I recently read John Hodgen's latest book of poetry, Grace. I read it because I had discovered an earlier book of his by accident and was very surprised -- and pleased -- at how good it was.
So it was with eagerness that I picked up Grace, only to be brought up short. I didn't like it. Whereas his earlier book, Bread Without Sorrow, was fresh & sincere, without the calculated artifice of overwrought workshop poems, Grace seemed full of store-bought, over the counter poetry-isms -- depth through obscurity, overly meaningful tableaux with no action, the poet's childhood as fodder for self-reflection...
But the real problem was not the book, but my reaction. Was it really that bad? Or had I built up an inflated view of Hodgen from his first book? And was my reaction to the first book equally unjust in the opposite direction? Did I inflate the success of his first book simply because my expectations were low or nonexistent? In other words, was it the poetry or was it me?
In the end, it must be a little of both. I know enough to be able to tear the poems in his new book to shreds from a critical perspective. The opening poem ("Clay County") with its self-conscious realism in the first line ("Just past Kellie Mae's Klip 'n' Dip Beauty Salon"), the didactic symbolism to objects in the scene, the poetic but obscure lines like "the buckwheat field opens like grace", the lack of conclusion... This is the sort of writing that makes me cringe inside when I read it. And, yes, it is a disappointment coming after the frankness and striking beauty of Bread Without Sorrow.
One of the trademarks of the earlier book is that you can't pull out a line here or there and hold it up as "poetic". The poems are holistic and operate like self-enclosed universes that must be taken on their own terms. The new book feels more like a poetry we are used to, that revels in its own style as much as its message.
But this is not the first time I've been disappointed by over-anticipation. It happens to me in music all the time. What happened to John Doe on his last two albums? And I've had 10-15 years to acclimatize myself to David Bowie's new sound -- and still don't like it. But I've also had those opinions turn the other way. I was not a fan of Roxy Music when I first heard them, but discovered that I enjoyed the overt imitative nature of their music which had at first put me off. Ditto Bob Marley and the Wailers, and others. Part of this is growing up, possibly smartening up, and just learning/getting used to new things.
So, is it me or the artist? In reality, I suspect it to be an interaction between the art work and my varying conglomeration of biases. The fact is I have biases, strong ones. And they often spill over in a form of guilt by association. I don't like "I Shot the Sheriff". Never did, doubt if I ever will. But the problem is that that first experience poisoned me to reggae (and Eric Clapton) for quite awhile. The same applies to poetry. I've been to a university poetry program, I've been in workshops and I despise the bad habits and cheap tricks they teach writers. And I am very quick (perhaps overly quick) to identity these tricks & bad habits in other writers.
Which brings us back to Grace. John Hodgen is a good poet, no doubt about that. He has, in my eyes, fallen for a few of the common traps of the professional poet in his latest book. But in truth it is still a very good book, with a number of strong poems. And it might just be that he is trying out something new that I am just not used to and am misinterpreting as practiced artifice.
I'm not sure. Only time will tell. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one.