Friday, September 10, 2010

Worst. Book. Ever.

The Pill is, as a rule, averse to superlatives. I have, when pressed, been heard to aver that Ardbeg is the best single malt Scotch whisky and that British Air is the worst airline on which to fly to or from London, but that’s about it. So it is with some hesitation that I tell you that Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life is the worst volume of poetry I have ever read, but tell you that I will. And Gentle Reader, I have read this.

It’s an ugly book, and I don’t just mean the awful and illegible cover, the bizarre trim size or the off-putting Quemadura typeface (though those are all bad enough). I mean the poems themselves.

I’ll get to the ugliness. But first I’ve got to admit to some simple confusion. Are these poems dramatic monologues, with speakers distinct from the poet? I kept hoping so, especially when I came upon a solecism like this (from “Fat”):

I have wandered for six days with no bread, drank lemon water
Went running.

This, my fellow lovers of the language, is incorrect tense usage; the sentence begins with the past participle form of the verb (“have wandered”) but slips, after the comma, to the simple past (keep the "have" in your head when you get to "drank" and you'll hear the problem). A deft and economical way of characterizing a speaker, suggesting sloppiness of thought through intentional sloppiness of language? A moment in which we are subtly invited to join the poet in her ironic distance from this linguistically slovenly speaker? Would that it were so. The same poem includes banal lines about writing poems:

I have written poems about the flesh of scientists
But nothing in their science speaks to me about my art.

Oh dear. But wait. It's worse. Examples abound. Here’s another, from “Ars Poetica”:

Yesterday my boyfriend called me, drunk again
And interspersed between ringing tears and clinginess
He screamed at me with a kind of bitterness
No other human being had before to my ears
And told me that I was no good.

Perhaps he meant her grammar, for the “interspersed” in the second line suggests that what we’ll find between the tears and, ahem, "clinginess" is a noun, not the verb phrase “He screamed.” Something, rather than some action, is interspersed between (or, better, among) other things.

Pedantry? OK. I’ll accept that. But Ezra Pound, who was woefully wrong about many things, was right, I think, when he wrote that poetry should be as well written as well-written prose, and these here Black Life poems are emphatically not.

What they are is chopped-up bad prose about how hard it is to be the poet (and these poems never, ever let the reader forget that they were written by a real, live poet):

I am a great woman, I have the wiles
That make the poet
But I am also gentle
And when I kiss a man I really mean it
Have you felt this too, upon my kisses
That I gave you in the nightsky
As your eyelashes hung over the moon?
Or were you too young to see it too,
My little feverish butterfly

Oh, the cheap cummingsy runtogetherness! Oh the sappy Chagallery! Oh the missing terminal punctuation! Oh, the humanity!

One is embarrassed for Lasky at a moment like this. Or like this here other one, from “Jakob”:

Readers, you read flat words
Inside here are many moments
In which I have screamed in pain
As the flames ate me.

One's critical response is reduced by such lines as these to the head-shaking repetition of "Oh dear." But, OK, these are just run-of-the-mill bad, the sort of awful self-obsessed, craftless crap that smears a thousand workshop tables in creative writing classrooms and MFA programs around the country (and soils, one admits, far more notebooks whose sophomore owners have the decency to keep them out of sight and, perhaps, when the writers come to cast mature eyes on their late-night, wine-fueled drivel, consign them to the cleansing flames). I got halfway through the book just irritated by the fact that this stuff got slapped between those ugly covers instead of being sanitarily flushed.

And then I read “Ever Read a Book Called Awe?”

[Gentle Reader, this humble blogger pauses now to ask you to recognize that, though the following might at first blush feel intemperate, great restraint in fact was brought to bear in the composition and revision of these sentences.]

It's bad enough that we're treated to the navel-gazing bout of self-absorption in which the poet asks if we've read her previous book, in which she goes on to describe, in a sickening faux-naif tone, the publication process, and that this wince-inducing anecdote is made somehow to stand for love as it's juxtaposed to "Some people I love / Don't love me." (Yeah, I threw up in my mouth a little there, too.) What transforms icky to full-on revolting is the next juxtaposition. Sometimes, you see, people love the speaker (I'm going to retain this persona/poet distinction, though there's precious little evidence to support it), and, as the poem has it, "That's good," and then the Big and Important Generalizations appear:

When you sit in a landscape of snow
And you're a bird, that's Awe
When you look over a big green field
And the dead soldiers like all around you, that's Love

And when you shift from your navel and your precious little undeserved career to the Capital-H History figured by those dead soldiers, whose vintage, by way of that "Awe," seems to be in the 2003-present category, that's stealing some unearned gravitas from the fatigue pockets of casualties like a camp follower grabbing wallets. And it's disgusting.

