A lot of substantive replies in the comment box to my last post: too many to respond to in full at the moment, but it's interesting that Drew's remarks there in particular are simultaneously most resonant with my own response to the poem and representative of many of the positions specifically vis a vis craft that I wanted (and still want) to argue are untenable.
I'm still not convinced that what Drew and many others find "irritating and ridiculous" about the poem is really an index of anything that could objectively be termed "ineptitude" on Oliver's part. Drew feels that Oliver is operating on bad faith, that the entire text is a shallow ploy to get the reader to think the poet is deep and sensitive. Whether this is true or not (and how does one demonstrate the truth or falsity of such a claim?), my problem is that I don't see the step that can lead us directly from this charge, or from the following observation that the poem is "corny-sounding," to the accusation that Oliver "hasn't the slightest idea how to put one word in front of another," or that "the metaphors don't work." Drew seems to mean something other by this than simply that he does not appreciate the poem: he implies a quantifiable mechanical deficit on the poet's part (in another comment, he uses the word "ineptitude"). That is, he implies that Oliver literally doesn't have basis syntactic competence, that her metaphors are literally incoherent. Maybe he doesn't really mean this, but if that is the case, this is a perfect example of the way in which dissatisfaction with a poem's general raison d'etre can slide into a hazy use of craft-based terminology.
Drew says: "These are not the result of a generic 'bad craft,' the bad craft is the result of an attitude towards reality, and toward the role of the poet. What's truly 'bad' about the poem is its manipulative and vain attitude toward communication." There is a bit of a shell-game going on here. First, he invokes the specter of bad craft by denouncing Oliver's supposedly awkward syntax and inert metaphors. Then he says that these defects are not actually indices of Oliver's craft ineptitude at all, but rather that her "attitude toward reality" and toward her own "role" as poet have somehow "resulted" in bad craft. But then isn't her craft the problem on one level after all? My suspicion here is not that Drew has failed to give coherent expression to his idea, but--more radically--that there is no idea there to give expression to. When we dislike what we believe a poet or poem stands for, too often we convince ourselves that on that basis alone we may assert that the poet's "craft" is lacking. But craft can only be measured, ultimately, according to the frame of craft-reference to which the poet appeals in deploying a particular style. In Oliver's case, this frame is a standard monologic model of late twentieth-century lyric, built around a slightly elevated version of colloquial speech/thought. We can either embrace or reject this framework, but on its own terms, it is as valid a template for formal praxis as any, and Oliver's application of its principles, unless I am missing something, "fails" in no obvious way.
The problem isn't that the poem is sentimental, it's that the sentiments the poet is ostensibly trying to activate and address are actually being evaded, or you could say, they are being exploited, and in their place we have a kind of pitch to think kind thoughts about the speaker. I am being presented (poorly) with a fake, "idealized" self. My feeling is that the poem represses information about life and experience toward this end.On what grounds can it be said that Oliver's "fake, 'idealized' self" (even granted that it is indeed such a sham) is presented to us "poorly"? As I said before, the charge of emotional dishonesty is a whole other issue, and one whose proof or refutation does not partake of the measurable "evidence" attending issues of technical craft. Certainly it is a vice we can imagine manifesting itself in visible gestures, like a poker player's "tell" or a liar's facial tic. But is it really possible to apply this concept to textual phenomena like syntax and verbal metaphor? Perhaps. But is this what Drew is claiming? If so, some more detailed analysis is necessary. And if not, we have here the same sleight-of-hand (not that I think Drew is being intentionally misleading) that we saw before, in which ethical failings are suddenly and mysteriously seen to be supplanted by mechanical ineptitude.
In acknowledgment of the fact that legions of readers consider Oliver's poem both deeply moving and technically well-wrought, Drew comments:
I see it as a kind of psychic vampiric gesture, one done with such spectacular ineptitude and obliviousness that I'm amazed it's successful. I can only guess that the feelings possibly stirred by the invocation of the scene are more powerful than the uses the poet has planned for them, and that it is actually the invocation of the scene the readers are looking for, regardless of how it's done, or to what end?I'm willing to entertain part of Drew's argument here, simply because it's just too depressingly ridiculous not to be somewhat true: that there are some readers who want so badly to be poetically saddened by the thought of burying a dead one-eyed kitten that they will applaud any shabby apparatus that offers them such a spectacle. What I still don't accept is that Drew has in any tangible way demonstrated Oliver's "spectacular ineptitude and obliviousness." He has simply asserted it to be the case. He does this most passionately and compellingly in this statement:
The overall impact of the language here--the energy and movement of the syntax and vocabulary all seem dramatically separated from the themes, images, thinking in the poem--everything about the vocabulary and syntax screams out to me that they are being forced into the service of a formulaic attempt at provoking a predetermined emotional response. And I can acutely feel the language resisting these shackles.I don't doubt that Drew does feel this as acutely as he says; he just hasn't shown it. He is, in my opinion, one of the poets of this generation who is most sensitively attuned to the emotional nuances of language, as well as to the ways in which those nuances may be grotesquely tweaked for a variety of effects ranging from poignancy to slapstick. And while I may agree with most of his broad claims about Oliver's poetic inertia (though I do also still find this particular poem moving in spite of myself), even he has not convinced me that this inertia can be related meaningfully to her syntactic and figurative competence--i.e., her command of certain familiar strains of technical craft.