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