Robert (Schaeffer) Phillips Alan Williamson - Essay

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Phillips's poetry has the surface virtues of clarity, verbal gamesmanship, descriptive grace. But the substance of the theme-and-variations poems that make up most of The Pregnant Man too often reminds me of the exercises given out in slightly trendy or "experimental" writing workshops. Take a myth, give it a more cynical—or more psychoanalytic—moral than it usually has, then write it up in slang, mentioning diaphragms, Forest Hills, and Truman Capote. Take a dead metaphor involving a part of the body … and literalize it…. Phillips's relentless reliance on cliché in these poems will doubtless strike some readers as purposeful, a rueful commentary on the inescapable banality of our true feelings. For me, it mainly adds an unpleasing brittleness of tone to what remains—even when touched with lyric grace, as in "The Head"—a poetry written to formula, with an almost indecently built-in claim to extreme levels of psychic pain. Joyce Carol Oates has recommended this book to feminists—a recommendation the title rather solicits—as an instance, assuming one is needed, of "'feminine' sensibility (and, indeed, suffering)" in men [see excerpt above]. In fact, the book has little to say about whether, and how, "sensibility" is related to gender; what Oates seems—to me, rather appallingly—to class as "feminine" is Phillips's indulgence in feelings of helplessness, allegorized rather than explored or tested in terms of reality.

When the resistance of reality is felt, to whatever degree, Phillips's work almost invariably becomes more agreeable in tone, and his technical resources come to the fore. The small group of poems I really enjoyed in this book would include "Transfer of Title," "Corn Flakes," "Happenings," "Giacometti's Race" …, and—best of all, despite a conspicuous theft from Williams's "The Dance"—the exuberant "Burchfield's World"…. (pp. 348-49)

Alan Williamson, "In a Middle Style," in Poetry (© 1980 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXV. No. 6, March, 1980, pp. 348-54.∗