On Poetry

The Nu-Audacity School of Poetry

From the well-known to the semi-forgotten, the literary isms of the early- to mid-20th century -- from Dadaism to Surrealism to Imagism to Vorticism to Futurism to Objectivism -- set a subsidiary classification template for all subsequent generations of writers. As each ism elucidated, the importance of delineating one’s work from the work of one’s contemporaries was paramount in terms of attention and accolade. Further, grouping with and against other writers was arguably as integral as the creation of the work itself. Simply, isms provided an immediate context of sorts for the 20th-century reader. In the end it little mattered, then, if said context was sanctioned by the writer herself; Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell famously had very different ideas about what Imagism was or could be, and yet both writers are probably read more today because of their enrollment in the school. Let’s be honest -- whether one agrees with their inclusion or not, being a recognizable member of a literary school provides its participant with an attention and focus that the isolated outsider is rarely able to easily obtain. As Too $hort put it, get in where you fit in -- and hopefully you do fit in somewhere. Building off the ism heyday, late-20th and early-21st-century writers group themselves in similar ways -- but there is a significant difference from their Modernist counterparts. For contemporary writers at least, the concept of “The New” seems to be one that needs parading. The New Sincerity. The New Brutalism. The New Narrative. Predating those examples a bit yet of a similar designation-based ilk, Ron Silliman’s concept of The New Sentence. There are poetry reading series’ entitled The New Privacy -- what’s private is public too now, right? -- and post-9/11 poems entitled “The New Intelligence” -- after that atrocity, who we are and how we exist has fundamentally changed, evolved. (If one were so inclined, echoes of Virginia Woolf’s famous “On or about December 1910 human character changed” Modernist declaration might be proffered.) Further, regardless of the specific aesthetics of each group, the underlying onus seems to be that day in, day out, the world and its components are new and essentializing that fact is worth doing. The proverbial shock of the new seems to never grow old. Perhaps it’s inconsequential, then, that the group of writers most commonly known for their sincerity actually characterized and defined themselves by a different name and set of artistic standards, or that, unto a specific group with specific notions about literature, the New Brutalist contingent of writers (of which there are different British and American factions) seem to be inordinately varied. Circa 2016, that single syllable, those three letters -- the first proudly capitalized -- is all that need be touted and with so many (wildly different) writers writing so much (wildly different) work, being part of a group nowadays is just as important as the beliefs that group espouses and/or repudiates. (In this sense it is no different than the ism-obsessed 20th century.) Get in where you fit in indeed. In such a spirit of exclusionary inclusion, then, I’d propose conglomerating a group of writers I’d call the Nu-Audacists, ones whose central tenets, as I see them, are as brazen and arguably repugnant as they are nuanced or refined. For the poets of the Nu-Audacity do not believe in Poetry or at least not in the way that many of their contemporaries seem to believe in it. Their work displays an innate awareness to the shrill absurdity of modern life -- but they are nevertheless not inured to such absurdity or hardened by it. The Nu-Audacists are largely uninterested in academia or assistant professor, tenure-track academic life. They are post-Internet, meaning that although they often utilize the World Wide Web’s myriad lurings they rarely feel the need to comment on that reality; e-poetry is poetry is Twitter. Broadly and luridly, they believe sex exists. Further, their work is not funny or whimsical; they do not affect poetic “poses” like “sincere” or “confessional” beyond those that they are seemingly unconscious of or uncaring about. For mothers the Nu-Audacity school has Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, and Anne Waldman; for fathers Bill Knott, C.A. Conrad, and John Wieners. Their great-uncles are Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch on Saturday night, talking excitedly after the movie before O’Hara goes to the bar and Koch goes home to his wife; their great-grandparents Antonin Artaud and Mina Loy. Finally and most importantly, many of the writers in the Nu-Audacity school would no doubt protest their inclusion in the group. To varying degrees, most are willful outsiders. They neither want nor need my or anyone else’s collectivist-inspired help. And that’s the point -- by refusing to conform in a way that so much of contemporary poetry insists on, they stake their own defiant place in the game. And for the Nu-Audacists poetry is very much a game. Any consideration of getting down on one’s knees and praying to the Muse would be laughed at, scorned. After all, they’re just words, always, little and big, short and long. Besides those poets discussed below, I include among this group figures as disparate as Morgan Parker and Brandon Downing, Ben Fama and Saeed Jones, Sarah Jean Alexander and Danez Smith, Timothy Liu and Sara Sutterlin. (Why "Nu"? It’s a valid question. Mostly because, as seen above, there never actually was a closely-cohered school of quote unquote Sincere or Narrative writers; such rigid designations are imaginary. Calling something New when its antecedent never actually existed in the first place is forever ironic and the school of Nu-Audacity exists within a similar deception -- every worthwhile writer is audacious in some fundamental way and the term thus embraces its redundant nature while simultaneously refuting it. Additionally, most things that begin with the prefix Nu, like Nu-Metal -- think Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park -- roundly suck and such a premise would, I think, hold audacious hilarity for certain Nu-Audacity members.) Roundly emblematic of the various Nu-Audacity attributes are Joshua Ware’s second and third collections Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention (2015). Per the publisher’s press release, as an artifact Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention is a tệte-bệche, which sounds fancy and (is) French. All that really means, however, is that the book is two books; turn the 69-page Unwanted Invention upside down and you’re faced with the 67-paged Vargtimmen. That, certainly, is a lot of poetry to foist on any reader; in this respect it’s much like Eileen Myles’s 2012 tệte-bệche Snowflake/ different streets. (In Vargtimmen Ware references this fact via the poem “Snowflakes Et Al.”) The major difference, of course, is where Myles, aged 67 and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other accolades, is to many poetry readers a living legend of a sort, one who possesses the necessary readership to publish two collections in a single artifact, Ware is at the beginning of his career. It thus takes a certain panache to assume the interest in Ware’s work is there to warrant publishing so much of it in one solidified volume. (Warranted or not, this confidence isn’t unique to Ware. Other recent multiple-collections-in-one books by younger poets include Dan Hoy’s The Deathbed Editions and Sampson Starkweather’s The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that other than Myles I personally am unaware of, young or old, any women who have recently published such weighty non-collected or selected volumes.) Nevertheless, the work in Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention does hold its place, and, in droves, many of the aforementioned Nu-Audacity traits are prominently displayed. “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole,” the first poem in Unwanted Invention, begins: fragments of a mustache spruce your upper lip shirt unbuttoned mid-torso, suggesting amateur gay porn or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse in NYC its lone entrance tucked back in an alleyway behind a green recycling dumpster Most days no one cobbles together Wyatt and Surrey To write contemporary poems; instead, we pick-and-choose from whatever our search engines offer us. I want to redeem an obsolete style in an effort to create a new history that begins and ends with the memory of something that never existed It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention For another poet a mustache might merely be hair on an upper lip, a “shirt unbuttoned mid-torso” simply designating the hotness of the weather, but for Ware both circumstances are steamily lascivious; they are rabbit holes that surface on “amateur gay porn/ or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse…” From that opening “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker makes clear their poetic composition method and its hopeful intent. These days reading and studying the work of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt—both 16th-century English poets, the latter of whom is credited with introducing the sonnet form into English –is beyond passé, near useless. Why do that when it’s far easier to “pick-and-choose from whatever/ our search engines offer us?” Because in the end, anyway, what will be eventually created will matter only in the way that nostalgia matters, as something that involves “the memory of something that never existed/ It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention.” Poetry is thusly an “unwanted invention” of the sort that, unbidden, invades the speaker’s life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean poetry or the poetic matters, at least not in the way it once did. It’s also worth noting that both the Wyatt and Surrey references are contained in the volume’s epigraph, one by John Ashbery. It reads: And one is left sitting in the yard To try to write poetry Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around, Took up and put down again Like so much gorgeous raw material, As though it would always happen in some way But where the speaker of Ashbery’s work seems optimistic with regards to poetry’s province and shelf-life elasticity -- “…so much gorgeous raw material…it would always happen in some way” -- “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker is anything but. Ware’s poem ends with the following lines: …We wait and wait and wait and wait and, while waiting, cry for that which we left behind until we cry simply for the sake of crying and the comfort habitual behavior affords us In all reality, nothing changes as drastically as we would like to believe On the horizon, a dense mist hangs above the churlish sea an infinite occurrence spelling wonder every time “In all reality, nothing changes/ as drastically as we would like to believe” and this includes the reality of poetry. For a poet of the Nu-Audacity like Ware, no savior will be found via the imaginative word, no substitute for God or Satan, mother or father, gold or glitter. In “Kenneth Koch Is Dead,” a later poem in Unwanted Invention, the assertion is made that “The poetry bubble burst/ shortly after Pindar; since then no one’s really given a fuck” and this playful yet ceaseless fatalism is a central Nu-Audacist tenet. Further reference here can be seen via the entirety of “Prefaces” from Chelsey Minnis’s collection Bad Bad (2007) which, among (many) others, includes gold stars such as “Poetry is for crap since there’s no money or fast cars in it” and “A poet is not to be praised for anything/ If I write something then let me be killed.” Still more “unwanted invention” cynicism resides in the stanzas “I mean I love meaning but I hate words I like sounds/ I used to like words but now I hate them because I love them without reciprocity which means with every day I love them more and more because of hate,” taken from Laura Solomon’s “French Sentences” (contained in her 2011 collection The Hermit) and, found in her 2013 volume Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, the entirety of Jenny Zhang’s “Ya Done Cunt,” wherein, riffing in both the first and second persons, the poem’s speaker’s denigrates the way others write poetry, the way she herself possibly writes poetry and the vapid pseudo-profundity otherwise known as Poetry: she doesn’t like the way you write it’s pretentious yah I know it is that was her talking as you Yah, she’s annoying that was me talking as me about her For the Nu-Audacists, being a poet is nothing to celebrate, at least not in any conventional sense. It’s neither an exalted vocation nor a divine calling. For those in academia it’s simply the means of (hopefully) getting tenure and outside those moldy ivory towers it’s merely a game, one that isn’t -- or shouldn’t -- be taken all that seriously. The fact that “[p]oetry is for crap,” that its “bubble burst”  shortly after the heraldic utterances of the 5th-century Grecian lyric poet Pindar and since then “no one’s really given a fuck” isn’t cause for lamentation or grieving, though. Instead, it’s something to celebrate. The Nu-Audacity school reserves as sacred that which the academy -- or at least those in the “professional” poetry world --  disdain or revile. In Minnis’s Bad Bad an “Anti Vitae” is even included; entries include: 1995 Poems rejected by Paris Review, Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, New American Writing, Fine Madness, Black Warrior Review, etc. Sit outside local bar and flash cigarette lighter at firefly. Intensely disliked by older female fiction writer. Told that poetry is “loose” by future poet laureate Commitment to waitressing questioned.   2001 Don’t receive NEA grant. Fail to send any new work to literary magazines. Not published in any magazines. This is an “Anti Vitae” in name only, however; upon subsequent inspection it reads more like a humblebrag. And Minnis’s contention is clear -- poets shouldn’t be overly concerned with where they publish or how much; what grants they do or do not receive; even the social and artistic perception of their persons by more established literary figures. Beyond all matters of status or livelihood, they should be preoccupied with writing poems, i.e. playing with words, canoodling with nouns, verbs and syllables. Because ultimately the more one professes to hate what they do the more it’s made clear how invested they are in the doing. (Hatred, of course, implies passion, concern, care. But never indifference.) Featured in Vargtimmen, in the fifth section of his poem “Satanic Intervals” Ware too, like Minnis, articulates the social and market-based forces that seem to shape so much of contemporary poetry, writing: A poem about money is merely an act of finding what will suffice in the mouths of a creation that has escaped its maker. By which I mean $$$. “Satanic Intervals’” speaker later pointedly asks, “Where is the money in all of this?/ & why am I so poor?//The poem is merely a substitute for emotions not becoming of everyday speech. Nothing will suffice./ Everything outside of me is insatiable.” On the transparent face of things most “emotions not becoming of everyday speech” rarely involve money or prestige. Instead, they’re relegated to the fringe side of the street, where creative freedom exists but filthy lucre does not. To trot out an overused saw for the billionth time, “[p]oetry makes nothing happen” and for the school of Nu-Audacity that’s the point -- it shouldn’t have to.  