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Pulitzer vs. Penguin

Mark Strand's latest collection drives another nail in the coffin of contemporary poetry.

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Man and Camel | Mark Strand (Knopf)

Your Personal Penguin | Sandra Boynton (Workman)

"Our skills are limited, our power / to imagine enfeebled." That's Mark Strand in his newest volume of poetry, Man and Camel, and, at least as far as his own work is concerned, it's hard to argue. The poverty of imagination on display would almost seem parodic if there were any indication that Strand had a sense of humor. Several poems in a row end with journeys to the sea. (From "Storm": "'To the sea,' I whispered, and off we went"; from "Conversation": "All roads lead to the malodorous sea"; from "Afterwords": "a river of old people with canes and flashlights were inching their way down through the dark to the sea.") Others conclude with lame evocations of nonbeing, as if by heavily dropping the word "nothing" Strand has excused himself from coming up with a point.

Not that that's so surprising. Strand--a Pulitzer winner and onetime U.S. poet laureate--is a self-conscious postmodernist. In the context of poetry that means he eschews the strident bombast of the beats, instead choosing a self-referential aridity. A perfect example is the volume's nadir, the presumptuous "Moon." This is a less skillful retread of one of Strand's more anthologized efforts, "The Prediction," and like the earlier poem, "Moon" is obsessively about itself.

"Open the book of evening to the page / where the moon, always the moon appears," Strand begins, and goes on to praise the beauty of the moon--and, by implication, of this poem itself. At the end Strand tells us to "close the book, still feeling what it was like / To dwell in that light, that sudden paradise of sound." In other words, dear reader, please stand in wordless awe before the wonder that is this poem. It's like the marketing blurbs have somehow crawled off the back cover and infested the text.

The phrase "paradise of sound" is particularly ill chosen given Strand's apparent indifference to a range of poetic techniques, from rhyme and rhythm to alliteration and assonance. Even his line breaks appear random. In "Mirror," for example, he writes: We were drinking whiskey and some of us, feeling no pain, were trying to decide what precise shade of yellow the setting sun turned our drinks.

Why break after "whiskey"? Why after "decide"? In fact, why chop this up at all? This isn't some exuberant, Whitmanesque overflow of form, or an Eliot-like manipulation of blank verse, or even some compact winnowing away of excess words, a la Robert Creeley. This is simply prose--and lousy prose at that, built as it is around the cliched "feeling no pain" and the even more cliched image of drinking whiskey while the sun sets.

In one poem in the volume, Strand encounters a pair of horses and imagines breathlessly that "They might have even read my poems..." You wish, dude. The one saving grace of contemporary poetry is that virtually nobody--hoofed or otherwise--reads the stuff. Strand's about as famous as a poet can get and, as of this writing, he can't even inspire more than two reader comments on Amazon. There's also a hagiographic blurb by fellow heavyweight Richard Howard on the same site; outside of that, I couldn't find a single independent review online.

But though people may be indifferent to poets, they still love verse. Any day you can hear kids reciting hip-hop lyrics from memory. And, of course, there are children's books. One of the most popular and inventive creators of these is Sandra Boynton, who's penned more than 40 and this past month released her latest, the board book Your Personal Penguin.

It's not her best effort--that would be her debut, Hippos Go Berserk, with its deliriously multiplying ungulates. And even at the top of her game, Boynton lacks the sense of fear or violence or mystery that distinguishes the best children's authors--Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Maurice Sendak, even Margaret Wise Brown. But Your Personal Penguin does have a pleasant, singsong rhythm--"I want to be your personal penguin / I want to walk right by your side / I want to be your personal penguin / I want to travel with you far and wide"--and it is genuinely, rather than ploddingly, whimsical. A flightless waterfowl desperate for love is a pretty entertaining idea to begin with, and it's fun to watch the bird pursue the object of its affection, a hippo, from Italian restaurant to canoe to pajama party. The project may be a bit Bloom County-esque, but one picture of the hippo and the penguin looking startled as they sit together in a balloon is worth about a million volumes of Strand's verse.

No doubt some people will accuse me of comparing apples and plastic dog turds: children's poetry and contemporary academic poetry have neither aims nor audience in common. But this wasn't always the case. Paradise Lost doesn't sound much like a nursery rhyme, but plenty of other canonical works do. Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" is one obvious example, as is Christopher Smart's "On His Cat Jeoffrey," William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and anything by Rudyard Kipling or Stevie Smith. Wallace Stevens wrote profound stanzas like "Tum-ti-tum, / Ti-tum-tum-tum! / The turkey-cock's tail / spreads to the sun." Even T.S. Eliot leavened his forbidding modernism with doggerel ("In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo"). Lilting whimsy is one of our language's great poetic resources. Yet Strand and academic peers like Susan Howe and Robert Hass have pretty much abandoned it.

It's instructive to turn to Rembrandt Takes a Walk, a 1987 children's book written by none other than Mark Strand. The book (in prose) is probably the dullest children's story I've ever read that did not feature Thomas the Tank Engine. The story involves Tom, whose uncle owns a Rembrandt self-portrait. The picture comes alive, Rembrandt breaks free, and some limited high jinks ensue. Rembrandt really likes to draw, it turns out, and he runs around sketching things as Tom tries to get him back in the painting. The book seems primarily designed to convince young readers that High Art is Fun, and a stifling air of uplift hangs over the entire endeavor. Strand may be trying to imitate Roald Dahl, but he can't loosen up enough to do it right and so settles for creating a vaguely absurdist after-school special.

Even when supposedly writing for kids, Strand sounds like he's writing for a grant committee--grant committees having become the main audience for contemporary poetry. For Strand and his ilk the game seems to be not to interest or enlighten, but simply to get declared a genius by the MacArthur Foundation. No one thinks Boynton's a genius, but she is a skillful and entertaining writer. Too bad you can't say the same about Strand.

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