Mary Karr made her mark as a hell-raiser with The Liars' Club (1995), an account of her early years in an east Texas oil-refining town. The book earned her a spangle of big prizes and opened the sluice to a flood of memoirs that even a FEMA crew couldn't contain. It's not Karr's fault, of course, that she helped cause the mess, with imitation--however futile--being the sincerest form of flattery, and big-house publishers being both mercenaries and sheep. Still, the distinction hasn't fazed her a bit. It seems, rather, to have invigorated her bent toward goading storm-chasers into the open, while she continues to stir things up at the eye.
This time around, Karr takes aim not at the ghosts of her childhood but at the demons of the neo-formalist movement in contemporary American poetry. Viper Rum is in a sense two books, neither of them lengthy but both weighted with the same contrary spirit that made The Liars' Club a direct hit. The first consists of 29 poems--Karr's third collection--and the second of a querulous lit-crit afterword, "Against Decoration," which was originally published as an essay in the journal Parnassus. This pairing makes for a daring marriage of two distinct genres under a single cover, and it's destined to lead to a rocky read: For the temptation is great to hold Karr's poems up to the same harsh scrutiny she turns against the current wave of poetic neo-formalism and its dirty practitioners.
Neo-formalist poems, by definition, are those that juggle rhymes, meters, and nearly mathematical equations for syllables and stanzas--this as opposed to, say, the seeming lawlessness of free verse. In Karr's consideration, this methodology has been rearing its ugly head since the mid-1970s, and its fruit--pretty and bland--has appeared in enough numbers to warrant several anthologies. By her own admission in "Against Decoration," Karr isn't against formalism per se. She admires the best of the golden oldies: Yeats, Eliot, and the like. What she scorns is the "highbrow doily-making" produced by the neo-formalist crowd, stuff that chokes in purple language, sprains itself stretching for obscure and erudite references, and finally drowns in its own stylized gush. This is the lite beer of poetry, she seems to suggest: It's no fun to drink and the hangover is not worth suffering.
Karr brazenly ticks off a list of neo-formalism's worst offenders, including Anthony Hecht, latter-day James Merrill, and John Hollander (who've all served as chancellors for the Academy of American Poets); the fortysomething gang of Brad Leithauser, Michael Blumenthal, and company; and most of the other poets who taint the pages of The New Yorker with their decorative pap. What they all share, much to Karr's grief, is the practice of valuing formal excellence as an aesthetic virtue in and of itself. Their extreme allegiance to meter, rhyme, and form trumps all else, she argues, and blinds them to their sore lack of the "narrative data" needed to make poems meaningful to readers. We're left, Karr reasons, to "gape at the poem's gorgeous surface," laden with clever baubles that add up to "perhaps the most emotionally vacant work ever written."
Karr is not the first critic to put the lie to the emperor's new clothes. The poet Ira Sadoff, writing in The American Poetry Review, planted students of the neo-formalist poetry school squarely in camp with the neoconservative political movement launched in the early 1980s, accusing them of--among other high crimes--conspiring against free verse in the service of ornate nostalgia. That take may be stepping over the edge of paranoia in Karr's view. Yet she seconds Sadoff's point that the new formalism and the new conservatism aren't so new; they share a kind of backlash mentality, the former against the politics of free verse and the latter against the free love of liberalism. Both long for a bygone (and imaginary) day when everyone played by the rules, observed decorum, and drank tea with their pinkies properly perched.
In "Against Decoration," Karr offers an elegant and rowdy argument against this kind of sentimentality. In it, she points out that such devil's spawn may well be part of a reactionary move against the stylistically generic McPoems being cranked out in batches by poets who've passed though M.F.A. writing programs. "The pendulum has swung back toward form at this particular bend in history, after several decades of increasingly plain diction," she writes, noting that the McPoem is itself a dead-end culmination of the revolution Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and other early free-versers fought against the flowery formalism of the late Victorians. What ultimately makes most of the new formalist stuff tripe is its silly insistence on the primacy of form--all the while forgetting that, at least to Karr's way of thinking, the purpose of poetry is to stir emotion.
And there's the snag. In "Against Decoration," Karr sets herself up for a serious fall--as both a critic and a poet--by proposing the following Mad-Lib exam: "My test for a poem's emotional clarity is this elementary exercise: Can you fill in a blank about a poem's subject with an emotional word?" By that boiled-down standard, flunkees would likely include John Ashbery, the better language poets, and for that matter any contemporary poet whose work depends on complexity, nuance, and variable interpretation for its power.
Karr's pop quiz would, however, probably allow the majority of her own poems in Viper Rum to pass into print. One is about sadness. One about love. One about regret. All the narrative data are in place. The metaphors relate familiar concepts and they aren't too clever. The music, the diction, the climax--all these elements hum at low level, nothing too flashy or risky.
Even so, Karr's poems rise to take on serious matters, from suicide and haunting deaths to erotic redemption and other saving graces. Her style and sensibilities are shot through with dense music, and composed with a keen ear for consonance and internal rhymes, as in the brief poem titled "Revenge of the Ex-Mistress," which reads, in full: "Dear X--/Finally met your wife/in Beef and Beer./She hates it that you let me/pierce your ear, and time/you lost to me she guessed./Still, we fell in love./Please send her clothes/to my address. Best/wishes, no regrets--Another X."
There's an edge of iconoclasm at work in nearly all these poems, a contrariness that operates to different effect than in Karr's criticism. Here, the sacred is prey to a sort of gleeful heathenism, particularly in a series of poems sprinkled through the collection that set their captious sites on Christian dogma. In "The Wife of Jesus Speaks," she writes of the Christ's bride in reverie imagining "his hard/stalk of flesh rocking inside me" even as she bakes in the rosy caverns of hell. Elsewhere, Karr pronounces that "History is rife/with such hoaxes" as the Easter resurrection--a credo that kicks the fancy pedestal out from under a man-made God in order to bring him down to a mortal, manageable size.
The best of these poems put Karr in league with other true believers who write as if the future of American poetry depends not on bells and whistles and gaudy patinas but on the continual evocation of emotion, line by line. These writers feel their way past theory, past the lunch-hour rush for the perfect McPoem, and--as counterpoint to "Against Decoration"--offer a persuasive retort to the silly, stuffy renaissance of the new Victorianism.