It’s only when writing poems begets economic opportunities and social climbing and clout that poeming goes wrong. Or as Jenny Zhang writes in “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” “this is a poet’s poem/written by a degenerate/ illiterate/literal/piece of crap.” Every poet, however, should aspire to such illiteracy and crappiness; it’s the only way to know for certain that the reasoning behind what you’re doing is true, pure. And in our personal brand and self-promotion-obsessed culture that purity is truly audacious. If the Nu-Audacists aren’t interested in climbing the corporate-academic poetry ladder or proselytizing about the glorious aims and scopes of their art, what are they interested in? The internet and sex, mostly. The former topic, then, they take as something that is as integral to writing poetry in the 21st century as paper was to every previous century. Its ramifications and merits need not be discussed -- they simply are. And the latter reads simultaneously boisterous and clinical; lusty yet distant. In the words of the speaker of Mira Gonzalez’s poem “the main purpose of the heart is to make heart sounds,” as featured in her 2013 book i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together: the next time you are driving your car you will think about that day we had sex in my dad’s bed when the bright sun was shining on us through the white curtains and we felt comforted by the inevitably of death Our digitally-enhanced Information Age is one that obfuscates artistic distinction and the two youngest poets of the Nu-Audacist School, Steve Roggenbuck (b.1987; 18.1K Twitter followers) and Mira Gonzalez (b. 1992; 23K Twitter followers), are paradigms for such expansiveness. For Roggenbuck and Gonzalez, poems can be tweets or YouTube videos; they need not exist on the physical page and if they do they certainly need not be published via any traditional means. Circa 2016 none of this might seem particularly audacious -- and yet even today a substantial portion of literary publishing houses and magazines use their online presence as merely a way of touting what they have created in-print. They often tweet and post excerpts from their latest print issues; they host a (sporadically updated) blog featuring a medley of literary-craft based essays and occasionally new literally work. Yet for these outlets there is a wide divide between what they physically and virtually create; different submission processes for print and online publications and different standards for print and online publications. The prevailing cultural sentiment is still that a YouTube video cannot be a form of poetry, nor can a tweet; e-books are less substantive than actual physical artifacts. In essence much of our current literary climate believes, even now, that print is king, and that publishing a dead-tree based book is what every self-respecting writer should aspire to achieve. Recent surveys have shown, however, that certain (younger) members of (1st world) society would rather have a smartphone or computer with a steady internet connection than a car. Meaning for so called millennials, aka the Internet Generation, physical transportation is less important than virtual. And although survey participants were not asked about their predilection for reading or viewing literature on the internet as compared to procuring it from a brick-and-mortal library or bookstore, one can’t help but think that favor would land in the Internet-sourced technological realm rather than its IRL binary. Being destroyers of artistic distinction, however, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez would find the above Internet vs. print meanderings meaningless, moot, as for both writers there’s no such thing as “Internet poetry” or “e-poetry;” there’s only poetry. Or, thinking about it another way, Internet poetry exists in the same way as, say, pastoral poetry exists or poetry of witness; each holds a separate but equal stake unto a broader umbrella. Firmly ensconced in the digital present, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez’s work has little time for the wrinkled arguments of the past. “make something beautiful before you are dead” is the title of Roggenbuck’s most viewed YouTube poem and one much talked about.  It largely consists of him yelling at a self-held camera (more likely his iPhone) while orchestral-by-way-of-electronica music ebbs, arcs and crescendos in the background. “make something beautiful…” features lines as varied as: Two words, jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter Back in my grandfather’s day they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO! We have to harness this gift. I love hugging. I love hugging people. I love stars. Rain is beautiful! Grass is beautiful! Cows are beautiful! Maybe you should stand in the rain. Maybe you should stand in the rain. You’re alive right now! You’re alive right now! I love the world. In the middle of “make something beautiful…” there’s also, fittingly, a collaged video excerpt from the yet-still relevant film Dead Poets Society. In it Robin Williams (as the prep school teacher John Keating) illuminates his students to the fact that “…You are here. That life exists. And identity. That the power for play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” Older viewers might find Keating’s earnestness here maudlin or overwrought but for Roggenbuck it is something to savor and expound into. Because 27 years after the movie’s release life and identity do still exist; the power for play still does rollick on and so many of us still do hope to contribute a verse to it. Other Roggenbuck YouTube videos are in a similar vein as “make something beautiful…;” they are over the top and irreverent; high-energy and enigmatic. Combining stream-of-consciousness riffing, overt sentiment and juxtaposed video footage of both Roggenbuck and others reading their work, some videos are more successful than others. But the best of them are mysteriously gripping and grippingly mysterious in the same way that, for instance, Weldon Kee’s “For My Daughter” is, or Hilda Morley’s “Sea-Map.” In addition to his video and social media work, Roggenbuck writes “regular” print-based poetry collections and he’s also a relentless reader and tourer of his work. (Which isn’t to say he much believes in traditional poetry publication ordinances and processes; a Roggenbuck Tweet from July 5, 2016 states, “i support my individual friends who r poets but i generally do not feel that the small press poetry world is worthy of their attention/labor. for example i think ppl who put much of their writing directly on Twitt (@postcrunk @yunawinter) r making a more exciting impact… even books could still be great..but theres just so many stagnant tropes in poet land. we gota be free.”) But it’s Roggenbuck’s electronic presences that have gained him the most attention, both positive and negative. And just like the other Nu-Audacists the author of “make something beautiful…” simply doesn’t believe in Poetry -- or at least not the kind that doesn’t take into account the fact that the century we live in today is vastly different than every previous one. For Roggenbuck being a poet in 2016 means availing himself of all possible technological stimuli; it’s the only way he’s able to fully inhabit his poetic sense of self. Twitter and YouTube aren’t, poetically or otherwise, things to scoff at. Instead, they’re fertile sources of creative abundance. Mira Gonzalez’s latest volume is a shared collection with the poet and novelist Tao Lin. It’s entitled Selected Tweets and, unsurprisingly, the book wholly consists of selected tweets by Gonzalez and Lin. For a lot of contemporary writers this could be an aesthetic defiance of some fashion, but in her post-internet era Gonzalez rightly views Twitter as an artistic norm rather than an outlier. As she stated in a 2015 interview conducted with the magazine The Fader, “…this book shows how Twitter, and by extension the internet as a whole, is an undeniably valid platform for creative expression. No matter how trivial Twitter might become, the internet is now, and I’m confident it will continue to be, a place for people to display their writing in whatever form that may be. Anyone in your MFA program who is denying that now will probably feel really stupid in 10 years.” Gonzalez later goes on to assert in the interview “…I absolutely view Twitter as an equally valid platform as poetry or prose or fiction. With this book, I hope to show people that there really isn’t any difference in value between poetry and Twitter, the same way you wouldn’t say poetry is more or less valuable than a short story.” We live in the world of now, a now where on average each American citizen checks her phone 46 times a day. (Or even more often, depending on one’s age group.) And what is regularly being checked are websites likes Twitter. Across the cultural spectrum it provides entertainment, art and information in concise, bite-size increments. Readers are found on Twitter and, by virtue of the existence and acclaim of Lin and Gonzalez’s book, eager readers at that. On the face of it, then, her 23,000 followers might not call Gonzalez’s Twitter feed poetry exactly -- but she herself does and that’s enough. Gonzalez’s Twitter account is where most people access her writing, but it’s her first book of poetry, i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, that initially gained her literary-based prominence. Like the other members of the Nu-Audacity school, the speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems are alienated by others and vaguely nauseated by themselves; victim of so many “unwanted inventions” that each must now attempt to make whole, wanted. A typical poem in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together deals with matters of isolation and profound anxiety. “ryan gosling,” the second poem in the book, reads: I am becoming hostile and unsympathetic social interaction makes me feel tired and irritated I have alienated myself I don’t have meaningful relationships I don’t have romantic relationships I read a lot of depressing books I like being alone I am a bland person I am an afterthought I am a bag of unsalted pretzels I don’t know I am constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal I am not a mean person I am not a bad person I am only okay Like the speakers of Minnis’ “Prefaces” and “Anti-Vitae” and Zhang’s “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” the self-loathing here is near suffocatingly thick. And is it of a confessional bent? An absurdist one? Suicidal? The “voice” of many of Gonzalez’s poem is so deadpan as to be crippling, and yet it also stings uniformly true. The vast majority of the world’s 7+ billion citizens are “only okay;” many of those citizens are also “constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal” that is largely devoid of substantive how’s and why’s. This, of course, makes us want it to achieve said goal -- whatever or whomever it is -- all the more. Gonzalez’ poetry has been accused of being “a paragon of flat writing,” containing an “ambivalence toward emotion.” More specifically, “Gonzalez’s desire to not have a feeling is leaky and uncontained. She attempts to write about the leakiness in an affectless way, trying to use tone and form of the poem to contain the shame of having a feeling. But the poem is itself a leaky vessel, inadequate to the containment or flattening of those messy feelings.” Certainly the work in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together refuses to console its reader in any accommodative way. When, in “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” Gonzalez ends the poem with the line “I am concentrating on becoming 40mg of adderall right now,” she plays into a certain disaffected, apathetic, ostensibly “neutral” millennial stereotype, one very much focused on the singular syllable “I” and no one and nothing else. At the same time, however, Gonzalez’s poetry is deeply attuned to the fact that it is only during moments of extreme emotionality that we’re rendered “speechless.” The best poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together exist within an interstice of exasperation and exhalation. They are grandly luminous in their naiveté, repeatedly. In “symbolic interactionism” Gonzalez writes:      and we will understand that the phrase ‘alone together’ is not an oxymoron anymore and I will resolve to never be happy enough to forgive you and I promise that from now on I will only have emotions that can be perceived as neutral I wonder how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world yet I am the only person on the planet Here, the speaker of the poem is not an inhibited bystander but an astronaut of unfathomable capacity. During certain moments of great joy or despair all of us (consciously or unconsciously) contemplate “how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world” and yet our own indefatigable I is “the only person on the planet.” Certain excesses of self necessitate survival mechanisms that solely deal in neutrality and sterile isolation. Without acknowledging and commenting on one’s flatness of character -- “I will only have emotions that can be/ perceived as neutral” -- one will never be able to move constructively forward as a living, breathing human creature. (“I am neutral of love and neutral of death” writes Chelsey Minnis in her poem “F-Lute.”) Multi-dynamic and impossibly nuanced, our self is always, of course, our selves and Gonzalez’s best poems strive to negotiate the terms and conditions with which one must accept the malleability of being from mood to mood, minute to minute. Her poetry is a “leaky vessel” only in the sense that humanity itself is a leaky vessel—and that reality is something we’ll have to make a frail peace with until we grow up and die. The speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together don’t know how or if to feel, what they truly want -- but they do know what they’re interested in. And, baldly, that is sex. So when, in “heartbroken people with extreme personality flaws,” Gonzalez writes, “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” the feeling is not exclusive to “heartbroken’s…” speaker. Being largely concerned with the present era the school of Nu-Audacity is the school of sex tapes and “comefarts”; transparent sexual practices and liking to watch themselves liking to watch. They are unabashedly sex-positive in a way that is poetically refreshing. In this lack of sexual subterfuge they harken back to their poetic mothers and fathers. Eileen Myles’s “I always put my lover’s cunt/ on the crest/ of a wave/ like a flag/ that I can/ pledge my/ allegiance/ to. This is my/ country” (“I always put my pussy”) and John Wieners’s “I spit him out on the floor/ Immensely relieved/ After ejaculating/ Imagining myself up my lover’s ass/ he coming by himself” (“The Loneliness”). Frank O’Hara’s “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” and, excerpted from her Feminist Manifesto, Mina Loy’s “The fictitious value of a woman as identified with her physical purity -- is too easy to stand by…therefore the first self-enforced law for the female sex…would be the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty.” Like those writers, the school of Nu-Audacity refuses to feel sexually ashamed and they further feel an obligation to impart the virtues of sexual freedom and curiosity to their readers. One of the central themes of Ware’s Unwanted Invention is sex’s illusory nature and how the act is both ethereal and all too real. In his poem “Imaginary Portraits” he writes, “Bent over the end of a wood-paneled partition/ and wearing nothing/ but a pair of red cowboy boots…you cannot help but look at ourselves in the mirror/ when singular becomes plural/ and everything is/ double of what is double/ already: naked bodies entwining/ imaginary into real.” And in “Portrait” nine short pages later the red cowboy boots appear once again—but this time they are less a sexual document than a poetic one: In a portrait you wear the red cowboy boots with intricate white-threaded designs stitched into their sides that I fucked you in during a poem written weeks ago in Nebraska. In a portrait you wait for me, as I wait for you while I write this poem so we can fuck at noon in a friend’s apartment. In this case the poetic reality for the speaker of “Portrait” is also a sexual one; “I fucked you in…a poem written weeks ago” and “imaginary into real” both encounters are given the same weight. The difference between “making love” and just plain “fucking” also comes into play in “Portrait” -- its ending lines read “In a portrait/ I document our love. In another portrait/ you document our love. In these portraits/ our twenty-first century digital urns/ we will live forever"-- but the emphasis is on the physical act as much as it is on the romantic implications that are so often tied to it. Fucking can be making love and fucking can be fucking and the school of Nu-Audacity bears witness to both realities. “I show you my virtue when I come farting” is the opening line of Jenny Zhang’s “Comefarts;” midway through the poem the speaker imparts “I was wet because I was wet…I was wet and you didn’t notice it on your leg…I was wet and in my dreams I was wet/ I was wet and asked a stranger to jerk off onto my face.” Virtue is being honest with one’s lover about sexual habits, predilections and desires, coupled with a staunch refusal to mask the sexness of sex, its inherent fucking. For Minnis and Roggenbuck, then, this circumstance is one of professional and personal bemusement. “…poetry//is a suck & fuck//there is a smell of horseshit//and it is so vulture//like you should jack it all off//like adjunct//and lick it up//for nothing like a stipend $” asserts the speaker of Minnis’ “Don’t Do It Some More.” Sardonic and satiric, “Don’t Do It Some More” again offers the valuelessness of academia-tainted poetry, but here a sexual element also pervades. Sure, the “suck and fuck” of poetry legitimately wretches, but it nevertheless is still worth engaging in and writing towards.  