Having learned of its existence I'm not sure how long ago, I am now at last reading The Golden Gate (whose author's name, as I have recently learned, rhymes with its title, and not with the name of the third biblical son); finding myself not quite sure what to make of it, I have done as I normally do in such situations, and tried to read the opinions of the more penetrating and informed: for instance, it boasts a blurb by the much-admired-by-me John Hollander, creator of the lines "O Bug bug bug bug bug that did require / The quietest devotions of our doubt" and the creator of the quite literally magisterial Rhyme's Reason, and no doubt many more serious verses as well. The review from which the blurb came is not available online, it seems, but many records of Hollander's and Marjorie Perloff's strong disagreement regarding the novel are; for instance, in this interesting paper about the receptions of The Golden Gate and Lyn Hejinian's Oxota (of which I had never heard before).
I was particularly interested in reading Hollander's take because he, I reasoned, clearly knows his formal verse, and apparently thought Seth's to be "expertly controlled", while I have been finding several cases of (to my mind) prosodic gracelessness; spondees choking up a line, say, or weird rhythms or weird enjambment being forced on a sentence, all in ways that call attention to the lines and their strictures—no Frost-like facility here. (Of course, it took me three chapters to finally notice that Seth's sonnets are in Onegin-like tetrameters, not classical pentameters, and didn't actually notice, but had to be informed, that they also hew to a strict scheme of masculine and feminine rhymes.* So my judgments regarding meter and such may not be worth much.) It seems likely, judging from the above-linked article, that both Hollander's and Perloff's review were made in a context of poetic strife of which I am largely ignorant, so perhaps both the former's enthusiasm and the latter's disdain are overstated. I've found more of Perloff's review online than Hollander's and at least one of her assertions—that nothing John says or does suggests that he's even heard of the Venerable Bede—is hard to reconcile with what else he's described as reading not much later in the book. And this bit of criticism seems perhaps overstated:
In its preference for signification over representation, Hejinian’s poetics [in her vaguely Onegin-inspired long poem Oxota] is antithetical to Seth’s in that, like John Ashbery, with whom Perloff contrasts Seth (“Homeward Ho” 44–45), Hejinian refuses the illusion of representation of reality, while accepting and exploiting the multiple possibilities for signification and reference in language. For Perloff, Seth’s work fails because the formal sound and visual devices of the Pushkin stanza are divorced from the representation, or indeed stifle it, so that the signifying possibilities of “language charged with meaning,” as Ezra Pound put it, are not exploited (28).
Is that the reason Seth's work fails, if it fails? Perloff pays it the backhanded compliment of saying that at least it sends us back to Byron and Pushkin, implying that their work does not fail. But it seems unlikely that the static and extremely restrictive Onegin stanza is married to the various situations described in Eugene Onegin (though I admit I haven't read it), suggesting that the reason Perloff cites can't really be right, as it would prove too much. So that's puzzling. The charge, though, that Seth not only is doing something he shouldn't be attempting but isn't even doing it well, does leave her open to this clever rejoinder, to the effect that he isn't doing that at all and he is doing what he's actually doing just fine:
Perloff singles out the unrealistic elements of Seth’s work apparently caused by the need to keep to Pushkin’s stanzaic form (“Homeward Ho” 39–42). It is also possible, however, to read the interference created by rhyme and rhythm as pointing toward the false claims to easy mimesis made not only by the apparently straightforward narrative of Seth’s novel but also by the nostalgic certainties that Perloff identifies in 1980s U.S. literary criticism and the culture at large (“Homeward Ho” 43–44). Indeed, a reading of the novel through its infelicities and failures might underscore the aporia at the novel’s heart. For all the shifts in love and bridging gestures of the novel, the nuclear threat remains, and the rule of law and strictures of verse triumph over “morality” and “direct” expression.
