Failures of the Poets
reviewed on November 15, 2023
One of the most ambitious and aesthetically eclectic publishers in contemporary poetry, Canarium Books strikes one, perhaps, as the Hogarth Press or Shakespeare and Company of the present era, its catalog a bold departure from and inspired challenge to official verse culture—those twenty or so writers whose names year-in and year-out dominate the long-lists and fellowship rosters and selection committees. Like its modernist forebears, Canarium possesses a keen editorial eye and an intrepid disposition for literary risk-taking, putting out experimental work from writers as multifarious in their interests as Suzanne Buffam, Farnoosh Fathi, Anthony Madrid, and Matsuo Takahashi. This is not a small press whose writers could get published nowhere else; it is, I think, a boutique curatorial project in the most serious—and least obnoxious—sense of those terms, an initiative whose books are published without copyright into the public domain and which is, as its website pledges, “happy to provide copies for free or at a discount to educators, students, low-wage workers, librarians, reviewers, or anyone for whom money is tight.”
In ethics no less than aesthetics, then—and at a moment when more established independent presses seem motivated, in some of their editorial decisions, by a trend-based bottom-line—Canarium offers a refreshing re-imagination of what contemporary poetry can achieve.
Anthony Robinson’s Failures of the Poets is a vital part of that re-imagination, unapologetic in its allusiveness and fierce in its intellectual commitments. As Joyce packed puns and riddles into Ulysses, or river names into “Anna Livia Plurabelle,” Robinson stocks his debut with slant quotations and repurposed literary historical references, so that the sonnet “Sunday Morning,” for instance, updates Wallace Stevens’s agnosticism for the information age: “Complexities / Of the sepulchre, and then of the selfie, then / Of the self-defense plea. […] For a non-believer it’s all we can do.”
More than glib in-jokes, though, Robinson’s allusiveness serves the collection’s over-arching ideas, as titanic literary figures are brought down to earth—“humanized,” one might say—in striking and sometimes hilarious disjunctions. “I love the name ‘George Gordon,’” he writes in the prose poem “Four Speeches,”
and that he had a clubfoot and was chubby and loved both men and women. I love the way young Juan flits about, mad in love and lust and life. One time, I made out with a girl while listening to Whitesnake.
In “Anniversary,” similarly, Robinson reduces intellectual history to the banality of breakfast: “October / leavetaking and a sonnet about Milton and bacon, / the breakfast food not the enlightenment man.” The point in such deflations, Robinson suggests, is a critical questioning of poetry’s capacity to achieve something like grace or redemption or even beauty amid the ennui of economic and ecological decline; Failures of the Poets, that is, conceives poetry itself as a fail-state, a “collection of words used improperly,” as Robinson puts it in the poem “Sladden Park,” the last in the book.
But—and though it is no virtue—Robinson refuses nihilism.
If poetry is an imperfect form of historical action, it nonetheless registers the trace of spirit in language, Robinson suggests, marking like an after-image an awe and wonder in the face of the universe, what Robinson calls a “long[ing] to be.” The collection’s title poem, among others, speaks not only to its through-line argument—which I too have failed to gloss in its complexity—but to its tonal range to the pleasure of recognition one feels upon encountering a familiar allusion:
O’Hara was killed by a wayward
Vehicle on a beach in the prime of his life. He enjoyed
Fellating strangers and wrote the most beautiful imperfect
Poems. All of these things are worthy of praise, even the parts
Nobody wants to talk about. Pound succumbed to Italian
Fascism. Like Wyatt, he wandered too far from his native land,
Perhaps, or became disheartened by the brokenness around,
Unable to contain history, he made it himself in a spectacularly
Audacious way, both famous and infamous. And from the ship
I come into this madness too.
As in The Cantos, Robinson acknowledges across Failures of the Poets both the ambition and limitations of poetry as an aesthetic and historical project, ultimately wresting small pleasures from the grand collapses—economic, ecological, existential—of human history.
“[E]vaporation / is how you make salt,” Robinson writes in one poem.
In another, he channels at once the simple forcefulness of emo and the Old Testament, all with characteristic allusiveness. “I don’t believe I understand,” he explains in “'I Am the King of Infinite Space,'” a title drawn from Bonnie “Prince” Billy whose stage-name itself draws from Bonnie Prince Charlie.
was happening all at once & even
though we didn’t believe, he made us
good in the wind, made us something big
& dead & so comes love, so comes
this anniversary. So comes again
up, empty, open on the face of the waters.