Roth as Poet

, Philip Roth (280pp, Cape)

You couldn't imagine most poets as bullies. They're too busy brooding and generally lacking one layer of skin. The famous male poets whom you know you could imagine as bullies. Ruthless, cutting, mean. They might lack the relentlessness of a true bully. So many writers have been bullied at school (school is the graveyard of idealism for so many) that they gesture to the arena of raised idealism and raised hope; then all too soon send the reader thus raised crashing back to earth. At its simplest, one is soon again the embittered survivor, who "got through" the school bullying experience even less successfully than the writer because with no writing about it to show; who is "not going there again"; never fully being idealistic, or open to respect, for all again. (I am not blaming parents here; I am talking of those who may well have some love at home, who are sent to school with kids who do not have love at home and set the tone of school, unless there is an inspiring headmaster).

The average poet (unknown, little known or little publicized) is not expected to be a bully. Perhaps he or she is expected a little to have been the victim? There are expectations about poetry as a calling, that only vaguely yet indelibly translate into what the Poetic Qualities of a Work With Poetic Qualities might be. I shall forebear to refer to those who think an art-form being Poetic (in form) is to do with nicely turned memorable fragments or memorable images or a solipsistic logic, jumping the tracks of normal logic. More and more, all art-forms now are "poetic" merely formally, which might be why poetry on the page has such little audience. It no longer represents an alternative paradigm, and most people read for the paradigm and don't really see the specific use of it much.

The novelist is different. One could imagine a novelist, someone who works for at least a year on a book in which all the paragraphs fill all the white spaces of all the pages and all the paragraphs join together. The novelist is somehow burdened like Atlas with carrying a concerted narrative on the shoulders, almost as an accountant keeping tidy accounts. The novelist is not concerned with head whirling and is only partially involved with the common man's sense of time and reality at all times. One expects finesse from a writerly novelist. (One expects very little from other novelists except that they provide rapid page turning and film adaptation, and ever cruder characters and plotting. I am not even really thinking them of "novelists". Crude storytelling too is a paradigm which is everywhere now. Unfortunately poets too are buying into this crudity.)

The novelists are keeping as calm and organized as accountants. The poets are pining for attention, the novelists for time to write. (Incidentally, I say Thank God for accountants, and novelists, their organizing powers).


Many of the novelists with a distinctive authorial voice one could imagine, as with a famous poet, as a bully. There is a seeming voice to the work of famous poets.  those of us who read a lot of poetry, who read more poets than novelists. Poets can see through that and can often hear echoes of other poets famous in death after the attrition of decades, the test of time; we hear a sort of voice as essence of all the poets in a classic anthology that the general reader mistakes for a Poetic voice. The general reader is not so easily fooled about novelists with a distinctive authorial voice. Those that seem to have one, have one. What is true is that one can imagine the ruthless, cutting, mean bullying-complicit not anti-bullying quality in all of the writers with a voice.

Because I believe in the survival of poetry, and love the dead poets deservedly famous (if under-understood), and want to see poetry alive and spontaneous in every year of the human race's life, I love the writing of Philip Roth. Because I believe there can be a public voice of poetry, a widely read poet worthy the name poet, I love this work. Saul Bellow (considered a writerly novelist) mentions poets: Larkin in More Die of Heartbreak; his Humboldt's Gift is ostensibly about a poet, and based on the real Bellow's close working relationship with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Yet for me Bellow is not poetic. Bellow is looking at poetry as the lost art, while not really lamenting its departure, exoticizing the poet as a social type, and writing in a language oddly dead, oddly committed to the risk of the poetic. The risk of the poetic is the vulnerable tone, as the the novel is being written, the vulnerable tone as a play or a poem is being written. Nobody has noticed that Bellow took the risk while the work was being written and failed. They didn't notice because Bellow did produce novels, and his books work as novels, divorced from the poetic, dumped by it. Philip Roth, by contrast, does not quite produce novels. Roth is not good at endings, with the exception for me of My Life As a Man and The Humbling; not good at bringing the plot, the novel as conventionally imagined, to a close. Portnoy's Complaint ends on a good punch line, but has lost some of its way in the closing pages before then, vibrant as the book's overall impact is.

