Goldbarth, Albert 1948–
Goldbarth, a prolific poet, has been called "one of the substantial voices of contemporary American poetry." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
Albert Goldbarth has achieved success with the long form and has employed for the purpose both imagist and surrealist techniques, as well as some which sound a Shakespearean note in America. Opticks: a poem in seven sections releases lines with the jollity of the Henry IV plays and with language as beautiful as that of Lear.
On one level Goldbarth's Opticks is simply delicious as a linguistic offering. The first section not only establishes the theme of "how glass came into my life", it sets the driving rhythmical and tonal power of the whole poem. Using asterisks as breaks between run-on stanzas, Goldbarth weaves a "latticework of crosses", telephone poles, and barbed wire which is at once imagistically intriguing and shot through with internal off-rhymes. The poet's ability to spin an endless array of interrelated images is quite amazing. This could, of course, become cloying if it were not for the accompanying sound, and for the awareness on the reader's part that all of this cross imagery has something to do with glass, though what remains for the moment unclear. (p. 37)
In Opticks Goldbarth has seen, as Blake says, a world in a grain of sand, but, to the Chicago poet's credit, he has not gone to this or other such well-worn quotes for his sources. Instead, he has ranged far and wide—Egypt, the Illinois tollway, Germany of World War II, a Middle Ages glass makers guild—to demonstrate that "everything's in the window." Other than the specific inspirations mentioned in the poem. I wonder what poets Goldbarth was reading at the time of composition. This fine poem makes me think of Lear after he is blinded, of Louis Zukofsky's A, with its variations on the I's (pronounced eyes) and its blend of colloquial and scientific languages, without there being any suggestion of direct influence. Despite a surrealistic playfulness and an often derivative type of recent inclination for exhausting the possibilities of single images, Goldbarth's sources are finally and essentially very personal ones.
The result is a long poem with a singular impact. Many voices speak, some with excitement and some with concern, but the ultimate force of the poem comes from the poet's sureness of touch in working his almost epic loom. Or, to change the metaphor, for a treatise of sand, Opticks is a banquet so heaped with juicy treats that it proves Goldbarth's truly one of the most fertile imaginations going. (p. 58)
Dave Oliphant, "Goldbarth's Vocabulary Banquet & Treatise of Sand," in Margins (copyright © 1974), December, 1974, pp. 37, 58.
Goldbarth's innovative dramatic monologues demand comparison with Richard Howard's original dramatic poems. Howard is superior in creating autonomous characters and intense dramatic situations, though the Pulitzer winner might envy this twenty-six-year-old's gift of vivid language. Browning provides a more instructive comparison, not only because Goldbarth adapts his monologue form but also because the modern poet's dense texture, his chiaroscuro of grotesque images alternation with flaring insights, and the long, energetic, alliterative lines, all suggest that Victorian model.
However, Goldbarth updates the Romanticist epistemology, according to which the poet extends his own experience and authority by projecting himself into dramatic personas. (pp. 96-7)
Dillon Johnston, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1975.
Coprolites [the title of one of Goldbarth's recent books] are fossil feces which, when the archeologist cracks them open, reveal "a clock/stopped once and saying its message/forever."… Everything that T. S. Eliot advised about "the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year," is at work in Goldbarth, except that for him, of course, it is a prehistorical sense. At the end of his title poem … Goldbarth passes himself "to a new generation," like a wry, metaphysical Whitman addressing his body, and the leavings thereof, as "good manure"…. What may seem a preoccupation with the basic bodily functions serves … throughout the book an almost sacramental purpose. What is man, after all, but a complex of bodily functions—his curious body grown, in the late Pleistocene, out of older curious bodies that left themselves, and their coprolites, dead and buried in limestone better than half a billion years—and what did they leave us but marks in the stones?—and what do the poets leave us, here in the sixth millenium of written history, but marks in the (printer's) stones? (pp. 221-22)
The brilliant nonsense of Goldbarth's "Singing the Tree" … reveals Goldbarth's uncanny gifts at their most playful…. "Play's the thing," Frost said in his great praise of Robinson, and Goldbarth has made a poem … full of play, the free play of an exhilarated and exhilarating imagination—child's play of the most truly serious kind…. It is probably evident even in "Singing the Tree," but Goldbarth's one large fault is his enviable impulse to make a tour de force of every poem. Among his most impressive are the three "dialogues" in Section II of Coprolites. They each consist of two monologues broken into pieces and knit into one another like the spread fingers of two hands meshed together: the first is interrupted always in mid-sentence while each segment of the second forms a complete paragraph. Goldbarth's technique exploits the complementary effects of fragmentation and interrelation, further augmented by the fact that, in each case, the speakers are isolated in time by a minimum of nearly two centuries. (pp. 224-25)
Albert Goldbarth has extended his range perhaps broader than any other poet of the mid-seventies and, in so doing, has taught himself more tricks than most mature poets could use by the end of the century. I couldn't suggest a course of development, but it seems to me that, tricks aside, anyone who can write lines like [those] from the end of "The Fisher's Wish" will secure himself somewhere, among those who bank the fires in the next dark age…. (p. 226)
Michael Heffernan, "Good Manure," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Winter, 1975, pp. 221-26.
[Goldbarth's] poetic blitz overwhelms us with fresh images, thought, imaginative scope, but also—as wherever mass is the product—buries us with the unfinished detritus of a mind (and an ego) whose accelerator is frozen. Opticks is a great vine of a poem sadly etiolated by haste and demonstrative of Goldbarth's racy faults.
