375px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Elegy_(1899)
Elegy, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) who was in fact the most successful and popular painter of his era, the very embodiment of everything the Impressionists were fighting against.

I’ve had some provocative back and forths with Lisa the Poet regarding what poems can and cannot do. Poetry that is about poetry: Valid? The abuse of “poetic language.” What topics are acceptable for the poetic form?

As is often the case, something invariably crosses my screen that sheds some light on a particular subject that is provoking my thinking. Grabbing an issue from my “it never seems to get any smaller” pile of Times Book Reviews, I just read through one dating from March of last year where I found a review of Elegy, a volume of poems by Mary Jo Bang, written by David Orr.

Bang’s book deals with the death of her son. Orr’s discussion of the limits of language—in particular, the language of poetry—as well as the concept of the elegy and how those issues are play out in that form proved to be very helpful. I don’t think this is a question that has answers, but I found Orr’s insights deepened my own sense, as inarticulate as that may be, into what poetry can and cannot do.

Here’s an excerpt from that review:


“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop tells us — and yet artistry can often seem the least appropriate response to the misery of loss. When pain is primitive and specific, as it is after the death of a loved one, then we don’t want an exquisite performance filled with grand abstractions. What we want is to go beyond art, beyond society and beyond speech itself, as Lear does when he enters carrying the body of his daughter and crying, “Howl howl howl howl!” We want heaven’s vault to crack. We want the veil parted and the bone laid bare. This is what Tennyson meant when he wrote in Canto 54 of “In Memoriam,” his tribute to his friend Arthur Hallam, that his grief left him “no language but a cry.”

Still, “In Memoriam” is over 1,000 lines long, which is a lot of language any way you slice it. This points toward one of the central paradoxes of the modern private elegy. The closer a poet is to the subject he elegizes, the more we expect him to respond in ways that aren’t “poetic” — but it takes craft to make a poem seem uncrafted, and it takes words to show how short our words can fall. As a result, the elegist is forced to go through increasingly complicated contortions in order to sound sufficiently simple. He finds himself in the awkward position of orchestrating a death wail. Now, one might respond that many (too many) poems meditate on the limits of speech, and that would be true. But it’s equally true that nobody reads a poem about Lacanian theory the same way one reads a poem about the poet’s dead child. Any elegist must confront this fact.

That confrontation can be especially problematic for a certain type of contemporary poet. Stevens accused Frost of writing about “subjects,” to which Frost retorted that Stevens wrote about “bric-a-brac.” The dominant contemporary American style, with its self-conscious intellectualism, evasiveness and preoccupation with “language itself” is firmly on the side of bric-a-brac. This style, like all styles, may be put to any use, but it will always approach its goals through the backdoor via head fakes, double bluffs, rope tricks and an elaborate system of pulleys. It’s a strategy poorly suited to “subjects” in general, let alone the intractable subject that haunts an elegy.

But the best stylists thrive when challenged. This is perhaps why Mary Jo Bang largely succeeds in her new book of elegies for her son, called, simply enough, “Elegy.” Bang’s previous four collections are polished and frequently interesting, but they also contain more than their share of overwrought and overthought poetry about poetry. Sure, a poem might be called “Open Heart Surgery,” but by Line 14 we’d discover that “all the while, the ghost of Gertrude Stein / was whispering in my ear.” Bang’s last book, “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon,” consisted entirely of poems about other works of art (“Always asking, has this this been built / Or is it all process?”), which for a bric-a-brac poet is the equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie about a troop of overgrown adolescents who collect meerschaum pipes and have mommy issues — in other words, pretty much what you’d expect.

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