Bad poems, Gentle Reader, are bad enough. This book is worse. It's ugly.


  1. This is, in a nutshell, why I'm frantically searching for a way out of independent publishing.

  2. wow, but why did you read it?

    When I read the excerpts I assumed this was drivel by some autodidact whose "street cred" was supposed to impress, turns out Lasky went for MFA to Amherst, so, certainly schooled.

    but here's how Wave Books adverts her latest:
    "In her brazen follow-up to AWE, Dorothea Lasky cries out beyond prophecy and confession, through to an even more powerful empathy. Infused with dark and urgent feeling, Black Life is the fullest existence of poetry, continually on the verge of becoming pure substance and sensation."

    "though to"? "fullest existence of poetry"? I wonder what "pure substance" that would be? I wish we could all be pure substances, or at least use only pure substances.

    Sounds like she writes her own jacket copy.

  3. It's kind of entertaining how clueless this review is. I'm just trying to figure out what's more pathetic—your nonsensical fundamentalism regarding "correct" grammar and punctuation, your lack of a sense of humor, your lack of a sense of poetry, or your malicious, tedious, and baseless attacks on the author's character. But hey, if writing it made you feel like a big man for a few minutes, good for you. You're what the internet was made for, it seems. I usually don't feed the trolls, but every once in a while I can't help myself.

  4. well, matt, thanks. your eloquent and reasoned riposte has really turned me around on this. i was wrong, all wrong. mea maxima culpa.

    ahem. don, because you raise a serious point i can take your comment seriously. why did i read it? and then write about it? i was reading/hearing about the book, there were poems in it that had been published in some high-profile and reputable places, so i picked it up and gave it a try. then the motivation was intellectual curiosity. as you know, like you, i think about this stuff for a living. so i wanted to understand how, why, by what definition, these were good poems. i'll admit failure on that score: i could not find a way to find them good. maybe it's a failure of critical imagination. maybe i got punk'd and this book was really a brilliant, flarfy critique of precisely the slackly vapid bid for a gig at a fifth-rate, low-res mfa program that it pretended to be. if so, when ashton kucher and camera crew show up, i'll sheepishly accept my punking. if not, i stand by every word i wrote.

  5. Woah, you really really just don't get it. Sad for you. Oh well.

  6. It is especially sad to me that this person (Associate Professor of English Michael Tracy Thurston for anyone who may not have cared to figure out the abbreviation "MT") teaches young women at Smith College, and may in fact be a tenured professor, since the arguments he's making and his criteria for judgment are both paternalistic, if not misogynistic, racist, and very possibly anti-Semitic. In terms of the charge of misogyny, women's writing in particular has often been accused of being sentimental, effete, ill-formed, and naive (or in this case "faux-naif"). It is one of our unfortunate Victorian inheritances, and one that Thurston proves has not gone away despite the efforts of countless artists, intellectuals, and writers in the 20th century. In terms of the charge of racism (which also obviously applies to the first), to assume that there is a standard or normative English (i.e., "well-written prose") reinforces a power structure that maintains its hegemony by policing certain forms of language use and marginalizing the language use of various “others.” Given that much of Pound's writing could hardly be considered normative (now or then), it is not just a little ironic that Thurston holds up Pound as a model of normative English grammar. I'm not sure what Thurston means by "Chagallery," but I also find it curious that the one example of "ugliness" he holds up, other than Lasky's poetry that is, happens to be a Russian Jew who survived pogrom and drew on Russian-Jewish folk traditions for his art.

  7. Here is the preeminent Louis Zukofsky scholar Mark Scroggins's take on the above post:

    --Thom Donovan
    tadonovan [at] hotmail [dot] com

  8. I think it's rich beyond compare that "Thom" -- as I learned over at Mark Scroggins blog -- is Lasky's husband, and didn't identify himself as such when in the comment box above he went nuts about this post.


