The Way We Talk About Poetry Is the Problem

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Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who’s tired of the ways we talk about poetry. Maybe I’m the only one who feels a pang of loneliness every time he looks at Poetry Twitter (and then, because social media pushes my buttons so well, looks again, and looks again). It feels that way, the loneliness—the kind I sometimes feel at parties, where lonely is so obviously the last thing I’m supposed to feel.
In the grand scheme of things—hell, even in the ordinary scheme—this isn’t a big deal. But I haven’t had any luck in letting it go. And I’m not convinced that it’s just me. And I’m not even convinced that a lot of what’s happening is good for anyone—though really, the awkward guy standing against the wall at a party complaining about everyone’s supposedly-unhealthy behavior is probably the last person you should listen to. So, grain of salt.
And, caveats: in many ways, the institutions of American poetry are better off than they’ve ever been. They’re more inclusive along several important axes. There’s more room for more styles and more tastes. And much of what is wrong today has always been wrong. Favoritism, shallowness, self-dealing, competition dressed up as virtue, flatterers dressed up as sages, coteries dressed up as the elect: none of that is new. But right now, it just seems so loud.
Of course, that’s exactly what you’d expect a cranky middle-aged guy to say at a party. So, if you don’t want to turn it down, I understand. I’ll survive, yelling at clouds and chasing kids off my lawn and enjoying a lucky life in spite of it all. But just in case, I do have some ideas about what we could all do to make the party better for (I imagine) everyone.
Praise less. Which is not to say we need to tear down more. My default position is that if something gives someone pleasure, you should take that seriously. With rare exceptions, acting as if someone’s been duped because they like something you don’t doesn’t get us anywhere interesting. But there doesn’t seem to be as much of that these days.
More often, we default to a kind of praise that feels like a mirror image of those dismissals—sweeping, emphatic, all authority: if this poem doesn’t make you cry, you have no heart. And, fine. Maybe I don’t. And we should take our ecstasies wherever we can find them, even if our bedazzled presentation of them sometimes seems to overreach.
But the praise of poems most often begins with the conclusion (this is great, is everything, fire emoji, perfect, fierce), implies a consensus, and rarely moves on from there. This is especially true on social media, where the converged audience of strangers and confidants makes the purpose of any statement especially murky: are we making a case or sharing a feeling? is this about the poem or the person posting it? But it’s there in reviews, too, where a poem or book is often equated with a series of adjectives, nouns, and verbs (disruption, radical, passionate, indeterminate, questions, tradition, celebrates, confronts)[1] that are assumed to be inherently good. Why or whether those qualities are always valuable or how these poems achieve them most often goes without saying. Intensity stands in for explanation. A bureaucracy of praise takes hold. Received language locks the poems away from consideration. You get it or you don’t—and if you don’t, why not?
Better to help people see their way to some potential pleasure or effect. Better to describe. “Show don’t tell” isn’t good advice for writing poems, but it’s almost always apt for sharing what you love. Try to describe the poems you admire in ways that allow a reader who doesn’t to see why someone else would experience them that way, even if your reader won’t. I imagine we’ve all been in that situation where someone mentions something we just don’t like and says, “Isn’t it great?” Too much talk about poems sounds like that. And our supposedly critical conversations have gotten so close to the language of blurbs that anything short of marketing copy sounds damningly faint.
One last note on this: I should admit that much of what I’m describing here I’ve done. It’s been a year since I’ve written any reviews. I’ve cut way back on posting on social media. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is an uneasiness with much of what I’ve written in the past. I hear too many false notes there, too many moments when I got carried away by my own rhetoric or my performance of decency. If I ever start reviewing again, I want to be done with that.
Stop defining poetry. In recent years, I’ve read numerous definitions of poetry from influential poets and critics, a couple of whom I’ve met and know for a fact to be lovely, intelligent people. A brief sampling:
“Unlike other forms of writing, poetry takes as its primary task to insist and depend upon and celebrate the troubled relation of the word to what it represents.” (Matthew Zapruder)
“…poems probe the unknown, beginning on firmer ground and speaking until they have expressed the otherwise inexpressible, something sayable only in those words, in that poem.” (Craig Morgan Teicher)
“Poetry is a spiritual technology.” (Kaveh Akbar)
None of this is new. Zapruder also quotes Wittgenstein—“Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”—and Valery—“A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” But neither is any of it true.
Consider Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” which ends, “A poem should not mean / But be.” You might argue that it’s a bad poem. I’m inclined to agree. It seems to have no use for its own glaring contradiction—its apparent disinterest, outside of the blowsy metaphors that he pairs with each assertion, in following its own recommendations. Those metaphors feel merely decorative[2] and deeply sentimental in their unwitting personification of a world of poetically (or, “poetically”) inhuman things. And the assertions themselves are both untrue and unremarkable. But you can’t convince me it’s not a poem. And I don’t see how you can align it with any of those definitions.
Or, in a different vein, we could try Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” which starts:

I love you.Because you love you.Because you are erect.Because you are also bent.

It’s not among my favorite Brooks poems—which makes sense; I’m pretty clearly not its intended audience—but I would argue that it is good. It works skillfully (and, I suspect, successfully) toward a meaningful end. And that end is not “to insist and depend upon and celebrate the troubled relation of the word to what it represents” but rather to celebrate and animate and encourage a movement of Black women away from white standards of beauty.
Or, maybe consider a poem like Paisley Rekdal’s “The Wolves,” which includes the lines:

Some deaths are goodand it makes them hard to grieve.She was, at times, in great pain. We wanted herto die, too. That was important. But firstwe wanted her to remember.

