The Nature of Things Fragile: A Review

The Nature of Things Fragile by Peter Vertacnik. Criterion Books, 2024. Paperback. 96 pp. $24.99.

The past five years have been a tough time for formal poetry. Academia has solidified its grip on the literary establishment, and in order to support a huge increase in the number and size of MFA programs, they needed to make it quick and easy for students to produce “content.” That need explains why we see hundreds of memoirs each year from writers who have not lived long enough to have interesting lives—particularly since they have spent most of their youth in suffocating classrooms. It is also why we see poets producing tidal waves of hastily written “prose poetry” that says nothing interesting and pays no visible attention to the rhythm or sound of its words.

Most contemporary free verse is not much better than the prose poetry—it is just prose hastily lineated in a way vaguely reminiscent of great free verse poets of the past. Mass production accelerates each April when thousands of poets, egged on by the major poetry institutions, celebrate National Poetry Month by producing (and usually sharing online) a poem each day, a schedule that effectively eliminates opportunities for craft and artistic ambition.

In these adversarial times it is not enough for our literary gatekeepers to support a new approach to poetry; the ideological enforcers have to neutralize the heretics. As an example, Professor David Orr of the University of Virginia recently trashed the great formal poet Anthony Hecht in the New York Times (even though Orr’s own work pales in comparison to Hecht’s) and went on to declare that Hecht’s formalism “is wildly out of step with contemporary practice.” Zeal for “contemporary practice” by English departments and associate deans has in the last decade killed off the few academic safe havens for formal poetry, which were located at the University of Evansville, West Chester State University, and Western Colorado University. Literary journals also adhere to “contemporary practice”; the young screeners at most of the venerable literary journals in the United States will automatically reject formal poetry so that the editors do not even have to see them.

As in any apocalyptic movie, there are still scattered outposts of resistance. For poetry book competitions the most well-known and prestigious center of resistance is The New Criterion Poetry Prize, which has been won by such distinguished poets as Adam Kirsch, Moira Egan, Ned Balbo, Deborah Warren, and Bill Coyle. This year’s winner is Peter Vertacnik’s The Nature of Things Fragile.

Vertacnik is a Florida teacher widely respected in formalist poetry circles both for his poems and for his curation of a Twitter timeline called Good Forgotten Poems (@ForgottenGPoems). He studied under two powerhouses at the University of Florida, poet Ange Mlinko and poet-critic William Logan. In a 2021 interview he cited W.H. Auden and Anthony Hecht as major influences. (2)

Almost all of the poems in The Nature of Things Fragile are metrical, and most of them also use rhyme. His diction usually lacks the ornamentation of Auden and Hecht; his style seems closer to the plain language of Robert Frost. His book demonstrates mastery of most of the major received forms, but his most inventive work may be in his epigrams.

The ancient Roman poet Martial is still the godfather of the epigram. This link has largely restricted the epigram in English to humorous poetry, most notably in the twentieth century by J.V. Cunningham. The last few words of a contemporary epigram tend to function very much like the punchline in standup comedy. Vertacnik follows this template in a few of his epigrams, such as “Hyperopia” and “Patient.”

There are a handful of poets who have written epigrams that play off of the expectations created by the tradition, particularly Howard Nemerov. In “War Graves” Nemerov wrote about a serious subject in a serious way and totally blunted the comic effects of rhyme by using an ugly off-rhyme:

Across the field, above our bulldozed dead,
Their individual crosses stand parade.

In “Power to the People” (a popular sixties protest slogan) Nemerov created “high” expectations in the first line, and then crushed them with an unrhymed line that includes a fussily expressed, yet still grotesque, trope:

Why are the stamps adorned with kings and presidents?
That we may lick their hinder parts and thump their heads.

In order to make room for its serious point, Nemerov suppresses the humor so he generates no belly laugh, although perhaps he stirs a delayed wry smile.

In his epigrams Vertacnik seems to adopt some of Nemerov’s strategies. His “In Memory of Ray Dolby” (the inventor of a breakthrough system for reducing background noise of recordings) makes a serious point, but ends with lyric intensity and the somberness of an epitaph rather than the humorous release of a punchline:

He challenged noise and won,
rinsing the hiss from analog
recordings the way the sun,
on humid mornings, dissolves the fog.

