on November 5, 2011
Dobyns is one of our best poets, who deserves a greater following. His body of work is impressive, capped off by this latest book. We see him confronting the end of life"At times I consider the black door in my future and hear the wind whistling under the crack. I used to think of it with dread, but now I am mostly curious..." He is toting up what he has learned and much of it is to maintain a sense of wonder. In "Rabbits" , he mediates on two rabbits crossing a frozen lake, knowing they are likely doomed but looking to see if they made it across. Once admiring the cynicism of older reporters, he reflects that cynicism corrupts the value of wonder, "But for many reporters their cynicism became a canker and their question about anybody,saint or sinner,was what's in it for him, what's this guy trying to hide? The chance of virtue or decency was rarely an option;indeed it was an anxiety." And he revisits what it means to be a poet in "Ducks" concluding that we do what we do for the love of the thing, not the profit. That we end up doing, as Matthew Kelly has observed, what it is we cannot not do.
on November 19, 2011
I admit in a heartbeat that I wouldn't have been SO disappointed in this collection had it not carried a name like Stephen Dobyns. Without Dobyns' name, I would have pawned this book off as the work of some amateur with more ego and access to a poor poetry handbook than poetic drive. But this is a Dobyns collection, the same man who has written absolute classics like "How to Like It" and "Cemetery Nights," so I am just simply shocked. Surely, a different creature takes us over when we write, for these poems try all too hard to be thoughtful and philosophical, which makes them feel more like trite essays than poems, yet this is a man who has also shot into the stratosphere with his essays on poetry. The poems here come nowhere near the extremes of his writing career. The first handful of poems have a trite set-up of 'I was out walking when I saw this animal and then thought about...' and the insights overall seem sad and cliche, his political points not even meeting that standard. And now it sounds like I'm just being mean, but even the layout of this book is near-unreadable, looking more like poorly set prose than poetry. I will grant any master the occasional slip, but Dobyns' poetry has been little more than a dying lantern in a snowstorm when it used to be a beacon.
on October 10, 2010
Stephen Dobyns is a colossus who has waded, at the 11th hour of our lives as a nation and a culture-in-progress, into the old joke about Hell, wherein the damned are found squatting obediently and stiffly, with their heads tilted back, up to their ears in ordinary ordure de jour and vomit, emitting a strange, whiny prayer, like the cry of the wind in the eaves--Hell's crap fortunately reaching only halfway up Dobyns' trousers--"Don't make a wave! Don't make a wave!" It's a sort of prayer, whose noise today is everywhere. Though many Dobyns characterizes as comic, pathetic, dishonest and abject, those on their knees in the applicable cloaca, would swear, waving the U.S. flag and wearing defiantly moronic hats, that they are agitating for change, or producing and promoting poetry, which includes the pointedly abstruse, who hope their mysterious flouncings attract notice.
The Tea Party of American poetry, its militant mediocrity, its fear of poetic tooth, sinew and intelligence, preceded by several decades (first at an inexorable snail's pace, then as rapid fiasco)its recurrent, filthy and most recent avatar in lumpen politics. Both versions of dim-witted American triumphalism are what Dobyns' Winter's Journey (cf. Schubert's Winterreise)confronts with the majesty of Laocoon wrestling the serpents of the blatantly vindictive Goddess of Fate, Laocoon tragically wrestling, Dobyns contemplating our mutual doom amid a host of disgusting, but patiently tabulated "imponderables" (Dobyns' word.) A stern loathing drives his verse in "Winter's Journey," steadily illuminating it in the absence of ornament.
Among our national dilemma's imponderables is a distinction Dobyns strives to achieve, but declines to draw, between our "ignorance" and our "stupidity," locating examples of blame, fairly and unfairly, yet in clear-eyed misery, in the transplanted Englishman, Wystan Hugh Auden, whom Dobyns hails as the Great Twitterer, citing his famous fatuity, "poetry makes nothing happen," then again in Harvard University's "top poetry critic," nameless in Dobyns' report, though presumably that Godmother of American Literary Mediocrity, Helen `La Masta-Donna' Vendler, and further in John Ashbury, whom Dobyns dubs "a dead horse" hauled to the top of a mountain, presumably America's meretricious Parnassus.
(If our Parnassus were in West Virginia, it could be said to have suffered mountaintop removal mining, and explain why our born-again Arthur Godfrey inaugurates his daily Writer's Almanac, quaint history capsules and poem readings, with welcome-again-to-mortuary music. The program is funded by the Poetry Foundation, with money Poetry Magazine received, with irony too obvious to have edge, from a Reader's Digest heiress, a concentration of power that has left us with our regrettable "commissars of modern poetry (who) don't/like poems to talk about bloodshed and babies blown/to smithereens..." according to Dobyns.)
At the 11th hour of his life, Wallace Stevens called one of his poems, "Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit," as if calling out to himself, cheering himself on, having already granted an essay to a paradoxical line on the loveliness of a rose by another Englishman, a still earlier W.S., "How with this rage can beauty hold a plea," the essence of the aesthetic dialectic here naturally recursive, entanglement with the world's rage and beauty rather than homely solipsism, reasoned resistance rather than regionalism's humble pie and political abjection, offered as a putrid stew of the nonetheless satanically bland, the poetic soup extolled, Dobyns avers, by our aforementioned poetry commissars,those chefs who like all corporate bureaucrats, assiduously cultivate brands and ruthlessly defend brand-names and brand-status, by deliberately confusing, because of their fear, egotism, ignorance, greed, or mere stupidity, the obtuse and sheep-like hoi polloi, who look up and are not fed, their shepherds maintaining their hegemony as taste-makers by tirelessly advocating the tuneless and vacuous.
Dobyns is almost alone in facing and elaborating our incurable pollution by these "imponderables." The names of the others are written in water, and the rest, as Hamlet says, is silence.