Sunday, March 09, 2008

Poetics as Art or as Taste?

Today's New York Times Book Review includes, on page 8, a probing review by James Longenbach of Mary Jo Salter's new collection, A PHONE CALL TO THE FUTURE: New and Selected Poems. From Longenbach's discussion, this is clearly a book to own, and I've ordered my copy. Meanwhile, though, the comments from this seasoned reviewer and author offered me quite a bit to chew over.

He notes that Salter "came of age as a poet in the 1970s when two tribes, the Language poets and the New Formalists, were sparring." Language poets aimed for edgy, experimental work; New Formalists, where Salter took her place, aimed to "resist the influence of modernism, re-energizing poetry's relationship not only to traditional form but to narrative." Longenbach articulates the ties of this group and of Salter to Elizabeth Bishop, and asserts that while Bishop's free and formal verse continues to earn readers, "the polemics associated with both the New Formalism and Language poetry feel dated, part of the niggling history of taste rather than the grand history of art."

Having thus packaged one of the fiercest debates of today's poetics, Longenbach opens discussion of different standard of comparison: work like Salter's that "asks eviscerating questions" and refuse to provide finished answers to those, versus poetry where emotion is "mastered" and "Questions are foreclosed; satisfaction sets in."

Longenbach's taste is clearly for work that uses its masterful poetry to frame the "unmasterable feelings," as Salter does in probing the death of her son.

I found his review provocative, and particularly enjoyed his final phrase of praise for Salter's poem "Elegies for Etsuko": "a disorienting work of art."

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