In the ongoing poetry party, loud with chatter in various modes and dialects, relatively quiet and reflective voices would be likely to stand out, if only because of their rarity. That is, they’d be likely to stand out if they weren’t in danger of being drowned out by the ambient noise. These more subdued guests aren’t so shy that they’re dumb. They’re saying something, but you have to lean in to hear them. Are they talking to themselves? Are they addressing whoever will listen or someone in particular or no one at all? Some of these low talkers may have a story to tell. Others may seem to be merely pondering out loud; but it turns out, if you really listen, that they are not only addressing you but have been observing you for some time, which can be a little alarming. Whatever they have to say, it takes patience to attend to them.
There has always been a broad variety of means poetry uses (or eschews) to claim our attention; and patience to attend to anything is always in short supply. What patience we can muster for poetry these days may be devoted (and I sound as if I’m talking about The Waste Land) to piecing together vatic fragments or tracking down allusions. Jorie Graham or Anne Carson, to name two poets who require a lot of application to read, may be hard to understand, but their voices carry. Louise Glück, less hermetic, speaks in a cold, clear, distinct tone; we can’t not listen, but we may not want to stand too close. Countless other poets station themselves here and there along the intelligibility spectrum.
In the current slow reading movement, designed to help us recover our ability to savor every page, poetry surely deserves a special place; who ever thought it could be read any other way than slowly, with attention to every word? Yet paradoxically, lyric poems often depend on speed, swooping in and then just as suddenly zooming off. “There is nothing [End Page 582] here to catch hold of,” as Virginia Woolf remarks of “O Western Wind,” “nothing to stay us in our flight.” But the poetry of the low-voiced, apparently shy guests at the party doesn’t soar. It stands still, and we have to come to it. As David Mikics writes in his fine study Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, “[poetry] beckons even as it holds its ground”—or at least some poetry does. And that ground feels solitary and inward; not necessarily unfriendly but not charismatic or gregarious either.
Jeffrey Harrison and Carl Dennis are two accomplished poets who risk monotone. Both have the confidence to speak quietly and clearly about things that matter to them without seeming to worry about whether anyone is paying attention and without tying themselves in knots to be instantly memorable. Both, when you pay attention, write—or seem to speak—with authority—”the low tones that decide,” as Emerson put it in Uriel. Both have been writing for many years, and both their new books, like their earlier books, are well worth attending to. Both Harrison and Dennis are unabashedly middle-class, well-read, and emotionally stable men who have reached points in their careers and lives (Harrison was born in 1957, Dennis in 1939) from which many of their poems are retrospective.
Harrison often refers, in this new book, as in its predecessor, to his brother’s suicide, and also, as always, to his lengthy and happy marriage. But there’s a kind of detachment in his tone; he’s aware that he isn’t coming to love and death with the raw intensity of a fledgling poet. In some ways Harrison’s work is about knowingness, belatedness. These subjects have been treated before, even by me, the poems acknowledge. When I write about a wildflower or a woodland trail, I know someone has been there before me. When I think of the beauty of the world, I think of how Clare or...