This one I like, very much. And I guess you could say it’s spiritual, though I don’t think you need to believe in a spirit to care about it. (I don’t, and I do.) Instead, you can hear that first sentence drawing back to make an experience not unique to this scene or this speaker yield to a kind of unshowy mastery (its simple terms falling easily across the lines, the aligned structures of grammar and causality complicating goodness as the second line settles into a more regular rhythm). That mastery gives it weight and makes its complexity proper to language—to being human—and it keeps the generality from making the statement seem generic. You can hear it returning to the specific scene, trying not to oversimplify or get carried away, to honor the sad-but-not-tragic facts of it. You can note how it makes space for human fallibility and vulnerability without giving in to self-loathing or melodrama. The effect, for me, is both a sense that this matters too much for excess, and a kind of vitality that moved inside that restraint, in its slight shifts of grammar and lineation.
It matters that this poem has something to say, and though it would be different and even less if it were said differently, that’s true of most successful essays and stories, too. It’s true of most successful works of art—and of the unsuccessful ones, too. It’s even true, though to a lesser extent, of a simple conversation among friends. And though it obviously pays careful attention to the language it uses, it does not do so in conflict with its work of saying something about a human experience.
Even more frustrating than people defining poetry is the tendency to define poets, too. For Zapruder, “…that choice to be ready to reject all other purposes, in favor of the possibilities of language freed from utility, is when the writer becomes a poet.” Teicher claims that “Poets work to express the questions roiling beneath their statements, the statements beneath their questions. Poets rarely trust assertions.” These are probably true for many poets at many times, but “poet” is not an ontological category, and poets are not a unique species. Stephanie Burt describes poetry as “a name for a complicated history.” There are a variety of impulses that might lead someone to add to, alter, or draw from that history. We should quit talking as if all of them (the people and the impulses) are the same.
Don’t treat art as a competition. Here, too, the problems aren’t new. Artistic prizes and contests have always been absurd. They’ve always presented taste as objective assessment and, at least in the U.S., commercial interests as celebrations of something supposedly pure. They’ve always distributed finite resources based on questionable standards, often funneling those resources to those who already have the most—the most resources, and the most connections.
There’s been good news in recent decades. As Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young note in their extensive survey of poetry prizes, while “For most of the twentieth century, the prize’s definitions of literary excellence included only white writers,” “the racial diversity of prizewinners more or less begins to echo the racial demographics of the US as a whole in the 2000s.” Still, their study makes clear that, as they report, “Despite changing the demographics of the prize, these larger shifts have not changed the insular nature of prestige networks.”
Just as important as that insularity—which I’ll say more about in just a bit—is the inherent problem of competitive art. Ambition is one thing: it can embody a reaching after meaning, insight, value, beauty—and almost anything else that art might usefully offer us—at the same time as it answers to a writer’s hunger for fame, domination, wealth, and the rest. The entanglement of the best and worst of us in our artistic ambitions is inevitable. We live in a fallen world that was always fallen, and there is no way to separate artistic virtue from human complexity. But competition flattens that out into the two-dimensional layering of rankings and hierarchies. With their layers of winners and finalists and shortlists and longlists and also-rans, these prizes and contests[3] endlessly replicate the structures so many poets congratulate themselves on resisting in the very poems they submit for judgement—and that might then go on to be exalted by such layering.
Doing away with contests and prizes wouldn’t make a dent in the scarcity of resources and acclaim, nor would it make the distribution any more equitable or just. And, honestly, they’re just not going away. Kudos to the publishers who at least offer pay-what-you-can entry fees to minimize the effects of a system that uses those prizes to turn writers’ hopes into sustenance for publishers, many of whom are facing their own precarity. But we’d be much better off if we could remember that winning means very little beyond the material and professional rewards it provides, and that even in an ideal world, all of these honors would mean no more than the fact that a single person or a small panel of people like this work better than something else—and like it for reasons that, when explained at all, come in the same marketing-style language of pseudo-objectivity I described above. The institutional imprimatur shouldn’t make that person’s, or those people’s, tastes matter more than they otherwise would.
And, as Spahr and Young’s essay makes clear, and as anyone who’s spent much time looking at who picks whom for a given prize already knows, we’re in no such world. The frequency with which a major prize goes to the former student, close friend, or professional connection of a judge or juror has probably diminished since the days of Foetry, but not nearly enough for us to pretend these prizes are any more significant than any other validation given by a system of self-replicating privilege. So, if you or your friend wins something, be happy, celebrate, enjoy what you’ve received. But even if you believe in such a thing as “best” when it comes to art (and, really, best for what? for whom?), don’t present the results as evidence of it.
Consider strangers. Again, social media is tricky. Even putting aside the way it commoditizes our feelings and ideas, the way it turns our intimacies and ideals into a competition, it leaves us in the awkward position of publicizing our relationships and turning our tastes and emotions into public acts. It’s inevitable that we’ll lose track of the lines between caring for the people we care about, promoting ourselves for jobs and acclaim, and making claims about value and truth and even something as simple as what we actually feel. Lord knows I’m guilty of this.
But surely, even as we live with that confusion, we can work against it, too. What if we tried to share two poems from a stranger (living or dead) for every one we share from a friend? Or one for every two? What if we dedicated a day a week or a month or a year to sharing writing from people we don’t know and who can’t be of any use to our careers? Someone with no power? Someone whose gratitude would do nothing for you? Or what if we just tried to be more honest about what we’re up to and do better than that? We’d still leave out more writers than we’d let in, still be dependent on all these institutions of the fallen world to help us find poems and essays and other works of art to share. But maybe we’d be a little more aware of what we’re missing. And maybe we’d let a few more people—writers and readers—in.
[1] It doesn’t help that many of these terms continue a tradition of turning matters of taste into political hierarchies, as in the now mostly defunct claim that free verse is on the side of human liberty while fixed forms are inherently fascistic.
[2] Which is not to say that decoration is inherently bad. Alexander Pope, in another poem that doesn’t fit into these definitions of poetry, argued for the importance of “True wit,” which he described as “Nature to advantage dress’d; / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d,” and there are plenty of wonderful poems that offer just that.
[3] Which are becoming more numerous and more inescapable: except for the most lauded and/or connected, it’s increasingly rare for someone to get a book published outside the contest system.

Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.

Henry Vaughan’s Eternal Alchemy


Mercury has a boiling point of 674.1 degrees Fahrenheit and a freezing point of -37.89 degrees, rendering it the only metal that’s liquid at room temperature. Malleable, fluid, transitory—the element rightly lends itself to the adjective “mercurial,” a paradoxical substance that has the shine of silver and the flow of water, every bit as ambiguous as the Greek god from whom it derives its name. Alchemists were in particular drawn to mercury’s eccentric behavior, as Sam Kean explains in The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, writing that they “considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe.” Within sequestered granite basements and hidden cross-timbered attics, in cloistered stone monasteries and under the buttresses of university halls, alchemists tried to encounter eternity, and very often their medium of conjuration was mercury. The 13th-century English natural philosopher Roger Bacon writes in Radix Mundi that “our work is hidden… in the body of mercury,” while in the 17th-century the German physician Michael Maier declared in Symbola aurea mensae that “Art makes metals out of… mercury.” Quicksilver which pools like some sort of molten treasure is one of the surprising things of this world. To examine mercury and its undulations is to see time itself moving, when metal appears acted upon by entropy and flux, the disintegration of all that which is solid into pure water. Liquid metal mercury is a metaphysical conceit.

Alchemy has been practiced since antiquity, but the decades before and during the Scientific Revolution were a golden age for the discipline. In England alone there were practitioners like John Dee, Edward Kelley, and Robert Boyle (who was also a chemist proper), and then there was the astrologer and necromancer Isaac Newton, who latter had some renown as a physicist and mathematician.  Such were the marvels of the 17th century, this “age of mysteries!” as described by the Anglo-Welsh poet Henry Vaughan–born 400 years ago tomorrow. He could have had in mind his twin brother, Thomas, among the greatest alchemists of that era, whose “gazing soul would dwell an hour, /And in those weaker glories spy/Some shadows of eternity.” Writing under the name Eugenius Philalethias, Thomas was involved in a project that placed occultism at the center of knowledge, seeing in the manipulation of matter answers to fundamental questions about reality. Though Henry is the more remembered of the two brothers today (though “remembered” is a relative term), the pair were intellectually seamless in their own time, seeing in both poetry and alchemy a common hermetic purpose. Four centuries later, however, and alchemy no longer seems an avenue to eternity. Thomas’s own demise demonstrated a deficiency of those experiments, for despite mercury’s supposed poetic qualities, among its more tangible properties is an extreme toxicity, and when heated in a glass it can be accidentally inhaled, or when handled by an ungloved hand (as alchemists were apt to do) it can be absorbed through the skin. The resultant poisoning has several symptoms, not least of which are muscle spasms, vision and hearing problems, hallucinations, and ultimately death. Such was the fate of Thomas after some mercury got up his nose in that apocalyptic year of 1666, when plague and fire destroyed London.

Despite Thomas being an Anglican vicar removed from his position for “being a common drunkard, a common swearer… a whoremaster” and who would be satirized nearly a century later by Jonathan Swift in A Tale of a Tub as the greatest author of nonsense “ever published in any language,” he was still in pursuit of something very particular and important, though it’s perhaps easy to mock alchemy nearly four centuries later. In works like Anima Magica Abscondita; or A Discourse on the Universal Spirit of Nature and Aula Lucis, or The House of Light, Thomas evidenced a noble and inquisitive spirit about nature, a desire to both “Have thy heart in heaven and thy hands upon the earth,” as he writes in the first of those two volumes. Thomas searched for eternity, a sense of what the fundamental units of existence are, and he rearranged matter and energy until it killed him.