    I know none of the folks here. Earlier this year I bought and read Lasky's chap-essay "Poetry Is Not A Project," and did not like it, for reasons I tried to specify.

  9. Dear Michael,

    Negative or critical reviews are fine, even laudatory, but one must analyze! Don't you think? I am asking this question in good faith: I would be very interested to hear if your view of the critical imperative is somewhat different. In other words, isn't it necessary not simply to quote a relevant passage in support of a hermeneutical idea, but to analyze its working, at least somewhat, in order to support your claims. This is what I feel to be rather absent from your engagement here. Mark Scroggins has noted that you are "clearly trying to make sense of what sort of aesthetic criteria within which Lasky is operating". This is the claim I'm not so sure about! I say this with good will, and am trying to get at the core of the critical problem here, so let me explain.

    My personal hypothesis regarding Lasky's collection is very different to yours, namely: of course Lasky is playing with a variety of lyrical and rhetorical personae! Though I of course respect your right to your opinion on this Michael, it worries me greatly that you have in no way analyzed the passages you quote here as evidence for your opinion that Lasky is demonstrating a singularly transparent or unselfconscious use of language: that she is, in brief, utterly unaware of the irony or proclivites of her own ambiguous speaking position (or the respective positions, in the plural sense, of her interlocking masks). This absence of textual analysis in your piece seems to me a possibly egregious error. As what you take to be unwarranted hubris and energumen seems rather to be an explicit playing up of established tropes and conventions.

    Put differently, I feel that what you take to be unwarranted hubris here is quite clearly ironical and rhetorical play. I wonder Michael at how you could so quickly presume this tone to be non-equivocal and didactic, when there are so many textual markers which point us to the amusing game Lasky is playing here regarding notions of poetic address. [...]

  10. [. . .]

    In any case, let me very briefly attempt to do Michael what you do not do here, namely: give an appropriate analytic account of the rhetorical functioning of these lyrical subjects own positionings and self-definitions. Here is the offending passage from Lasky which you quote:

    I am a great woman, I have the wiles
    That make the poet
    But I am also gentle
    And when I kiss a man I really mean it
    Have you felt this too, upon my kisses
    That I gave you in the nightsky
    As your eyelashes hung over the moon?
    Or were you too young to see it too,
    My little feverish butterfly

    Firstly, do you think "Lasky" 's statement "I am a great woman" here is truly to be taken at face value? Surely not! Do you not think that it perhaps echoes and plays with certain established forms of rhetorical and poetic address from Romanticism on, and may thus rather be read as being in direct opposition to the ecstatic consecration of poetic utterance present in Baudelaire's journalism, Coleridge's Biographia Litteraria, etc.?

    Secondly, I believe it is rather clear that the ethos or persona of this voice is explictly playing with established gender biases and representations, more specifically regarding the common definitions of a female poet or "feminine" language generally (though a "great poet" I am also "gentle" and passionate as I "kiss" men etc). We are thus made to reflect on the pertinency of such a misogynist view of poetic identity, and the ambiguous interplays this introduces regarding the status of such poems' self-conscious declarations.

    What follows in this strophe perhaps must subsequently be read as a playful, and in my view very amusing (not to mention very pretty) reworking of traditional tropes and clichés of poetic lyricism, recalling some of Apollinaire's more enjoyable uses of hyperbole.In this sense, "your eyelashes hung over the moon" is an intelligent reworking of common Petrarchan tropes, present as much in Italian Renaissance poetry as in Louise Labé.

    I don't mean to be offensive then Michael, but I must honestly the say that the impression I had when reading your piece is that what you present us with here is akin to a less experienced reader of poetry than yourself taking a given text at face value, without ever posing crucial questions on such text's identitarian and rhetorical functioning.

    The poetic artifice of Lasky's reflections here (whom I do not know by the way, I thus feel my opinion to be more or less personal), implying myriad ambiguities of poetic status and poetic statute, perhaps seem to have passed somewhat over your head.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Dr. Nicholas Manning
    Queen Mary College,
    University of London

  11. P.S. Just a final remark: though there is indeed some textual analysis in your review Michael, it seemed to me to be primarily interested in what you take to be grammatical or syntactical errors or inadequacies, and in no way concerns the ego and hubris of lyrical address which seems to be your central point of contention against Lasky's collection. Thus, in spite of the grammatical analysis, is it not problematic to not analyse that aspect of the collection you feel to be the most problematic?


