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Friday, September 30, 2011

A few spoonfuls of Disch

The thought that Thomas M. Disch a.k.a. Tom Disch (he wrote poetry under the latter name) left this world at 68 because it seemed about to oust him from the nest where he had been happy and written dozens of books of poetry and and fiction and highly readable criticism still rankles. He lost the partner to death and then lost their house in Barryville, and he seemed about to lose the Manhattan apartment when he put a bullet in his sadly depressed head on the fourth of July more than three years ago.

But today I am thinking about his poetry criticism. It introduced me to the work of Kathleen Raine--a boon--and made me appreciate Kenneth Koch and a few others more than I did previously.  His essays could also be as hard-hitting and unswerving as the criticism of William Logan, the poet and critic said to be most feared by poets. (I enjoy his writing, even where I have a difference of opinion, but perhaps that is in part because I live in the happy, innocent state of never having been the subject of it.) Disch the critic was good on trends and summing-up, and he was good on individual writers.

You may disagree with him, but he remains challenging and interesting. Try and see:


The myth of risk
"Risk-taking" is my favorite blurb-writing maneuver, since rarely is the risk being taken ever specified. the suggestion is that the poet is somehow a member of that international band of persecuted geniuses on whole behalf PEN sends off protests to the dictatorial regimes of third world countries. Usually, of course, the opposite is true, for the political opinions expressed in the poems of reputedly "risk-taking" poets tend to be such as to make university tenure more likely.

Poets in academia
When bad poetry is valued at the going rate of good poetry, Gresham's law is bound to kick in. Bad poetry will drive out good. For bad poets are likely to be capable careerists, who will have the good sense, when they act in some related bureaucratic capacity, such a judging a contest or hiring a teaching candidate, to favor those as ill favored as themselves. In effect, Cinderella's stepsisters are in charge of the invitation list to the ball.

Andrew Hudgins
Hudgins is southern in that enviable sense that imparts to the work of Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers a cruel humor and linguistic crackle that derives ... from a community of, if you'll forgive the pun, wise crackers.

The myth of progress in the arts
The basic myth of the avant-garde (a myth implicit in the "postmodern" label) is that art progresses by historical stages, and each advance is perceived by the uninitiated rabble as sacrilege or nonsense. Painting provides the best paradigm: impressionism, postimpressionism, cubism, abstraction, pop, and then the Babel of the postmodern.

Updike the poet and the upper middle class
If the class that Updike addresses so cogently were in the habit of reading poetry, he would be America's Philip Larkin.

On confessional poetry
...there are no formal challenges, no musicality, no effort to find the mot juste or the telling epithet. There is simply candor, an effort to enlist the reader's sympathy in the circumstances of the poets' lives. All three poets have been award prizes for their confidences, and all three offer thanks to Yaddo on their acknowledgment pages, so however little regard this reviewer can muster for their work, their esthetic respectability is an established fact.

The myriad-minded poet
Once a poet has mastered his instrument, once he is a poet, he is judged--cherished, respected, or ignored--chiefly for his sense of poetic opportunity, for the ways he welcomes or courts his Muse; for his availability, as a poet, to the plenum of experience. Poets distinguish themselves one from the other less by the formal characteristics of their voices than by the occasions they elect to share with us, and while some poets are admired for their judicious cultivation of the same Parnassian half acre, in general the poets we prize most, and read most faithfully, are those whose lives, as reported, seem largest; who are able, in the most diverse moods and circumstances, to map a wide range of experience while maintaining the special alertness and afflatus poetry requires.


  1. I can well understand how you are glad that he didn't turn his considerable critical talents on you, though I suspect, by the tone of his comments, that he would have thoroughly approved your traditional bent.
    We all know the kind of poet he's talking about--the ones that win prizes and pass out favors to all their buddies. That's most of them.

  2. Robbi,

    Actually it is Logan who I was thinking of there, but they are congenial in certain ways. I think Disch did more reviewing slanted in the positive direction than Logan has done; he was pretty good at introducing new people in an entertaining way. They're both stringent in their demands.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.