Zing! Perloff gulled by exoteric reading! On this take the apparent metrical solecisms, etc., are proper and necessary, drawing attention to the fact that something rules the text that's unconcerned with the niceties of narrative and the fates of Liz and John and Jan and Phil; they take us out of the simple pleasures of reading about the characters (and the simple characters of verse, for that matter) to remind us of the inhuman structuring rules, and thereby that we aren't getting a representation of reality. It would be nice if more were done to connect the formal aspect of this reading to the thematic claim about law (apter, one suspects, to speak of realpolitik or something like that) and morality, and for that matter it would be nice if the claim weren't tossed off in the final paragraph of the paper, since it's important for the paper's success that the reading be made to stick, or at least to appear plausible (and one might as well acknowledge that looking to the real-life Seth may not provide a lot of support for it). For instance: more could be made of the fact that the "I" of the narrative is ok with metafictional games (nowadays we have to call it something like that, even if in former days the author might more innocently or more serious have addressed his or her readers), interrupting the narrative in the middle of chapter four with an entirely unconvincing and unnecessary explanation for his failure to depict Ed and Phil having sex (had he just skipped straight to the following scene, the missing depiction would have been missed less), and beginning chapter five with five stanzas describing and defending the novel's genesis and form, in a way that more or less asserts the primacy of the form over the incidents it's used to relate. (Bonus: scan the line "Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?". The extra two syllables are surely intentional, given the easy availability of the line "A friend asks, why tetrameter?".)
Instead of further substantiating that take on The Golden Gate, Edmonds makes a similar claim (in the opposite direction) about Oxota:
At the same time, while “representation” is rejected at one level in Oxota, at another level the novel aims to represent the experience of Hejinian in Leningrad, an experience ironically intertwined with the rejection of direct representation through the poetics of estrangement.
This is perhaps actually a rather obvious point (and one that could be bolstered by noting that Hejinian's poem is closer to being self-expressive, as well, and to represent something real, being autobiographical) and one might well think that a claim Hejinian makes about her poetics in a passage Edmonds quotes is more or less cheating: "I am free to signify place though not to represent it" strikes me as saying something like "I am free to represent place though not in the way you'd expect (unless you know my work in which case you might well expect precisely this)". Perloff's response to a further statement of poetic method Hejinian makes, too, seems rather overblown: "Once writing is no longer regarded as the vehicle that conveys an already present speech, every word, indeed every morpheme can be seen to carry meaning, to enter relationships with its neighbors". We surely didn't need langpo or its kin to be able to say this, did we? It seems to be the condition of poetry generally, not to mention of the lowest form of pun, the Tom Swifty. (For all the antiromantic rhetoric of the langpo crowd, and of some manifestos of which Hejinian is a signatory, that claim would be reasonably at home in the Athenaeum or slipped into Novalis's Monologue.) It's not even clear why writing has to be divorced from speech for this to be the case, as if one could never craft an utterance. (One couldn't play tricks with lineation or enjambment in speech, but speech has its own modes that writing doesn't.) I am confessedly unsure what to make of Perloff's various claims anyway (not having access to all the relevant texts is doing me no favors, I'm sure); I know she likes Ron Silliman's work, for instance, and that fondness seems undamaged by her acknowledgement that "Albany" exhibits "a razor-sharp realism of description". Nor, as far as I know, has she turned her back on Hejinian, one of whose who claimed that "The self as the central and final term of creative practice is being challenged and exploded in our writing", after her discovery (it took her until 1998, apparently—she shoulda asked me) "that we can easily tell a Charles Bernstein poem from one by Steve McCaffery, a Tom Raworth sequence from one by Allen Fisher, a Maggie O'Sullivan 'verbovisivocal' text from one by Susan Howe" (and presumably all of these from one by Lyn Hejinian). Not that someone who denied that poetry was the Authentic Immediate Expression of a Self would have to believe that his or her verse would be indistinguishable from someone else who issued a like denial—obviously—but she is putting this forward as something to be noted. (This line of inquiry, which seems to be preoccupied with the lyrical, is of course at right angles to anything involving the Seth, for which, as a third-person narrative verse, the appearance of an "I" at all is an intrusion. But perhaps it serves as a reminder to be careful about the programs of the programmatic, and not to oversell them.)
*I seem to be unable to retain the preferred terms.