“Their eyes were generally fixed on higher things,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets, and indeed whether in manipulation of chemicals or words, both Vaughans desired the transcendent, the infinite, the eternal; what Henry called “authentic tidings of invisible things.” This essay is not mainly about Thomas—it’s about Henry, a man who rather than making matter vibrate chose to arrange words, and in abandoning chemicals for poetry came much closer to eternity. Thomas was an alchemist of things and Henry was one of words, but the goal was identical—”a country/Afar beyond the stars,” where things are shining and perfect. This necessarily compels a question—how eternal can any poetic voice ever actually be? Mine is not a query about cultural endurance; I’m not asking for how long will a poet like Vaughan be studied, read, treasured. I’m asking how possible is it for Vaughan—for any poet—to ascend to the perspective of Aeternitas, to strip away past, present, and future, to see all as if one gleaming moment of light, divorced from our origins, our context, our personality, and in that mystical second to truly view existence as if from heaven? And for the purpose of the poet (and the reader), to convey something of this experience in the fallen and imperfect medium of language?

Because he was a man of rare and mystical faith, for whom the higher ecstasies of metaphysical reverence subsumed the lowly doldrums of moralistic preening, it can be easy to overlook that Vaughan—like all of us who are born and die—lived a specific life. The son of minor Welsh gentry (and whose second language was English, often writing “in imitation of Welsh prosody” as the editors of the Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms note), Vaughan was most likely a soldier among the Royalists, brother of the esteemed scholar Thomas (of course), and a physician for his small borderland’s town, until dying in 1695 at the respectable age of 74, the “very last voice contained entirely within what many regards as the great century of English poetry” as Schmidt writes. Vaughan may not be as celebrated as other visionary poets, yet he deserves to be included among William Blake and Emily Dickinson as one of the most immaculate. Such perfection took time.

His earliest “secular” verse is composed of largely middling attempts at aping the Cavalier Poets with their celebrations of leisure and the pastoral, yet sometime around 1650, “Vaughan seems to have experienced a spiritual upheaval more in the nature of a regeneration than of a conversion. He violently rejected secular poetry and turned to devotion,” as Miriam K. Starkman explains in 17th Century English Poetry. This turning of the soul was perhaps initiated by the trauma of the Royalist loss in the English Civil War, the death of his older brother, William, and most of all his discovery of the brilliant metaphysical poet and Anglican theologian George Herbert. But regardless of the reasons, his verse and faith took on a shining, luminescent quality, and his lyrics intimated the quality of burning sparks from hot iron. “Holy writing must strive (by all means) for perfection and true holiness,” Vaughan writes in the preface to his greatest collection, 1655’s Silex Scintillans, “that a door may be opened to him in heaven” (the Latinate title translates to “The Fiery Flint” in keeping with his contention that “Certain divine rays break out of the soul in adversity, like sparks of fire out of the afflicted flint”).

He was, first and foremost, a Christian, and an Anglican one at that, writing his verse during the Puritan Interregnum when his church was abolished, and those of his theological position prohibited from their community and liturgy. In his prose treatise of 1652, The Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions, he offers “this my poor Talent to the Church,” now a “distressed Religion” for whom “the solemn and public places of meeting… [are] vilified and shut up.” To these traumas must be added Vaughan’s marginalization in England as a Welshmen, for as Schmidt writes “Wales, [is] his true territory,” indeed so much so that he called himself the “Silurian” after the fearsome Celtic tribe that had once made his birthplace their home. In championing Vaughan, or any poet, as “eternal,” we risk reducing them, of subtracting that which makes them human. Silex Scintillans is consciously written in a manner whereby it can be easy to strip the lyrics of theological particularity, which makes him an easy poet for the heretics among us to champion, and yet Vaughan (ecstatic though he may be) was an orthodox Anglican.

Vaughan’s particular genius is in being able to write from a perspective that seems eternal, for theology may be of man but faith is of God, and he is a poet that understands the difference. The result is a verse that though it was written by an Anglican Welshman in the 17th century, reads (when it’s soaring the highest) as if it came from some place alien, strange, and beautiful. Consider one of his most arresting poems from Silex Scintillans, titled “The World.” Along with John Donne and Dickinson, Vaughan is among the best crafters of first lines in the history of poetry, writing “I saw Eternity the other night, /Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” This is a poem that begins like the Big Bang. A simple trochaic rhyming couplet, its epigraphic minimalism lends itself to the very eternity of which it speaks. To my contemporary ear, there is something oddly colloquial about Vaughan’s phrasing, speaking of seeing “Eternity the other night” like you might mention having run into a friend somewhere, even though what the narrator has experienced is “Time in hours, days, years, /Driv’n by the spheres/Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world/And all her train were hurl’d.”

In its understatement there’s something almost funny about the line, as the casual tone before the enjambment transitions into the sublime cosmicism after the first comma. That’s the other thing—the narrator had this transcendent experience “the other night”—the past tense is crucial. Eternity is possible, but it’s only temporary (at least while we live on earth). Schmidt correctly observes that Vaughan’s lyric “does not sustain intensity throughout, dwindling to deliberate allegory,” though that’s true of any poem which begins with a powerful and memorable line—Donne and Dickinson weren’t ever able to sustain such energy through an entire lyric either. What’s so powerful in “The World” is that this inevitable rhetorical decline is reminiscent of the actual mystical experience itself, whereby that enchanted glow must necessarily be diminished over time. Leah Marcus argues in Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth-Century Literature that the “dominant mood in Vaughan’s poetry is pessimism, and a sense of deep loss which occasional moments of vision can only partly alleviate.” Such an interpretation is surely correct, for loss marked not only Vaughan’s life, but his mystical experiences as well, where despite his spiritual certainty (and he is not a poet of doubt), transcendence itself must be bounded by space and time, a garden to which we are only sometimes permitted to visit.

Better to describe Vaughan as the poet of eternity deferred, an ecstatic who understands that in a fallen world paradise is only ever momentary. “My Soul, there is a country/Afar beyond the stars,” Vaughan writes in another poem entitled “Peace,” continuing “Where stands a winged sentry… There, above noise and danger/Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles.” He writes with certainty, but not with dogmatism; perhaps assured of his own election, he doesn’t mistake his earthly present for his heavenly future, and that combination of assurance and humility has lent itself to the eternal mode of the lyrics. Note the reference to where perfection can be found, possibly an echo of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” as well as the cosmological associations of such paradise being located deep within the outer universe. Along with his contemporary Thomas Traherne, Vaughan is one of the great interstellar poets, though such imagery must necessarily be read as allegorical, the mystic translating experience into metaphor. “Private experience is communicated in the language of Anglican Christianity,” observes Schmidt, and such language must forever be contingent, a gesture towards the ineffable but by definition not the ineffable itself. “His achievement,” Schmidt writes, “is to bring the transcendent almost within reach of the senses.”

There are brilliant poets and middling ones, influential and obscure, radical and conservative, but the coterie of those able to look upon eternity with transparent eye and encapsulate their experience in prosody, no matter how relative and subjective, are few. During the Renaissance, Herbert with his “something understood” was one of these poets; Donne with his “little world made cunningly” was another. Among others include Gerard Manley Hopkins and the vision of God’s grandeur “shining from shook foil” in the 19th-century alongside Christina Rossetti who had “no words, no tears.” In the 20th there was Robert Frost (hackneyed though he is misremembered) intoning that “Nature’s green is gold” and Marianne Moore for whom “Mysteries expound mysteries;” Jean Toomer’s “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,” and Denise Levertov who could “Praise/god or the gods, the unknown;” Louise Gluck whose hands are “As empty now as at the first note,” Martin Espada who prays that “every humiliated mouth… fill with the angels of bread,” and Kaveh Akbar who “always hoped that when I died/I would know why.”  Then of course there are aforementioned Dickinson and Blake, frequently John Milton, often Walt Whitman, and most of the time Traherne. Hard to discern a thorough line through the eternal poets, eternal because they seem to have gone to that permanent place and returned with some knowledge. When Schmidt writes that “Vaughan’s chosen territory” was the “area beyond the senses, accessible only to intuition,” I suspect that same description could be made from those on my truncated syllabus.

