The Argument for Silence:
Defining The Poet Peter Principle

How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem, Part III

Silence of the Iambs

Essay #1: "On The Prosing of Poetry"
Essay #2: "I=N=C=H=O=R=E=N=C=E"


James Tate:
The Lost Pilot

Philip Levine:

Animals are Passing From Our Lives

They Feed They Lion      
The Return

Mary Oliver:


Like a religious order, but without the religion, poets are fueled by deep connections to the ineffable, an inner silence. Their tendency toward introspection and close observation, coupled with an almost physiological need for reverie is, by necessity, held in suspension by the tasks and concerns of daily life. Retreats like Yaddo and MacDowell exist as evidence of the need for a place for poets to go and replenish, but such places also implicitly expect them to produce something. The only real retreat for some unfortunate poets has been in a hospital, where nothing at all is expected except getting well. Can’t poets take a break?

The tension between ‘career’ and ‘vocation’ in poetry is nowhere more obvious than in academia where poets take a sabbatical in order to write poetry, but never take a sabbatical from writing poetry. I believe that a certain variety of established poet, perhaps those with a substantial number of books, would benefit greatly from a poetry sabbatical. There is evidence of a need for poetic silence all around us. We see it every time we read a denatured poem by a renowned poet, usually in a renowned publication; evidence that the enabling editors of such publications have failed in their duty to enforce last call.

For example, poets James Tate, Philip Levine and Mary Oliver have each produced more than 16 books of poetry. Whatever has driven this production, it is clear from the trajectory of all three poets that something must stop it. In all three cases, a windiness, a wordiness, a kind of poetic logorrhea can be found in their latest work in contrast to the fire and compression in their early work. Flatlined, barely pulsing, their latest work is being kept alive by extraordinary means: the artificial resuscitation of continuous publication.

Are poets afflicted with the same burn-out syndrome as their corporate counterparts? The same laziness as their successful bourgeois pals? Can they reach their poetic Peter Principle? I say yes. Take Tate. His early work was nothing if not passionate and inventive. His voice was both fantastical and lyrical, putting us deftly into a dream of life that was realer than life in its portents, regrets and tragic humor. For example, this excerpt is from the title poem of his first book:

The Lost Pilot

for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him

yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare

as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot

like the others--it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their

distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive

orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,

with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested

scholar touches an original page.


The amazing image of the dead father, orbiting like a cast-off god, the surrealism of the son’s imaginings and his enormous yearning for the father, the control of emotion and deft line breaks—all of these qualities stand in contrast to Tate’s offering from the latest issue (#53) of Agni:

The Florist

I realized Mother’s Day was just two days
Away, so I went into the florist and said, “I’d
Like to send my mother a dozen long-stem red
Roses.” The guy looked at me and said, “My mother’s
Dead.” I thought this was highly unprofessional
Of him, so I said, “How much would that be?” He
Wiped his eyes and said, “Oh, that’s all right. I’m
Over it, really. She never loved me anyway, so why
Should I grieve.” “Can they be delivered by Thursday?”
I inquired. “She hated flowers,” he said. “I’ve
Never known a woman to hate flowers the way she did.
She wanted me to be a dentist, like her father.
Can you imagine that, torturing people all day.
Instead, I give them pleasure. She disowned me,
Really. And yet I miss her,” and then he started
Crying again. I gave him my handkerchief and he
Blew his nose heartily into it. My annoyance had
Given way to genuine pity. This guy was a mess.
I didn’t know what to do. Finally I said, “Listen,
Why don’t you send a dozen roses to my mother. You
Can tell her you are a friend of mine. My mother
Loves flowers, and she’ll love you for sending them
To her.” He stopped crying and scowled at me. “Is
This some kind of trick? A trap or something, to
Get me tied up in a whole other mother thing, because
If it is, I mean, I just got rid of one, and I can’t
Take it, another I mean, I’m not as strong as I
Appear…” “Forget it,” I said, “it was a bad idea,
And I’m certainly not sending my mother any flowers
This year, that too was a bad idea. Will you be
all right if I leave now, I have other errands, but
if you need me I can stay.” “Yes, if you could stay
with me a while. My name is Skeeter and Mother’s
Day is always such a trial for me. I miss her more
Every passing day,” he said. And so we sat there
Holding hands for an hour or so, and then I was on
My way to the cleaners, the bank and the gas station.