Opticks is one poem in seven parts, an afflatus of "through a glass darkly." Its metaphor is all glass. (p. 227)
Goldbarth's subtlety is noticing his lack of subtlety, but he only underlines its absence. He wants to be patted on the back and told "Yes, you are witty, little buddy." It is, of course, immaturity and it ribs the entire poem. He is everywhere stepping forward as poet, sometimes apologetically, to sneer at his reader. He poses and prances….
Immaturity translates to self-ishness in Opticks. It flecks style, tone, subject, and shaping. False modesty is always transparent; effort's integer is obvious. Luxuriating in adjectives, in fragile variations, is too often self-deluding, especially when self is the sole subject. Shortcuts don't replace nouns and verbs, but make a mirror for the self to wallow in. (p. 228)
Beyond the self-conscious sickness of this poem, beyond the tinny irony and windiness of march, a greater sickness seduces the best of Goldbarth. François Mauriac wrote that "the despair of modern man is born of his belief in the absurdity of the world." Our poets and poet-trainers hold such absurdity sacred. It leads them to write of boredom. We ask, do they really live so inconsequentially? If true, the flesh they celebrate must be atrophied, the life excessively dull and indulgent. But too much paint merely blurs the canvas. Goldbarth's recurrent image for this boredom, this dissolution of the vital, is surgent in each section of Opticks, as in so many of his poems: shit, turds, dung, feces, crap, coprolites, drit. He is more excremental than Swift, and I, for one, am bored with the stink. Let those who will, freud-like, handle the ramifications of what Goldbarth calls "ass-comfy." For those who cannot be satisfied with Goldbarth's predominant foci of interest, he adds another: the vagina, and it, too, as Cummings might have said, exudes. Perhaps if Goldbarth explores additional landscapes, he will find the world not so absurd, not so boring. At any rate, he works at a dead end. (p. 228-29)
I haven't praised, as I might have, some of the fine things in this poem. I must, however, applaud Goldbarth's energy, his willingness to challenge big tasks, his refusal to accomplish the easy. Even the worst of his poems demonstrate his marvelous equipment, his intelligence, his straining for vision. This book is an ego-sop, but it will die so that he may write other, better books. (p. 229)
Dave Smith, "Drit under Glass," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Winter, 1975, pp. 227-29.
The collection of fifty poems in Jan. 31 is broad enough to show why Albert Goldbarth is more than minimally surviving and has become, in the words of Nelson Rockefeller, "a hot commodity."… [His] work is distinguished by its imagery, its language, its structure, its erudition and its mood. (p. 230)
He stakes the success of his title poem, and ultimately the success of the book, on his ability to establish the idea that the natural order of things is cyclical and if, like space curving back on itself, history repeats its processes of human bondage and suffering, then it likewise regenerates knowledge and strength. During our various metaphorical winters, this understanding, along with our basic physical pleasures, will provide us both hope and comfort. Goldbarth often casts himself in the role of mythmaker, and stanzas relating in detail the customs of an ancient civilization as an archetype for some general aspect of contemporary life are not uncommon. (p. 231)
Another strategy Goldbarth uses to stress the interconnectedness of things is the metaphor in which an image the reader expects to be merely a detail in the narrative framework suddenly hatches its own vehicle which grows enormous and elaborate, taking wing to live its own life among the archetypes of the poem…. Goldbarth is ingenious at this. (p. 232)
What, then, are the limitations of [Jan. 31], and of this poet with his knowledge of sciences and humanities, his intellect and his command of language? One criticism that I have read of his earlier work proposed that his images occasionally become so elaborate that the direction of the poem is difficult to follow. This, the reviewer suggested, results from Goldbarth's too-conscious employment of the situation of the writer writing about the use of language. I do not find either of these problems among the poems in Jan. 31. The images, even when elaborate, do not seem inappropriate and Goldbarth's poems—so many of which deal with language—are saved individually by the portrayal of sex, love, speech, writing, and bodily functions as so many different languages through which one touches, or attempts to touch, different sources of strength.
My own inclination, considering Goldbarth's youth and obvious gifts, is to ask questions not only about this book but about the function of poetry today and the more immediate problem of where Goldbarth goes from here. The poems in Jan. 31 are largely repetitive in mood. We come to understand very well that the loneliness we feel, the submission to external forces, and the lack of faith are all parts of a cyclical process—perhaps something in our human nature—but there is almost nothing in this book that refers to any contemporary event outside the poems themselves. Granted that Goldbarth's winter is metaphorical—are we struggling against anything that is peculiar to our time? Is history really more a circle than a spiral? Are not even metaphorical winters caused by events political, social, economic, ethnic, demographic and scientific—and by the events themselves, not the theories they engender or support, or their historical archetypes or analogues? In an everyday world of particularized experience, what are some of the promised "ways of surviving"?
I know we have all been taught to let poems justify themselves, and perhaps I am sounding increasingly Matthew Arnoldish. In any case, the title poem of Jan. 31 is one of the best poems I have read in years, and the reason it alone must save or almost save this collection, despite the dazzling language throughout the book, is that it happens to be the one poem that connects with a political reality underlying the metaphorical winter…. (pp. 232-33)
Jonathan Katz, "Sing Goddamm," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Winter, 1975, pp. 230-34.