Dethlefsen, Huston, & Larkin: Heartland Hope vs. Old-World Ennui

Recently I had the opportunity to review Bruce Dethlefesen’s breather and Karla Huston’s An Inventory of Lost Things for Verse Wisconsin magazine. Huston’s collection opens with a quotation from Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” which got me to thinking about differences between that worthy English poet’s work and the worthy work of Huston and Dethlefsen.

Certainly I’ve loved Larkin’s verse ever since stumbling across “Days” in college. I’d note that there are few things more pleasurable than reading aloud “The Whitsun Weddings” (or hearing Larkin read it, as at that link), the way it picks up steam, chugs along through images of English farms and towns, and finally slows to an end, following the poet’s train ride across the countryside to end in London. And to be honest, in “Sunny Prestatyn” I always choke at the line “She was too good for this world,” even though “she” is simply an image on a billboard advertising a holiday camp. Of course, I also admire the subtle composition of that poem—so subtle one has to read it specifically for structure to notice those masterful end rhymes.

All that having been said, I do eventually tire of Larkin’s nearly unrelenting dreariness. Although his verse demonstrates the continual liveliness of a master’s artistry, the mood conveyed is universally weary. Larkin’s sophisticated ennui simply cannot allow itself relief from sadness. (Larkin said he wrote sad poems because he believed most people are sad.) Even at his lightest, Larkin is bitingly sardonic.

Reading Dethlefsen and Huston in this context, I was suddenly struck with how differently Midwestern poets such as these two convey sadness. Neither Dethlefsen nor Huston shy away from pain or grief. Much of their work is specifically about the disconnect between people, the hurts we inflect upon one another, the ways in which negative emotions can swamp us. What’s more, these poets communicate those emotions frankly, genuinely, and artistically. But unlike Larkin, they cannot help but hope, it seems. That is to say, much of their verse is playful. Sometimes their language simply laughs. And those moments of humor are infectious—the honest grin rather than the wry, self-conscious smile of the sophisticate.

This, I suspect, is a gift creatives from the heartland of any nation can offer to the world-weary intellects of the coastal cities. If we pledge ourselves to weep frankly and to laugh genuinely—in equal measure—perhaps we may break through the shell of sophisticated ennui, and make a truly human connection with our readers.

—Lester Smith, President, Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets

Originally published in WFOP Fall 2010 Museletter.

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