Thomas Graves: Getting to the bottom of Ben Mazer’s poetry
“Mazer is good enough not to care for contemporary fashion”
Reading Ben Mazer’s poems one after the other, or in no particular order, gives the reader the impression of what holding a diamond in the palm of one’s hand must be like: one can turn it this way and that to admire its special schiller, enjoying the cool firmness against one’s hot skin.
I find that this is due to Mazer’s technique of tight-roping between searing candour and calculated conceit: or rather it should be further specified that Mazer’s poetry is at the same time highly culled and dizzyingly human. Thomas Graves, the poet and critic who runs Scarriet, has himself riffed on this idea in his book, Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021), an effusive and lively manifesto unlike any other work of criticism I have read as of yet (save, perhaps, for Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, which too deviates from the traditional academic form). This important point encapsulates within itself two salient aspects of this unusual text: its success in convincing readers of Mazer’s value, and that Graves’ style in itself signals a new, personalized and emotive way of writing and analysing authors.
I should first address Mazer in my own terms. Mazer is a cathedral builder, a demanding maximalist who works with the best materials, the best masters, and produces the best possible results. Thomas Graves seems a kindred spirit with his subject in being a major-minded critic, taking up an eurythmic and consonant view of art and history:
The progress, or movement, within a poem resembles history in poetry generally, which in turn resembles the movement of time and society, which comes to understand beauty as more and more necessary—beauty and its proportionate necessity, which requires beginnings, their middles, and their ends.
He cites Wilde and to a greater degree Eliot (claiming that Mazer follows Eliot’s technique of “hiding oneself in the art”), but above all pins Mazer against Ashbery, whom he sees as his primary competitor, suggesting that “Mazer belongs to that generation of American poetry which has no fame whatsoever”, thereby asking the age-old question: what comes after postmodernism?. He takes this opportunity to express similar anxieties about the contemporary poetry world:
‘The Waste Land’ is a harbinger of all that follows— the professor/poet in the university teaching Creative Writing to students who are sincere at first, but who give up and die in the wood that is the Program Era—the Writing factory which devours itself, as dead leaves fertilize more bad poetry every year.’
The catch is that Ashbery is worthy because he continues a 19th and 20th century tradition today, and Graves, a convinced champion of this heritage, sees that this where Mazer’s value also lies. When he notes that “Mazer walks alone”, he means that Mazer is self-defined as the best of poets are, for it is this self-definition in tandem with their writing in and into tradition that guards them from being mimetic.
In the fragments chosen by Graves, Mazer demonstrates that his way of writing is taut, yet never bland, he is a master in poetry’s deflective qualities, always surprising. Consider, for instance, the poem “Divine Rights”, in which each line strikes the reader:
“Poetry appears to be living.
I heard it strike the sky like keel and thunder worn into evening like a headline’s banter.
I saw it grab my hand like dad in winter.
I walked it home, the sky ripped at the center, dark merchant hulk. Perpetual, aimless Leviathan which strikes the heart of time.
My first knowledge of a light in winter.”
The above demonstrates that Mazer is a seriously lyric poet, spurred by nostalgia and spiritual transcendence: “Poets work within memory—this is their material, since their art is temporal. Kings may be an antiquated subject, but no poet can escape the lineage, the tradition, the aesthetic progress, the self-consciousness, the Romantic trope of childhood, return, prophecy, tradition, birth—and Mazer, self-consciously a major poet (a poet must decide this) takes this on. He learned it from Eliot”, writes Graves. Given that “to watch the growth of a poet today, embracing, against all odds, Romanticism, in a Modernist universe, is a profound pleasure”, it is no surprise that what attracts in Mazer’s poetry is this glamorization of the poetic narrator’s personal history. This is what gives Mazer’s poetry its cinematic and thus very American (with reference to Hollywood) feeling. What’s more, Mazer has an almost supernatural sense of place, creating effervescent cityscapes which he inventories as an ingenious flâneur.
With Mazer as its “living example par excellence”, Romanticism is sketched out as belonging to Ben Mazer and not the other way around. If that seem hyperbolic, that’s because it is, yet Graves’ argument appears justified when we examine Mazer’s technique, which is “guided by exceptional metrical engineering—adept rhythm, assonance, rhyme”. This occurs on an intuitive level (“In an empty swimming pool we saw his grave/A museum display of radiant glowing jade”) and becomes memorable through the homogeneity of Mazer’s long and complex, yet pellucid poems. His rhyme seems effortless, yet it becomes apparent again and again that Mazer overcomes his purely emotional instincts and is in fact a cerebral technician beyond his obvious talent. This is indeed what it comes down to when considering Graves’ entirely valid claim that Mazer is working towards “reshaping” his ascendancy with every poem he writes. To cap off, here’s one final sketch from a Mazer poem that has that lovely, quintessential old-school feel:
“The falling leaves of autumn magazines are framed by nature. Frost said you come too. Your gowns and sandals crown your nakedness, Each season justifies all that you do. The sidewalks spread out their appearances, the towers and the gilding celebrate the dates and calendars, commemorate and underneath it all there’s only you.” (“Autumn Magazines”)
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Andreea Iulia Scridon is a poet and translator. She studied Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. She has a poetry pamphlet, Calendars, forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books and a poetry book, A Romanian Poem, forthcoming with MadHat Press in 2022. Her debut poetry book in Romanian, Hotare (“Borders”), won second place in a national manuscript contest and was published October 2021.
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