A review of Keith Waldrop's 'Selected Poems'
“It’s / true enough that we’ve fallen between / two generations — one drunk, the other / stoned,” Keith Waldrop writes in an early poem addressed to his wife, poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s easy to imagine that Waldrop, born in 1932, is thinking of the “liquor and analysis” (43) that marked the lives of some of his lionized predecessors, such as Berryman and Lowell, and of the intoxicating, telling wit that can mark their work. In his poetry from the 1960s and ’70s in Selected Poems, one feels that weighty shadow: some phrases wouldn’t seem out of place in Lowell’s Life Studies, as in the throaty sound-play and mock-heroic pose of Waldrop’s “I may, of course, croak tomorrow, stumbling / from the larder” (19). And yet, even in his earliest poems, Waldrop evades that weight through the self-effacing wit and radiant interest in linguistics that distinguish his later work; Selected Poems confirms this continuity across his many shifts in style.
Or, one might say, the book highlights his many shifts in and out of particular styles: 1968’s “Angel to Love, Man to World,” for example, can be read as a smiling pastiche of period gestures. After an opening stanza that, characteristically, is intent on the “stunning silences” that attend philosophical disquisition, Waldrop asks, “Now what possesses me?” (17). It’s as though his theme is clear — said it in one stanza, fifty years ago — and now the variations begin: he adopts the guise of a Stevensian “connoisseur” and mutters a joke in French; he veers from childhood memory to learned citation; he summons himself toward epiphany. The concluding stanzas seem designed to dizzy a close reading into transcendence, to delight and befuddle a squinty scholar. After invoking the super-saturated grandeur of the fabricated sublime, Waldrop revels in similarly intricate diction:
I’d like an inclusive mind, where nothing could
possibly be out of the question. Like Saint
Mark’s façade where, halfway up a
clutter of Christianity and Venetian lace, are
four Roman horses, poised, in place.
Surely it was
thinking like this made Brueghel paint
a windmill near Calvary. When Adam, as it
fell out, got too old to know Eve, he sat
his inspired carcass down by his hoe, watching
his sweaty children screw up generation
after generation. (18)
Yes, “fell out” can refer to the fall of man and to one man’s fall from the potent ability to “know” his wife; yes, “inspired” should be read with its breathy, etymological meaning. “Screw up” touches at least five senses: Adam’s heirs (1) “screw up” their resolve to (2) procreate (perhaps screwily, given the few examples they had), which (3) messes up the kids, which (4) bolsters the construction of a world, much as the (5) screwed-up grist of a windmill does. The jumble of such decoding, of seeing a phrase distinctly stick several landings at once, might please some readers, but I think the line’s primary effect is closer to that of a koan: once a phrase can be read five ways, it points toward infinity, inviting one to assume an “inclusive mind.” I start to wonder: is there a relevant etymological meaning of “sweaty” at play; did “hoe” have the echo, in 1968, that it carries from hip-hop, today?
The question of whether all potential meanings are equally meaningful might dog one throughout Selected Poems. Often, the guidance Waldrop offers at once dons and shrugs off the possibilities of interpretation — “all connections (all) / connect,” he notes, “not always / as we could want them to” (41). The “we,” here, doesn’t refer to the author, whose intent might be clear or not, as much as to the reader who must accept that, tautologically, any connection that one can make is a connection, and yet its nature might exceed our wishes. This “we” presents the author as a fellow reader whose attention to the possibilities of interpretation troubles interpretation itself. It’s fitting that these preoccupations become clear in the poems selected from The Garden of Effort (1975), since their interest in enlivened ambivalence can seem both paradisal and laborious, though in Waldrop the arduous and ardent often twine. In these poems, it can feel as though Waldrop has compressed the final stanza of “Angel to Love” into nothing but phrases as brachiated as “screw up.” The pressure one could apply to such a phrase, to reveal its mass, emanates from the lines themselves. That is, they push back, through muddled or truncated propositional logic that shows the influence of French poets such as Claude Royet-Journoud, whom Waldrop has translated.
