18 mar. 2004

((The Formalist 2001)):

"He sees her in the lamplight, and is drawn
instantly by her gaze. But when he threads
his way through clumps of guests, she has moved on,
and he pursues, searching among the heads
bent over snacks and conversation. Once
when he thinks he's found her, he draws near
someone who turns -- he feels like such a dunce! --
another face he'd hoped would not be here.
But on the piano, look: a photograph
of her, the nameless girl he needs to see.
Where is the host? There, serving. With a laugh
that strains for casualness, he asks, 'Who's she?'
'Ah,' sighs the host, over the chips and beers,
'My only daughter, dead these eighteen years.'"

This poem by Espaillat is Mike Snider's idea of a great contemporary poem. I wouldn't say the poem addresses the inner idiot in me, but I do have several objections to it:

1) The story told is completely unoriginal. Haven't we all heard it before? What is added in the retelling / that makes it so compelling?

2) The language is not very exciting or interesting. The turns of phrase are no more distinguished than you would find in the average "New Yorker story." The language is colloquial, yet somehow "off." ("dead these 18 years").

3) It makes me think of Browning. That's where this particular poetic mode comes from, I would hazard. Didn't Browning already do this sort of thing much better, more than a hundred years ago? Browning wasn't reproducing a 100-year old style, but forging his own.

4) There is no music in the verse. It's competent at best, but dull. There are no extraordinary lines or images. I could quibble about some specific metrical choices as well, but what would be the point?

5) The mediocre is the enemy of the great. This doesn't hold up well to great poems in the metrical tradition of the past. What to make of a diminished thing?

6) I don't feel "haunted" after reading it. I don't have a sense of the uncanny, although that's what I think she's trying to convey. The poem fails to communicate this sense (to at least one reader.) Compare it to that great Edward Arlington Robinson poem about the haunted house if you want to see what I mean.