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Acritic of poetry in the popular press acts as a kind of ambassador. More than any other art form, poetry is inaccessible to (or, at least, off-putting and thus generally ignored by) the very person who reads such reviews, the moderately well-informed intellectual dabbler. Much of the reading public, which prides itself on holding thoughtfully correct opinions on Toni Morrison and John Updike, has never—or only barely—heard of Marilyn Hacker and Christopher Fry. Its understanding is hindered rather than helped by most writing about poetry, whose rarefied tones and obscure allusions only reinforce the quelling sense of one’s ignorance.
Happily, Thomas Disch steps into the divide with The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets, and Poetasters. A science-fiction novelist as well as a poet and critic, Disch is accustomed to traveling between the poetry establishment and the wider world. The essays he collects in Indolence come not just from small journals like the Hudson Review and Poetry but from the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, and the Nation.
Disch keeps his audience well in view as he writes. Most people, he notes, “deal with poetry as with other no-longer-living arts: Reserve it for those holidays of the spirit when one takes a favorite classic volume down from the shelf, blows off the dust, and is delectated.” He aims to bring poetry back to life by relating the controversies that reign in writing workshops—patronage, earning power, just and unjust praise and blame—to the questions on the common reader’s mind: the “culture wars” and the difference between high and low art. Though shunning the lofty, jargon-infested reaches of critical scrutiny, Disch isn’t particularly democratic in his prose, guessing rightly that the casual reader is as eager as the cloistered scribe for artful language. His essays are almost poems themselves, with their baroque curves and pleasingly niggling wordsmithing. They’re loaded with words both esoteric and runty—“rhabdomancy,” “evanescence,” “lachrymose,” “diddled”—and must be bitten off in small chunks to be digested at all.
Also aiding Disch in his courtship of Everyman is his entertaining willingness to attack his fellow poets and poetry itself. Though he loves his craft, he’s also sympathetic to the puzzled masses’ opinion of it. In a quote from one of his own poems, he remarks that “I never could/Figure out how anyone can justify poetry/As a full-time job. How do they get through/The day at MacDowell—filling out/Applications for the next free lunch?”
Disch’s concern for actual, by-the-clock poetical labor verges on the obsessive. Even the title of his collection—taken from a poem by James Thomson—refers to the light workload that, he claims, poets employed by university writing workshops enjoy. Indolence is peppered with offhand mathematical estimates of various writers’ work: the number of hours per week spent before the typewriter, the number of pages put forth each year. Secure in his position as a hard-working novelist (a job that, he insists, is more demanding than poetry), Disch gives automatic kudos to longer poems and wordier poets. His determined praise of Frederick Turner’s SF epic The New World is clearly inspired partly by its 6,500 lines, while poets from Alice Walker to Rod McKuen are dismissed for their production of only “slim volumes.”
This hierarchy of word count makes instinctive sense to the nonpoetical reader. Surely one of poetry’s most irksome aspects is its demand for what seems like an unwarranted slice of our time. We resent being told we must devote hours to untangling 10 or 12 lines of some unknown writer’s laborious syntax, especially when there are newspapers to be read, TVs to be watched, files to be downloaded.
But Disch’s professed fealty to the grindstone is an under-the-table way of gaining sympathy. Along with his speedy, surface-level evaluations, such abstract standards placate rather than challenge anti-poetic prejudice. He’s fond of casually tossing off references to quoted stanzas’ supposedly self-evident flaws. He dismisses one passage by Kathleen Raine as a collection of “spirit-trumpetings and waftings of the ectoplasm,” but neither justifies this judgment nor his corollary praise. It may well be that Raine is “nothing if not sublime” in her other verse, but the reader, aware of the proximity of sarcastic denunciation, has little incitement to search for her better qualities.
Disch may not uplift the ordinary reader, but his constant concern for that person’s sensibility is still refreshing. In an advance review of Indolence, Harold Bloom praises Disch for “know[ing] the aesthetic difference between Anthony Hecht’s and Alice Walker’s work, and [having] the courage to show just what it is.” In fact, the more telling evidence of Disch’s “courage” is his championing of the anti-canonical writers and forms that Bloom excoriates. He mocks the sacred division between art and crap whose defense is the bread and butter of the Bloom school, writing:
Popular novelists are assumed to be purveyors of tawdry goods, which are hawked by venal publishers in airports and supermarkets stocked with noth ing but trash. Novelists of the better sort are published by small presses…[and] are read (like poets) chiefly by the captive audiences of their students and those with whom they network, and share with poets the conviction that they are being “marginalized” by a culture that values them no more than it does the minions of Frank Perdue.
But Disch isn’t an automatic defender of the canon. He makes one odd departure from his usual iconoclasm: his absurdly delicate handling of Poets for Life, an anthology of poems about AIDS. Disch hardly comments on the book beyond praising the nobility of its motive. This kid-gloves approach is a variation on that taken by Arlene Croce last year in her controversial New Yorker review of Bill T. Jones’ dance piece Still/Here. Croce declined to consume the work in question; Disch reads Poets for Life but simply refuses to critique it. “The book possesses a documentary force that transcends aesthetics,” he writes, comparing it to the AIDS quilt as a “metaphor for the mass grave the plague is…filling.” Of course, by designating the collection untouchable he inevitably suggests that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and thus pays it a far greater insult than any critical assault could.
Disch’s hands-off stance seems to be yet another attempt to soothe the ordinary person, who would presumably be agitated by any negative criticism of works dealing with a tragedy like AIDS. Well, he may be right. Poetry isn’t dwindling because critics can’t tell the difference between Walker and Hecht, but because so few readers can: Unable to make aesthetic decisions with much sense of confidence or joy, we resort to political ones. Unfortunately, however thoroughly—and stylishly—Disch explores this problem, its solution remains elusive.