Sometimes I think that there are two kinds of great poets: those who embarrass easily and those who don’t seem to embarrass at all.
For the first type, think of Elizabeth Bishop: a poet whose oeuvre is small because the amount of excellent poetry anyone can write is small, and because excellence was the unrelenting standard to which she held everything she wrote. For the second type, think of Walt Whitman: a poet whose genius resided in his willingness to court the melodramatic and purplish, in his committed, principled shamelessness. The first kind of poet tends to be a perfectionist, an ironist, always on guard against the sentimental or gaudy; the second kind eschews the perfect for the gorgeous, embracing sentiment and, through the alchemy of art, sharing it.
Thirty-year-old poet Ocean Vuong is of the Whitmanian school. Indeed, one of the great things about Vuong’s 2016 Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the rare debut collection to win the T. S. Eliot Prize, was its refusal to be embarrassed. The book takes its shape from all the things Vuong refuses to find shameful: his status as an immigrant (he moved to the United States from Vietnam at the age of two and couldn’t speak English when he first attended school in Hartford); his class position (“Even now,” he writes of his mother, “the nail salon / will not leave her: isopropyl acetate, / ethyl acetate, chloride…”); above all else, his queerness. This queerness can be expressed matter of factly, as when the speaker relates an early sexual encounter: “he’s waiting with sticky palms & mint / on his breath a cheap haircut / & his sister’s levis / stench of piss rising from wet grass.” But more often it’s expressed ecstatically: “I press [my tongue] / to the navel’s familiar / whorl, molasses threads / descending toward / devotion. & there’s nothing / more holy than holding / a man’s heartbeat between your teeth.”
The critic William Logan has carped about Vuong’s “dithery, soft-focus” verse. Here, we might note the precious-seeming archaism of the ampersand, the panting alliteration (descending/devotion; holy/holding/heartbeat), the conflation of oral sex with religious devotion. It all seems a bit much. But it’s precisely the muchness that makes the book work; it’s the boldness—of conceit, of language, of music—that redeems the occasional moments of overcooked romanticism. Are there lines that I’d find hard to defend? Certainly. (Case in point: “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can’t extinguish.”) But even lines like this don’t bother me too much since they help create the conditions—a poetic universe of deep feeling and confident sincerity—that lead to other superb moments like this: “They say the sky is blue / but I know it’s black seen through too much distance.” Or this sonorous litany: “Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade. / Honeysuckle. Goldenrod.” The Whitmanian poet is unashamed because he has seen the world and he has found it good. Vuong has, too.