Anne Boyer’s “The Romance of Happy Workers”/ Taste and What to Do with It/Questions Marks, Parentheses

Anne Boyer’s The Romance of Happy Workers takes me out of my usual poetry comfort zone. It’s written in medium length, normal-looking free verse lines and little two-line stanzas. It’s often very pretty and only occasionally very funny. It has lots of similes, many of which are surrealist. It seems vaguely Russian or Eastern European, in kind of a sophisticated way.

It looks like poetry, and also it is poetry. It’s even labeled “Poetry” on the cover, right above where it says “Anne Boyer,” like that was her name, Poetry Anne Boyer. If I hadn’t come to Boyer via her social ties to flarf, I might’ve preemptively dismissed the book as hybridist something-something, “not my thing.” Even with the flarf connection, I’d might’ve prematurely written it off as a disappointment if I hadn’t already read and loved Boyer’s biting prose poems in The 2000s, which are so, so very up my poetic alley.

But I’m glad those prior experiences encouraged me to give this book more of a chance—because it’s really a pretty good book, but more so because enjoying it reminds me of just how easy it is to let my tastes calcify and shrink. I mean—“Snow peas, I don’t like the great atmosphere sings”—that’s not exactly Tony Hoagland, right? It’s typical of this book, more in the range of John Ashbery, Susan Howe, or Lyn Hejinian, and guess what—I totally like those poets, but if I met any of them now I might be disposed to dismiss them, too.

I’ve been lucky in the past several years to find multiple waves of funny, prickly, yet sincere poets who match my taste more squarely than anything I’ve seen since I first formed that taste on Dickinson and the modernists; but I don’t want to let that turn me into a finicky eater. After all, it’s bound not to last, and I don’t want to wind up one of those guys roaring through comment sections like he thinks he’s Harold Bloom, declaring that poetry is dead because it hasn’t produced anything precisely to his taste in a while.

All that said, let’s play Harold Bloom for a minute. This book also makes me hope that Boyer won’t—as she’s sometimes cryptically threatened—walk away poetry altogether, because she’s getting better. Those .pdf books from earlier this year (The 2000s and Ma Vie En Bling) seem so much freer, fuller, more confident and sincere to me, whereas this one seems ever so slightly cowed by an idea of what poetry is supposed to be like, rather than unselfconsciously pursuing what these poems might be in themselves. For every startlingly weird phrase, there’s at least one you’d swear was a quote from Stevens, or from some one of dozens of latter-day Stevens-wannabes—like: “Given / the hermeneutics / of pincers, one could / mouth a theory / of leafcutters.”

Is this another covert statement of my general aesthetic, then, hidden in a supposedly specific evaluation—like poetry jokes and poetry-as-perversion and “description” vs. description? Would I want to speak up for poetry that’s a strong expression of personality without being openly lyric—poetry as the continuation of personality by other means, Eliot’s line about only those who have personality knowing what it means to want to escape it? Does that aesthetic favor poets with somehow extreme personalities, individual strangeness somehow authenticating the writing? Would that contradict some of my other aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical values—and would I care if it does? And should I?

I guess what I’m really thinking about here (and by here I mean, on this blog, always) is how to make publically useful discourse out of subjective impressions—in other words, how to do criticism (including in that reviewing and interpretation and just idle chatter about art) in a way that’s relativistic and noncoercive while it also has intersubjective meaning and consequence. That (in my subjective opinion, of course) would be a useful and enlightened angle from which to address the perennial question of the supposed need for negative reviews (even if it leaves aside the practical core of that issue, namely the need for more disinterested reviewers).