These poems can support associative mulling — like the conclusion of “Angel to Love” does — that winds up and up but never winds up in a polished interpretation (“engineering mothers / to make of / being born,” says one poem  — am I wrong to hear the syntax of a newspaper headline, as in a phrase like “Congress to Propose Legislation?”). Or they can read like studies in the connective gestures by which poets like Stevens and Ashbery construct sensations of plausibility (“with exploit / in the full / sense will / but is / not quite” ). Often, they invite one to meditate on grammar (is “engineering” a verb? is “will” the subject of the phrase?), much as they tickle perspective through overt staging (“A face at the / window and I forget / I’m indoors” ) and phrasal knots that arrive at straight strings, as though canceling themselves out (“Some things I’ve / seen through and / vice versa” ). Other reviewers can explore how these poems reflect or advance particular critical traditions; but much as the end of “Angel to Love” could satisfy a New Critical reading while, more significantly, pointing beyond the text, conjuring a more mysterious orientation toward reading and world, ditto these poems and Deconstructionism.
Still, it’d be wrong to ignore the affiliation Waldrop’s poetry can have with, say, Wittgensteinian linguistics. And, as with much poetry that offers both its own critical poetics and fans philosophical flames (without merely expressing its fandom of the old flame of a certain theory), it’s tempting to read some of Waldrop’s poetry as constantly reading itself. Waldrop’s poems, one could say, announce that “their language” functions “in / so many senses” (63), and that all literary artifice remains “still on the surface” (70). But Waldrop’s poetry is distinct from work in which this metacritical dimension points primarily to a poem’s own structures, or to something, sayable or not, about the nature of the sayable. First, even Waldrop’s most gnarled grammatical experiments retain an allusive tinge: the poems seem less like theses about language than the residual notation that might accompany wide reading or urgent seeing, showing the ways in which experiences become interwoven with one’s sensibility and thoughts; a poem is marginal, in the largest sense, like any lived-in epistemological assumption. In some poems, these allusions are direct: Waldrop recounts a version of the Pygmalion tale, or he engages wryly with Aristotle and Aquinas. Elsewhere, the traces of erudition can feel more oblique. In one later poem, for example, in which the following ellipses and italics are the author’s, Waldrop writes of
with the charm of
ever desire contraries …
— a little wider …
… now go
practice with your
mouth closed (202)
Though the poem explicitly depicts the training of a vocalist, it seems appropriate to also think of a Blakean dialectic of “contraries” and that concept’s centrality to many poets since Romanticism. “It must be the brook / Can trust itself to go by contraries / The way I can with you,” Frost writes, for instance, in “West-Running Brook.” Since I made that connection, should I read “mouth” also as a brook’s mouth, and so the poem asks one to dam up the flow of contraries, to achieve an “intonation” that is both wide (like a still pool) and (movingly) free of poisonous charm, a pure and eddying stream? Or should I mingle the metaphor with the mouth of an aspiring orator, mumbling through stones? Waldrop’s allusiveness is obvious enough, often, to suggest such readings. But his more minimal poems do so through suggestions so subtle that I think, as with “Angel to Love,” that one shouldn’t seek a concordance of references but to adopt an “inclusive mind” in which they can play. This mindset need not — and cannot — remain uncritically permissive of random data, of course, because it is continually contoured by Waldrop’s writing, which often reassures an uncertain reader by emphasizing states of liminality and unknowing (“I know the world exists. / I do not know how the world exists” , he writes) or by acknowledging, perhaps winkingly, that he is simply seeking a form for what he’s “jotting down” (33), for his “partially organized / bits” (41). By attending to these states, one might construct the kind of “phenomenology of ignorance” (40) that Waldrop identifies as a pressing need, given all we don’t know. Thus, while some highly allusive poetry has a quality of “you had to be there” — in the right seminar, the right café, the right prep school — Waldrop’s allusive tinge seems to ask “what you? what there?”
