Timely missives from the laureate of failure


POETRY: The God of Loneliness: Selected and New PoemsBy Philip Schultz Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 194pp. $25

PHILIP SCHULTZ is an American poet who won a Pulitzer Prize for his sixth book of poetry, Failure, in 2008, 30 years after his first collection, Like Wings, appeared. He is held up as a laureate of failure – “If I have to believe in something / I believe in despair” – and many of his poems revolve around a sense of disappointment and loss. In this way he speaks, as championed by Tony Hoagland and, even more surprisingly, by the former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, for a people who have seen a notional sense of the American dream turned into a more realistic nightmare.

Schultz’s Jewish identity is at the forefront of his work, to be sure, but it is the poems about his father and, as Philip Levine famously titled a collection, What WorkIs that really distinguish Schultz’s work from his more experimental contemporaries. In Specimen, after Schultz has told us that “I turned sixty in Paris last year”, he recounts his poverty during the 1960s and how he “hid” from the Vietnam War. He goes on to admit that “My father died bankrupt one week / before his sixtieth birthday”, and, in a further confessional vein, Schultz writes that he did not “expect to have a family”. Later in his ars poetica, Failure, he writes “To pay for my father’s funeral / I borrowed money from people / he already owed money to”.

It’s sobering stuff. Realistic and dour. And in the postcapitalist US maybe this is something to celebrate. But I’m not so sure. Frank O’Connor once characterised Ernest Hemingway as a writer with “a technique in search of a subject”. Conversely, Schultz is a poet with a subject in search of a technique. His lines are slack and without music. Most of the poems are written in an open form, but unlike a poet such as CK Williams – also a Jewish writer with an urban sensibility – Schultz’s poems lack the cadence and pattern of the mesmerising Williams’s. Instead Schultz’s lines plod along. It’s no surprise, then, that his fifth collection, Living in the Past, contained for the most part within this Selected, is made up of a series of poems that digress from the prose poem’s associative tradition and deliver a more literal fare. This is poetry as speech rather than song. In Nomads Schultz writes, “I’ve come to clean my mother’s room out, / fit everything she owned into one handbag.” The directness can be affecting, but it’s mostly dull.

The poems seem to succeed that much better when Schultz is less literal and more playful. In The Monologuethe speaker announces, “I lived in a monologue a long time,” and ends with the foreboding “Abstain. / Inherit the kingdom of death”. And in For the Moose an encounter with an eight-year-old neighbour who wants to know “who’s my moose” brings a lighter note to a book of “grin and bear it” poetry.

That’s not to say that the voice in these poems is not contemporary and real, or that it is without dignity and sincerity, integrity even. But The God of Lonelinessis more timely than timeless, a mutter rather than a yawlp. It seems to be a book that has become a prop of the new and ever-changing ideologies of American poetry and therefore not as lasting as it may be legitimate.

The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance