O’Hara’s brand of outrageous, gimlet-eyed poetry criticism became a cottage industry for one of the unsung heroes of contemporary poetry, Robert Peters. Peters is the author of the iconoclastic poetry collections Songs for a Son, Love Poems for Robert Mitchum, and Snapshots for a Serial Killer. He is also an eminent scholar of Victorian poetry. However, he may be best known (though, I think, not well-known enough) for his criticism of contemporary poetry from the 1970s and ‘80s. In an era immediately prior to the Internet and blogs, Peters was King Critic of the Poetry Scene.
When my first book was coming out in 1996, my then-editor Bill Truesdale suggested we get a blurb from Peters. Though I admired Peters’ work, I thought this was a bad idea. His Black and Blue Guide to Poetry Journals, and the even harsher (yet far more-often-than-not truth-telling) series on individual poets, The Great American Poetry Bake-Off, could, for all their humor and generosity, be scathing. Though I thought these books were enormously helpful to me as a young poet—and I still highly recommend them to my students—I didn’t think my fragile fledgling poet-ego would hold up if he hated my debut. In 1982 Peters states straight out, “My pleasure in any good poet transcends conflict: I don’t see poets as enemies. But, for better or for worse, the critic must play wolf-roles, especially when poems generate in him little else than a tedious conjugality.” He goes on to say of one of the leading poets of the day that he wishes he could make him “feel less lost, elegiac, submissive, self-pitying.” Another poet’s new book convinces Peters that, “a writer by becoming a celebrity can get work published and sold, and earn a rather large reputation.” Ouch. Of the late ‘80s he declares, “The ‘ego’ poem, or ‘I’ poem, is the genre favored by most poets….”
For whatever reason, I lucked out. Peters liked the galley proofs of my book, and even invited me when I was coming to L.A. to visit him at the house he has shared for decades with fellow-poet Paul Trachtenberg. I’d like to believe that I would admire his work and like him even if he hated my work.
What makes Peters’ criticism so incisive, and his poetry so utterly contemporary, is his thoroughgoing knowledge of the history of poetry. He knows what made the new truly new in every period. His stance is related to Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but he calls for a more radical departure from the tradition. Here’s the beginning of his 1974 poem “the word yes”:
slowly a great rain of piss
begins (god beats on
the galvanized lid of heaven
the stars piss, Danae yells
for a sponge, Castor and Pollux. . .)
the rain is orange, the skies
are hepatitis colored, word
balloons are full of
comicbook doomwisdom. yes.
Today, Ron Silliman has taken Peters’ Poetry-Critic Crown and removed it into the blogosphere. Although Silliman’s views are always interesting and insightful, he is less focused on poetry criticism than Peters was, not to mention kinder and gentler.