Wednesday, May 30, 2018

'If the Rest of Your Mind Is a Mess'

It would have been an honor to be critically eviscerated by Turner Cassity. The man was so cruelly and cogently funny, we would hate to deny ourselves and his readers all the fun. In 1980, Cassity reviewed James Dickey’s The Strength of Fields and The Zodiac for Parnassus. Dickey’s critical fortunes, if not his celebrity, peaked in the early seventies, around the time his novel Deliverance went Hollywood, and by 1980 he was coasting on momentum and alcohol. Cassity, a Mississippian by birth, writes of Georgia-born Dickey:

“Within his limits—one cannot really call them self-imposed; that would imply a sense of focus he does not have—he can be effective. ‘Root-light, or The Lawyer’s Daughter’ is a very amusing put-down of the idea of the Platonic Idea. Or would be if one could rescue it from its surrounding welter of verbiage. It is the dread Southern urge to use eight words wherever one will do. Surely it will be the punishment of the garrulous to sit in Hell at the knee of Edith Wharton’s mother.”

Isn’t it better to mock bad writing than to rail against it? The reason we enjoy reviewing bad books is that it’s easier to be funny when panning than praising. Praise is important but rarely funny. In quoting the poem mentioned in the passage above, Cassity writes: “‘The clean palmetto color’ is of course so attractive a phrase I should like to steal it, and may.” But phrases, no matter how attractive, don’t make a poem. As Cassity writes of a poem titled “Exchanges”: “In the Dickey text nothing has anything to do with anything else. You cannot call it free association because there is no association” – a truth that serves as a template for virtually any reviewer sufficiently strong-stomached to take on most contemporary poets (Charles Wright comes to mind). Never have there been so many ways to write lousy poetry: “Something, anything, to make the obvious seem ‘poetic.’”

About Dickey’s “For the Death of Lombardi,” Cassity writes: “The writing in ‘Lombardi,’ as writing, confronts us with what three generations of modern poets have been unwilling to face: no amount of talent is going to help if the rest of your mind is a mess. Common sense is as useful in poetry as it is elsewhere.” Cassity finds a few things to like along the way, as would any honest reviewer, and occasionally one hears echoes of his one-time teacher, Yvor Winters. He dismisses “the idea of poetry as the unconsidered utterance of the bardic genius aided in his unreason, if need be, by drink and drugs,” and continues:

“If we take Whitman and Sandberg seriously, we have to consider Dickey, because he has more specific literary talent than either, and is by no means the phoniest of the three. His poems compare poorly with those of Hart Crane, but who knows what Crane would have written like in his fifties. I for one doubt that he could have written at all.”    

Cassity deploys the review's best line in reference to Dickey's phrase “birds black with corporations” (yes, it’s a poem about an oil spill): “Well, if there is anything I hate it is a middle-aged hippie.”

[Cassity’s review, “Double Dutch,” is collected in Parnassus: Twenty Years of Poetry in Review (ed. Herbert Leibowitz, University of Michigan Press, 1994).]

No comments: