.  Just look at the vulgar, lowlife figures in Eliot's "Sweeney" poems.  Or Shakespeare's depiction of the half-savage, bestial Caliban and the oafish Trinculo and Stephano.  Or Browning's vignettes of hate and venality in "The Bishop Orders His Tomb At St. Praxed's." Or Butler's picture of the sectarian Hudibras.  Or Catullus's sketch of Egnatius. Or Juvenal's portrait of Messalina.  Need I go on?  One can create any kind of fictive character, even the most repulsive and hideous, and then observe him as one would a biopsy slide.  Why does Lake find this "an odd idea," even though there are instances of it throughout literature?  Perhaps because when he does it himself in poems like "Thorn" or "In a Parking Lot" he is doing it unconsciously.
       As for "Thorn," I'm sorry if Lake was irritated by my reading of it, but I do think he is being disingenuous when he says that the only thing getting on the speaker's nerves in that poem is a barking dog.  He passes over in silence the five quotes I gave, all of which when taken together paint an unmistakable picture of de haut en bas contempt.  Social disdain and snobbery permeate "Thorn" like salt in a corned beef.  Personally I have no objection to this--one can do what one likes in art--but why is Lake at such pains to backpedal now?  Does even an imaginary charge of insensitivity cause academics to tremble?  In this same connection, it's curious how Lake insists that he does not intrude himself into his work, that he wishes to hide his character, that he eschews being an active participant, and that he mutes his authorial voice.  But as soon as a reader rightly intuits that a poem's speaker (not Lake himself) is a yuppie prig, Lake frantically whips out a resume of his working-class credentials.  Why the defensiveness?  As the Queen says in Hamlet, "Methinks the lady doth protest too much."
       Lake claims that he identifies with the speakers in his monologues rather than the listeners.  Well, how is anyone to recognize this, unless Lake renders it explicit in the esthetic structure of each poem?  Here we see how the failure to assert authorial voice makes it impossible for the poet to express his sympathies and allegiances.  Lake may prefer to live in his characters' "gusto and vulgar vitality" (a bizarre turn of phrase, to be sure), but it certainly isn't apparent in those monologues that I quoted in my review.  Intentions count for nothing in poetry--the only thing that matters is the text on the page.  And when the fetish of authenticity discourages a poet from laying his hands on a text and moulding it properly, the result is that he is forced to write letters to critics explaining how his poems are to be read and perceived.
         Concerning this business of identification, Lake makes a remark about Browning's "My Last Duchess" that is worth exploring.  He says "The listener in 'My Last Duchess' has so little impact on the speaker that the Duke exposes himself as an egotistical monster and defeats his own plans to marry the daughter of a rich count."  Just how does Lake manage to divine that?  The central horror of Browning's poem is that it puts us into the presence of totally amoral power, free from restraint and beyond the reach of all punishment.  The Duke has killed one wife and can easily kill another.  In the text of the poem the only apparent obstacle to his remarriage is some dickering over the dowry.  There is no reason to suppose that the listener in "My Last Duchess" is not perfectly complicit with the Duke's purposes, and willing to connive in the proposed marriage.
       Lake's misreading is revelatory: he sees the listener in "My Last Duchess" as some kind of earnest Middle American boy scout, a Dudley Do-right who will duly return to his master and report on what a terribly insensitive husband the Duke of Ferrara would make.  Does Lake really infer this from the text?  It's the kind of blinkered, culturally limited supposition one might expect from Tipper Gore, not from a Professor of English.  It's so didactic, so moralistic, so melodramatized... well, so American.
       Such a misreading cannot imagine the Renaissance world that Browning has taken pains to present, where murder is a routine method of solving problems, and underlings keep silent about it.  But it's easy enough to see the reason for his misreading: Lake identified with the listener in the poem, and imagined that this listener shared his own horror and revulsion at the Duke's vindictive arrogance. That speaks well for Lake personally, but in fact there is absolutely no evidence in Browning's text for such an interpretation.  The larger point, however, is this: we as readers naturally tend to identify with the listener in a dramatic monologue, not the speaker, because a dramatic monologue is still rooted in drama, and as readers we are in the position of the audience.  We think of the listener in a dramatic monologue as ourselves, and therefore we tend to project upon or impute to him our own attitudes.  It's a pitfall to watch out for when interpreting such poems.
       One last point:  Shakespeare is a representative of the English Plain Style?  Which Shakespeare is that: the author of Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and Love's Labour's Lost?

Editor's note:  This marks the end of this debate.   Reviews are points of departure.  Readers are expected to disagree on one point or another, authors too.  Consensus, that dreary aspect of imperial rule so beloved by "individualistic" Americans, has no place in this kind of discussion.  But if it is to go on, let it go on among Lake's readers, who should be manifold.

 Return to EP&M Online main page.