March 18, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Carl Phillips’ Laurels

The last two pieces of the upcoming Spring issue of the Kenyon Review are excellent essays about poetry: one is a roundup review written by David Wojahn about recent selected poem collections from Albert Goldbarth, Bruce Beasley, Carl Phillips and Ellen Bryant Voigt. The other is an extremely in-depth and thought-provoking piece by William Wenthe about the use of the sentence in poetry. I’m still digesting the latter essay, so I hope to say something about it next week.

For now I’d like to respond to Wojahn’s take on Phillips’ selected poems titled Quiver of Arrows. Wojahn’s review is mostly positive, and rightly points to Phillips’ deft use of syntax as the centerpiece of his later style. I say “later” style because Phillips turned a formal corner in his fifth book The Tether and his following two books have displayed a similar set of technical characteristics. Short lines, heavy enjambment and above all, the complex syntax that enacts the mind’s processes when trying to grapple with the difficulties of sex, loss and God–these are the trademarks of Phillips’ later books.

Towards the end of Wojahn’s discussion of Phillips, he wonders whether or not Phillips is taking this later style for granted. In other words, has Phillips decided that he has found a formula for a poem that works and is willing to write that same poem again and again? Wojahn does not accuse Phillips of falling into this stylistic complacency, but he does point out that this could be a danger for him.

Let’s face it: there are very famous poets in this country (I have my list and you probably have yours) who seem to have cashed their chips in and are content to write poems in their signature style for the rest of their lives. Of course, resting on one’s laurels is no new phenomenon in any stage of any genre of literature ever. In fact, rare is the poet who is still adding to his or her repertoire at the late stages of their career. But shouldn’t we demand this of our poets? Especially our great poets? Or can we as readers put aside our what-have-you-done-for-me-latelyism if the signature poem that the poet is writing over and over again is really good?

I personally have to say no to that last question. I feel like Pound’s “Make it new” is an inescapable standard for any writer at any stage of their career. And I believe that Phillips is living up to that standard. While the books The Tether, Rock Harbor and The Rest of Love certainly share many technical and thematic similarities and could possibly be seen in years to come to make up the second stage of his career, Phillips has already taken a large step away from those books in his latest collection Riding Westward. This book, not included in the selected poems Wojahn reviews so perhaps beyond the scope of his comments, is playing by a new set of formal rules. It shows Phillips working in a more expansive line and fuller stanzaic structures, as opposed to the spindlier, white-space-filled poems of the previous three books. Also, in terms of the gestures that cause the drama in his poems, and this is where Wojahn is most concerned that Phillips could fall into mimicking himself, Riding Westward seems like new territory. Wojahn points to a mixture of the elegiac and the quotidian that tends to propel the poems, and while the same can be said of many of the poems in Riding Westward, there is also a new voice, one that is more concerned with age than with desire. There is an element of a life taking stock of itself in many of these poems that strikes me as a new theme for Phillips. Poems like “Falling,” “Sea Glass,” “Stardust,” “Sweat-to-God” and “Turning West” all in some way consider how to assess one’s personal history.

Could this mark another new phase of Phillips’ poetry? If this does not, I still believe there will be a third stage, and a fourth and a fifth, etc. I think that a poet as willing to interrogate himself as Phillips has shown himself to be can’t do otherwise.