  12. There is good reason to take Lasky's poetry at face value, and good reason to consider it a highly structured, meditated-upon and mediated persona. When first hearing her read (I was introduced to her work on youtube, and not in the New Yorker) I was wonderfully shocked by how artfully artless she was, drilling a strident voice, grandiosity and bad grammar into my ear. I later came to a clearer sense of what she's accomplished by way of this, um, damaged excess. It is the WORST poetry ever to a particular kind of expectation, but a breath of fresh air to this poet; one who at times has felt nearly asphyxiated by those same expectations. Your review almost, but not quite, seems a bit of a dollar for dollar rhetorical trade. As if Picasso didn't look ridiculous when he started angling crude cubes and stopped being so representational in his paintings. We shouldn't forget the literary framing being used here--an awkward, bewilderingly passionate (as you say, unearned) arrogance. To miss the fun of it all is to miss a lot of what makes American art and poetry, our take on modernism, so good. After a poetry of scientific theories about language full of hidden lasers battling against a poetry of precious moment meringue, after poetry wars that have, sort of, done the combatant styles to death through their enormous success, a new poetry that emerges with a first-person speaker, bragging loudly about annoyingly simple feelings and impossibly flowery delusions, is fun. This is a naive poetry, yes, but it was in no way written by a naive person. Its beauty rests not only in the lines, but also in the trouble they can cause. There is irony in her work, but it is not totally ironic, or it wouldn't work at all.

  13. It's always interesting to read a real debate about a poet's ability, and I am enjoying this one. I do wish, however, that Lasky's husband felt as passionately about her actual poetry as he does about defending her personally.

    There's something suspicious about a reply that does not allow the poems to speak for themselves, but instead throws around words like "misogynist" and changes the level of debate to one of personal attack. I question whether Thom really believes Lasky's poetry can withstand close scrutiny, as he doesn't offer (in, say, the way that Nicholas Manning or Douglas Manning do) concrete interaction with the poems, but instead cries "woman-hater."

    As a woman who writes, myself, I'm often frustrated when people stand up for my work on the basis that anyone who criticizes me must not like women. I imagine it's similar to minority poets who, instead of getting meaningful engagement, are instead told that their critics are racist.

    Any poet worth her salt knows bad reviews are part of the game, and most are wise enough to keep them in the realm where they belong: namely, that of one person's opinion.

    I respect Lasky for not taking the bait. I only wish her husband hadn't decided to override that decision, defending her honor in a way that, frankly, smacks of paternalistic condescension, the kind of insidious sexism that masquerades as good intent while simultaneously admitting that a woman's poetry (or her feelings?) can't possibly withstand a negative, even savage, review.

  14. @Emily, I wasn't trying to debate Dottie's abilities as a poet or the value of her work. That I will leave to less partial, if not more capable, hands--at least for now. Of course by being Dottie's husband and daily talking about poetry and much else with her I feel that I may have insights into her work I expect few others have. And I will save those insights for a venue more hospitable than the bitter and toxic online environment that Michael Tracy Thurston clearly seeks to cultivate through the above post. On the charge of misogyny (or simply the flagrant disregard of certain critical presuppositions historically damaging to the reception of women's writing): it stands. And so does my suggestion that what and how Thurston is arguing reinforces forms of racism and ethnocentrism based upon hegemonic language use. That Professor Thurston has yet to address the above comments in response to his post proves him incapable of owning his hateful (not "savage," not "negative") remarks. As for "paternalistic condescension," I don't feel that is what I am doing at all, though I do agree Dottie was wise not to take "the bait" (as you call it) since it takes a good deal of energy to call someone out--especially online. I am curious about the anonymity of your identity too, Emily, since I have been scrutinized for not disclosing my relationship to Dottie upfront. Could it be that you are related to "MT" somehow? I can't help but wonder. Regardless, I do not retract anything that I've written above, though I do admit my remarks were written out of a sense of outrage at a kind of bullying that I witness all too frequently amidst forums for poetry on the Internet, as if there were no consequences to the ways that we use words when not physically present among those who we would indirectly and directly address. That this bullying has been perpetrated by an associate professor at a distinguished women's college (Smith) makes the particular instance all the more disturbing and in need of redress. --Thom