Unsolicited, two books of poetry published by a university press arrived in the mail. I’m as greedy as the next guy and was pleased with my windfall until I opened the books and started reading. Only one of the poets had I heard of before. Both are youngish, a man and a woman, both come decorated with prizes and neither seems interested in language. Even as prose their poems are dull and indistinguishable from the messages (usually political, in the form of self-aggrandizement) they intone. I expect poetry to carry with it a field of energy. It ought to stimulate and please the mouth and mind. The poems of a plain-spoken poet – Swift comes to mind, and J.V. Cunningham – are still charged with vitality, proving that even politics can be interesting in the right hands.
I have no wish to publicize the work of the two poets whose books I have already given away, so we’ll leave them anonymous. They too must earn a living, an effort I never begrudge, however desultory the labor. Let the market decide. I’ve recently reread Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), and was reminded of the gratuitous opulence of our language. Then I reread the review of the book written by Eric Ormsby, whose poems and essays are voluptuous celebrations of the English we have inherited. He writes:
“The prose and the fine solicitude are inseparable. Johnson may be, after Shakespeare, the only author to have grappled with the sheer totality of the English language. The Augustan balance of his prose conceals an underlying voracity, an extraordinary lexical appetite, chastened and held in check by the cadenced discipline of his language. The beauty of that language is a moral beauty, hard won out of a lifelong struggle with the world and with himself. That's one good reason for the fondness he inspires: In giving us words he defines how we might live.”