As Minnis writes in Bad Bad’s “Preface 65,” “I can fail to be loved but I can’t fail to write this.” And even if a desire to fail exists -- to scream to hell with it, “jack it all off// like adjunct//and lick it up// for nothing…” -- that desire will be subverted by some innate poetic steadfast, steadlong. Unto Steve Roggenbuck’s scope sexual activity is, like his poetry, playful, mischievous. Although his work is not transparently sexual in the same manner as the other Nu-Audacists, sex still plays a role, albeit one that is less erotic than exhibitionist. From his video “why i own a backhoe”: “sometimes I put things up my asshole. I’m like, that hurts in there. But then I just let it sit there for a little longer and…it starts to not hurt.” In order for pain to be felt, though, one must possess a willingness to put “it” up there in the first place—and having done so gratification, either poetical or sexual, might soon follow. Finally, as touched on earlier many of the speakers of Mira Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together are fervently sex-positive; in this respect her work refreshes in the same manner as does that of Ware and Zhang does. Throughout i will never be beautiful… sex is mentioned in a variety of different ways -- sorrowful and orgasmic, sometimes in the same poem -- but noteworthy is the fact that Gonzalez’s speakers always couch the sexual as liberating. To be alive is to want to have sex and that want is powerful and seductive. Coitus in Gonzalez’s poems can be masochistic; in “induced-compliance paradigm” her speaker states, “I enjoy being bitten during sex/ because of the causal connection/ between the act of biting and/ the feeling of being bitten” and the flat assertion “starving to death during sex is something I would like to do this week” is the final line of “this friday I woke up at 2 pm.” Yet elsewhere in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together sex is investigative, poetically so. See the sly euphoria of the previously noted “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” and, taken from “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” the lines: I am going to consume your entire body by lying down on top of you and breathing very hard and we will feel alienated by way of osmosis would you please push your head against my head until we can mutually confirm our place in the universe did you know that I can only have an orgasm when I am lying down on my back also I have never seen snow The sex isn’t always good in Gonzalez’s poetry, certainly. (In fact it’s often quite bad.) But even that failing is candidly, assertively discussed, sans moral judgments or antiquated male or female stereotypes. Sex is in your face in Gonzalez’s work because the same holds true in contemporary culture and to hide that fact or be ashamed by it designates a refusal of self, artistically, culturally, personally. And as Joshua Ware’s “Imaginary Portrait” puts it, “All that is new/ transforms into the marks of misguided lovers/ shaping themselves/ into another season’s aesthetic rituals/ to prolong the poem/ within sex sweat of bodies/ and the breath of wine-socked mouths.” Under perfect circumstances sex is new every single we time we do it and the same holds true for the writing of poems -- the best poets write their first poems every time they sit down. In their most successful works the school of Nu-Audacity elucidates that phenomenon. Recently appearing on the popular podcast Another Round with Heben & Tracy, Jenny Zhang read her poem “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love,” one that features lines such as: I think fucking is P in V but later my mom tells me there’s more Is p pussy and v vagina, I say You must try everything, she says I say it too always striving to be someone’s mirror everyone tells me I am my mother’s mother both of us were born with curly pubes Discussing her work later in the show, one of the hosts asks about “intimacy” in Zhang’s writing, specifically if vis-à-vis her family’s reading of her work she ever feels bashful or “vulgar.” Zhang’s response is telling. In part, she states that, “Being shameless is kind of important [to me] because…as a woman of color in this world I’m constantly being told that I should be ashamed, like I should have some shame, I should…accept how other people see me as like someone who’s not much, who’s not worth much.” Not everyone in the school of Nu-Audacity is a person of color. But all of the school’s members do represent sex -- in all its lurid, vigorous and ultimately positive, affirming and healthy actualities -- in a way that suitably represents our current cultural climate; no matter’s one’s personal tastes or proclivities, sexual openness, honesty and transparency are paramount. The Nu-Audacists know that vague metaphors and similes are sometimes just lazy, especially when it comes to sex, when it comes to fucking. Better to name and, having named, empowered. If only every poet, then, could be similarly audacious. Reviewing Susan Wheeler’s book Smokes in Boston Review all the way back in the netherera of 1998, Stephen Burt introduced the world to a school of poetry he dubbed Ellipticism; gaining prominent advocates and naysayers, it proved to be greatly influential. (The name comes from the grammatical ellipsis, the omission of an unnecessary connection or connections within a sentence.) To Burt’s way of thinking the Elliptical poets sought to “manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-"postmodern": they have read (most of them) Stein's heirs, and the "language writers," and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively "poetic") diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning "I am an X, I am a Y." Ellipticism's favorite established poets are Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Ashbery, and/or W.H. Auden…The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” Subsequently expanded on by Burt in his essay “The Elliptical Poets” in an Elliptical-focused issue of the journal American Letters & Commentary in 1999, Ellipticism got a great swathe of attention in the late 90’s and early 00’s poetry world. In Burt’s own words, taken from his 2004 essay “Close Calls With Nonsense:” Some of the feedback I got was jazzily positive, even thankful. Some of the feedback was negative but attentive: readers pointed out (as my essay acknowledged) that some of the poets I grouped together were hardly friends, and that the books which founded the putative school had come out years apart. Outweighing both the supporters and the disputants, however, were the curious: students who planned term papers on the Ellipticals, academics who wanted to hear more about it, poets who wondered if they belonged in the school…I’m not sorry that I wrote “The Elliptical Poets”: if it created new readers for Mark Levine, or [Lucie] Brock-Broido, or [C.D.] Wright, it did what I meant it to do. (In 2009 Burt introduced his vision for a post-Elliptical world, discussing the terse, epigrammatic lyricism he saw as poetically in-vogue in his essay “The New Thing.”) I hash all this up now for several reasons, the first being the similarities and differences I see between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. Like the Elliptical writers -- a group which also included Karen Volkman, Claudia Rankine, Mary Jo Bang, and Liam Rector -- the Nu-Audacists regularly fluctuate between high and low poetic diction. Steve Roggenbuck’s work is hallmarked by his purposeful misspelling of easy-to-spell words -- see his recent print collection Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-15 -- whereas, High-Modernist inspired, Laura Solomon’s poems occasionally shift from English into French or Italian. Her poem “Nicola, Hello!” begins with the stanzas “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?// you don’t know me but we speak anyway” and ends with the line “that is the meaning.” (Unlike many of the Modernists, however, Solomon does provide the reader of The Hermit with an English translation at the end of the volume; “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?” translates to “when do you want to meet me?”) Another shared trait between the two schools is the telling of “almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones.” Although all of the Nu-Audacists dabble in narrative, none of them could be called narrative poets; the half-stories told in their poems are devoid of firm beginnings, middles or ends and, like a Twitter feed, are perpetually rendered in media res. At the same time, however, the typical Nu-Audacity poem is never muddled down by obscure language. Even if one isn’t at all sure where or how she’s going, there is an identifiable poetic entrance and exit, a readerly way in and out. The differences between the two schools are indicative of the changed cultural and poetical mores. The largest difference, of course, involves Burt’s contention that “[the Ellipticals] want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” Pre widespread usage of the Internet, in 1998 this Elliptical desire would have made perfect sense; entombed on the printed page, their work could not be television but ideally it could entertain its readers as thoroughly as that visual medium was once able to. For the Nu-Audacity school, however, their work has the potential to be or in fact already is the Internet; positively or negatively, no resemblance notions need be discussed. And this World Wide Web based reality is taken for granted by the school’s members in the same way that Wi-Fi access at your favorite coffee shop is taken for granted. There’s simply no use arguing for or against what already is. The difference in utilization of a poetic sense of self is also markedly different between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. If for Ellipticism a major goal entailed the manifestation of “a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves,” than for the Nu-Audacists the opposite is the case; their work predominantly strives to be mask-less and gizmo-less. Writing in the midst of revelations by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, during an era where the private is public and every smartphone holds a thousand different selves, the Nu-Audacity poets offer their transparency as a badge of poetic honor. Their work insists that someone real, someone authentic, wrote the poems and that realness is not a pose or an affectation; it is an actuality. Unlike the Ellipticals they don’t wish “to undermine the coherence of [their] speaking selves” because to do so would be a poetic sabotage of a sort, one that puts more emphasis on artifice than art. In this regard they salute Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” specifically his belief that “the poem [should be] squarely between the poet and the person…between two persons instead of two pages.” Even at the risk of writing work that might be considered bad or maudlin, the school of Nu-Audacity desires their individual voices (and collective voice) to burn through. Further, the inadequacy of their chosen art form simultaneously reinforces its essentiality. Because once upon a time poetry wasn’t wholly filled with “stagnant tropes” that all its practitioners consciously or unconsciously adhered to; it was “free” in the same way that Twitter is or YouTube or sex. The writing and publishing of it didn’t have much to do with “professional” success and that lack invigorated the non-rules of the word-game otherwise known as Poetry. Such a freedom is what the school of Nu-Audacity writes toward and believes in. “Poetry is, (and should be,) for the poet, a source of pleasure and satisfaction, not a source of honors… [it] is the gaiety (joy) of language” is how Wallace Stevens put it in his “Adagia” way back in the 20th century, and whether the Nu-Audacists look to Stevens as a sinner or saint his declarations are ones that they themselves hold. Canonical poet Marianne Moore hated it almost 100 years ago and contemporary poet and MacArthur Genius Ben Lerner still hates it. In his aforementioned essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” Stephen Burt already noted that, circa 2004, so many poems also functioned as games, writing that such works are successful when “we can imagine a personality behind them. The poem carries, as people do, a social or regional or ethnic context; it leaps, as a person’s thoughts do, from topic to topic, and it lacks -- as real people usually lack -- a single all-explaining storyline or motive. Being like a person, such a poem can also ask what exactly makes us persons, how we know a person when we see one, or how we tell one another apart.” Poems and poeming existed on the Internet far before Steve Roggenbuck and Mira Gonzalez and graphic sex in a poem isn’t at all new either, to this millennium or any of the previous ones. Not everyone who writes poetry nowadays is in academia, not by a long shot. And in terms of audacity, 20th-century Surrealists like Benjamin Péret used to, spittingly, insult Christian priests to their face due to virulent hatred of the religion; the Futurists espoused destroying, among other things, “museums, libraries, academies of every kind.” So what, in the end, makes the school of Nu-Audacity actually new, actually audacious? Simply this: these poets are writing in ways that embodies and encapsulates the frustrating, abhorrent and ultimately inspiring contemporary world, writing in new ways that no one has written before. And in this way they are Nu and in this way they are Audacious. As lines from Joshua Ware’s poem “I Believe In Everything” articulate: For life to enter a poem makes a poem worth reading but for a poem to enter life means pronouns transform from pro-form to flesh in ways we can never imagine… A poem is not…disappearance but a second life saturated with the ether of the real always present as an invisible aura As Jay-Z said, what more can I say? The poetry of the Nu-Audacists is filled with life “saturated with the ether of the real.” Happy birthday, beautiful ones. Never grow old, never grow up. Image credit: Flickr user lookcatalog
On Poetry

