Not a failure: A Review of Philip Schultz’s “Failure: Poems”

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

In 2008, Philip Schultz was co-winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his collection Failure: Poems. This collection of 29 short poems and 1 long poem displays the spare, precise language for which Schultz is well known. Like most collections of poems, it is of uneven quality. Nevertheless, the best poems in the collection show Schultz’s name needs to be included in discussions of the best contemporary poets in the United States.

The first few poems in the collection are among the weakest. They are formulaic in nature, with a detail that appears early in the poem coming back in a different way to end the poem. This is a device put to good use in Philip Levine’s What Work Is, but here they are more often to fall flat. In “The Magic Kingdom,” a poem that shows no ironic connection to Disney’s use of the term, Schultz writes of his children at the ocean:

To them it’s all a magical kingdom,
their minds tiny oceans of good and evil strategies,
the hard traffic of dreams
enclosed by a flourishing expectation.

Then, in the final stanza, he returns to the image that forms the title of the poem:

their believing happiness will make them happy;
that the ocean is magical, a kingdom
where we go to be human,
and grateful.

Much stronger is the long poem that closes the collection, “The Wandering Wingless.” This ambitious, if odd, poem tracks a professional dog walker in New York city as he tries to understand himself and the city in a post 9-11 world. The poem charts the narrator’s mental illness and the problems he has with his father (a theme that is quite common in this collection). In one particularly moving passage (Part 2, section 14), the narrator describes a night that he had nagged his father to stop working so much that finally his father “ran into my room / and began smashing” things that he had made. The father’s destruction included a portrait the narrator was painting of him for his 60th birthday. Schultz’s matter of fact tone make the scene of art being destroyed particularly affecting.

The middle section of the book is home to the best lyrics in the collection. In poems such as “Shellac,” “The Failure,” and others, Schultz explores the many sides of failure. In particular, he examines his efforts at being a father, his own father’s struggles, and a pervasive sense of nostalgia in his memories and dreams. It is the poems in this section that I expect I will return to, as they show Schultz at his strongest and most confident.


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