Henry Vaughan’s poetry demonstrates the difference between eternity and immortality. The latter is the juvenile desire of the alchemists, this intention to transmute base metals to gold, to acquire the philosopher’s stone, to construct homunculi and perhaps live forever. Immortality is understood as being like this life right now, only with more of it. Eternity is something else entirely. Another difference is that immortality isn’t real. Writing in The Mount of Olives, Vaughan describes our lives as a “Wilderness… A darksome, intricate wood full of ambushes and dangers; a forest with spiritual hunter, principalities and powers.” By contrast, eternity is that domain of perfection—it is the gentle buzz of a bee in the stillness of a summer dusk, the scent of magnolia wafting on a breeze, the reflection of moonlight off an unrippling pond. “They are all gone into the world of light! /And I alone sit ling’ring here,” Vaughan writes in another of his perfect opening lines. One of the most poignantly sad sentences in Renaissance poetry. The world weariness is there, the estrangement, the alienation—but the world of light is still real. “I cannot reach it, and my striving eye/Dazzles at it, as at eternity,” he mournfully writes, and yet “we shall gladly sit/Till all be ready.” What faith teaches is that we’re all exiles from that Zion that is eternity, to which we shall one day return. What Vaughan understands is that if we seek eternity, it is now.

Who’s Afraid of Poetry in America?

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Poetry and America have rarely been seen as the likeliest of bedfellows. In fact, the nature and stature  of poetry in the United States of America has been questioned pretty much since the latter first existed.
In his book Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville fired shots at the very concept. “I am not afraid that the poetry of democratic peoples will prove timid or that it will stay very close to the earth,” he wrote. “I fear that the works of democratic poets will often offer immense and incoherent images, overloaded depictions, and bizarre composites, and that the fantastic being issuing from their minds will sometimes make one long for the real world.” Within a decade or two, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would prove him wrong.
The concerns over the form in this country continue today, in a very different way. Contemporary poets and poetry lovers often bemoan not the dizzying heights of the form but, rather, its marginalized status in modern times. Even the increase in poetry’s market share, thanks to Instagram poetry’s big sales numbers, isn’t seen entirely in a positive light. Instead, many poets feel that those sales are leaving the majority of poetic tradition behind.
And yet there’s another perspective on American poetry: that its history is rooted both in tradition and experiment; that it is for both the poets and the people; and that, contrary to popular belief, it still plays an important role in many lives—and could in even more, if given a chance. That’s where Poetry in America, the PBS television show created, directed, and hosted by Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, comes into play.

The show, which has returned for its second season, appropriately, during National Poetry Month, has begun airing on PBS stations around the country and will air nationwide on the WORLD Channel. The show will continue airing through the spring, summer, and fall, and episodes will also be available to stream on and on the show’s website. Each episode focuses on a single poem, with New discussing works by Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Bishop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marianne Moore, Mark Doty, Stephen Sondheim, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman, with guests including Katie Couric, Vice President Al Gore, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill T. Jones, Secretary of State John Kerry, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nas, John Hodgman, Tony Kushner, Justice Elena Kagan, Raúl Esparza, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more.
The concept for the show, New said, came out of a set of online courses she was creating at Harvard. “Just as they were going into online learning and they didn’t have many rules, I commandeered video crews and started making content that was more like documentary television,” she said. “In the beginning, it was really just going to Brooklyn and filming, say, the ‘A Song of Myself’ marathon and talking to people there.”
Soon, though, New’s access to great minds across the board gave her the opportunity to interview visitors ranging from Justice Kagan to hip hop artist Nas. After six months, she said, she had “filmed some extraordinary conversations with people not known as poetry experts,” and reached out to Boston’s PBS member television station, WGBH. And thus the show was born.
The hope, New said, was to help people get over their apprehension of poetry. “The show evolved out of my sense that people are afraid of poetry,” she said. “They don’t know how to navigate a poem. And I thought that bringing the resources of a group to bear would give them a glimpse into the joy that one can feel by discovering both what everyone has always seen in a line of this poem—how Bill Clinton and a kid in a Harlem schoolyard, upon reading a poem, see exactly the same thing—and the joy of seeing how our language is so plastic and so multivalent that we all keep seeing new things in it.”
The variety of guests on the show serves a number of purposes, including showing that all sorts of people read poetry and that each brings a very different understanding of the use of language to the work of reading. As examples, New pointed to Justice Kagan, trained in the art of legal writing, and Nas, trained in the art of the lyric. “Both of them brought to their conversations with me their own writing practices, and explained their writing practices to me, and those practices intersect, in many ways, with the practices of poets—and of course Nas is a poet, and an extraordinarily gifted one,” New said.
But even those who are not writers themselves, New said—such as Vice President Joe Biden and Shaquille O’Neil, who were guests in the show’s first season—bring their own different understanding of the power of language to reading poetry. New spoke of Biden using language “that is drenched in affect” as “a kind of emotional signaling system,” and of O’Neil being “so accustomed to the fast patter of basketball talk,” and bringing that understanding to bear on his reading of poetry. “Everybody brings their own theory of language, from the kind of precincts of language in which they most comfortably dwell,” she said. “And if you can sort of match that with the right kind of poem, they’re just experts at reading it.”
New’s objective is to help viewers feel comfortable in poetry’s arena. And by focusing on one poem in a half-hour of television, adapted to the screen visually and aurally, and accompanied by carefully-matched selections of music and images and historical context, she believes she can do just that—and not in the same way as, say, Instagram poetry.
“I think that for the inexperienced reader of poetry and viewer of the series, the idea is that the series will show that you can sit tight and have an experience that’s different from any you’ve had before, and that you might’ve been afraid of before, and that that experience will be rewarding for you,” New said.
The trick, of course, with creating a public access television series about such an art form as poetry, coveted and beloved intensely by its practitioners and students, and often considered arcane and unreachable by the masses, is pleasing both parties. And New knew that, too. But in the end, she knew where to draw the line.
“For the initiated reader of poetry, I of course want to enhance that, that reader’s experience as well—and I always have the voices of the experts in my ear, sitting on my shoulder, warning me: Don’t dumb it down, don’t cheapen it, don’t oversimplify it,” she said. “But I would like, actually, to restore to some of them, their original joy and wonder, and also help them think about poetry as a more common pleasure. Walt Whitman said, ‘I am what is easiest, cheapest, freest.’ And we in the poetry world can be a little bit precious. So, even as I want to be as rigorous as my most rigorous viewer, I want that viewer to bear in mind what Frank O’Hara told us, which is that poetry should be fun, right? It should be like having a cocktail. It should be fizzy and delightful—even when the subject is grave.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Crooked Lines of God: On Christian Wiman


Deus escreve direito por linhas tortas, goes the Portuguese saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” The sentiment inspired Brother Antoninus, a Dominican lay brother from California, to publish a book of poems titled Crooked Lines of God in 1959. “God writes straight,” Antoninus began his foreword. “My crooked lines, tortured between grace and the depraved human heart (my heart), gouge out the screed of my defection.” He writes that the “crooked is made straight only in anguish.”

Brother Antoninus was William Everson, born and raised on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. First agnostic, and then pantheist, Everson converted to Catholicism, largely inspired by the “fabulous Latin beauty, this Latin sensitivity” of his wife, the poet and artist Mary Fabilli. They separated, and Everson joined the Domincan Order as a lay brother in 1951, beginning one of the most fascinating religious interludes in contemporary poetry. Everson would renounce his vocation—but never his Catholicism—during a dramatic poetry reading in 1969. The latent sensuality of his religious verse had become sexual, and his life followed suit.

Everson’s grand departure makes me think of a poem, “The Priest at the Pool Party,” from Christian Wiman’s masterful new collection, Survival Is a Style. “Bound with vows / like Ulysses strapped to the mast,” a priest “drifts past / the white sirens” of women’s thighs, past “scooped fruits and toothpicked meats” at the party, “and is almost able / to taste the love a lack completes.” Much like the priest of this poem, Everson longed for romantic love again, but the tension between vocation and desire became too much for him.

Wiman’s new book makes him the poet that Everson might have become. This is not to devalue Everson’s life and poetry, but to merely suggest that Everson’s religious verse would have likely evolved in the direction of Wiman’s vision. Although the poets differ in generation, subject matter, and influences, Wiman’s poetry demonstrates a similar mixture of sincerity and gentle satire when it comes to matters of faith.

In his prologue to the book, Wiman writes “I need a space for unbelief to breathe”—and that space is within his poems. His treatment of religious belief and doubt in his work is not merely refreshing, it is endearing and illuminating. We can feel the struggle, the longing, for God. “Good Lord the Light” is perhaps his finest explanation of how belief is sustained by doubt. “Good morning misery, / goodbye belief, / good Lord the light / cutting across the lake / so long gone / to ice—” the poem begins, with “good Lord” functioning as both prayer and sigh. Despite our winter world, “There is an under, always, / through which things still move, breathe, / and have their being.” He ends the poem: “good God the winter / one must wander / one’s own soul / to be.”

Wiman has written of illness, ambition, doubt, and pain. A former editor of Poetry magazine who now teaches at the Yale Divinity School, Wiman has documented the crooked lines of his own life—his wavering routes of faith. He has always been a seeker. Survival Is a Style makes this search into song, and it could not have arrived at a better moment: “It may be Lord our voice is suited now / only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage. // It may be only the crudest, cruelest transformations touch us, / gauzewalkers in the hallways of a burn ward.”

The search offers no easy answers; in fact, it might offer no answers at all. In one poem, “The Sound,” Wiman writes of a “bird sanctuary with no birds. / Eerie the beauty of the empty marsh.” Here the silence of God becomes the loudest speech, a stirring toward despair. In a long elegy for his father, Wiman wonders: “What happens when we die, / every child of every father eventually asks. / What happens when we don’t / is the better question.” Later in that poem he writes “The love of God is not a thing one comprehends / but that by which—and only by which—one is comprehended.”

Those lines bring me back to Everson’s foreword. A poet concerned with his own mythos and reception—he had an infamous row with James Dickey over criticism in The Sewanee Review—Everson’s ambitious plans for his poetry were powerless compared to God. “The Divine writing goes forward,” Everson admits, “with an excoriate straightness, but never in the manner one supposes; nor does it ever relate precisely what one hopes to hear.” I suspect Wiman would appreciate that sentiment, as he closes his new book with a confession: “The more I think the more I feel / reality without reverence is not real. // The more I feel the more I think / that God himself has brought me to this brink / wherein to have more faith means having less. / And love’s the sacred name for loneliness.”

Two superficially different poets, united by a longing for God. Everson’s vision helps reveal Wiman’s tenacious embrace of belief in the face of doubt—or perhaps through doubt. “I wrote; I have written; I will write,” Everson ends his foreword. “But no matter how crooked I set it down, God writes it straight.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fail Like a Poet: Ambition and Failure in Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

For a Place I Hate, I Invoke You Often: Featured Poetry by Hala Alyan


Today we continue our new series of poetry excerpts with a poem from clinical psychologist, novelist, and poet Hala Alyan. Her fourth book of verse, The Twenty-Ninth Year, is full of swift lines and crisp images. “Oklahoma,” a prose poem from her new book, appears among a variety of poetic styles and subjects—each united by Alyan’s intense language. The confident narrators of her poems shift between sensuality and sentiment, between lust and the lure of family. Even in the prose form of “Oklahoma,” her poetic syntax strikes: an appropriate lament for a state that she once called home, whose memory she can’t shake. “For a place I hate, I invoke you often”: Alyan captures the terrible millstone of memory.

For a place I hate, I invoke you often. Stockholm’s: I am eight years old and the telephone poles are down, the power plant at the edge of town spitting electricity. Before the pickup trucks, the strip malls, dirt beaten by Cherokee feet. Osiyo, tsilugi. Rope swung from mule to tent to man, tornadoes came, the wind rearranged the face of the land like a chessboard. This was before the gold rush, the greed of engines, before white men pressing against brown women, nailing crosses by the river, before the slow songs of cotton plantations, the hymns toward God, the murdered dangling like earrings. Under a redwood, two men signed away the land, and in history class I don’t understand why a boy whispers sand monkey. The Mexican girls let me sit with them as long as I braid their hair, my fingers dipping into that wet black silk. I try to imitate them at home ​— ​mírame, mama ​— ​but my mother yells at me, says they didn’t come here so I could speak some beggar language. Heaven is a long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school. Heaven is pressed in a pleather booth at the Olive Garden, sipping Pepsi between my gapped teeth, listening to my father mispronounce his meal.

“Oklahoma” excerpted from The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan. Published and
reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Must-Read Poetry: December 2018


Here are four notable books of poetry publishing in December.

Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins

Before the core of this book—a sequence that considers the pristine “Mary Sue,” a female character in fan fiction who often seems to be the “author’s idealized self”—Collins includes a gorgeous prose poem. “Sister, listen to me—tonight our father will pull open the heavy door of our home, walk with his large boots into the kitchen and drop a pig on the table. In the morning, peasants with children and glassy-eyed babies will enter, sniffing at us like animals, noting the absence of a mother who lays out cold plates, white bread.” It is folkloric, surreal, and suggestive of a poet who can channel new energies. In “The Engine” sequence, Collins writes: “On my walks I began to notice more bonfires than ever before. I was reluctant to speculate on a cause, but the hillside fields were plainly covered in scabs.” Sleepless and suffering, the narrator heads into the cold. She gets a tick bite. She finds “an empty shed with unbroken windows,” and sleeps in a dog bed. She dreams of dogs, and awakens to “a mongrel with cataracts” that “stayed looking for a moment before leaving, unhurried.” Somewhere among these dreams, nightmares, and fantasies Collins hits a spiritual longing, a place where bodies are not enough. From “A Course in Miracles”: “Sometimes a divinity is more / than a mortal can stand.” Collins’s debut is inventive, unique, dynamic.

Silence, Joy by Thomas Merton

In 1940, Merton’s mentor Mark Van Doren sent the monk’s first manuscript to James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions. Thirty Poems was published in 1944, and ever since then New Directions—admirably, and thankfully—has continued to publish Merton’s poetry and prose. Silence, Joy is pocket-sized, but bursting with what made Merton great: he could be simultaneously dark and audaciously sentimental. So many of his lines ring perfectly true, even 50 years after his death. “For me to be a saint means to be myself,” he offers. In “Trappists, Working”: “Now all our saws sing holy sonnets in this world of timber / Where oaks go off like guns, and fall like cataracts, / Pouring their roar into the woods.” I admit to carrying this book around, sneaking glances to keep me honest: “We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.” We all need a voice like Merton, whose prose-poetic vignettes pair nicely with his sincere lines: “I am earth, earth // Out of my grass heart / Rises the bobwhite. // Out of my nameless weeds / His foolish worship.”

