There has been a great deal of talk lately about a rebirth of formal poetry. Over the past two years the literary press has singled out several young poets with particular praise for their command of traditional technique. Meanwhile, several older poets like John Fredrick Nims and George Starbuck—formerly poetae non grati—have reissued their out-of-print work to generally favorable reviews. Rhymed poems have begun to reappear in all the wrong magazines, and (as always happens during the revolution) the recent past is being subtly rewritten by the new conspirators, with the reputations of once neglected formal poets like Edward Thomas, Louise Bogan, and even Roy Campbell being reviewed.
The most unusual of the younger formal poets is probably Tom Disch, whose third and best collection, Burn This, has just appeared in London. Although Disch is well known in this country as a science-fiction writer, only one volume of his poetry has been published here (and that one by an Iowa fine press in a limited edition). Disch’s lack of acceptance in the poetry world is not altogether surprising, however. Genre writers with serious ambitions are viewed with extreme suspicion and condescension by the literary establishment.
As if his literary credentials weren’t dubious enough already, Disch’s poetry is as unusual as his background. One could virtually use Burn This to define the current mainstream of contemporary poetry dialectically through its opposites, so consistently antithetical is its approach from contemporary practice. Disch is concerned primarily with ideas not emotions (the free play of ideas, that is, not any particular ideology). His subjects are rarely personal, except insofar as Disch represents himself as what Auden once called the “average thinking man.” He therefore cultivates a general rather than a private voice. His tone is cosmopolitan and public rather than intimate and sincere. The structure of his poems more often depends on the logical progression of his ideas than on the associational links of his images. His natural manner is witty and discursive, not serious and lyrical. Most of his poems fall into traditional forms and genres, not the preferred nonce forms of contemporary poetics (when he does adopt the forms of contemporary poetry, it is almost always for parody). And, most amazingly, one gathers in reading him that Disch is more interested in writing verse than poetry (though there is certainly no surer way to good poetry than to begin by producing good verse). In short, Disch is every bit at one with his age as John Dryden would be in a surrealist café.
Like most good verse, the poems in Burn This have the virtues of clarity, grace, wit, and intelligence. Poetry may prosper in an atmosphere of dark and subjective innocence, but verse needs the informed perspective of maturity. Reading through this book, one experiences a type of pleasure that is unusual for a book of poems. One enjoys what is being said as much as how it is being said. There is real paraphrasable substance in these poems, and the flow of ideas is never predictable. Disch has not only a first-class mind but also a highly original one. One sees this originality most clearly when he discusses literature—and indeed fully half the poems in this volume directly concern literature and the imagination. Poetry about literature, especially poems about writing poems, can be excruciatingly dull (witness the work of some of our most decorated contemporaries). But Disch’s quick mind, his lively sense of humor, and his unique perspective on serious literature (being as he is an illegal immigrant from across the literary Rio Grande that separates serious from popular writing) turn these poems into a compelling reading.
The overall structure of the volume is no less lucid then the style of its individual poems. Burn This is divided into five discrete sections, each of which exploits poetic forms and genres. Part 1, entitled “Homages,” contains poems written in borrowed styles including parodies of A.R. Ammons, Joyce Kilmer, Walt Whitman, Robert Bly, and Robert Creeley. Part 2, “The Life of Poetry, and the Lives of the Poets,” is made up of intellectual light verse that speculates on the sources of poetry. Part 3 is all sonnets. Part 4 exploits a common form of contemporary poetry, the pseudo-instructional poems, which purports to explain some activity—usually elemental—to the uninitiated listener. Disch handles this form brilliantly, creating a series of “instructions” on poetics, including two poems that seem to me as good as didactic verse can possible be: “Ars Poetica,” a discussion of the practice and aesthetics of haiku written in a haiku stanza, and the “Thirty-Nine Articles,” a remarkable sestina about the challenge of writing a sestina. Finally, the book concludes with “Theories,” a set of long discursive poems on literature, the best of which are “On Science Fiction,” and “Literature as a Career,” which ends with a defense of self-supporting writers like himself:
So sell it, and don’t feel ashamed. If the world, in the form Of critic or poet, asks who we are And why our wages are higher than his (If they are), answer his question politely And say we are tailors who fit out the minds Of paying multitudes eager to wear Whatever our beloved emperor appeared in Yesterday. Or say, if such hyperbole won’t do, That we are failures who would give A pound of bloodless intellect to live Among the Imagination’s upper-middle classes On the franchised slopes of Mount Parnassus. Say what you will, however absurd, But see that they pay you a penny a word.
With all the mediocre volumes of poetry issued in this country each year, it is shocking that a book this strong and original had to go to England for a publisher.
Citation: [A Review of] Burn This by Tom Disch. Originally printed in The Ontario Review (Princeton, N.J.), 19 (fall-winter 1983-1984) 99-107. Revised and titled “Tom Disch” in Can Poetry Matter?. Dana Gioia's memorial for Tom Disch is posted here.