The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Hard Night

By Christian Wiman.  Copper Canyon Press. 2005. 104 pp. Flat bound. $14.00. 
Christian Wiman[This review was published in Counterpoise, 2006.]  Christian Wiman is editor of Poetry Magazine, which was endowed several years ago with a 175-million dollar gift from an heir to Prozac manufacturer Eli Lilly Drug Corporation. 


Clearly, Wiman is not a poète maudit, but rather an establishment poet, approved and promoted by establishment literati and academics, who seek to reduce poetry to language, disengagement, and anodyne, though witty, description.  Oddly, the latter seem to be wondering:  Does Poetry Really Matter?  Well, poetry does and can matter when it is more than linguistic gymnastics and wit, when it incorporates ideas, wisdom, and even criticism.  In other words, when the subject matter matters, poetry too will matter.  How interesting it would be to examine Wiman’s networking path to the very top of the establishment poetry machine.  Who did he have to please and how did he manage to please them?

What might one expect from such a poet?  Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote the following for him and those like him.   “[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,

/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”

Today, America too seems entrenched in the mud.  From the photo on the back cover, Wiman looks like a Boy Scout or choir boy—one of those fellows poet Charles Bukowski used to describe as scarless and with a sweater draped always over the shoulders… very neat, very clean cut, utterly tame, and entirely disengaged—sadly, the fate of the modern, subsidized American poet today. 

The poem appearing on the back cover ought to make any thinking person with a sharp, critical mind not wish to purchase or read this book. It’s not only jaded, but sadly ostrich-head-in-the-sand indifferent… to the Republic.  Contrary to the publisher’s backslapping blurb, Wiman’s is hardly an “original voice” at all.  It is rather the voice of someone issued from the academic writing machine. 

What words or harder gift
Does the light require of me
Carving from the dark
This difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
Do I almost see
Emerging from the night
And heart of me? 

Well, it sounds nice, quite safe, and certainly would have no problem at all passing through the censors of the religious right… and politically-correct left.  In fact, that is the case with all the poems in this volume.  They certainly won’t bite. They certainly won’t upset anyone… well, that is, with the exception of poets like this reviewer. The editor’s blurb under the back-cover poem mentions “a talent and scope that are rare in contemporary poetry.”  If this is true, then we need no longer ask whether or not American poetry matters.  Ploughshares notes:  “A legitimate heir to Frost.”  Indeed, nothing in this volume is original… let alone necessary. 

To be fair, I hunted through the book in an effort to find something of interest and pertinence.  As an editor, I receive many poetry submissions.  I do not normally take the time to wade through long poems that do not grab me right from the start.  Wiman’s poems fail to hook. “When I was learning words/ and you were in the bath/ there was a flurry of small birds/ and in the aftermath” begins one poem… and I skip it. 

In general, these poems are banal. Reading them, one feels as if attending a funeral. Indeed, one of them is called “The Funeral.”  Humor is absent. Humanity and the nation seem absent too with the exception of fictional characters.  What is present is the poet’s belly button. I tried but could not find one line of wisdom.  Is wisdom à la Jeffers (e.g., “the cold passion for truth hunts in no pack”), for example, now forbidden in verse by the establishment poetry machine?  Yet wisdom makes poetry pertinent, certainly more than anything else. 

“Wind lays its blade along the beach/ leaving shapes the beach can’t keep” goes another poem.  Well, that’s a fine way of painting the scene. Sure, there’s a few interesting somber lines of natural description in Hard Night, which tend to make one feel as if reading an Andre Dubus or Raymond Carter short story… but without the drama.  In fact, one of the poems is a short story in verse.  Wiman comes off as a gloomy guy, someone who might try to hold his breath for as long as possible under water in a dark, murky pond... so he might have something to write about. Indeed, just how hard can this poet’s night be (“this field, this sky, this tree”)?  Perhaps we ought to compare his hard night with one of Bukowski’s hard nights. 

''More poems should rhyme,” notes Wiman.  “More poems should have meter. More poems should tell stories in accomplished ways.  More poems should do the things that people like poems to do.”  Cite James Baldwin for an alternative viewpoint:  “I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society.  The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.”   For Wiman’s poetry to really matter, Wiman needs to summon the courage and, now and again, buck the system, rock the boat, be an individual as opposed to a literary herd member, and otherwise  “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). 

''Part of what I've tried to do is to make Poetry [magazine] into a place where people can expect honest reviews," notes Wiman.  ''If the readers are going to disagree with something, they're going to disagree vehemently, but at least they'll have a genuine reaction."  Now, would he publish this review in Poetry?  It is, after all, somewhat “vehement.” 

This reviewer does not recommend Hard Night, though it does serve as a typical and cogent example of the state of American poetry today. 
                                                                                                                                                                                             —The Editor