Roth has been doing what one has been expecting of the poets: he is bringing a poetic tone and a poetic architecture from word to word on every page, and keeping it going from page to page. He is being poetic, publically. He has brought everybody from his boyhood school classes into his books with him, and they have a good chance of reading his books if they choose to persevere, with considerable returns on their investments.

He has addressed school, where everyone publically meets over language, head on. Up until this new book, the very appropriately named Nemesis, he has not explicitly addressed bullying.

The new book throws light back on Roth's oeuvre, as a struggle to take bullying on, to come to the point. Nemesis is a risk taken with the oeuvre. Roth has previously swaggered in his oeuvre, and provoked. He has been very fond of experiments in seeing the past in an entirely new light: both in the Counterlife and Operation Shylock, which imagine alter-egos taking the actual facts of their biography close to Roth's own and apart from his in denouements;  actively arguing for a different meaning to the biography as summarized, the meaning of a life. More recently he imagined an America in WW2 coming close to fascism when Lindbergh and not Roosevelt wins the presidency, a national counterlife. Even there, Roth is not merely nostalgic, not the science fiction writer warning that everything may all be different and for the worse or mostly for the better. Roth's mind moves with great curiosity among every particular of an alternative reality, and counts the cost that a detail of life under a Lindbergh presidency, lost under the Roosevelt presidency which actually took place. Certainly the Plot Against America is nostalgic, but its sense of the naughty makes it more than nostalgic. To imagine a family named after his, with a brother named after his, who behaves quite badly under the Lindbergh presidency, feels very daring. Not merely comic, or aimed for a laugh; no, daring.

(This is what a true poet does over every line break, and verse break, does and what the opening minutes of some films do. They live in a temporary ambiguity. They do not live in permanent terminal ironic ambiguity, a charge Donald Davie once levelled against Geoffrey Hill. The hero of Nemesis has been characterised by some reviewers as indecisive or weak, and yet Roth builds sympathy for him as someone who chooses, and then chooses again, credibly each time by emotion; choosing as the poetic do.)

As Roth moves over his own vertiginous pauses, he sometimes swaggers. One is suspicious of anyone with such a swagger, and of the sympathy that swaggerers ask. He has seemed to frame his own progress as one of a put-upon polite person learning to fight back. He was trapped in a very unhappy first marriage, which he wanted to escape. He struggled to escape, and his "nemesis" like wife then died in a car crash. He moved to England for many years. After the end of a second marriage, he had a lot of media criticism of his conduct in the marriage and divorce (although, of course, who can know the facts of this?). His public persona is in no position to issue wisdoms. People would prefer him to be, like Howard Jacobson, a grumpy old man with some nicely turned phrases and perhaps some heartbreaking moments. This is not Roth's game.

I find this book a good move. For the wider public, most literature has left most people behind, with sanctimony and an enclave perspective in the last 40 years.  Where is literature now? Roth has lately diagnosed a lack of interest in reading novels, and yet one can see a Sophie's World, a song of meaning, being bought and read, as a book not an e-book, a place of quiet and truthseeking to be carried around in public. As many have, I have had the experience of reading a book while sitting on public transport, and feeling somehow closer to people, more empowered. I might cross the carriage to say hello to someone reading a book of contemporary poetry that elates me, and become a friend maybe - it's almost a kind of free love hippy bond. I would not read a page of my contemporary book to my neighbour if they showed interest. I might "perform" it, but I would not hand it over.


Nemesis makes you look back on the rest of Roth's work, and might well make one go to the whole work if it were one's first Roth book, as the Plot against America was mine. Nemesis doesn't make you feel "here's Roth going on and on". It raises questions that make one want to read the rest of the work to see if there are answers. The questions are raised by the movement of the form, not by the movement of the narrative. It's not in itself a good story, or a classic. It makes one think. What can be addressed now in a book with no pictures? I would say, Read it because it's really well written and very little is these days. Really really well.

It does not reveal to everyone that it is about boys' experience of bullying, that there is empty justice, a lie called justice, a hypocrisy of justice, in the world; that something nearly dies unnecessarily in childhood. It explains some of the strange dead zombie flesh in so many men still alive today, in the men to whom children turn today for guidance and openness and help. Reading Roth seems to have nothing to do with caring about children because there's often explicit sex in it or much swearing. And for compelling reasons in the oeuvre. But here there is a focus, a risk taken with the oeuvre, a sense of the tragedy of one's own battle (not the failure, for others can see tragedies of misunderstanding, the adult author with more to say to kids than teachers or kids' authors). In Nemesis, there is no explicit sex and swearing, except at the end, and it is more like allowed, earned adultness according to the conventions of so much dull literature. Parasitically. It's almost a vision of the redemption of time, of what the whole of history would have to do to right itself. Or rather, it provokes one to yearn for this more, again.