Petty Theft by Nicholas Friedman

“And so they reveled in self-luminescence, / sneezed lightning through the pitch of bedroom sky / and glowed like faint auroras in their beds.” “Undark,” a poem that memorializes the fate of factory workers poisoned by radium, captures Friedman’s distinctive style: his phrases turn on the porous border between the lush and barren, between the lyric and corroded. “Fear only turns the key on what it knows,” the narrator notes, as one woman “daubed her teeth to spook a lover / in the grin-lit dark.” A few poems in, and I’m already in Friedman’s poetic trust, ready for the switches and swivels of poems like “In Flight”: “the plane quakes suddenly / and dips us like a bobber. A light dings on. / I count the smooth blue seats, doing the math / they’ll use to make a headline out of us.” Dazed, chomping on peanuts, mishearing the flight attendant, the narrator looks out the window: “a river has bunched itself / into omegas, blinding where the sun / moves over them—while here, above all that, / the body shudders, and carries us along.” Friedman extracts the poetic out of the pungent, as in “A Cut Path,” when a couple feels a bit lost on a California trail: “The cows stand frozen / in portrait below, casting their doubles down the slope. / For us, a bit of wishful thinking has made / this hill a mountain, and we are now descending.” A strong, skillful debut.

Collected Poems of Robert Bly

When asked about Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), his first collection, Bly said “myth brings up a mystery that the rational mind doesn’t really faze.” Bly’s Collected Poems begins with that volume, and that Midwestern mythos. In “Three Kinds of Pleasures”: “Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin / Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles / One by one lift themselves out of the fence line / And slowly leap on the gray sky— / And past them, the snowy fields.” The haunting chill of “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield”: “What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field? / It is a willow tree. I walk around and around it. / The body is strangely torn, and cannot leave it. / At last I sit down beneath it.” Bly would emerge from his snowbound self for The Light Around the Body (1967), marked by poems of activism and frustration, yet also including introspective pieces like “Melancholia”: “There is a wound on the trunk / Where the branch was torn off. / A wind comes out of it, / Rising, swelling, / Swirling over everything alive.” A decade later, Bly would write to Tomas Tranströmer: “Poems are best when there are incredible mysteries in them.” Bly’s Collected Poems are full of these incredible mysteries, on to his final works, as in “Longing”: “The old man lying in bed writing poems / Feels his brain light up, and he knows / That in some odd way he is approaching heaven.

On Poetry and Archiving


I only revise poems on a clipboard. Masking tape is wrapped around the clip, the words “Cross Country” written in marker. My wife used it during her coaching days, and I leave the tape on. Poets are sentimental; it is one of our defining traits.

Poems command a space. They are structural objects. I need to hold them, see their type on the page. Prose can live on the screen for me, but poetry needs to get out and breathe. A poem on a clipboard is a statement: it’s time to get to work.

I learned this method from Erin Aults, a friend from college. We went to a small school on a river where people took writing seriously. I was inspired by how she would revise her poems: she had a clipboard at the library, or sitting around campus, and it seemed like there was a little bit of ceremony to the action. Her poems were wonderful, and she had a great eye as an editor for our school literary magazine, so I trusted her methods. The other defining trait of poets: we believe in ritual and superstition.

Years after college—when memories of then had become a little fuzzy, yet still comforting—I was reading an article about an archive of 30,000 horticultural periodicals at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The project was methodical, and necessary. The catalogs ranged back to 1853. More than simply the story of seeds (although that would be enough, I think), they are the stories of cultures and lives. And halfway through the article, I saw someone familiar: Erin. She’s in charge of the archive.

How does a poet become an archivist? I think I suspected the answer before I asked Erin: you approach objects with care.

I like to see the routes that lives take, and Erin’s has got me thinking about what draws us to poetry—and what we draw from it. She still feels “almost a euphoria about the language and directness of poetry, that it has both exactness and expansiveness.” After college, she worked at a used bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, which began her “love of the book as an object.” She remembers “especially during the heavy ‘buy season’ (usually spring and summer when the public was selling off their books to us), as this grand battle between me and making order of these objects. The backroom and processing area of the bookstore would be overflowing with books. There was a lot of learning how to ‘conquer’ the books as objects either through stacking or ordering or selling.”

Soon after, she was working at the Ohio State University libraries, where she “dissected and mended books and paper, learning their science, understanding materials, form, and outside pressures that affected them.” Later, she handled books of Catholic history at the John M. Kelly Library at University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. Some texts were from the 1500s, and she was “aware that I am one of so many people who have touched this book, that the book is a perfect machine—moveable parts and all. I understood my purpose as a conservator, librarian, and archivist is to help it last another 500 years and to make sure that people have the chance to work with it and be close to it. This is a piece of history that will not tell you what it contains unless you touch it, move it, and work with it.”

That sounds like the mechanics of poetry to me.

And those 30,000 catalogs at the Royal Botanical Gardens? There’s poetry in them, too. “I can see them as a mix of chapbooks, book art, with a healthy dose of late-night local-channel half-hour-long product commercials,” she says. She finds stories and lives in those books, like ME Blacklock, a “nursery owner and plant breeder during a time when women didn’t often get to do that work.” Isabella Preston, the Queen of Horticulture in the 1920s, who bred lilies, lilacs, and roses.

I asked Erin if caring for, and curating, this collection might intersect with poetry. She sees “both poetry and archival work as potentially radical and political acts. Both of them are relying on words and language to create opportunities of recognition, change, and justice.” Poetry and archiving are “done often as solitary work but are really reliant on the person who is receiving and interpreting the work…Similarly, the internal logic in both poetry and archives is always present within the creator but the logic is not always evident at first glance. Both reader or researcher might need to dive deep to tease out the meaning the poem or archives holds.”

Poems and archives, she says, are “both historical records. They both can be about providing access. Of course, they both require care and observation.”

I like that. Let’s think about poems as objects that deserve care, observation, and preservation. An inspiring way to commemorate the work of others—and maybe the right spirit to help us create poems that can last.

Image Credit: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images.

Fifteen Poets on Revision

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After 17 drafts over two weeks, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” was completed on November 4, 1975. The poem began as notes, and evolved into a villanelle. She changed the title. She deleted words. She reached for possible rhymes. Brett Candlish Millier says the “effect of reading all these drafts together one often feels in reading the raw material of her poems and then the poems themselves: the tremendous selectivity of her method and her gift for forcing richness from minimal words.” Revision is art.

Denise Levertov said it was dangerous to revise a poem unless “you are hot in it.” Some poets suffer through revision. Other poets find life in revision. All poets do it. Here are 15 poets on the worthy work of revision.

“I revise incessantly. Usually when I’m starting to work on a poem, I don’t read it aloud—not until it gets to a certain point. You can lull yourself with your own voice; but I hear it in my head.” — Rita Dove

“The energy of revision is the energy of creation and change, which is also the energy of destruction.” — Maggie Anderson

“I revise constantly. I used to revise whole poems; now I revise as I go along, from line to line. Sometimes I erase so much I tear a hole in the paper.” — Charles Wright

“You can get expert at teaching and be crude in practice. The revision, the consciousness that tinkers with the poem—that has something to do with teaching and criticism. But the impulse that starts a poem and makes it of any importance is distinct from teaching.” — Robert Lowell

“Revision teaches me how to push beyond the choices that come easily. It restrains me, challenges me, forces me back and back and back again to my failures. Process saves me from the poverty of my intentions.” — Traci Brimhall

“The poets who influenced me most were Yeats and Valéry. Both were poets who revised endlessly, and I believe in revision. But I think you can only do it when you’re inspired. In other words, the poem goes dead if you don’t revise it white heat. You can’t revise it cold, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like playing a very stiff three sets of tennis one after another.” — May Sarton

“Sometimes going over something is a way of entering into a whole new process of writing, finding new layers in a piece of writing. I think of it that way. Again, one of the people I learned a great deal from was Robert Graves, who felt that going over a piece—the revisions—was almost more valuable than producing an original draft.” — W.S. Merwin

