Dispatches | April 12, 2011

So much scholarship and literary art seems aimed at intellectualism and/or obscurity, exhibiting what Mark Halliday, in his recent review of Tony Hoagland’s latest book of poems, calls ICFU: “Instant Contempt For the Understandable.” In the face of my own nerdy academic pursuits, I relish the down-to-earth, self-deprecating, humorous intellect of a Hoagland or Halliday. Their poetry and criticism are crisp and immediate, their fame well deserved. Hoagland’s 2006 book of essays Real Sofistikashun couldn’t have been more timely, and still supplies us with useful terms like “the skittery poem of our moment.”

Interestingly, the first poem Hoagland takes to task in the essay by that name is one of Halliday’s. While Hoagland turns out to be easier on it than other examples, there’s no smoke blowing there—something I appreciated when I first read the essay, since Hoagland and Halliday’s poems have a lot in common – a fact which Halliday, in his recent review, is quick to establish. Hence his review’s title, Courageous Clarity: a clear banner for the work of both poets.

While I’m always keen on the balance of intellectual and colloquial in both poets’ writing (to break it down one of a million ways), I have noticed, in their criticism, a certain shying away from technical terms, even where it would seem to be called for. For example, in an incisive discussion of Robert Pinsky’s first book, in showing where this major American poet started and how far he’s come, Hoagland fails to mention that many of these poems are in blank verse. Maybe it’s obvious enough, or irrelevant to Hoagland’s purposes (though you have to admit, it characterizes the feel of those early poems). Or maybe such a term as “blank verse” suggests a certain professional leaning Hoagland would rather avoid.

And maybe this wouldn’t be so remarkable if both poets didn’t teach in Creative Writing PhDs—Hoagland at Houston, Halliday at Ohio. As a poet-scholar in training, I have to wonder: if not at this summit of poetry-scholarship, then where is there a place for the discussion of prosody—the place where the study of poetry started?

I mean, I get it. The phenomenon of “analysis”—a term Halliday puts in quotes in his review—can get a little silly. For one thing, it too often seems that anything (especially in the hands of overzealous grad students) can be analyzed to any end. For another, does a discussion of iambs, say, really illuminate our understanding and practice of contemporary (which, of course, usually means free verse) poetry? Too, technical concerns are sometimes means to elitism (if not conformity), such as when the visiting poet “diagnoses” the metrical disease of a writing program’s burgeoning poets.

The term prosody comes from the ancient Greek for song, and fittingly, it is over the issue of Hoagland’s music—or lack thereof—that Halliday’s critique is wittiest, most engaging, and most dismissive of prosodic analysis. To defend Hoagland against poet-critic Peter Campion’s claim that some of Hoagland’s stanzas “suffer from ‘the almost total lack of music,’” Halliday sets up a mock quiz with unattributed passages of poems (from a range of poets, as it turns out), asking his reader to judge the music—only to say in the end that the correct answer is “to refuse this ridiculous quiz.”

His points are sound: “music” is a foggy concept we don’t all agree on, outstanding sound-effects are an important facet of poetry but are by no means always required (flatness and plain statement having their place) and, overdone, can weigh down poetry.

The lines in question, Halliday admits, are “straightforwardly narrative” and not “beautiful.” He could have just left it at that, which his point about good poetry sometimes being flat amply covers. Or he could have taken an alternative approach to analyzing music, something arguably more applicable to open verse, perhaps along the lines of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s courageous if sometimes confusing studies of syntax. But instead, he performs a mock prosodic “analysis” of the lines. “If I were a certain kind of critic,” he begins witheringly, and goes on to touch on a “harshness” of sound here, an “acceleration…of anapests” there. Then, having shown he’s just as capable as the next critic, he writes the whole thing off: “But I always find that kind of ‘analysis’ unconvincing and professionally pompous.”

Even as I smile at this charade, why the disingenuous dig? Is it just me, or is the joke on Halliday? At any rate, one poor analysis doesn’t debunk analysis. I have enough faith in my training to know that. I can only figure that there’s a kind of narcissism of minor difference at work where an academic poet so invested in clarity takes such pains to disparage, and distance himself from, traditional poetics. I wonder if we can afford to be so flippant—to play dumb—when the articulation of meaning and sound are at stake.

Austin Segrest is an intern at The Missouri Review, and  PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.