The Many Labors of Philip Levine

I only first read about the work of Philip Levine last year, when I saw his obituary on the front page of The New York Times’ website: Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate whose work was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor, died on Saturday morning at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87. Often considered a blue-collar, workingman’s poet, much of Levine’s most evocative work drew from his experience on the car assembly lines during the decline of The Paris of the West, Detroit. Like Levine, I also grew up in the industrial Midwest -- about 170 miles west along Lake Erie, in Cleveland, the spiritual sister to Levine’s native Detroit. While the era of an after-school job in a soap factory had passed me by, my childhood home was a short two miles from Cleveland’s river valley, the heart of steel country, and the big rusted blast forges that spewed fire into the night sky. Recently, when a friend offered to buy me a book, I eagerly asked for Levine’s What Work Is, his seminal, National-Book-Award-winning collection that cut to the quick of what it means to be a man of industrial means and memories, in search of “work.” As it turns out, to read Philip Levine in this moment is to crack open a road map into the zeitgeist of populist, nativist, and nationalistic sentiments fueling unrest in globalized, post-industrial nations across the world, from the rise of far-right political parties in Europe, to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, to the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections. Even as political support for both factions, originally deemed “protest candidates,” spread to both rural and affluent demographics, the appeal of these movements comes from a Philip Levine-like anxiety of loss and decline. Campaign slogans like Sanders’s “We need a political revolution” or Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” are bred from a despair of losing something that was once a golden promise of individual success. There’s a palpable feeling of outrage and indignation at being left behind or sold out for the greater ideals of free trade and commerce, something that, way back in 1991, Philip Levine felt keenly, such as in his poem about the daily grind, “Every Blessed Day:” Even before he looks he knows the faces on the bus, some going to work and some coming back, but sealed in its hunger for a different life, a lost life. In the poem, the narrator, much like Levine once did, works at the “Chevy Gear & Axle #3.” Before going to punch in, he tries to find the “elusive calm/his father spoke of and searched for all his life,/there’s no way of telling. . .” To read Levine’s poetry is to fall into the ragged void of inexplicable loss, and it is to read poems about people who know there should be something more but cannot wrap their mouths around those words or look too closely into its core for the sheer pain and misery of this long demise. In “Coming Close,” Levine paints a portrait of a woman working at a polishing wheel -- bone-weary after three straight hours without a single break -- finding that the line between woman and machine wears away until:  . . .she would turn to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why of why must I spend five nights a week? Just, “Why?” Even if by some magic you knew, you wouldn’t dare speak for fear of her laughter, which now you have anyway as she places the five tapering fingers of her filthy hand on the arm of your white shirt to mark you for your own, now and forever The woman’s “‘Why?’” seems to be a question with an eternal flame, and it would be easy to put all sorts of identifiers after it: Why are my student loans so untenable? Why am I unable to find good, honorable work in my small town? Why does this job make me feel like an animal or a machine? Why cannot I not seem to get ahead? Why do we do this at all? But the simple provocation is enough, and the lingering stain of it causes the disruption and the true notion that there is unfairness in this despair. The question is an answer to a lie that has been brought about after doing everything right: graduating college or applying endlessly for work or working two jobs yet feeling unable to live a life worthy of a human being, let alone an “American.” In prognostic fashion, Levine’s “why,” as filthy and prohibitive as it might seem, is contagious and irreversible, and once it stains you it is forever a branding iron. For Levine, however, the nature of this loss was not one of anger or even redemption, but of melancholy and introspection, as something that could always be delved into and learned from.  Nowhere is this more potent than in the poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School.” The narrator is a student in the class when the teacher draws a chalk line diagonally across the board and asks, “‘What have I done?’” The children take cracks at the obtuse riddle -- one guesses a hypotenuse, one the roof of a barn -- but the narrator’s thoughts are elsewhere, out on the window and on recess: …It was early April, the snow had all but melted on the playgrounds, the elms and maples bordering the cracked walks shivered in the news winds…’ Yet despite the allure of the playground, the students are still stuck, trying to answer this incomprehensible question, and in many ways it feels the same as the “Why?” from earlier: if only the answer could reveal itself then they might be delivered to the sweet release of the playground or a quick sprint to the candy store to buy a Milky Way. Still, they are stuck in-between, not quite learning and not quite free: “I looked back for help, but now/ the trees bucked and quaked, and I knew this could go on forever.” The desire for help and resolution is so powerful and desperate, perhaps because it feels so caustic now with the appeal of national leaders who can say this stasis, this eternity is not the fault of the disenfranchised working class or professional peoples, instead it is the fault of a series of convenient boogeymen: immigrants, ineffectual leaders, power-hungry economic trading blocks, a sepia tone-soaked desire for the “good old days” rife with lopsided and clear-cut ideals, punctuated by much more “winning.” What’s interesting about Levine’s poetry in What Work Is is that he does not deign to imagine such woeful nostalgia and loss as solvable. For Levine, it is a clear and teachable thing to guide one’s life. The point of M. Degas’s question is not to solve the riddle, but to temper oneself in the face of its complex insolvability. Central to all of this, quite clearly, is the elusive definition of “work,” as alluded to by the titular poem. Levine’s poetry shows it to be one of the most deeply held and vaguely defined words in English: work is eight hours in front of excel spreadsheets, but it’s also eight hours laying asphalt or cleaning gutters or taking care of children. It’s all the work people do in relationships, on themselves, for the greater good, for selfish ends, and more. You can see this in the poem, “Growth,” detailing Levine’s experience working as a teenager in a soap factory: the squat Ukrainian dollied them in to become, somehow, through the magic of chemistry, pure soap. My job was always the racks and the ovens— two low ceilinged metal rooms …the color of sick skin. At once the work is ritualistic and meditative, wheeling these large drums back and forth, but despite its crass, grueling, and reductive nature, it is also singularly beautiful that their collective, rough, factory motions could -- through the magic of chemistry and labor -- turn fat into soap. The process is like alchemy, that amidst an act so disgusting and exhausting is the foundation of a civilized society, a thing as simple and essential as soap. Work, it would seem, is transcendent not just for the fat-turned-soap, but also for the young Levine himself at the end of the poem: “…my new life of working and earning,/ outside in the fresh air of Detroit/ in 1942, a year of growth.” There is a bitter taste of nostalgia in that last line, and it is clear that Levine values the factory horrors as much as his time spent in school or doing much else, and that the work there was very much the work of becoming himself. The dichotomy and variety of “work” and what it ultimately means to Levine is perfectly captured in “What Work Is,” a poem that highlights Levine’s simplistic yet evocative style while striking near the heart of the brutality of this loss and questioning. In the poem, Men are waiting in the rain for “work:” …the grin that does not hide the stubbornness the sad refusal to give in to rain, to the hours wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, “No, we’re not hiring today,” for any reason he wants. The men are waiting for work, but there is also work being done to suffer through the rain, to have the patience and resilience to endure and earn that miserable answer. The narrator then shifts to remember his brother, who he thought he recognized in the crowd. He remembers their filial love and the work his brother did: working the night shift at Cadillac only to wake later to study German in order to sing Richard Wagner in an opera, as disparate a form of work as one waiting in the unemployment line at Ford Highland Park can imagine, but perhaps he can also begrudgingly admit that it is work, too. Finally, he wonders how long it has been since he’s done the work to tell his brother he loves him, if he ever has even said so: …You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don’t know what work is. This one word, “work” is key to Levine’s success as a poet, and his ability to adapt it to so many different situations and forms gives his poetry a bottomless depth and nuance that is at once immediate, harrowing, and personally estranged. It seems, as a culture, we have calcified in our definitions of work: work is global trade or work is done with your hands and rewarded with a pension, work is against others or work is for me, and on and on. The winnowing of the variety of work has lead to derision and confusion and an anger that is fueled by a terrible sorrow -- if there is only one sort of labor, and that is taken from you, then what do you have left? To read Philip Levine is to remember that work is done at the Chevy Gear & Axle plant, it is done bent over the polishing wheel, it is done over the music stand, it is done while waiting in the rain, it is done while scribbling poems, and it is even done in the words you form from your very own mouth.
Lists, On Poetry