The book would seem to be about polio, and about epidemic, in America in the 40s. It could hint at later anxieties to come, about sexually transmitted diseases bringing out the conservative and the reactionary as an over-reaction. It hints at fears of liberalism and leftism, fear of freedom, and has been associated with Camus's La Peste, which Roth was reading when he was about to write Nemesis. More closely, Nemesis hints, because polio actually thrived in the very conditions of high domestic hygeine that eliminated other diseases, at rebellion against the over-cleaning prissy, a regular theme in Roth. Yet, for me, it is about bullying.

Reviewers have noted that the hero Bucky Cantor is someone who might or might not be to blame, in some sense, for some of the deaths from polio, by hideous accidents of fate, in 40s Newark. Much has been made of fate as a grim reaper in Roth's late work.  a grim reaper is not a nemesis, because its counteraction is not specific to each victim; it is an indiscriminate scythe. Bucky Cantor's other role in the book is as a defender of young children, someone who credibly sees off bullies, and yet is not controlling, who allows boys to be boys. He is a father figure, warm and dutiful and rewarded by many with love, not least from the narrator who (as one of the boys protected by Bucky) tells the story. Roth has once before sketched a father figure in a supporting character, someone who heartbreakingly offers warmth and strength, whose very lines in the book make one yearn for the same father figure's protection in one's own life, when the hero breaks down in tears talking to his father in Operation Shylock. For a moment, the father allows, and the son is weak, and there is hope. The strange action of this new book is to make one wonder if Roth is contemplating the life of self-discipline, of giving to and protecting a child, contemplating what would have been subdued, what needs to be subdued, to father. One could credibly argue that fate or bad luck denied Roth the chance to father - there is something sobering, affecting here. Something has touched the free spirit who would father.

(Of course it is distasteful to speculate about Roth, whom I have never met.)


The action of the book is to drive this rather subdued consciousness across Roth's usual talent with spinning a tone, "turning sentences around" and creating texture - what one mostly expects from poets. It is a little how a more subdued and more warm Seamus Heaney seems to butter across Heaney's late work.  by contrast Heaney takes himself seriously and writes "proper poems". Roth experiments and does not write proper novels. The odd clench of the last section of Nemesis strikes with a powerful bathos, a will to settle to a tone more like Roth's other books' tones: of brittleness. But the brittleness is emptied, as it needs to be, as Geoffrey Hill's most recent 2 books are. It waffles, and peters. This is set against other sections, of raised tone and glow. It is hard to tone it up and tone it down at once. Geoffey Hill has lately tried, and failed. Roth succeeded.

I offer only three quotes from Nemesis: the first drops a heavy hint that there is a Cubist style at work here making geometric and abstract-dreamy a narrative (not a picture) with leaderly unfascist heroism in flow; the second a sentence I would not expect from any writer (an unexpected post-comic lyrical serene beauty is wrung from the ugly, almost a set piece example of trying to "gross out", one aspect of mischief-to-the-point-of-bullying that Roth can do comically. No sympathy is shown for the conventions of how by most it is to be found ugly, yet it becomes an eerie and mesmeric respecting of gritty life, mainly by synonym and tone); the third one I would not expect from Roth (and I delighted at it, its possibility if not affirmation of spirituality and God); it would sit well in late Heaney or Hill if only they would let go to the gawky spoken plainness of it.

"Atop his compact body was a good-sized head formed of emphatically sloping and slanting components: wide pronounced cheekbones, a steep forehead, an angular jaw and a long straight nose with a prominent bridge that lent his profile the sharpness of a silhouette engraved on a coin" (p11)

"Since nobody then knew the source of the contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything, including the bony alley cats that invaded our backyard garbage cans and the haggard stray dogs that slinked hungrily around the houses and defecated all over the sidewalk and street and the pigeons that cooed in the gables of the houses and dirtied front stoops with their chalky droppings" (p5-6)

"And he could stop hating God, which was confusing his emotions and making him feel very strange." (p87)

     Ira Lightman 2010