All That Is Merely Pleasant Falls Away

Christian Wiman, from Ambition and Survival:

Frost once remarked that poetry was a way of taking life by the throat, but for so many contemporary poets it seems a way of taking life by the hand. Certain tactics become deadeningly familiar: the privileging of specific subject matter (“Relate to me,” you can almost hear some poems cry); the primacy of personal experience and the assumption that language can contain it; the favorite foreign country that becomes a sort of grab bag for subject matter; the husk of anecdote cracked for its nut of knowledge; the serious intellectual and psychological issues that do a soft-focus fade-out into imagistic unknowingness; the ease, even pride, with which the poet accepts such unknowingness. Much of this poetry isn’t “bad,” exactly; you wish it were worse, in fact, because then you could more clearly explain to yourself why a large dose of it–a batch of books to review, say, or an hour spent browsing magazines–leaves you feeling not simply numb but guilty for that numbness, as if you were the only tainted thing in a world where everything was perfectly clear, perfectly pleased with itself. Intensity is the only antidote–of language, of experience, of ambition. In the presence of that intensity, all that is merely pleasant falls away. (p 145)


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