Songs of Ourselves: Searching for America’s Epic Poem

Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.  After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor's Note: See our "Correction" to this list.] The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World. Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner.  As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America. The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion. The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists.  But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass. Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century. Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.” America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere. Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!” The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian -- it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.”  The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic. “Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject -- simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres -- advertisements for himself. Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”  The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war.  Yet this was not an act of contrition -- it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could. John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it. The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities.  Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people.  A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.  "Middle Passage" (c.1940) by Robert Hayden Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his "Middle Passage" was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789's The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” "Middle Passage" is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land. Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams's philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams's answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.” Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people -- the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks -- doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.” The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.” The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us. The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.”  In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir. Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver -- racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On Poetry

These Poems Will Never Become a Nostalgic Object

This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Poets edition of The White Stones by J.H. Prynne. Very few books of poetry published in England in the 20th century have the aura of J.H. Prynne’s The White Stones. The essential beauty of Prynne’s work is a quality of mind. I vividly remember reading it for the first time in 1986 and being struck by its gorgeous surface structure and energetic belief system: It is a bright element, even psychedelic at times. Hard to believe that such a book would need an introduction, a book that has been passed from poet to poet for decades. It has long been, and remains, a touchstone. The poems of The White Stones were written between 1964 and 1968. This was a period of great activity for Prynne, a time of many and new correspondences with British and American poets, and the inaugurations of various journals, most notably the Cambridge-based The English Intelligencer, edited by the poets Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley. Prynne was a central contributor of poems, essays, and letters to The English Intelligencer, where the majority of the poems in The White Stones were first published. Thirty-six issues appeared between 1966 and 1968, serving as a laboratory for an extended group of poets purposefully creating an English countertradition. A year before the publication of The White Stones in 1969, Prynne published Kitchen Poems and Day Light Songs, the latter included in this new volume, as is the 1969 essay/prose poem “A Note on Metal.” Now, almost 50 years on, there is a large body of discourse about Prynne’s work, but as soon as one tries to pin down the original signal of these poems it gets slippery. They refuse to be categorized: If they’re Marxist, they’re also heterodox; if they’re romantic, they’re also analytic; if they’re scientific, they’re also magical. And while Prynne’s method shares cardinal features with Charles Olson’s projective verse, the romantic philosophical inflection is closer to William Wordsworth, Friedrich Hölderlin, and late Wallace Stevens. When I first encountered Prynne’s work, I felt that there was a braiding, like a double helix, of the Pound/Olson tradition with the Romantic/Stevens tradition, of high romanticism with physical, investigative, transhistorical inquiry. In the course of the '60s Prynne developed deep and important friendships with some of the New American Poets, most notably Olson and Edward Dorn. In fact, after a voluminous correspondence with Olson, Prynne was responsible for preparing and editing the holographic manuscript of Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI. No mean task. There is an edition of the Prynne/Olson letters forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press, which will further illuminate this important correspondence between these two brilliant and original men. For this reason, it is worth rehearsing the elegant system that Olson proposed for an emancipatory poetics in his now venerable but still deeply relevant essay “Projective Verse.” As Olson had it: . . . The two halves are:            the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE            the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE Olson further elucidates: “I am dogmatic, that the head shows in the syllable. The dance of the intellect . . .” and goes on to say, “And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE?” The line in The White Stones works both the line break and in the clausal phrases that keep the machine humming and dancing from one idea to the next, one subject to the next, while constantly opening the horizon of meaning that each poem proposes. The work is full of necessary and productive restlessness in the service of discovery, you can feel the breath driving the poem.The contracted and sometimes crabbed grammar creates rhythm, but the percussive quality of the diction creates something very physical. The ending of the poem “Song in Sight of the World” is a clear example of the syncopation produced from the technique of line and comma working together to both further and interrupt meaning: The light will do all this, to love is the last resort, you must know, I will tell you, this, love, is                          the world. There is a feeling in this book that a language is coming to the speaker of the poem in the very act of composition -- that is, in real time. For example, in “First Notes on Daylight” we find: Patience is truly my device, as we wait for the past to happen, which is to come into the open. As I expect it to, daily. . . These poems are faceted like crystal to daylight, or as Prynne would have it: “The striations are part of the heart’s / desire.” In many of the poems, this massing of clauses and perspectives creates an effect whereby any given singularity of personhood is defined and perhaps generated by a multiplicity of larger structural forces. In the magisterial poem “The Glacial Question, Unsolved,” the temporal structure is the geologic time and weather of the British Isles: The falling movement, the light cloud blowing in from the ice of Norfolk thrust. As the dew recedes from the grass towards noon the line of recession slips back. We know where the north is, the ice is an evening whiteness. We know this, we are what it leaves: the Pleistocene is our current sense, and what in sentiment we are, we are, the coast, a line or sequence, the cut back down, to the shore. In “Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform,” one of the most romantically charged poems in this volume, we encounter an interiority, a private meditation on the costuming of the court in which Joseph Haydn composed; we feel the pressure of composition and aesthetics within a ritualized social structure: I walk on up the hill, in the warm sun and we do not return, the place is entirely musical. No person can live there & what is similar is the deeper resource, the now hidden purpose. I refer directly to my own need, since to advance in the now fresh & sprouting world must take on some musical sense. Literally, the grace & hesitation of modal descent, the rhyme unbearable, the coming down through the prepared delay and once again we are there, beholding the complete elation of our end. A metamorphic language is at play in these poems, where the voice is more observational than sentimental: Naming is the prerogative for knowing. In Prynne’s conception, both court systems and glaciers are players in a larger formation, they endure now in their afterlife as a lyric poem. There is an utopian energy in The White Stones continually wheeling outward, which is why this work will never become a nostalgic object: It is constantly happening. Its readers will find binding narratives, science, economics, romantic love, history, prehistory organically deployed throughout the book’s soundscape. To dramatize this multiplicity, to make it real and active on the page is one of the standing achievements of The White Stones, the ambition of a voice enunciating scale. This book retains a deep glamour by means of its undeniable beauty and phenomenal architecture, its intellect, its vocabularies, and its singular way to song.
Lists, On Poetry

Enormous Zippers Unfastening: Ten Poems for the End of the World

We don’t know when it will happen -- whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month -- but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end. Consider Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive -- a hawk's wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” -- to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp. In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats's “The Second Coming" and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden. If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one's own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world. 1. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo “The world begins at a kitchen table,” Harjo starts. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Communion and community thread throughout her poem. “It is here,” at a table, where “children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Harjo thinks our end has been foretold: “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.” Her poem concludes with resigned hope: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” Her focus on a shared domestic space helps us forget about the enormity of the poem’s backdrop. 2. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost Is Frost’s poem a microcosm of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno? Maybe. Yet I also like the origin story from astronomer Harlow Shapley: while Frost was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, he twice in one night asked Shapley how the world would end. Shapley’s response formed the polarities of the poem. Read by countless middle-school students in requisite units on American poetry, “Fire and Ice” is heavier than its nine lines appear at first glance, and like much of his other work, darkly comic. Equally apocalyptic in spirit, and perhaps even more final in its small-town sadness, is Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” which ends with a minor apocalypse: a boy’s injury leads to amputation and then death, but the townspeople, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” 3. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski The September 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker had a black cover, and on its back page waited this poem. Zagajewski wrote the poem before 9/11, but like the verse of Yeats and Auden, sometimes words need to wait for their proper moment. Note the evolution of the titular statement throughout the poem: we are called to “try to praise,” and then “you must praise,” “you should praise,” and finally the exasperated, exhausted, and yet somehow calm final “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” Zagajewski said there was not one particular event that birthed the poem, rather, “it’s the way I have always seen the world” -- on the brink, and yet beautiful. 4. “Disappointments of the Apocalypse” by Mary Karr Maybe we will be laughing at the end. Mary Karr seems to think so. “Warring factions” will set the date for the end of the world. Physicists will send “copies of the decree to paradise / in case God has anything to say.” A lunar eclipse portends the end, and “Those who hated the idea stayed indoors” but will step out “onto porches and balconies to see / the human shapes twist and rise / through violet sky and hear trees uproot / with a sound like enormous zippers / unfastening.” Karr’s lines unfurl toward hilarity and back again, and yet her lines capture quite what we’d expect an absent God to sound like as he watches his creation combust: “where the last spreadeagled Xs clung like insects, / then vanished in puffs of luminous smoke, // which traveled a long way to sting his nostrils, / the journey lasting more than ten lifetimes.” 5. “A Song On the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz “Those who expected lightning and thunder / are disappointed” on the day the world ends. From bees circling clovers to fishermen mending nets to vegetable peddlers shouting in the street, the world moves on, unknowing of its end. We almost certainly will not know when the end will come, and Milosz especially thinks those who expect “signs and archangels' trumps” will be disappointed at the lack of ceremony. If Harjo thinks our end is our beginning -- or perhaps symbolic of one of our daily customs -- then Milosz thinks our end will be a surprise for most. Except one: “Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy, / Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / No other end of the world will there be, / No other end of the world will there be.” 6. “How it Ends: Three Cities” by Catherine Pierce Three iterations of the end of the world: Austin, Texas; New York, N.Y.; Okemah, Okla. In Austin, grackles line the pavement, “tails oil-black.” Nobody calls out of work. Instead, they “just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence.” There a man “reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird.” The narrator wants to wake it up. On the east coast, at lunchtime, the city smells sweet. Everyone hunts for one last taste. Even a “feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots.” Finally, in the Midwest, the animals slowly become strange. “Goldfish leap down the street's puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings.” A horse gallops down the street. The narrator's dog “dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.” 7. “End of Winter” by Louise Glück All stories about the end of the world are really about the end of our own worlds, the little, often unnoticed deaths that surround us daily. Glück's poem has always felt strangely personal and interrogative for me. It begins with a bird's call during the “still world” of the winter, but then immediately becomes direct in the second stanza: “You wanted to be born; I let you be born. / When has my grief ever gotten / in the way of your pleasure?” Later: “never imagining the sound of my voice / as anything but part of you— / ... only / persistent echoing / in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye.” Is this a mother? Is it God? It might be both: creators alike, after all. 8. “Econo Motel, Ocean City” by Daisy Fried I love the skill and restraint needed to develop a poem in a single room -- a motel room, no less. Who among us has not felt that his or her particular end would come in some aberrant motel room, “Korean monster movie on the SyFy channel, / lurid Dora the Explorer blanket draped tentlike / over Baby's portacrib to shield us from unearned / innocence.” If we are to believe Pierce and others, the end will arrive with a bit of blurring: “Grease-dusted ceiling fan / paddles erratically, two spars missing. Sheets whirled / to the polluted rug.” The family is splayed in this comfortably uncomfortable place: “My glasses on the side table / tipped onto scratchproof lenses, earpieces / sticking up / like arms out of disaster rubble. Your feet hooked over my feet. What miasma / lays gold dander down on forms of temporary / survivors wandering the promenade?” They are at peace in this “Sad Armageddon / of marriage: how pretty much nice / we meant to be, and couldn't make a difference.” 9. “The End of the World” by Dana Gioia We should lighten up a bit as we near the end of the list -- a little poetic calm before the concluding storm. The narrator and his companions “stopped the car where the river curled,” at what is called the end of the world. They “scrambled down” beneath a bridge, cross the “gravel track of a narrow ridge” and thread the woods to reach the actual river. The narrator stands alone where the “white water goosetailed with eddying swell.” As in many of Gioia's poems, he brings us to the final resting place of the poem and then steps back. We are with the narrator at the end of this world, looking downstream, where “There was nothing but sky, / The sound of the water, and the water's reply.” 10. “The End of the World” by Archibald MacLeish This is how the world ends: at a circus. MacLeish's sonnet is actually a single swollen sentence. “Quite unexpectedly,” it begins, as Vasserot, the “armless ambidextrian” lit a match between his toes, and the lion is biting a performer's neck -- while the theater of the absurd reaches its pinnacle, “Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.” The final stanza is masterful, garbled, clunky, recursive, and as close as our inadequate minds can image to the real, messy end. Most likely then, above our paled faces and “our dazed eyes,” there will be “nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.” Image Credit: YouTube.
Lists, On Poetry