Second, Waldrop’s work avoids the narcissism that critics of the avant-garde often invoke through its relationship to translation, that most empathetic ground of linguistic play. Waldrop is a prolific translator, mostly from the French, and one might speculate that translation helped mute his feeling that he had “fallen between / two generations,” since even cursory acquaintance with the “two generations” produced by a poet and a translator offer a more complicated view of lineage and liminality, let alone of the “fallen” state of languages. Similarly, the trace of translational practices in his poems might have helped Waldrop both to escape analogy, that well-known ambition of certain experimental writers, referenced in his title Analogies of Escape, and to enjoy the richness of allusion without relying on foregone cultural knowledge. For example, the one-step-away translation from Corinthians in the lines below lets the mind rove, as in response to an allusion that emphasizes its symbolism — yet they foreground the language itself, so where I rove is to a strangeness I have never noticed before within the word “modified”:
We shall not all
be modified. (133)
One can feel a similar spirit of translation — and a similar effect, of drawing a reader closer to the words themselves while also troubling a naïve regard for words’ meanings — in Waldrop’s frequent twisting of idioms, in his reorienting substitutions (“deified” for “defied” ), in his entertaining of alternates (“Monstrous colors on / certain things. // Monstrous things in / uncertain colors” ). A related method of alteration might have generated the title “Insisting Objects” from the poem’s musing on the parallel phrase “infinite creatures” (162); many other moments in Selected Poems might have resulted from similar processes (it doesn’t seem coincidental that the title of Waldrop’s first book contains the word “windmill” and the title of his second includes “windfall,” a kind of propulsive mishearing or permutation). This investment in the practices of translation also bridges the poles one can see in Waldrop’s more recent works, between observational prose, variously decorous and delectably anarchic, often linked to a personage, as in The Real Subject, and the kind of heightened, reflective lyricism one sees in Transcendental Studies. In The Real Subject, for example, Waldrop follows a whimsical conjecture (“Asked to explain why the hands come back to where they started, his mind wanders to the islands of an archipelago”) with a lyrical reverie that extends from the word “archipelago.” The poet, in effect, has translated himself, offering both verse and commentary.
These two later works — Transcendental Studies, which won the National Book Award in 2009, and 2004’s The Real Subject — are sustained achievements, which show that while Waldrop’s themes and interests have been consistent since the 1960s, his formal explorations have deepened their consequence and scope; the excerpts in Selected Poems should inspire readers to seek the full collections. Especially because it includes the light verse from Songs from the Decline of the West, this volume’s consistency of vision across distinct formal modes brings to mind the poet who might be Waldrop’s closest forebear from that generation of “liquor and analysis”: the mid-century Romantic poet of psychological ecology, Theodore Roethke. In The Real Subject,the breezy metaphysics of Waldrop’s alter ego Jacob Delafon (the fixtures made by the French company Jacob Delafon have, as Waldrop sometimes delights in, application in the bathroom) can recall Roethke in his joshingly elegant mode, if one grants that “all connections (all)” can connect (41). Here’s Roethke, from “The Pure Fury”:
The pure admire the pure, and live alone;
I love a woman with an empty face.
Parmenides put Nothingness in place;
She tries to think, and it flies loose again.
How slow the changes of a golden mean:
Great Boehme rooted all in Yes and No;
At times my darling squeaks in pure Plato.
And here’s Waldrop, from The Real Subject, in a different idiom but with a similar lightness in his combination of stagey comedy and stately romance, in his romantic clown’s regard for intelligent non sequitur:
Jane Floodcab, finding Jacob, as is not infrequent, preoccupied, is wont to fling herself at him, crying out,
“Here I come, body or not.” (295)
The resemblance gains prosodic kinship in moments of Transcendental Studies, which, like much of Roethke’s work, enacts a kind of quest that roots the haunting reverberations of memory in a landscape that is at once alienating and absorbing; that description could apply to the defamiliarized familiarity one sees throughout Waldrop’s poetry, as in a phrase like “silhouette of the bridge,” the title of a long poem (how can we tell the bridge from its silhouette?). Here’s Roethke, from “The Rose”:
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.
And here’s Waldrop, speaking as though near a “lavish” void (293), with a similar meditative lilt, a similar stunned regard for what’s most essential to one’s articulation:
Somewhere in my life, there
must have been — buried now under
long accumulation — some extreme
joy which, never spoken, cannot
be brought to mind. How else, in this
unconscious city, could I have
such a sense of dwelling? (295)
That last line, perhaps, suggests that the common ancestor of both poets may, at times, be Wordsworth, though many longtime readers of Waldrop might object to subsuming his work into an Anglophone canon. Still, Waldrop’s question can be seen as a response to the query from early in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, “What dwelling shall receive me?” We should hope to achieve, Waldrop suggests, only a “sense of dwelling,” not through accumulating experiences that we can later recollect and report but through intimations that “cannot / be brought to mind,” though we know that they occurred, and mattered; the action of recollection remains, without object. Perhaps this type of objectless recollection lets one become more fully tuned to unknowing, or to knowing more closely the signs of life’s “long accumulation.” Connecting song’s functions to memory’s in another poem, Waldrop evokes going “down to the / water bringing / nothing back” (172). Selected Poems is important evidence of what a long life in poetry, in which “nothing could / possibly be out of the question” (18) because the key questions concern the nature of nothingness itself, can actively bring us back from the waters where nothingness lives, thus bringing that nothingness to life.