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Photo: Michael Malyszko

From a review of Mary Jo Salter’s latest volume of poems, “A Phone Call to the Future”:

Back in the 20th century, when such things seemed to matter, poets argued about the virtue of meter and rhyme. Occasionally the debate produced insights of lasting consequence, like Robert Frost’s snarky metaphor for free verse (“playing tennis with the net down”) and Charles Wright’s brilliant response: “the high wire act without the net.” But the debate was perpetuated more often by tribal loyalties than by artistic necessity. An argument that forecloses possibilities for art — that says X is good because Y is bad — can rarely be trusted.

Mary Jo Salter came of age as a poet in the 1970s when two tribes, the Language poets and the New Formalists, were sparring. The Language poets (named after a magazine called Language) represented a new surge of experimental writing, while the New Formalists (with whom Salter was associated) wanted to resist the influence of modernism, re-energizing poetry’s relationship not only to traditional form but to narrative. Like Salter, many of the New Formalists modeled their work on a strategically narrowed version of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who wrote both free and formal verse with homespun virtuosity. But while Bishop continues to be read, the polemics associated with both the New Formalism and Language poetry feel dated, part of the niggling history of taste rather than the grand history of art…

We grow wise when we ought to be depressed, said the philosopher E. M. Cioran; wisdom is a way of controlling or defending ourselves against grief. But the kind of technical mastery cherished by the New Formalists may too easily foster a taste for emotional mastery. The impressionable ear gets used to the sound of well-turned conclusions. Questions are foreclosed; satisfaction sets in.

This is not about subject matter: Bishop’s domestic vignettes feel as spooky and harrowing as Hecht’s poems about the Nazi death camps because she resists all opportunities for emotional closure, preferring to dwell on what she called the “surrealism of everyday life.” In contrast, the new poems collected in “A Phone Call to the Future” feel comfortable with their conclusions, content with the maturity acquired through their realization, however rueful the feeling of lost youth: “You reach an age when classics / are what you must have read.” The satisfaction embodied by such quips seems coercive.

Only a few poets transcend the history of taste to participate in the history of art — and only in a handful of poems. Salter has been struck by lightning more than once, and “Another Session,” from her 2003 collection “Open Shutters,” suggests she’ll be struck again. In this sonnet sequence about depression and its aftermath, a patient confesses to her therapist the need “to be praised / for forcing these indictments from my throat. / For saying them well.” All of Salter’s poems are well said. “Another Session” is, like “Elegies for Etsuko,” a disorienting work of art.

James Longenbach
New York Times