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Excuse me but I just threw up a little in my mouth. I was flipping through Dan Chiasson’s first book of poetry and flipped all the way to the back cover where I was greeted with the following blurbs, from which I’ll spare you the whole and excerpt only the treacly bits:
“Dan Chiasson has succeeded in writing the poetry many in his generation aim for: free-swinging, gorgeous in phrase, bold in imagination, athletic in movement….[Chiasson’s] imagination is an organ of perception, a means of feeling.” –Robert Pinsky
“This is a superb first book by one of the most gifted young poets of his generation….” – Frank Bidart
No one should use the phrase “organ of perception” ever again. Not ever. It should be bound and thrown in the Lethe. And bloviated book jacket blurbs should follow in its wake. Seriously, “one of the best poets of your generation” should only be stated by poet-critics at least a generation removed from the assessed poet, certainly not on the release of a first book.
But you can’t begrudge Chaisson for the publisher’s marketing practices or his early success, or the misguided remarks from Pinsky and Bidart. He was a “debut poet” in the New Yorker in 2001 and seemingly published in nearly all of the major lit journals. More recently he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and was named a new editor for the Paris Review (along with Meghan O’Rourke, who along with Chiasson, contributes lit crit to Slate).
Chiasson has certainly had a fast start out of the gate and determining whether one deserves or is worthy of such accolades and awards so early in one’s career is mug’s game and I’ll not play it. Especially when I’m not familiar enough with his work to make a level judgment. I’m probably more familiar with his criticism that appears in Slate, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. I respect a poet that has the shnugs to level a thoughtful and thorough pasting of an eminent poet’s work because the poet-critic knows it could come back and bite him in the ass. Or at least burn a bridge or two.
“Thread,” the poem that appears in the December 22, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, is a cute poem (though the last line is perplexing)–a personification of a piece of thread. The first stanza states what it is not: a lightning strike, an anchor rope, and goes on to note its greatest defect, it is “frayed where it would be highly useful.”
The second stanza kicks off with an awkward line, “I think if I can concentrate I might turn sharp” but then recovers with the terrific perception that concentration and near-sightedness are indistinguishable (from the thread’s p.o.v.).
And then the third and final stanza totally loses me. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to take “my silly intensity shuffling / all insignia of interiority” and how that describes a piece of thread or even what it means. Maybe it has to do with the act of threading a needle and the insignia of interiority is the frayed end and the silly intensity is how the thread twists and turns? I’m not sure.
The final line punctuates the thread’s lack of self-worth, “Knowing me never made anyone a needle.” Poor thread! Doesn’t it know it holds together our clothes, that it mends holes, that secures the buttons that in turn secures our coats to keep us warm, that it gives dolls vision? Sure, without a needle none of this is possible but a needle is equally worthless without the thread. This little piece of thread needs a good talking to. We love you thread!
There’s something about this poem that reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s wonderful book of poems for children, Opposites, except it doesn’t have the same sharp wit. I don’t think this poem was meant for children but I could certainly see this poem crop up in an anthology for juveniles.