I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.

Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.

Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”

Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.

(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)


This will play right into Obama’s hands. Humanitarian, compassionate. They’ll use this
to, to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community, the both
light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in, in this country. It’s made-to-order
for him. That’s why he couldn’t wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there.

                                                                                     –Rush Limbaugh

A man carries on in the ruins, carries an old woman
Clear of the broken stone, everything broken,
The world indescribable simply because it’s smashed
Beyond recognition. We talk
Of magnitude–well, on the scale of misery this weighs
More than everyone’s imagination. The world comes
Down to this, comes down like building blocks,
The camera closing in
Until you only see his face.

We keep expecting that other aftershock
We hope will cause the right stone to break
And with a softer resonance as from a body
Trembling joyfully, all by itself,
Because a black president
Is more an event than a man, belongs
To the simple facts we gather together
And call a world.
                                        We stand poised, greased and waiting
To leap headfirst into the waters
Of change, which are warm like the Caribbean
Though we know the help will be tepid,
Less than close to enough because of pictures
Like this, the people in them who didn’t choose to be,
Who lack the luxury to decide whether they care
For the color scheme.
                                                 But still they visit
The television that is our president,
Always alone or in groups still small enough
To distinguish those in them
Which is how survival happens, even triumph.

So he appears wretched and still humbly, oddly proud
Carrying his wounded neighbor
Like something essential, bond receipts, a television,
A pail of food, or water
As in that painting by Lois Mailou Jones
She called The Water Carriers,
Too few pipes after all, too little cultivation
On the little voodoo island
That bears the brunt of our curses
Because it freed itself. Jones carried herself
Like water, entered contests anonymous
As water so they wouldn’t know
She was black.
                                   Her painting doesn’t show you
The river, not even the little bit by her side,
Just a bright hat and a face that resembles hers
And ours. Some day there will be people like that
On Haiti, people whose misfortune will move
All of us like the earth. Everyone will act
Indifferent as a river, which can’t tell its own
Smooth stones from a hand or a mouth.

                                                          —David Moolten

Kid’s bangs blending with tall grass, we watched
Them cross the lot, some stumbling already, brush
Aside the door, entering a place that wanted
No part of us. What went on in there?
We wondered and wished we could know and better
Than know. The red slab swung wide then slammed,
And like the little match girl’s lit up reverie
We glimpsed them, wide backs inert as stone, each bent
Like Rodin’s Thinker, mesmerized by a glass.
We giggled like girls with our Vienna voices,
Like bells at an even greater distance
And Sibby shifted on his groaning high chair
And shouted wide mouthed and generous as a man
Could afford to be with adversaries that small.
What went on in there? The fact was we had
The facts, and they made no sense like the sounds
From a piano when you bang on it
Because you’ve heard the music pour and hate
That you can’t make it. Once in the lull before
The factories emptied he played baseball cards
By our rules, matching color or team,
Winner take all, Sibby like a human
Cerberus, one thick-necked dog face enough.
The only time he let us in the place
Hadn’t opened, a barren marvel, the mopped
Still spotted floor light flung itself across,
The damp bar filling the room like that table
In the butcher shop where they divvied up
What we would never have recognized
In the soft white paper our mothers brought home.
That was the summer he flew to Saigon,
The summer at a clam bake in Maine
I sipped my father’s beer, because he let me
And because I wanted to more than anything,
Took the bitter plunge, just so I could say I did.

                                                          —David Moolten

When I get off the phone with my wife I think
Of DNA, the great lengths that don’t matter,
That even its magniloquent scholars call “junk,”
So much that if you listened to the language
Of life you’d hear the ums between words, confabulation,
What we say when we’ve nothing to say,
As when she calls at lunch and asks How are things?
And I claim, Fine, as I would with the building
In flames. We ping pong pleasantries for five minutes
Then I return to putting out the day’s fires
Only now pondering lives we spend mostly
Apart just to make enough to have a life,
Something like divorce with marriage spliced in
Mornings and nights. I.e. she’s a stranger
And how do I know she’s not disbursing government
Secrets in coded want ads, begging exegesis
From her cult’s high priest, or running a house
Of ill repute by the shipyard? Mingling
Our loose strands, we become a stranger strangeness
Though scientists have begun to guess
At the hidden purpose in those stretches
Of fallow chromosome they also call introns,
A refreshingly arcane and important name
I attach to this break I take from a day
That started as the pieces we call hours
And put together by staying whole. The part
Where the phone rings isn’t the story’s moral,
Just abiding distraction, as if Sisyphus let go
Of the stone whose rolling went unnoticed
As he flipped open his cell and told his wife
What would bore anyone else, scientists
For instance studying mating rituals in fruit flies,
Or G-men eavesdropping through a wall.
But such twaddle sufficiently scrutinized turns out
To be a cipher for life, itself the redundant
Though universal meaning, as if at the most
Intimate level, nothing is everything.

