Pulitzer Winner’s ‘Failure’ Less Than Complete Success

Poetry

By Michael Casper

Published August 07, 2008, issue of August 15, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In “Failure,” which shares the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for poetry with a volume by Robert Hass, Philip Schultz departs from the measured reminiscences of his celebrated previous collection, “Living in the Past,” for a series of plainspoken elegies on life’s everyday betrayals. The terse and honest tone for which Schultz, an occasional New Yorker contributor, has come to be known can be found in the book’s diaristic first half and its final 50-plus pages, which comprise a longer and more voluble poem called “The Wandering Wingless.” But where “Living in the Past” used longer lines and book-length narrative (about a boy preparing for his bar mitzvah) to carry this style successfully, much of “Failure” — aptly, but unfortunately — falls short. The lyrics’ rich moments are clouded by a voice so familiar that it can come off as flat, and one too many poems are about the poet’s pet dog.

Four-Legged Muse: Philip Schultz’s dog figures prominently in his latest book of poems.
Four-Legged Muse: Philip Schultz’s dog figures prominently in his latest book of poems.

In one of the first poems, “The Summer People,” a self-deprecating Schultz addresses his perennial theme of acceptance by looking at the thorny relationship between vacationers and resort town locals.

We’re “year rounds,” what the locals call
Summer people who live here full time.
Always in a hurry, the summer people honk a lot,
Own bigger cars and houses. Once I beat a guy
In a pickup to a parking space, our summer sport.
“Lousy New Yorker!” he cried.

In the same poem, Schultz wonders why his handyman, Santos, whom he had considered a friend, disappears after finishing work on the poet’s house. But the issue of his family’s place among locals is unresolved. Compare how another Pulitzer Prize winner, the great James Merrill, once tackled these themes in a poem with the same title. Nearly 40 years ago, in ballad form, Merrill pitted the lifestyle of New York’s weekend warriors against that of a beach town’s Hispanic working class.

“Manuel, there have been winters.
We stayed here,” Nora said.
“That makes us year-round people.”
The grocer scratched his head.

Merrill, like Schultz, could muse on the mundane, and even immortalized the family dog in verse himself, but he was also willing to explore the hidden mechanism that provokes the poem’s problem (grocer’s response: “I guess I don’t mean season/So much as point of view.”). Schultz tends to stop short of providing a philosophy to support his experience. He prefers to sit back and let events speak for themselves.

Dreams recur as inspirations for Schultz’s musings. Visited in his sleep by apparitions, he invites them to hold frank conversations. In one poem, Isaac Babel haunts the author and proposes a new explanation of his murder at the hands of Stalin’s regime:

not because I was an admired, if
unproductive, Jewish writer,
but because I made sentences
as resolute as a woman’s ankle,
which he (who did not know
a knuckle from a semicolon),
stayed up nights, dissecting
like grasshoppers.

Schultz, who is the founder and director of The Writers Studio, an educational center in New York, has much to teach his readers about the ironic successes of being domestic. He reveres his senescence and pushes his audience to relive the routine indignities of family life. The mood is private, even when Schultz is clear and funny. In “The Wandering Wingless,” about a New York City dog walker, Schultz’s wry witticisms are propelled by chatty narration that reads like work from the circle of the Beats.

And yet, many pick up poetry books to hear something amazing done with language. As poet and critic Ann Lauterbach once rightfully noted, too many poems are “little prose essays, broken along their syntactic scaffolds into lines.” “Failure” spoke to the judges at the Pulitzer Prize, and stands as a testament to his commitment to the craft, but may not reach, or call back for more reads, those used to something more beautiful and strange.

Michael Casper is a writer living in New York.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.