“Revision is to occupy a poem as spectator instead of as creator. We clean a room so that it looks unoccupied; in revision we work to efface affect, idiosyncrasy and error so that the poem is a hotel room with the sheets turned down, a mint on its pillow.” — Carmen Giménez Smith

“I don’t actually revise, or it’s very seldom that I revise. What I do is write so leisurely that all the revisions occur in thought or in the margins of the page. It can make for a page which is as dense, graphically, as some men’s-room walls. Which is not to say that a poem is like going to the men’s room.”  — Richard Wilbur

“I do sometimes use a reading as part of the revision process. I write wanting the poems to be heard, to be thought of, to be read out loud, as human speech.” — Thomas Lux

“I revise endlessly. Even after publication.” — Clarence Major

“A poem rarely comes whole and completely dressed. As a rule, it comes in bits and pieces. You get an impression of something—you feel something, you anticipate something, and you begin, feebly, to put these impressions and feelings and anticipation or rememberings into those things which seem so common and handleable—words.  And you flail and you falter and you shift and you shake, and finally, you come forth with the first draft. Then, if you’re myself and if you’re like many of the other poets I know, you revise, and you revise. And often the finished product is nothing like your first draft. Sometimes it is.” — Gwendolyn Brooks

“I do read the poems aloud, yes—not while writing, as much, but in the revision stage. I want to test for where things are too rough, or aren’t rough enough, where they fall into patterns of sound and whether or not those are meaningful or distracting patterns.” — Carl Phillips

“I revise purposefully and constantly and playfully, as often for sound as for meaning. I lean, too, on the weight of a lifetime of reading poetry. I think back, even, to weekly Mass growing up: its wildly varied poetry, its varying metrical cadences, the call and response, the repetition. I still call on these tools in my poems. — Kerrin McCadden

“Sometimes I go through the first revision, the second revision, the third revision, the fourth revision, the fifth revision, the sixth revision and then go, ‘Hold it!’ You wanna throw the poem down, you want to say all kinds of things. It’s sometimes at about the fourth revision that you tear it apart, but if you can just make yourself go past that, it will turn a corner later and it will say, ‘Here I am, come get me.’ At sometime, by the ninth or tenth revision, when you are practically despairing about it, it turns that corner and that is the most exquisite moment when it happens. And all this is worth the days, the weeks, the months you’ve spent, and then it flows and the rhythm is there, the imagery is there and it’s so wonderful. All that process made it happen. Sometimes you put it down for the night and then you pick it up from the bed in the cold light of the morning. When you read it out loud, in the early morning hours when things are clear, the poem becomes clear also. I always maintain that it’s revision that makes that poem turn a corner—and you really don’t know how it happens.” — Sonia Sanchez

Image Credit: Pxhere.

Letters From a Young (Female) Poet

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Any argument about poetry is one worth having. So it’s been equally thrilling and disappointing to see recent debates decrying the proliferation of “artless” poetry in a market irrevocably changed by social media. A particularly scathing review of Hollie McNish’s Plum has now further inflamed the debate. Rebecca Watts’s article in the PN Review’s latest issue has inspired some heated responses. There isn’t much in the original piece that hasn’t been written or insinuated before, especially concerning the poet Rupi Kaur’s meteoric rise. If I had a bitcoin for every time I heard social media is dumbing us down, I could buy shares in Amazon. What really caught my attention, however, was something else; the refashioning of a longstanding brand of exclusivity as a minority position. Repeating age-old prejudices while casting oneself as a beleaguered truth-teller is truly a feat to behold. As an admittedly “young female poet” hell-bent on destroying poetry, I felt it was only right to respond to the sentiment behind Watts’s piece.

I write poems. Sometimes I get paid for them. Sometimes I read them and get paid for that too. Sometimes they are published months later in a journal or magazine or anthology and I get paid for this too. Yes, there isn’t much money in poetry but there is still money behind it. Poetry is as transactional as any other form of work. This means it is also dramatically stratified according to the gendered, raced, and classed social antagonisms that organize our world. Some poets clarify these antagonisms, in a variety of subtle and unsubtle ways. Some poets choose to maintain a critical distance. All remain a part of the game. Any poet who tells you they have transcended this political economy is lying. In its desire for imagined freedoms, some poetry aims only for what Theodor W. Adorno termed the “aesthetics of redemption.” For some people, that means a solipsist Instagram sound-bite of a poem that appeals to both the specific alienation of young women of color and the common experiences of a wider audience. For some people, that’s enough. This is what they need to get through their day. For many, this is what they choose to enjoy in whatever little leisure time they have amidst the generally intolerable conditions that make up their daily lives. This generates a lot of attention/readership/money for Instagram poets, who become symbols of everything that is wrong with audiences and not everything that is wrong with the conditions of this world. As Watts argues, cults of personality are constructed around these young women. But we already have a wealth of personality cults within the Poetry (with a capital P) world. Except we call it a canon. Our personality cults are endorsed through policy and propaganda and have been as globally exported as any post with thousands of likes.

What Watts disparages as the “dumbing effect” of social media is really the creation of new markets, and as a result, competitors. Honesty and accessibility are the currency of this new market and those who don’t trade in these affectations can expect to be shut out. That’s fine. They have their own market, propped up by centuries-old institutions, faculties, presses, awards, and networks. The reader is not “dead,” as Watts declares. The reader just has more options. It was through the web that I discovered the poets who changed my life. I found rare archived poetry journals from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to the Black Arts Movement’s Black Dialogue, tracked passages through forums, listened to Mutabaruka performances on SoundCloud and even accessed PDF collections to share among those of us who could not always afford the hard copies we wanted. Through social media, I and so many other poets I know have connected internationally and met people we would never have come across offline. Those who cannot attend readings or performance can now stream them. There are forms of sociality found on the web that extend beyond a few hyper-visible poets who generate as much backlash as they do praise. If these poets shift millions of copies, well then, the market has spoken.

There’s something to be said for the poet-turned-brand whose aestheticized presence enables literary institutions to absolve themselves, maintain relevancy and, of course, push sales. Marginalization becomes a kind of raw material. Brand building and unbridled commodification can foster an unambitious and reactionary poetry culture. All of that can’t be denied. It can also do the same for criticism, as seen in the uninspired shoe-horning of Donald Trump into any critique of poets from “under-represented” backgrounds. Predictably, Watts falls into this trap. We are told to think of the “middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector” which enables these young female poets by showering them with praise. Please think of them, for they are too terrorized to critique these women properly. No one is too terrorized to critique Rupi Kaur’s work, as they have shown across various platforms, from BuzzFeed to The Guardian. No one is too terrorized to imply that even poets like Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo owe their success to consumer-driven moralism or favoritism by prize judges who share similar ethnic backgrounds. Think back to the furore surrounding Sarah Howe’s 2016 T.S. Eliot-Prize win, which incidentally gave us the #derangedpoetess hashtag.

Still, Watts laments the denigration of “intellectual accomplishments” for the sole purpose of championing a “representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishize.” That’s an interesting choice of words. Fetish; as derived from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning charm or illusion, originating from the Latin facticius, or artificial.  This term emerged from the supposed attachment of Africans to material objects considered to be lower art forms. Unlike the Holy Cross or communion rite symbolism, the objects used in religious ceremonies by West Africans were seen as intensely alien, primitive, and ultimately worthless. These same objects would later fill the museums of Europe. I include this only to stress how established this chronology is. First, non-European expression is devalued, then rapidly commodified, and finally derided once again when its original practitioners choose to reclaim it. Karl Marx likened the accumulation of commodities to fetishism, in the original, mystical sense of the word. “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing.  But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” he once famously wrote. Today’s personality poets lend a likable and honest veneer to the commodities they sell, like all public figures. Their meticulously honed image is what makes them so approachable. They’re just like you and me, with the same concerns and insecurities. Except they can distill it all into simplistic yet relatable bitesize verse. In that sense, they serve their function.