                                                          —David Moolten

They tell you with their stark solitudinous eyes
How much he loved them, women of all kinds,
Black haired, blondes, brunettes, redheads, how much he loved
To stare at them, paint them, take them to bed,
So many nights to make wet with absinthe,
So many colleagues in vice, models
Of dissipation strewn across rumpled linen,
Real women with hair in their armpits
And generous pubes, getting up to casually piss,
Cantilevering a coy hand against a door frame
As they smoked. Even Jeanne who backed out
A window for him or Anna who shared
His brilliance, or any he painted and fucked,
Fucked and painted, scolded, mocked, their outrageous
Perfection sincere artifice like his weeping,
His self-cursed efforts to reform, kindle
A family, shouting Dante in the alleys
As bacilli roamed his brain. Their eyes say love,
But you know it was sex, and more sex, sex
Sometimes maybe as preamble to love, but sex
In the meantime, a binge of the dark other,
The handsome taboo, poor man, sybarite, Jew.
They did it for him. They said schtupping
Let him paint, relieved him of small frustrations,
No clothes, no heat, no food, and torrid rows,
Fought fire with fire, four, five times a day
Because he was obsessed and they were satisfied
Only a short while, spoiled, used to it,
Even the whores taking care of him for free.
It was unabashed madness, all wrong with all,
And if he’d lived he’d never have lasted.
He had to succumb to filth just to keep
His romantic reputation. He spread beauty’s legs
To bless it, sacrificed himself for the sake
Of creation like Dionysus, became with each nude
Dumb cliche, a shooting star, a fresh cut rose,
A pig in her mud, and out of unctuous sweat,
Those indiscriminate moans came not art but death,
And like a lover who wades into pants as
He lets the door click shut, he was gone, his scent,
His voice, his hopes. The paintings stand on their own.

                                                          —David Moolten

The roses which bow from a tabletop vase
Remain fake, and the woman searches
Her daughter’s face with the same foreboding
As when she left, detesting that cold smile,
All his. Untouched, the girl hums floating past her,
And she barely has the power to control herself,
Not ask how many bottles, and if he’s lying
About overtime at the plant, still
Seeing that dancer. The lawyer’s fought to end
Visitation, but it’s near impossible in this state.
So off the girl goes each Saturday to a man
So low he has a scar inked in his back
Of a woman going down on a thunderbolt,
No regard for boundaries. But the myth
That a child could feel so needy she’d snack
On the food of hell, well it fits here, snug
As the peeled rind of her jeans, and her father
While innocent of that, doesn’t give a damn
About her, just violating the woman
By remote control, even lost to the world
Her daughter still inside her, brutal
As the brutalized become, deflowered from the roots.
She doesn’t lust after men or fruit,
But satisfaction, simple and raw, the malicious joy
In dominating someone. She’s half his after all,
These her inscrutable depths, her inherited future,
Her nurse’s aide mother affectionate and loyal,
Such her principal flaws, and that she fell
For a jerk like him, let him tempt her, the myth
That there is one myth, one woman, one tragic scene,
When the partaking is constant, desire to hold,
To have, to govern, to break free, to understand…
There are over 600 seeds in a pomegranate,
Not enough to account for all the ways she gives
In to stupid want, the girl just one more.

                                                          —David Moolten

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

Thus begins one of my favorite poems, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. If there is verse that more honestly, more painfully expresses gratitude for love, I don’t know it. Writing these lines, Hayden makes nothing up. He goes simply and directly to his own experience. But this isn’t a “confessional poem” in any meaningful sense, despite its reporting from life. He doesn’t sensationalize or complain. He simply tells.

then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.

The poem is autobiographical but it’s not really about him. It’s about his father, one of those stern working class men uncomfortable to be around who had a thousand expectations, pointed out every shortcoming, and never said, “I love you,” not even once. The flames that heat the house, stoked before the speaker wakes, reflect the daily duty of the unsung founder going on even when he’s not at work, blissfully absent.

                                                           No one ever thanked him.

These are the kind of hands that run furnaces in the basements of buildings, or in the cavernous windowless spaces of factories and mills, but also invisibly provide the ambient passion that holds the family together. The hearth is the heart of the house and its consumptive burning that demands constant fuel is the patriarchal lineage of perseverance and commitment.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

In a family like this, a mother’s love— implicit here, though never mentioned—is abundant and easily acknowledged despite the meager circumstances. But a father’s love is more taciturn and tenuous, subtle, perhaps even denied as somehow unmanly by both father and son.

and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Hayden didn’t have it easy, growing up poor in Detroit. He resented his father’s failure to give them more or better, and he lived afraid of the dissatisfaction and repressed rage that such inadequacy left just beneath the surface of the day to day. In every room, at every meal, in every forced proximity lay the chance that silence would blaze into conflagration.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.

Yet at the end of the day, Hayden had a house, food on the table, a kind mother and an honorable father, who laid down his life year after year to give his son life. It was that man, not some other, who stuck around to raise him up into a decent human being. To paraphrase James Wright, this wasn’t a good home, it was a home, and that was enough.

What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

It was Hayden the man not the child, who too late as is often the case, understood he owed his imperfect father everything, and with these humble words repaid him.