The Sorrow of Architecture

Occasionally a book of poems appears which raises central questions about the place of poetry in American culture. For the past several decades, a general complaint has been that poets write mostly for one another; more recently, this charge has been refined to include the observation that prizes and awards are given to poets primarily by other poets, so the poet who knows what prizes he wants will be careful about choosing his audience. The general reader, it is assumed, is beyond the reach of serious poetry, so insularity becomes a means of self-preservation. This attitude appears to be vindicated by another cruel fact: It requires almost no sophistication whatever to be embarrassed by the work of best-selling poets such as James Kavanaugh and Peter McWilliams.

These remarks are prompted by a collection which seems intentionally designed to put off the general reader, whoever that may be; The Sorrow of Architecture has a distinctively “modern” title which will rapidly separate the literalists from those who go along readily with odd propositions in literature. The cover photograph is suggestive but not communicative: a black-and-white shot of four women facing away from the viewer, up a stone stairway whose bottom and top are both out of the picture. The women wear dark hats and dresses, slightly outmoded, and the longer one looks at the picture, the more firmly one is convinced that the picture is posed, that the women have not been snapped in the act of walking up the stairs but are posed in slightly different attitudes suggestive of walking up the stairs. Finally, the book carries a blurb from Richard Howard, pitched high and inside: “What ’works’ in the vanguard poems of Liam Rector is the countervalent impulse to put together, to enclose—what it countervails, of course, is all that vanguardism of taking apart, diffraction. One reads them over and over, wondering how he put so much together and left so much outby repeating and by inventing, and by certain enormous repudiations, as of comfort, as of ease.”

This assessment is balanced by two others, from David St. John and Jordan Smith, who speak of Rector’s “raw, dazzling passion” and his poignancy, eloquence, and responsibility. As a rule, one ought not to review blurbs (Jordan Smith, for example, will perhaps want it known that he did not use the phrase “raw, dazzling passion”). The point here is that the outside of this book conveys strong impressions which will be borne out by a careless glance at the contents.

If these, however, are “vanguard poems”—and in many ways they certainly are, for these poems are obtrusively repetitive, evocative of the “still shots” in Last Year at Marienbad—they are also dependent on some of the oldest devices in Western poetry: narrative, echo, traditional form. Moreover, they often demand emotional responses fully as strong as those so badly aimed at by popular poets.

The opening of “Driving November,” one of three longer poems in the collection, displays a few of the tendencies hinted at so far:

We are driving November we turnedOctober several towns back. We applaudthe passing of all that is innocent we inheritthe road as it is here. You speak of habitas if things do not change I speakof sweet repetition. We are driving November, from harm.

In this poem of little more than one hundred lines, it becomes less and less clear where the “we” might be; they may actually be driving, or they may be imagining driving. Things happen in ways which sometimes seem suggested merely by word association, as in: “We pass/ in the passing lane An old woman/ passes out in the supermarket” and “we sleep it off here We sleep it on and off here/ (Take your clothes off Johnny, it’s time for bedlam).”

By the end of the poem, however, though it is hard to make a literal paraphrase of the “story line,” there is a powerful sense of some deep effort of friendship having passed between the people referred to as “we.” The poem is too long for a definitive demonstration of how well the ending is earned, but the ending is worth quoting:

We didn’t remain there the entire year. Odd jobs.Live fast, die young. Many pass.You and I have dreamt November, from harm.I roll down this window you see

(The entire section is 1914 words.)


Choice. XXII, October, 1984, p. 270.

The Georgia Review. XXXVIII, Fall, 1984, p. 628.

Hudson Review. XXXVII, Spring, 1984, p. 127.