Death Poems by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’m disappointed because I had been told I would love this book, I guess because I’ve had some “horror poetry” books published over the years. Mebbe so, but I’ve had far more books of poetry in other forms published. It’s simple, and I kind of feel this largely applies to this author’s entire canon — I like the themes, tone, morbid world view (much of which I tend to share), but that doesn’t make this guy a good writer and for god’s sake, I doubt anything could save this train wreck of so-called poems that don’t suck because they are formal or because they’re confessional or populist or postmodern or experimental or anything. He’s just a really bad poet! And honestly there’s no shame in that. It’s irritated the shit out of me to see and hear more and more people over the past couple of decades excitedly telling everyone they write poetry. At this point in time, EVERYONE thinks they’re a poet, and damn good at that. Trouble is that’s bullshit and always has been! Just because you throw together a few lines, maybe even self-publish a small volume of verse, doesn’t make you a fucking poet! I cringe every time I have to go to a wedding or funeral cause I know I’ll hear the worst kind of crap written by sincere, well meaning people. And they’ll get applause. From an audience that doesn’t realize the stuff they grew up reading and studying 50 years ago is so obsolete and a part of the distant past, they don’t realize they’re both showing themselves to be amateurs and a bit ignorant. Not that one has to be on the cutting edge. Many mainstream poets I can’t stand are still GOOD at their craft. Many populist poets, spurned by the Academy, like Bukowski, despite the image he fostered, knew how to write a poem and good ones. He knew the literary and poetic “rules” AND he knew how and when to bend or break them and pull it off effortlessly. Here’s a very famous American writer nearly everyone in the world has heard of and who has millions of fans (including me). Could tell a mean story, had real talent and influence. Most people can name more than one of his novels. But how many people know the titles of Jack Kerouac’s books of poetry? Right, no one. And I have them all. The fact is, no matter how famous or successful a writer he was, he was by god one of the absolute worst published poets of the past century! Wretched shit! Just cause you think you know poetry or you put lines down or a couple of people make flattering comments doesn’t mean you’re a real poet and certainly doesn’t mean you’re GOOD (using Kerouac as an example). People object and argue It’s subjective, and there is a bit of truth to that, but that’s not limited to poetry. That’s the argument made and the difference between the hard sciences and the soft or social sciences. You could make a legitimate argument that not only are poetry and literature subjective, but so are philosophy, religion, the arts, social studies, etc. But that’s why some general guidelines exist in each of these areas. That’s why you will study Hegel, Sartre, and Schopenhauer in philosophy but if you innocently (and ignorantly) ask virtually any philosopher or philosophy professor why we don’t study Ayn Rand, you typically get one of two reactions: side splitting laughter lasting uncomfortably too long or a hostile lecture about what a lightweight dittobrain brain she was, a “faux” intellectual whose “school” of philosophy she created is viewed as little different from how L Ron Hubbard is generally viewed. And they’re right about her. And just to prove I don’t have an anti-Rand bias, I was devastated when I found that one of my favorite writers and philosophers, a damn Nobel winner, ALSO typically isn’t included in Philosophy syllabi or viewed as a “real” philosopher — Camus! And I’ve long thought he was one of the three greatest existential philosophers in history, a view not shared by the “pros.” See, there are guidelines that can be employed that AREN’T necessarily in black and white, thus allowing a Donald Hall and Mark Strand to co-exist with Bukowski and Ferlinghetti as “legit” poets — even if that doesn’t always sit well with them. So Ligotti? I’ve gone on too long now and am tired, but it doesn’t matter if your language is formal, informal, experimental, etc. It still has to flow, to “sound” good on the page. If formal, what fits into the rules of rhyme, meter, stanzas, etc., must sound as natural as possible, must flow, not draw attention to itself and detract from the overall poem because it feels and seems forced. And while it’s harder to argue for rule adherence in free verse, just that one topic still applies. The language should actually seem and sound MORE natural, normal, flow comfortably, even in the case of surrealists or LANGUAGE poets. Because they know what they’re doing, what rules they’re intentionally breaking and why they MAY be successful at it. Ligotti’s poetry is made up of lines, words choices, a stilted dictation and lack of flow; it distracts from any point or message he may or may not be attempting to convey. It’s amateurish, buffoonish. It sounds like someone’s illiterate grandpa might. Fans may protest and argue “That’s the point, you dolt! He’s TRYING to make people uncomfortable with his poetry and his writing style, word choices, grammar usages, etc., are all part of that. How stupid are you?” (Meaning me.) Well, a rebuttal that’s I think many would agree with is been there, done that. It’s not remotely original but is definitely legitimate. I’ve done that myself with a number of poems and short stories when I was experimenting with postmodern metafiction. But while legit, just because someone may attempt to do that doesn’t mean they succeed or are any good. Which is the case here. I’ll end by throwing out a few names of authors who did exactly that, but SUCCESSFULLY, and are well known and loved by many (though still rarely in academia). One considered one of the best was William Burroughs, starting with his infamous Naked Lunch and most of his work thereafter. He and a partner are credited with popularizing and honing the “cut up method” to create almost meaningless text but still text one could get something out of. Ironically he was not the first, as Tristan Tzara and the Dadaist movement actually created and generated that technique. In the horror genre, there are fiction writers and the occasional poet who venture there (and also not “straight” horror, but more like dark surrealism that can incorporate horror elements). In no particular order, some who come to mind might include Anthony Burgess, who was SO linguistically experimental in his shock novel A Clockwork Orange that he had to spend an ungodly amount of time inventing a new damn language to fit the characters and the book (complete with glossary at back). Obviously Vonnegut, but some more current writers in the field who may occasionally succeed where Ligotti does not might include Boston, Crawford, Wayne AS, and most obvious of all, the late Harlan Ellison. I’m not saying this author has to be or become them. But he’d be well advised to do what most serious, professional writers do, and that’s study and analyze them to see where and how he/one can grow and improve, with your own voice intact ultimately. But until Ligotti shows evidence he’s done that, or from little I know of him, even gives a shit, I’ll continue to feel generous in giving 2 stars to this book and he’ll forever be relegated to the barely knowns, the wannabes, the amateurs who some think know what they are doing when such writers really don’t. Not recommended.