This piece is representative of work showing up nowadays by Tate: annecdotal, prosey, and obviously tossed-off. The wry humor is a small echo from his past work and does little to compensate for the loss of passion, surrealistic flights of fancy, dark and powerful humor and language compression of his first books.

Joan Houlihan is a poet-essayist who lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in such publications as Gettysburg Review and Harvard Review. A mini-chap of Joan's work is found at:
Web Del Sol.

Yet, Tate continues to produce and editors continue to publish what he sends as if nothing’s wrong. But something is wrong. There is a marked deterioration in quality. When it began or why it began is not as important as why it continues to be published. Are editors simply skipping the part where they evaluate the poem? Since editors enable Tate’s current output by continuing to publish anything he writes no matter what the quality, he needs to stop sending his work out. He has now published enough books and enough poems in journals and magazines to satisfy his readership and to ensure a legacy, a place in the “canon.” Now he needs to be quiet before he becomes the dinner guest who has too much to drink and won’t stop talking. Our attention has waned, because his attention has waned. Soon, we will all need to go home. I suggest he precede us.

Philip Levine began his poetic career with poems of such passion, social consciousness and tender lyrical portaiture that it is painful to read his tepid imitations of himself. With the brilliance of “Animals are Passing From Our lives” and “They Feed they Lion” still present in our consciousness of contemporary poetry, it creates a cognitive dissonance in us to read his latest work, like this one, excerpted from his most recent collection, The Mercy:

The Return

All afternoon my father drove the country roads
between Detroit and Lansing. What he was looking for
I never learned, no doubt because he never knew himself,
though he would grab any unfamiliar side road
and follow where it led past fields of tall sweet corn
in August or in winter those of frozen sheaves.
Often he'd leave the Terraplane beside the highway
to enter the stunned silence of mid-September,
his eyes cast down for a sign, the only music
his own breath or the wind tracking slowly through
the stalks or riding above the barren ground. Later
he'd come home, his dress shoes coated with dust or mud,
his long black overcoat stained or tattered
at the hem, sit wordless in his favorite chair,
his necktie loosened, and stare at nothing. At first
my brothers and I tried conversation, questions
only he could answer: Why had he gone to war?
Where did he learn Arabic? Where was his father?
I remember none of this. I read it all later,
years later as an old man, a grandfather myself,
in a journal he left my mother with little drawings
of ruined barns and telephone poles, receding
toward a future he never lived, aphorisms
from Montaigne, Juvenal, Voltaire, and perhaps a few
of his own: "He who looks for answers finds questions."
Three times he wrote, "I was meant to be someone else,"
and went on to describe the perfumes of the damp fields.
"It all starts with seeds," and a pencil drawing
of young apple trees he saw somewhere or else dreamed.
I inherited the book when I was almost seventy,
and with it the need to return to who we were.
In the Detroit airport I rented a Taurus;
the woman at the counter was bored or crazy:
Did I want company? she asked; she knew every road
from here to Chicago. She had a slight accent,
Dutch or German, long black hair, and one frozen eye.
I considered but decided to go alone,
determined to find what he had never found.

Levine needs to put the paragraphs back into his writing and market this kind of piece as a memoir. His output now consists of stories and remembrances, and, while lovely, touching, even poetic, these pieces are being misrepresented as poems.

Our attention has waned because his attention has waned. Soon, we will all need to go home. I suggest he precede us.

Levine has reached his peak, has received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has mastered the combination of social consciousness and poetic sensibility, given us jolts of beauty mixed with outrage and compassion. Many of his poems will surely be remembered and studied by future generations. He can take a break now. But who will let him know it’s OK to find his silence, to replenish his poetic voice, to change, or even to stop—if not writing, then at least publishing? Probably no one.