His teacher’s lament “Standardized” is four lines of rhymed iambic tetrameter, perhaps the best combination for comic verse.

Numb hours of teaching to the test
and hours more of silent filling,
filling of bubbles. A bored unrest
of minds, compliant though not willing.

The grim message of the poem hits a little harder through its failure to satisfy the expectations created by its brevity, rhyme, and meter.

Vertacnik obviously loves short poems, and sometimes he moves away from the traditional epigram to the haiku in such beautiful gems as “Early June, Mid-Michigan” and “Winter Palette.” He stretches the form a bit in “After,” a poem written in three haiku (or haiku-like depending on your definition of the form) stanzas:

On the table
purple asters curl
in a vase,

despite the water
he gingerly adds.
Gold centers darken.

Each stem loosens
from that spray
her hands arranged.

In isolation “After” is striking but somewhat cryptic, but in context of the book it is clear that this poem reflects on the impending death of the poet’s father.

The poems that dominate this book are the dozen in which the poet wrestles with the long and difficult death of his father. In the course of developing his manuscript Vertacnik probably received the well-intentioned advice to group these poems in one section and put them in linear order. Wisely, he did not do so. Grief is not a linear experience; unexpected associations hit a person at unexpected times and memories of long ago both cushion and explain the horrid present, thus the organization of the book mirrors the experience of grieving.

The harbinger for these poems of grieving is a sestina called “Departure,” which deals with the father’s traumatic departure from a house where he has lived for more than two decades. Although this departure comes before the father’s medical decline, it establishes a foundation for the poems to come. The recurring end-word “drink” drives home the father’s struggle with alcohol. We also start to learn about family tensions as the poem predicts a younger brother “stomping through the empty house,/will scream, ‘Why do we have to leave’?”, a question of the moment that inadvertently also raises the issue of mortality.

The two poems that follow “Departure” begin to flesh out the situation. “Balance” is a tale of the father being tough about the pain incurred while learning to ride a bike. One senses mostly mild resentment, but perhaps also some recognition that toughening up a child for the greater pains to come is not simply self-absorbed indifference. The next poem, a double triolet called “Reading Together,” opens up the main subject with seriousness of purpose. It juxtaposes a happy memory of the father reading to his four-year old son in 1981 with a jarring account of his father trying to read out loud in 2016.

The most successful poem of mourning is “False Elegy Beginning With the Moon,” which recounts “a limited recovery” near the end of his father’s life that surprised the doctors and priests (an experience I have had with my father as well). It is right out of the Robert Frost playbook with its five six-line stanzas of loose blank verse, a little dialogue, images that speak without commentary by the poet, and its powerful closing line (“holding fast to its brief and borrowed light”), which allows him to achieve sentiment without sentimentality.

To be fair, Vertacnik does not entirely ignore his mother, although “Bedtime Story” is an attempt to face another grief, which is the death of a young sibling spelled out more clearly in the opening poem, “Art.” A more upbeat recollection of his mother’s recollecting is “My Mama’s Schmaltz.”

To be even more fair, not every poem in The Nature of Things Fragile is grim. “Apology to Candles” is a quiet, quietly funny poem with serious undertones. Slow adopter of new technologies that I am, I particularly enjoyed his “In Praise of Blank Cassettes.”

This impressive book provides more evidence that the David Orrs of the world and their insistence on “contemporary practice” in poetry have not been able to crush the holdouts committed to skilled use of the traditional tools of poetry.

A.M. Juster is the poetry editor for Plough. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review and The Paris Review. His eleventh book is a reconstruction of a lost comedy of Aristophanes based on surviving fragments in secondary sources, Gerytades: An Aristophanes Play…sort of (Contubernales Books 2023). Next year Paul Dry Books will publish his first children’s book, Girlatee, and W.W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere.

*Image Credit: “Opstilling med lilla asters i en kurv, 1912” by Axel Johansen


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