Watts, and many others, are not members of an embattled class. Their anxieties are echoed everywhere from The Times Literary Supplement to Private Eye. When they speak of terror, they mean the tyranny of bad taste. When we speak of terror, we mean something else entirely. Here is where the confusion lies; these young female poets are fashioned into representatives due to the relative novelty and scarcity of poetry stemming from their subject positions. There is often very little choice in the matter. Sure, some play up to it more than others. But that’s a problem Watts and others have to take up with the publishers, reviewers, and journalists who insist upon their predetermined angles (most of whom do not belong to the same backgrounds as these poets). Toni Morrison writes, “Black Literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” The imaginatively bankrupt criticism and scholarship these poets are faced with is a result of many factors, one of which being their historical condition. My own work is often reduced to newsreel topicality when I am just writing about existing. For the next four years at least, it will be critiqued against Trump or Nigel Farage or Brexit or Marine Le Pen or something else I haven’t actually written about. I’ve made my peace with that. As Nikki Giovanni reminds me, “they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was happy.”

Exceptional individuals aside, most of these predominantly performance and spoken word poets are seldom published, reviewed, promoted, or awarded as often as the critics that fear their encroachment. There’s no use mourning the death of a critical culture when such poets are hardly reviewed in prestigious journals and magazines, least of all in the PN Review. Until they are, their critics could try learning to discern between the superficial optics of representation in the marketplace of liberal identity politics and the genuine structural changes which would actually threaten them. Better still, they could say what they really mean. These “debates” are often poorly disguised attacks against poets who are seen to have monopolized on a kind of literary affirmative action (this definition of affirmative action clearly doesn’t extend to the incestuously nepotistic “highbrow” circles that determine quality as we understand it). Critique made in bad faith (most of what has been written on InstaPoets) sounds as elementary and petty as adults belittling teenage girls for their love of boy bands.

I’m against anti-intellectualism. I’m also against the delusional dream of a pure poetry, much less the banality of a “civilized” one. I struggle to take seriously anyone who defends the neutrality and objectivity of governmentally subsidized institutions and claustrophobically narrow-minded academic cliques. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse for provinciality. Different traditions hold differing understandings of craft and its implementation. The same bastions of “critical culture” are the MFA poetry workshops molded by the Cold War and the CIA’s resulting cultural operations. We see another example of this supposed objectivity in the 1970s British neo-Movement’s purge of innovative poets from important magazines and publishing houses during the New Poetry Revival. Such a closely guarded consensus is not in any position to sneer at the populisms of the spoken poetry world. “Against Bourgeois Art!” Amiri Baraka once declared, railing against poets who were “as safe as old toilet paper.” Hyperbolic as that may be, he was right about one thing. The world is heavier than they know.

Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, and Rupi Kaur have their respective audiences. Watts has hers. I dare to think I have mine. How we master the forms we choose to write in and speak back to our own traditions is a personal choice. We have the right to our own specificity. For some, Instagram and Pinterest will serve as a gateway drug into more complex and messy renderings of the human experience. This is especially true for younger, budding poets who are already hyper-aware of the feminized and racialized biases they will have to contend with. Young poets who want to experiment and grow don’t need to be patronized or lectured to about Real Poetry™. They don’t need to be handed a scroll of revered poets to go off and read as if all those names can’t be found on any reputable first year English Literature undergraduate syllabus. If anything, their online education may lead them to newer and less travelled roads. To “safeguard language” is to draw borders. I can’t speak for all young female poets, but I for one am not remotely interested in the defense of borders.

To bring something into being is an act of poiesis. Poems are composed in classrooms, empty buses, busy squares, public parks, dressing rooms, and prisons cells. They are written at the crack of dawn, between shifts and at the end of long days. Poets are the older women I know who recite traditional epics at weddings. They are the young women who disseminate passages from out-of-print anthologies via Tumblr. They are the bloggers who workshop their poems with a global audience. Once, I took an Uber home after a poetry event. In conversation with the driver, I discovered he was a veteran of the decades-long Eritrean liberation struggle. Before that, he had studied in Russia, learnt the language, and fell in love with Russian poetry. He had even written his own. I still had some unsold copies from my earlier reading. He had lost his verse-filled notebooks long ago and had nothing to share with me. In that moment, it didn’t matter. We were both poets. Leonard Cohen once called the poem the “constitution of the inner country.” We are all entitled to our own poetic homelands, wherever we may find them. It’s a big world out there. So let’s write some poems.

Image Credit: Instagram/Rupi Kaur.

A Stay Against Confusion: On Why I Started Writing Poetry Again


When I really want to feel some measure of control, I write poetry. Poetry is shaped, while prose assumes the shape of the page. Other than indents for dialogue and new paragraphs, prose follows the path set by a document’s margins. We type and let the letters fall where they will—because for essayists and fiction writers, the contours of a sentence are often more of sound than sight. Prose writers are no less precise than poets, but their words have different functions.

A sense of control might be why I so often return to Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the introduction he penned to the 1939 version of his Collected Poems. My impulse might appear contradictory; Frost’s essay is best known for his suggestion that the route of a poem is not in control, but surprise—for both reader and writer. “It is but a trick poem and no poem at all,” he says, “if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.”

Yet when I say that I write poetry to feel in control, I don’t mean that I write poetry as an act of coercion or prescription. I have a feeling where my poems might go, but I also have a feeling where most of my days might go. I am usually surprised by both.

Although I appreciate lines such as “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” my interest in “The Figure a Poem Makes” is focused on other elements. Frost’s biographer Lawrance Thompson said the poet wanted to see if each poem “had a kind of character and shape or form of its own.” A poem, Frost claimed, “had to show that the poet was ‘getting his body into it.’”

Frost takes a few paragraphs to get his body—or perhaps his focus—into the essay. He begins with a lament about how abstraction “has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day.” He stops and starts, but settles into a rhythm when his own abstractions find that figure of poetry, one that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I often drift through his sentences, but pause on one particular gem: that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

While I’m skeptical that poetry will save us, I’ve felt compelled to write poetry again in the past year as a stay against the daily conflagration of argument and noise. Poetry is a salve against the digital exhortation to be constantly engaged in the digital world. I do think poetry and prayer have much in common, but I think good prayer is kenotic; an emptying of self, the hope to be better in how we treat others. If I pray for things I want, I start to feel like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, rambling on in the cathedral.

Writing poetry is a return to the self. A claiming of space and soul. An affirmation of worth.

Lately I have been reading H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, and lines like “Let us substitute / enchantment for sentiment, // re-dedicate our gifts / to spiritual realm” make me think of Frost. Poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. I think Frost’s essential word here is momentary; to entirely escape from the world seems not only impossible, but perhaps a bit selfish. Yet to give in to the cultural—or perhaps capitalist—demand to remain superficially engaged, online or otherwise, is to assert the importance of society over spirit.

Now I write essays—about poetry, culture, and God—but my first two books were collections of poetry. Those books feel like part of a past life. They were written before my daughters were born. The economics of poetry are unforgiving. Poetry is a place of no deadlines. A place of searching. It is also a world of little remuneration. It is romantic to think that such a thing does not matter. But it does.

The writing life is a succession of different acts, with their own failures and conflicts and moments of joy. To live as a writer means to embrace, and perhaps be inspired by, these different seasons. Nostalgia shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but if we’ve opened a window years before, there was probably a good reason.

Writing poetry is an act of ordering our thoughts and perceptions into lines and sections. By focusing on a form of writing that embraces structure and selection, we can participate in a daily examen of sorts—and whether that poetry is ever published is not really the point. There are greater rewards.

I am writing poems again. And I suspect that I’m not the only one.

Image Credit: Pixabay.