The case of Mary Oliver is a bit different in that her poetry hasn’t changed much in its quality; it began and continues in the same medium-register with the same nature themes and techniques, the same “inspirational” philosophy. The poems are competent, well-made and full of “beautiful thoughts.” Unfortunately, as in the previous examples, she shows no sign of letting up after more 16 volumes of poetry, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Lannan Literary Award, and the New England Book Award for Literary Excellence. In her earlier work there is some attempt at compression and close poetic observation as in this very popular, much published poem from Dream Work, published in 1986:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Here are the elements that will re-appear, over and over again in Oliver’s work, the bird(s) or beast(s) that represent the poet’s spirit/self; the plain-spoken images, the conversational, intimate tone, the good-to-the-last-drop spoonful of life’s medicine, cherry-flavored so it goes down easy. I predict that this particular poem will become our next “Desiderata” a framed version of which will be read and pondered from many a middle-class toilet seat. The main virtue of “Wild Geese” and of Oliver’s earlier work is its brevity. In her later work, while never departing from her new-age bromides, Oliver finds it necessary to say the same things with even more words, as if her stature demands a higher and higher word-count. Here, a few excerpts from the interminable poem Flare, illustrates the point:



Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.
It is not the sunrise,
which is a red rinse,
which is flaring all over the eastern sky;
it is not the rain falling out of the purse of God;
it is not the blue helmet of the sky afterward,
or the trees, or the beetle burrowing into the earth;
it is not the mockingbird who, in his own cadence,
will go on sizzling and clapping
from the branches of the catalpa that are thick with blossoms,
that are billowing and shining,
that are shaking in the wind.


You still recall, sometimes, the old barn on your great-grandfather's farm, a place you visited once,
and went into, all alone, while the grownups sat and talked in the house.

It was empty, or almost. Wisps of hay covered the floor, and some wasps sang at the windows, and maybe there was
a strange fluttering bird high above, disturbed, hoo-ing a little and staring down from a messy ledge with wild,
binocular eyes.

Mostly, though, it smelled of milk, and the patience of animals; the give-offs of the body were still in the air, a vague
ammonia, not unpleasant.

Mostly, though, it was restful and secret, the roof high up and arched, the boards unpainted and plain.

You could have stayed there forever, a small child in a corner, on the last raft of hay, dazzled by so much space that
seemed empty, but wasn't.

Then—you still remember—you felt the rap of hunger—it was noon—and you turned from that twilight dream and
hurried back to the house, where the table was set, where an uncle patted you on the shoulder for welcome, and
there was your place at the table.


Nothing lasts.
There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,

I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.


I bury her
in a box
in the earth
and turn away.
My father
was a demon of frustrated dreams,
was a breaker of trust,
was a poor, thin boy with bad luck.
He followed God, there being no one else
he could talk to;
he swaggered before God, there being no one else
who would listen.
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.


Did you know that the ant has a tongue
with which to gather in all that it can
of sweetness?
Did you know that?


there was no barn.
No child in the barn.
No uncle no table no kitchen.
Only a long lovely field full of bobolinks.


When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn't long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.

In this one we find a lobotomized Theodre Roethke, William Stafford afflicted with a bad case of speechifying, and Kahil Gibran weeping by a toadstool. Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.

With the market for poetry so narrow, the poetry prizes so sparse, the audience for poetry so small, and the number of new and talented poets so large, I wonder why quality of work is not more of a criterion for publication.

...this particular poem will become our next “Desiderata”, a framed version of which will be read and pondered from many a middle-class toilet seat.

Why do poets who have published 16 books and counting, who have won major prizes and firmly established their reputations, continue to be published as their work deteriorates? Are we witnessing the poetic equivalent to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with our celebrity poets shuffling through their lines, turning their early achievement into a parody of itself? The celebrity actors do it for money. But what keeps the celebrity poet publishing? We can guess what keeps the editors publishing them: name-brand recognition. We can guess what keeps the public buying their books: name-brand recognition. We can guess to whom emerging poets look when learning their craft: name-brand models. And so we have a cycle that is ultimately destructive to poetry itself: Escher-like, the copiers copy the copiers, each generation producing worse poetry until the poetic landscape is filled with a lurching multitude of poet-steins. Soon angry readers will be pursuing with torches and pitchforks.

These well-established poets are long overdue to either take a break from writing, or to write purely for their own satisfaction—if they can remember when that was enough—and to stop crowding an already over-crowded poetry marketplace. They can also take on more of a role nurturing young talent. The gatekeepers and tastemakers have failed to stop the cycle of devolution. It’s up to the poets themselves.

                                                                                          [copyright 2001, Joan Houlihan]

Mail to Joan Houlihan

Return to Essays