Greg Kuzma Critical Essays

Kuzma, Greg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kuzma, Greg 1944–

Kuzma is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

If there is a key poem in [Kuzma's] collection Good News, it is "Advice on Reading the Confessional Poet." Although Kuzma is reacting against the excesses of the confessional poets, the poem also indicates a distaste for autobiography and self-revelation. He does not parade his secrets before the reader; instead he writes poems which are warm, tender, full of good humor, often sensitive, highly crafted with a sheen akin to that of minimal art. Many poems are technical exercises, set pieces and vignettes which explore "typical" objects and events…. "The Aged" begins: "First the hair flies south. / The skin grows stiff as old sails." "Pants":

                  I am led.
                  My pants lead me.
                  They want to sit down
                  on smooth benches….          (p. 169)

The reader wonders, are these pants Platonic forms, or Jungian archetypes? Is this the quintessential "pantsness" of pants, the way it really feels to wear them, or the way they feel? The poem shows inventiveness, observation, wit; the theme (I would call it a metaphor if it stood for anything other than itself) takes on a life of its own and becomes pure fiction; it ends up as a fantasy about pants, and is cut off from the world. Many of these poems represent ideal worlds, where the reader can find charm, intelligence, and sweetness; they are escapes, but civilized escapes.

I have always enjoyed reading Kuzma's poems when I saw them in magazines; when read individually, in small doses, they are impressive. But I think there is a problem with this collection: there is too much good humor and the poems are too uniformly benign, too sweet. Frequently the fantasy involves a calculated lack of feeling, as in "The Aged," or "The Freeze", which begins: "The hand freezes. / The finger lies dead beneath the flag / of skin. / The arm freezes." Pain is excluded from Kuzma's world by an artificial act of will, and this completely undermines his notion of "good news" in the title poem. He does not bring us good news about the world, but only a fantasy of it—and that is bad news. Many of these poems are highly polished, winning, fairy tales for adults, often with a decorative fauxnaïf tone, but those I liked most struck a more personal note, such as "Hose and Iron". (p. 170)

John R. Carpenter, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1974.

In the past few years Greg Kuzma has published at least ten collections of poems and has appeared in every conceivable (and often inconceivable) publication. By way of contrast, it has been five years between Gary Snyder's Regarding Wave and Turtle Island. And therein lies a tale: Kuzma has managed himself in much the manner Colonel Tom Parker managed Elvis; he has taken a strong talent and done a first class job of marketing, marketed it so well in fact that the talent, which is nearly always a slow and cumbersome beast, that the talent has taken a back seat to the marketeer.

At his best, Kuzma is alert to landscape and rhythms of process, a landbound creature alive with the processes of living. (p. 66)

[Recently] his poems [have] become more talkative, as though the poet in the scope of this grand advertising scheme had become fascinated with the sound of his own voice, so fascinated that everything becomes the small, rather talkative poem, the poetic utterance. Few since Dr. Williams have been successful at mastering the brief daily poem, and it is unfortunate that Kuzma cannot be counted among that number. With the publication of The Buffalo Shoot Kuzma slips again into talky, substanceless and unmoving poems despite the line here and there tattling on his former regard for self-discipline. A few pages into the book I began to feel a resentment: Dammit, Kuzma! you are better than this, you can be better. But you won't do it if you have to sacrifice your own marketability, will you! (p. 68)

It has been sixty years since Pound observed that poetry ought to be at least as well written as prose. I cannot, in all fairness, say that The Buffalo Shoot is that well written any more than I can say that the buffalo shooters are better mountain men than Kuzma is poet. Ducks in a barrel. The syntax is often awkward and/or broken for no apparent reason. Grammar is almost accidental. The book is nicely printed on good paper, and I daresay Basilisk Press worked harder on these poems than did the poet. Picture of the poet, back cover: shaggy, dirty-looking hair & tee-shirt, looking rather like Joe Cocker, post-concert. And therein lies the tale. (p. 69)

Sam Hamill, in Margins (copyright © 1975 by Margins), March, 1975.

In titling his book Good News, Greg Kuzma confirms his wish to have the book be "generous and affirmative." But that good, generous affirmative news and wish prove to be part of a larger movement which is not afraid to encounter and embrace things of weight and density of another kind—the floor that cannot be divided up in a parental divorce settlement, a howling in the hills, jealously for secret lives of others we cannot intrude upon except as voyeurs. And it is these complexities of intention which define the book and make it an important one.

The poems in Good News … show the poet telling us about himself in ways that are intimate and fabulous at the same time. What Kuzma does not want to do very soon becomes clear. He does not want to make us feel safe. He does not want to confess. He does not want words to sound clever on his tongue. And what he does not want relates strategically to what he wants. He wants to engage us. He wants to witness and to bear witness to. He wants to recreate, rediscover, and rewrite—to reuse possible words for flower and woman, say "nasturtium" and "wife."

Kuzma's poetry is fresh, sexual, and confident. He resists giving in to the indulgent, exhibitionist poetry of the badly confessional poet who writes, finally, out of a sense of helplessness rather than strength. It is not that Kuzma is unwilling to acknowledge the need for help—which he sees related to love and tenderness, and to poems which seek those out—but that he refuses to wallow in the pathos and bathos which so much contemporary poetry hugs to itself like a teddy bear….

Some of the poems make satire seem strained, or irony, heavy; and in poems echoic of other poems and poets … Kuzma deserts his truer talents for something else. For me, Kuzma is most successful and most himself when he writes a lyric that shows how much pleasure and surprise poetry can yield…. (p. 98)

Arthur Oberg, "Or Else/Nothing," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1976, pp. 98-9.