The Whispered Language of Secrets and Fears: Ten Poems for People Who Hate Poetry

Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated. William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed. Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame -- we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough. This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems. 1. “A Perfect Mess” by Mary Karr (Sinners Welcome) “It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops ...” 2. “Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion” by Matthew Olzmann (Mezzanines) I might have chosen Olzmann's hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there's something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can't trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I'm willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art. 3. “Blue Prelude” by Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise) If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We've all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record's needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one's song.” 4. “Ode to Browsing the Web” by Marcus Wicker (Maybe the Saddest Thing) “I've been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I'm worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet's hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.” 5. “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Lucky Fish) For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings -- a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil's poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.” 6. “That's Incredible!” by Michael Robbins (The Second Sex) When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse -- or who don't speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you're part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording. 7. “Double Dutch” by Gregory Pardlo (Digest) Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.” 8. “Before” by Ada Limón (Bright Dead Things) If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.” 9. “Intersection” by Kerrin McCadden (Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes) McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o'clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more? 10. “Nothing Is Haunted” by Sandy Longhorn (The Alchemy of My Mortal Form) In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer's / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On Poetry, Reviews

Rival Muses: on Jonathan Bate’s ‘Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life’

Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “...who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question. Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.” But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given. Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “...the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern. But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency...” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.” By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect. In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” -- in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life. Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative. And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships -- these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed -- an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.” This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.” In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth. But there were other methods available to him -- precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats. A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes" and "Hyperion" remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare...and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions. Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems -- which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote -- are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images. Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.” If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.
On Poetry

Conspiring with the Dead: On the Power of Reading Poetry Aloud

1. Over the last few years, my lit geek friends and I have enacted a tradition wherein we gather for an evening at someone's house, often mine, and read poetry aloud until late into the night. For those who didn't know better, such a description might conjure images of Robin Williams circa 1989 -- middle part, expression of rapt sincerity -- crouched in a New England shrubbery with a pubescent Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, solemnly intoning from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and whoever the hell wrote "Invictus," contemplating with awful shudders the brevity of life and the perils of conformity. Ours, though, is no dead poets society; we're adult people who've cracked 30 and are largely locked into our life paths, academics adrift in a digital age yet still aware of a need for rhythmic communal chant. Typically my friends show up at around eight p.m., toting bags swollen with John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and bottles of Trader Joe's vaunted $2.99 vintage; I fire up my waffle maker (I like fancying I've invented nighttime waffles); and we sit in a circle taking turns reading, sometimes going as late as one or two. We're English academics by training, but we deliberately avoid analyzing the poetry. For once, we're just going to enjoy, to muzzle the close readers within us and indulge an appetite as elemental -- as bodily -- as that for waffles, gleaning pleasure from syllables that take shape along the lips and vibrate in the viscera. For once, we'll merely be moved. (At a gathering last year, one attendee performed Hart Crane's "Voyages," and the poem's mysterious last stanza prompted another guest to begin dissecting it instinctively, only to be cut off by a third guest with a scornful "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!") Why do we crave this ritual? Clearly it satisfies some fundamental need: My friends spontaneously clamor for it, texting me with some variant of "OMFG need poetry in my lyfe, plz accommodate." And it's common for one or more of them to write me the day after the event to the effect that they feel lighter, physically and spiritually replenished, that their limbs are more lissome. It's tempting to reach for an explanation of the numinous sort. Algernon Swinburne, the Victorian poet, had a theory that the rhythms of the best poetry were in mystic synchrony with the cadences of the cosmos; chanting these poems, he thought, we can feel ourselves momentarily aligned with the beating of waves, the earth's punctual tiltings, the patterns of tides as the world's waters yearn for the moon then dutifully recede. But the answer is at least as likely to be a mundane one: These evenings promise oases of togetherness that, harkening back to a direct oral tradition largely vanished into the past, relieve the aridity of lives dominated by social media. Across the Western world there has lately been a resurgence of interest in reading out loud. In a 2013 Guardian story, Elizabeth Day tells of a popular book club she organized at a London art gallery, a ritual she conceived as a pointed riposte to the alienation of postmodern life. Day describes experiences of shared, unconcealed intimacy -- of listeners crying; finding temporary relief from chronic pain during the readings; approaching her afterward to say, for example, that a particular novel's protagonist appeared to be suffering from PTSD, and that they'd felt a kinship with him in this regard. In a historical moment obsessed with "awkwardness," when young people, donning irony like a breastplate, studiously avoid being moved, pastimes like Day's reading club promise windows of vulnerability in the company of others. But our gatherings center on poetry, specifically, which imparts to them a quasi-liturgical dimension that I suspect gets to the core of why we keep coming together. So many of us stodgy, skeptical academics find ourselves living in a post-religious shell, incapable of entertaining the promises of scripture but thirsting, no less, for whatever remains of church-going when we've drained it of the dogma. Mind and body still long for incantation, still look to rhythmic utterance to fasten social bonds, still find in poetry's pulses and open-mouthed vowels the grammar of praise. Praise isn't a thing we literary academics tend to excel at. Weaned on the likes of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, our critical minds are wired to "problematize" not praise. Here, we are trained to say, is how this particular text is complicit in this or that insidious ideology -- or, somewhat more positively, how it helps us critique an ideology, or a form of oppression or inequality. And who can blame us? We live in a country where the less affluent 50 percent of the population now possesses around 1 percent of its wealth, and each successive week seems to bring a new instance of racialized violence. Not to critique these ills, as they become visible in literary texts, would amount to self-delusion. Yet we are left, many of us critics, with a deep-down impulse to praise, and the above formula does little to sate this need. If we are only going to "interrogate" literature (that favorite word!), why read at all, much less devote our careers to these works in spite of all the pressures, monetary and otherwise, that scream at us to stop and turn around? Critique is a fundamentally negative gesture, and as one's default readerly mode it leads to a kind of attrition. At the end of the day we all need to eat -- and praise may be the first step toward attaining sustenance, the utterance of thanksgiving before the feast. A world transfigured by praise is one worth living in -- and, crucially, one worth renovating, endeavoring to reform. Praising it, we impose on ourselves a degree of humility and receptivity to others and their gifts, to nature with its superabundance of beauty and wonder that cries out to be cataloged and shared. We remind ourselves that humans can be remarkable during a time when being human is so frequently cause for shame. Our poetry gatherings answer this need in part by allowing us to praise the poetry itself. Having listened to someone read Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," we have that rare freedom to lean back, heroin junkies on the nod, lost in a dream of pleasure. "How could it be so good?" someone will mutter. "Ambiguous undulations," I'll say, quoting from the poem's last lines and shaking my head. "Jesus Christ, dude." But they also enable us to use the poetry as a vehicle for praising a world that can seem emphatically undeserving of celebration. One pattern I've observed in our readings is the frequency with which guests choose poems that foreground praise. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, has been a recurrent favorite through the years. Few if any of my friends are Catholic, but we find bracing release in belting out Hopkins's "Pied Beauty." We relish its opening hurrah, "Glory be to God for dappled things!", its breathless effusion of gratitude for the mottled splendor of the created world -- a gratitude that finally extends to the force that engendered all this wealth: "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him." We may be a pack of Marxist-atheist-Derrideans for whom life itself is a condition of epistemological undecidability, but goddammit, glory be to God for dappled things. Both within academia and in certain circles outside it, a reflexive tendency toward complaint is often touted as a badge of honor -- indeed as the only reasonable response to the atrocities of postmodernity. Yet, in a sense, we are far more insulated from suffering than the legions of the long dead, people who inhabited pre-modern worlds for whom the likes of plague, of every manner of tyranny and cruelty, were commonplaces; for whom childbirth and death were phenomena conjoined more often than not. These are also people who left, in their wake, acres of celebratory poetry and song -- the ghazals of the ancient Middle East and India, the exuberant chants of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Josquin. We can, if we like, dismiss these works as mere exercises in escapism, or embarrassing manifestations of lizard brains more robust in people of previous ages. That such praise might instead of have been a heroic, transcendent gesture, that the everyday specter of death might have pummeled these people into praise, pressuring them to seek out footholds of sustaining joy -- this seems to me the fresher thesis. Long before Stevens came along to teach us that "death is the mother of beauty," people who wandered through worlds of affliction saw the luminousness of reality the more glaringly for all the surrounding darkness. Humans, then, have long looked to poetry as an organ for acclaiming creation. Witness the Psalms (literally "praises") or, more recently, miniature masterpieces like A.R. Ammons's "The City Limits" and Denise Levertov's "O Taste and See" (itself a homage to Psalm 34.8). Poems like these enjoin us to delight in the world, the feast of it all, and are themselves a feast to speak out loud. But they constitute a banquet the wider American public is largely unaware of, though it is starving for lack of it. How do most Americans think of poetry, to the extent they think of it at all? In the same way, maybe, as they do a piece of antique farm equipment -- a John Deere steam tractor, or an iron push-plow -- left over from an era when eloquence, like husbandry, was a skill the import of which went without saying, an assumed fixture of reality. A curiosity to be dragged out, dusted off, and deployed at weddings, then shunted back into storage again; a thing invariably about love or "nature," enfolding glib life lessons on the superiority of less-traveled roads. Worst of all, Americans think of poetry as a "learning device." I just tried Googling "The World is Too Much with Us," William Wordsworth's great sonnet on the spiritual bankruptcy of an early 19th-century Britain enthralled by "getting and spending." Among the initial batch of 10 results, five were as follows: Sparknotes, a study guide called Shmoop, Gradesaver, Cummings Study Guides, and something called 123helpme. I clicked on Shmoop, the slogan of which is the delightfully pithy and confidence-instilling "We Speak Student," and which boasts of being the brainchild of "PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley." The site had carved up Wordsworth's poem into categories like summary, analysis (which consisted of headings including "Tough-O-Meter" and "Sex Rating;" except when he's ravaging violet bushes, old Billy's sexiness quotient is generally pretty low, it turns out), and themes. I decided to click on themes, one of which was sadness. "Does our obsession with getting and spending make you sad?" ran one of the study questions. An advertisement for Land Rovers materialized in the side bar. Poor poetry! Colonized by cheesy pedagogical guides, mined by academics for revolutionary truths, reduced to tepid adages better left to fortune cookies. What if we valued it instead for the elegantly simple reason that it promises connection -- of mind to body, one reader to another, living to dead. Machinery of praise, mode of being moved, repository of pleasure, poetry is finally, above all perhaps, that which connects. And the way it accomplishes this seems to me to have everything to do with breath. 2. Poetry is a uniquely visceral art form. A poem, after all, is distinct from a painting, or a piano sonata, or an instance of architecture, insofar as our own bodies provide the medium in which it takes shape. No physical remove separates audience from artifact; we apprehend it with the intimacy of a thing that has quickened to life in our lungs. As incantation, poetry can implicate readers-aloud in meticulously managed breathing patterns. I suspect many people are now turning to it in part for the same reason they seek out yoga meditation: They've grown alienated from their bodies. Purposeful breath-work is one of the best ways of reclaiming those bodies, since breath is perhaps the ultimate dramatization of the oneness of mind and flesh. In some very real sense, which inveterate meditators grasp, the stream of your breath is the stream of your thoughts. Far from a removed, autonomous entity, the mind is tethered to the lungs, themselves reliant on a shared substance that only lately pervaded someone else. In this way, breath is an index not just of the psychosomatic nature of thought, but our interdependence as humans. But breath may also be the dimension of poetry that binds the bodies of living readers to poets lost past. For guidance on how this works, we might look to none other than John Keats, one of poetry's great theorizers about breathing. Keats had a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward breath: As a teenager he watched his mother surrender to tuberculosis, an illness the symptoms of which included coughing and blood spitting and that climaxed in the precipitous waste of the body. Eight years later, he witnessed his brother die of the same disease, and around 1818, at age 23, contracted it himself, writing his greatest poetry with an awareness that his lungs were slowly collapsing. These ghastly experiences guaranteed Keats would be alert to the mouth's stunning efficacy as a point of entry into the body and intellect. Death visited one at the mouth, "taking into the air" one's "quiet breath" as Keats imagines it doing in the "Ode to a Nightingale," just one of the many death/breath rhymes in his oeuvre. Yet breathing, while mortally perilous, also carried the potential -- orchestrated by poets, reproduced by performing readers -- to be therapeutic, even to offer the poet a measure of immortality. Poems were monuments of embodied eloquence that, when spoken, enabled the reader to breathe in time with the poet. Keats's term for this synchronized breathing was conspiring, a phenomenon whereby readers were involved in the breathings of the poet. Poetry was, in this regard, twinned in his imagination with eroticism; love, as "Endymion" makes clear, was a "fellowship with essence" achievable through a "commingling of passionate breath." "I cannot breathe without you," he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne in 1819. By that same year, cognizant of his faltering breath, Keats began composing a series of poems that crystallized that same breath. These "life masks" took the form, not of the plaster cast that famously preserved his face, but respiratory relics that redeemed from oblivion his modes of inhalation and exhalation. "To Autumn" is one of these. At its core it's a poem about breathing, one that begins by imagining an eroticized union of the autumn goddess with the Apollonian sun, whose "conspiring" brings about the wealth inventoried in the lines that follow. But the poem seeks to establish an analogous union with the reader. It achieves this partly through a sibilance (e.g., "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness") that gives the poem its ductility, its ability to accommodate a largely unobstructed stream of breath. It does so, too, through a succession of oblate, open-mouthed vowel sounds -- sounds that occur in monosyllabic, Ango-Saxon-derived words (e.g., mourn, gourd, bourne) that help give "To Autumn" the quality of meditative chant. And the poem is breath-like in its structure. The first stanza, with its heaping of infinitives -- unconjugated verbs that build toward an illusion of infinite plenty -- represents an inhalation of a sort, an in-spiring that will yield fruit later on; the second stanza, evoking a fleeting pause amid the harvest, that momentary suspension following an intake of breath; the final stanza, a breathing out. That last stanza's subject is expiration itself: of a day, a season, the swarm of animal life that supplies its "music," and finally the poet himself, whose troubled, tubercular breath is just audible in the ode's sibilance, liberated afresh each time we read the poem aloud. Performing "To Autumn" entails conspiring with Keats. Conspiring with Keats -- praising season or urn, plangent song or piquant mood -- readers resurrect him for a time. Breath, if an entryway for death, has the power to transcend it; habitually linked with ephemerality, it is paradoxically freighted with the potential to endure. In poetry's respiratory patterns, frozen in verse forms that enable us to breathe in concert with their authors, we may discover evidence of a shared humanity. Early on in what would become the century of séances and mediumship, Keats offered a secular version of resurrection, one in which the breath-shapes of the dead, distilled in the amber of poetry, materialize afresh in the lungs of the living. 3. This was a version of rebirth one senses Keats -- scornful of religion but entranced by the prospect of immortality -- could get behind. Maybe, to the extent we enact such resurrections in gathering to chant poetry, my friends and I do make up something like a dead poets society after all. Maybe we gain access to the physiological rhythms of generations who flourished and died in the drawing rooms, the fields, the streets of worlds ever more alien to ours, suspiring in time with them; converted, as we do so, into mediums in whose mouths the breaths of bygone people take shape. Maybe there's a connection in this, ghostly in its immediacy and tactility. What's certain, anyway, is that we discover a connection with one another. Depleted from the remorseless round of workaday responsibilities, from checking Facebook and Instagram 12 times an hour, safely insulated from each other and the natural world by noise-canceling headphones, we make our way, enervated and starving, back to this reliable reservoir of cohesion. Here is a heightened register of language that embarrasses all the flotsam and jetsam strewn across Twitter and Buzzfeed. Here is a chance, for all the world's seemingly incurable infectedness, to cry back to it an utterance of thanks. Hallelujah: from the Hebrew hallēl, a very breathy word, "to praise." Praise: from the Latin pretium -- price, worth, reward. For a passing interval, gathered together and conspiring with the dead, we might convince ourselves that the world is worth redeeming at whatever price; that notwithstanding its flaws, it's laden with inconceivable riches -- rewards that we, granting our own shortcomings, might even deserve. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
On Poetry, Reviews

“Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood”: on Rose McLarney’s Its Day Being Gone

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.” Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that--we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.” Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D'J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man's fiction; my favorites are "The Way It Has To Be" and "Time and Again." It would be foolish to deny Pancake's literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters' lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes's list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes. One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney "was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet." Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like "Autumn Again," where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but "this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling." Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range. The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.” Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded-- / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.” Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.” Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist--“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”--these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.” The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme: No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer. What would you rather have than a thing you know spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded, in another’s accent? Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”
On Poetry

Americans Love Poetry, But Not Poetry Books

Whether poetry is useless or dead is a question that arrives as regularly as cicadas. Newsweek proclaimed verse a corpse it in 2003; in 2013, The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri called again for a coffin and a shovel. Still, every spring, ivory towers open their gates and a few thousand new Masters of Poetry stroll out. According to Poets & Writers, there are 204 MFA programs and 21 Creative Writing PhD programs, each graduating a new crop of poets each year. When you add on the countless numbers who write poetry outside of academia, it seems pretty clear that poets aren't unicorns—rather, as in sci fi alien invasion movies, they are already among us: what’s interesting is that poetry’s popularity is so often called into question.  People often dismiss poetry by saying it only matters to other poets, but a few minutes spent sifting through the Favorite Poem Project's online archives proves otherwise; these short documentaries present a wide range of Americans—salesmen, construction workers, bakers, nuns, anthropologists, accountants, Marines, and Bill Clinton—reading aloud their favorite poems. To listen to photographer Seph Rodney talk about coming home from a disappointing date to find solace for his loneliness in reading the caustic urgency of Sylvia Plath's“Nick and the Candlestick” poem, despite his surprise that this woman from a “well-heeled New England family” could speak to “me, a man, a Jamaican immigrant—you could hardly get two people in the world more different” is to understand how false the misconception of poetry’s irrelevance is. Robert Pinsky, founder of the Favorite Poem Project, stresses that the organizers didn’t solicit participants; rather they sent out a call for people to apply to share the poems that moved them. “I’m very proud that the Favorite Poem Project didn’t tell anyone to read poetry; we asked people,” said Pinksy, “We had no advertising budget so every time I was interviewed as poet laureate, whenever I published anything anywhere, I asked [them] to advertise it. I used to give the cards to cab drivers and we got 18,000 letters from people who wanted to participate and read their favorite poem on camera.” Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito offers a similar anecdote to illustrate the value people outside the literary community ascribe to poetry, mentioning how a friend who teaches at a military academy frequently receives letters from former students, soldiers who tell her that “the experience of interpreting poems in her class proved the best preparation for the complex and ambiguous circumstances they encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan” Although Americans’ love for poetry has yet to reach the wild heights of Abu Dhabi’s hit reality show Million’s Poet where 70 million global viewers watched dueling versifiers vie for a $1.3 million cash prize, Americans are actively involved in reading it—particularly outside the traditional literary arenas of bookstores and libraries. Since 1992, New Yorkers have enjoyed “Poetry in Motion,” a joint program run by MTA and The Poetry Society of America that showcases poems next to the usual subway car ads for the preternaturally ageless Dr. Zizmor’s dermatological services and Seamless web food delivery; this past spring, the two-day Poetry in Motion festival in Grand Central Station offered an immensely popular Peanuts-inspired “The Poet is In” booth where poets wrote personalized poems for individual commuters. According to Alice Quinn, PSA’s director, “People were weeping; one person even asked ‘Will I be able to win my wife back with this poem?’” The Poetry Society of America’s partnership with New York City’s Botanical Gardens also draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to wander curated exhibitions pairing Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Edna St. Vincent Millay poems with botany. Poets House’s Zoo project, created after the Central Park Zoo asked the nonprofit for help designing on-site installations to evoke an emotional response from zoo-goers the zoo directors felt had been lacking, has proved similarly popular. A study conducted by the Central Park Zoo after the project began showed that significant percentages of zoo-goers felt the poetry enhanced their appreciation of conservation; less than 1% of those surveyed reported disliking the verse. Thanks to the ease of sharing poems through email and social media, it’s possible that poetry’s audience might be greater now than ever. According to The Academy of American Poets director Jen Benka, the Academy’s Poem-a-Day has over 300,000 readers, so large an audience that the Hearst Corporation recently partnered with the Academy to include the poems in their online and print newspapers and magazines. Benka points out, “The general perception of people who read poetry is not fully accurate. We know there is also a dedicated readership—people who love poetry who are not poets themselves who are completely dedicated to the art form and take it as seriously as poets do…The only reason Hearst listened to us [for the partnership] was because our Poem-a-Day audience was impressive to them.” Robert Polito seconds the importance of technology, pointing out that the Poetry Foundation’s website receives tens of millions of unique visitors each year. Perhaps the greatest argument for poetry’s Internet audience is Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” which went viral almost immediately after being published on The Awl in 2014—within hours of being posted, the poem had over 10,000 likes on Facebook and was soon fodder for articles on Salon and The Guardian. But book sales belie this wide readership. While there are the occasional poetry-only bookstores, like Brooklyn’s Berl’s Poetry Shop, in 2011, New York Magazine compared the numbers for two poetry big-hitters (Wendell Berry and former Poet Laureate Billy Collins) with a book ghostwritten for a 23-year-old who catches a leather ovoid. The result? Berry and Collins sold 2,928 and 18,406, respectively, while Tim Tebow’s autobiography sold over 282,000 copies within six months. The discrepancy between poetry readership and book sales doesn’t matter for nonprofits which rely on generous donors and endowments, but for the independent presses who publish the bulk of modern poetry, sales are a matter of survival. It’s not enough to break even with printing costs; presses also need to cover overhead, not to mention pay authors, book designers, and the IRS—with such tight margins, what often gives is editors’ paychecks; many independent presses are entirely volunteer-run, with staff putting in long hours on top of their day jobs, personal lives, and their own writing. Low book sales make sense when operating under the commonly accepted fallacy that the primary audience for poetry is other poets, but the challenges independent presses face to stay solvent seem particularly poignant when looking at how extensive poetry's audience really is. It should go without saying that no one goes into poetry for money: presses publish poetry because they love it. Although discussions of sales numbers and strategies to increase readership can sound crass, behind the business-speak are editors who want their authors to find a wider audience because they believe in their poems. And paired with this idealism are reasonable practical concerns: unless a press is affiliated with a university (and not always then: let’s not forget Eastern Washington University Press, closed by the university in 2010) or funded by a generous donor, book sales are part of a grim equation where low sales not only equals fewer readers to experience the poet’s work, but also the possibility the press won’t have the money to publish new books or stay afloat to keep their current catalog in print.  While presses naturally want to increase sales, there’s also an ambivalence about what that entails, particularly since they have scarce resources and have to make hard decisions about how to allocate their budget and time. Editors want new readers, but not all are actively engaged in cultivating new poetry converts as opposed to focusing on readers who already love poetry. Christopher Janke of Slope Editions says that, “[While] we take this issue of general readership very seriously, and we talk of it often...we do not aggressively pursue non-poets/those who aren’t already readers. It is enough work for our all-volunteer staff simply to edit and publish manuscripts that we find compelling.” Gabriel Fried of Persea Books concurs, saying for Persea it’s “[a]n issue of time and money--mostly time. But also money!” It makes sense that editors concentrate on what would naturally appear to be the widest pool for sales: the poetry community itself. That said, if editorial resources are small, those of the poets themselves might be even smaller--rare is the poet whose pocket is deep enough to fund as many book purchases as he or she wishes. And, for that matter, even when the intention to buy the book is there, that doesn’t guarantee followthrough. Joe Pan, of Brooklyn Arts Press, points out “The truth is I've seen many people excited for a friend's book to come out and when it does come out, they don't buy it. Or they put it off for a later time that never comes” This is where I step out from behind the scrim of journalistic objectivity to admit I co-run an independent press, Augury Books. At Augury, we’ve taken a twofold approach: attempting both to widen our authors’ readership within the poetry community and to find new poetry readers from outside the community. The largest step we’ve taken towards finding new poetry readers has simply been to try to broaden our readership in general by publishing other genres—short story collections and creative nonfiction—both as books in our catalog and also as individual pieces in the ad hoc occasional literary journal we run on our website. Our hope is that readers who like the prose we publish may discover, as they poke around our catalog, that they like the poetry too (and vice versa). We’ve also made a consistent attempt to have a mix of poets and prose-writers—both those in our catalog and others we don’t publish but whose work we love—read at our launch parties and AWP offsite readings—again hoping that listeners who are there for an author in one genre may find themselves drawn to work they hear in other genres.  This approach is shared by many presses, including Ugly Duckling Presse. Daniel Owen, one of the collective’s editors, notes “UDP publishes a number of titles that are not poetry.  The annual Emergency INDEX documents performance, we publish at least one playscript a year through out Emergency Playscript Series, and have been doing more prose lately…So, in a sense, we're attracting non-poetry readers by publishing things that aren't poetry.  And readers who are interested in these books might be interested in checking out some poetry books as well.” A more idealistic grounding for the strategy of attracting new readers simply by publishing comes from Nate Pritts, of H_NGM_N, who notes “Publishing poetry in any form – whether stapled sheets of paper or books with spines and national distribution, whether folded pamphlets left on coffee shop tables or online pixels – is a strategy for reaching a wider audience” but follows this with the caveat that “sticking with that endeavor, keeping the magazine or press or activity rolling over time, is another strategy.”  Almost every editor I spoke with listed practical ways to increase sales. These include keeping book costs low, working to widen national and international distribution (both through using distributors like Small Press Distribution and by relying on Internet sales on Amazon), attending book fairs and conferences, sending out review copies, exploring new technology like e-books or smartphone apps (although the development costs sometimes prove prohibitive), and developing relationships with bookstores—all of these strategies keep books within financial and geographic reach of potential buyers, as well as establish the press itself as a recognizably consistent presence in the literary community. Numerous editors also mentioned maintaining a social media presence through email blasts, Facebook posts, Twitter, and Tumblr (although most admitted they delegate these tasks to interns) and almost everyone uniformly pointed out the importance of the poets themselves being involved in the literary community through teaching and giving readings. At Augury, we’ve found using multiple forms of media such as guest blog posts and radio interviews have helped with sales—after a small local radio show in San Diego interviewed one of our authors, we sold 11 copies of her book within a day. Crowd-sourced fundraisers are also a useful sales platform, as they offer the chance for buyers to receive giveaways like posters and first editions; according to Joe Pan, Brooklyn Arts Press doubled their pre-sales with their recent Kickstarter campaign.  While these strategies are all useful, they can apply to any genre. Other strategies are more poetry-specific and these strategies often—much as with many of the poetry institutions—put poetry in unexpected places. Wave Books famously rented a bus in 2006 and toured the country, giving readings in places as varied as Seattle’s Space Needle and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as well as in galleries, bars, and prisons. Bruce Covey, editor of Coconut Poetry, in his role as chair of the Poetry Council at Emory University, has put poems in elevators, stairwells, shuttle buses, and inside a traveling poetry gumball machine. Cooper Dillon distributes drink coasters emblazoned with poems at local bars. These strategies rely on the idea of “if you build it, they will come”—in this case, “if poetry is there, people will read it / listen to it.” Here, there’s just as likely a chance that those who already read poetry will enjoy the reading in the park or the poem on their coaster as much as that a previously non-poetry-reading drinker will see the lines underneath his or her beer and feel moved by them enough to later—soberly—track down more of the poet’s work; either way, the hope is that being exposed to the poem will lead to someone buying the book it appears in.  Some presses rely on technology to maintain ties with readers: Sarabande Books sends out a weekly poem selected by the editors to their email subscription list. Copper Canyon, Omnidawn, YesYes Books, and many others (Augury included) include the option of purchasing books from their back catalog when submitting a manuscript for consideration. Editors stress that purchasing a book won’t help the submitted manuscript’s chances, but the purchasing option serves as a reminder to prospective authors that it’s important to be familiar with (and support) the catalog of presses you want to have publish your work. Other editors, such as H_NGM_N’s Nate Pritts and Matthew Zapruder of Wave, mention booking readings at galleries or rock shows as a way of bringing their poets to an audience already interested in visual art or music. Rebecca Wolff, of Fence, has made an active attempt over the years to lure visual arts connoisseurs by advertising in magazines like Art Forum and BOMB, as well as soliciting cover art from visual artists whose work seems to visually match the press’s experimental aesthetics. Wolff also occasionally reads poems on her community’s local radio station for National Poetry Month. The appeal of auditory poetry is echoed by poet and critic Stephen Burt’s exhortation “Radio. Almost anything involving radio” when asked about the most effective strategies to attract new people to poetry, as well as the continued popularity of the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation competition which has drawn millions of high school student participants since the program began in 2006, and Black Cake Records, an sort of online poetry album shop.  Many presses use public service and education as a way to reach out to the wider community. Sarabande Books launched Sarabande Writing Labs this past spring, a program that brings literary arts to traditionally underserved populations; most recently, editor Kristen Miller taught a six-week program to recovering addicts at a local women’s shelter. Copper Canyon recently ran a fund-raising campaign to put copies of one of their new titles inside college classrooms and Wave Books sponsors the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, a program that allows poets to present their ideas about poetry in public lectures. Wave also sponsors a biennial festival in Seattle that focuses poetry around other things—translation one year; film another. This seems in keeping with the advice offered by the poetry review magazine Coldfront's Managing Editor Melinda Wilson, who stresses the importance of making launch parties memorable events. Ugly Duckling’s Daniel Owen echoes this, saying “[w]e like to throw parties. Parties…tend to attract people within shouting distance of poetry circles, who might not otherwise be interested.” These social events are an effective way to attract active members of the poetry community, lure in those who like parties and might discover they like poetry, and also appeal to poetry-lovers who are not necessarily interested in published poetry—the wide swath of people mentioned by poet Juan Felipe Herrara while discussing the vibrant poetry scene he encounters in multiethnic neighborhoods and communities of color where “poetry is presented in fairs and festivals, dance parades and, of course, spoken word and slam competitions. Open-air assemblies.”  “[P]oetry is beyond the page,” he claims, and so the question is “how do we work with it, join it, bring it to our ‘pages’?” This is the question faced by any independent publisher: how do you bring readers to your pages—readers who already appreciate poetry but haven’t yet been exposed to an individual press’s catalog, readers whose experience of poetry is auditory or otherwise outside the bookstore, and those readers for whom, as Matthew Zapruder puts it, “would find human things in there and be connected to it if they found the right poem for them at the right time.” Although the audience for poetry is vast, despite the very hard and creative work being done by publishers, this wider audience hasn’t yet crossed the bridge from reading poetry into buying poetry books. This may be somehow tied to poetry’s long history as part of a collective oral tradition or it may be another manifestation of our modern tendency to listen to tracks on SoundCloud rather than buy albums and watch shows on Project Free TV instead of paying for HBO and cable. People’s love for poetry rather than poetry books may also be because of the nature of poetry itself: since each poem is its own complete aesthetic experience, maybe readers feel less inclined to engage with poetry books, no matter how much they’ve enjoyed individual poems. There isn’t a clear answer for presses about how to unlock this wider audience or even if it can be done—just a multiplicity of different approaches. Image via richiec/Flickr