Apollo and Dionysus: Henri Cole combines the formal and the sensual.

Author:Hammer, Langdon

POETRY - Critical essay


How to be Apollonian in body and Dionysian in spirit--that is my quest." This is how Henri Cole describes his ambition as a poet: a desire to combine in his work the qualities of formal balance and open-ended, anarchic exploration that have long defined opposing or even warring principles in American poetry. There is an interesting twist in his specification of Apollonian "in body" and Dionysian "in spirit." We usually think of Apollo's golden reasonableness and proportion as properties of mind or spirit, and of Dionysus's violent free-for-all sensuality as a thing of the body. But Cole turns these associations around. He wants the formal presence of his poems on the page to be balanced and calm, but their spirit to be drunken, pulsing, and unpredictable.

As a young man Cole had James Merrill and Allen Ginsberg as models for these competing qualifies; both poets were important for Cole as he sought to define himself as a gay writer. "They were like opposing magnets," he remembers, "and it seemed to me there was nothing in between." In his early books, beginning with The Marble Queen in 1986, Cole was closer to Merrill: his verse forms were cunning and crafted, his syntax complex, his manner witty. But there were also touches of fierceness and unruly passion, expressing the pull of Ginsberg, and these qualifies came to the fore in later poems such as "Ape House, Berlin Zoo" from Middle Earth, his fifth book, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 9004.

Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan. He grew up in Virginia as a Roman Catholic in an American military family where "a braid of languages"--English, French, and Armenian--was spoken. Cole's poems include tense psychological investigations of his relationships with his parents, memories of physical abuse, and glimpses of his own adult domestic life. These intimate themes are complemented and refracted in his poems by scenes and subjects from his travels over the past 20 years, during which he has lived in New York, Boston, Berlin, Rome, and Kyoto, among other places. He sees himself not as "an outsider" but as "a solitary creature," a meditative spirit who enjoys "the company of flowers and animals."

"Human beings are animals," Cole reflects; "we forget that, with our Cuisinarts and camera cell phones. But human beings also need love, which is the highest function of our species. It is in this connection that we either fail or succeed; it is our vocation on earth." But even if love is our...

To continue reading