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A Fresh Look at How Poets Evolve Over the Course of a Career

Category: Art & Culture,Books

WE BEGIN IN GLADNESS
How Poets Progress
By Craig Morgan Teicher
164 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

The title of Craig Morgan Teicher’s new book, “We Begin in Gladness,” comes from a poem by William Wordsworth: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” These lines have come to embody a cliché about poets’ downward emotional trajectories over the course of their careers, as if, writes Teicher, himself an accomplished poet, “writing poems and looking too long at the trials of the human mind and heart in a troubled world beckon poets to their undoing.” He acknowledges the great poets of the last century who “met terrible ends” at the mercy of deteriorating mental health (among them Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman), but insists, quoting the critic Joan Acocella, that “it is a species of sentimentality to think that the end of something tells the truth about it.” Teicher proposes a well-reasoned alternative: to read poets not so much by their experiences but by the evolution of their words — “by their journeys, by how their art grew and changed over the course of their writing lives.”

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In this thoughtful book, he does just that, contemplating a range of poets, from Plath (whose work he wants to rescue from the retrospective weight of her suicide) to francine j. harris (whose experimental verse, often about racism and her life in Detroit, frequently avoids conventions of grammar and punctuation and can have an improvised feel). Early on, Teicher declares that to truly understand poets’ work, we need to “become them, or, more impossibly, to have been them.” He has to settle for less intimate modes of comprehension, including, for instance, the concept of “apprenticeship,” which provides a useful lens for considering questions of influence and transformation. Teicher frames the experimental poet Brenda Hillman’s forays into Gnostic philosophy — an ancient mystical tradition within Christianity — as the impetus for a poetic breakthrough that allowed her to become “the metaphysical poet she was striving to be, and also to think deeply about the relationship between the realms of imagination and of experience.” And he excavates the collision of influences in W. S. Merwin’s work, which range from ancient Chinese poetry to Pre-Raphaelite painting and culminate in the masterly late poems of “The Shadow of Sirius,” a meditation on the nature of time. “Merwin locates himself in an ongoing stream of losses,” Teicher observes, taking “a wide view of time, the kind of wide view one would need a lifetime to take.”

Teicher perceptively identifies the philosophical undercurrents in much of 20th- and 21st-century poetry and highlights important patterns of poetic influence. Yet he tends to neglect another key part of any poet’s development: the awakening of his or her political sensibility. He overlooks, for example, the fact that for poets like Plath and Louise Glück and Susan Wheeler, inhabiting — and substantively revising — a predominantly masculine creative tradition was itself a political act. For francine j. harris, politics are inextricable from her work’s philosophical concerns. Since the publication of her first book, “allegiance,” harris has been praised for her attention to (and criticism of) the aesthetics of violation. In her poem “katherine with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet,” she writes in the voice of a young woman addressing an acquaintance — a fellow poet — who has been found dead: “i didn’t like you. this is the first i remembered your name.”


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