On Poetry

The Poet Who Died for Our Sins: On Charles Baudelaire

The figure of Baudelaire -- dandy, rebel, enfant terrible, hysterical hypochondriac -- compels such fascination that it’s almost possible to forget he wrote a few poems too. In fact, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book-length critical study (Baudelaire, 1950) that barely took notice of a single poem. To Sartre, Baudelaire was not so much a poet as an episode in the history of consciousness. Suffice it to say that Sartre did not find in his protagonist a paragon of existentialist engagement. You can open the book almost at random and find such judgments as: “he was nothing but a gaping wound;” “his bad faith went so deep that he was no longer master of it;” “he never progressed beyond the stage of childhood;” “He was an eternal minor, a middle-aged adolescent who lived in a constant state of rage and hatred, but under the vigilant and reassuring protection of others.” It’s true that Baudelaire seemed less interested in finding reasonable solutions to his many problems than in cultivating his hysteria. For that we must be grateful. Rage, resentment, and infantilism might have gone into the poems, but what came out of them was a majestic representation of heightened states of consciousness. Sartre was right -- he was a “gaping wound,” as the abject, beseeching letters he wrote to his mother make all too clear. I don’t say that deep within we’re all as screwed up as Baudelaire was, yet even the healthiest and happiest among us owe him a debt. All that darkness and perversity that he sang so beautifully form the permanent substratum of our psychic lives. After all, we’re still reading these poems long after they’ve ceased to shock anyone -- except maybe, in the deepest and most salutary sense, ourselves. If Baudelaire were around today and, fed up as usual with his mistress Jeanne Duval, decided to try his luck on an online dating site, he’d never get far enough to meet any woman for coffee at Starbucks. Every prospective date would say precisely the same thing: “You’re so negative!” In that context it would avail him nothing to protest that his negativity was a complex dialectic that allowed for the discovery of beauty and value against social norms that had cheapened them. Since, however, we’re reading Baudelaire rather than dating him, we can see, as a prospective girlfriend might not, the morality beneath the negation. Or some of us can. Martin Turnell considered “The Little Old Women” (“Les Petites Vielles”) a “bitter little comedy” in which the poet feels only “faintly sorry” for the “repugnant” and “monstrous” old women who are the subject of the poem (Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry, 1972). Given that “The Little Old Women” is one of Baudelaire’s longest poems and occupies a critical place in the “Parisian Scenes” section of Flowers of Evil, it might be worth a closer look to see if Turnell is right. A cursory reading of the poem (in Richard Howard’s translation, the closest thing to a standard one) would seem to confirm the judgment that Baudelaire’s unhappy dating prospects might have rendered -- it’s pretty negative all right. The harshness of the language will not be palliated. “These travesties were women once” (“Ces monstres disloqués furent jadis des femmes”) is not the way most of us would like to think of our grandmothers. “Decrepit,” “broken,” “shriveled” (“décrépits,” “brisés,” “ratatinées”): nor are the adjectives exactly euphemistic. Nevertheless, “The Little Old Women” brims not with brittle mockery, but with pathos. In the first stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges that his “fatal humors” govern his unholy fascination. “The Little Old Women” is the 93rd poem in Flowers of Evil; by now we have a pretty firm sense that the author of this book does not incline to sunny appraisals of his or anyone’s psychic condition. Against this dark subjectivity any expression of tenderness or pity will carry disproportionate weight. Sure enough, the pathos overwhelms the mockery. Baudelaire enlists our compassion by looking at -- not away from -- a despised and dishonored old age in the unforgiving Paris of the Second Republic. After witnessing the children mocking them and the derelicts taunting them with obscenities, we are with the poet whose “fatal humors” salvage a nobility from what the workaday world recognizes only with scorn or sentimental evasions: But I who at a distance follow you and anxiously attend your failing steps as if I had become your father – mine are secret pleasures you cannot suspect! I see first love in bloom upon your flesh, dark or luminous I see your vanished days – my teeming heart exults in all your sins and all your virtues magnify my soul! Flotsam, my family – ruins, my race! Each night I offer you a last farewell! Where will you be tomorrow, ancient Eves under God’s undeviating paw? Roberto Calasso said, “only Baudelaire had access to a region of the purest pathos, unscathed by any sentimentality, that of ‘Les petites vielles’ and ‘À une passante’” (La Folie Baudelaire, 2012). Not quite true. Alexander Pope got there before him, and on the same subject -- despised and forgotten old women. Pope depicts his dowagers with a similarly heartbreaking mixture of harshness and pity: Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide, And haunt the places where their honour dy’d. See how the world its veterans rewards! A youth of Frolicks, an old Age of Cards; Fair to no purpose, artful to no end, Young without Lovers, old without a Friend; A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot, Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot! The comparison with Pope is not so farfetched as might appear. Both poets were dyed in the wool classicists. Pope couldn’t have expressed his seething resentments without the ordering discipline of the closed couplet, and Baudelaire’s psychic turmoil needed the formality of the alexandrine line to achieve its maximum coherence. The poet of whores, opium, and lowlife Paris, as the world thinks of him, brought to his work all the orderliness and mastery so conspicuously lacking in his private life. “All his poetry,” wrote Calasso, “seems translated from Latin.” “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” advised Flaubert. Baudelaire did precisely the opposite. The chaos of his life fueled the grandeur of his work, and that grandeur makes him more rather than less accessible. Since his style abjures all avant-garde dislocations, he remains well within the reach of readers (like me) considerably less than fluent in French. Apart from the vexing problem of rhyme, Baudelaire lends himself reasonably well to English translation. Even better, his originals can be read without too much difficulty using the translations as cribs. As startling as his imagery often is, he typically employs the simplest of epithets. In “Correspondences,” for example, the key adjectives “longs,” “profonde,” “vaste,” and “riches” might be roughly translated as “long,” “profound,” “vast,” and “rich.” Sometimes the largest realities require the plainest language, and the realities “Correspondences” point to are very large indeed: “les transports de l’esprit et des sens,” as the last line has it. No summation could possibly do justice to the indeterminate character of this sonnet. Is this poem about nature? Or is it a part of nature itself? The disconcerting thing is that if we’re looking hard at the forests of symbols, interpreting them as we interpret this poem, the forests of symbols are looking right back. We will be worth the look only if nature finds in us a corresponding openness to sensation, not excluding, if we’re honest about it, an openness to corruption and other less sanctified predispositions: The pillars of Nature’s temple are alive and sometimes yield perplexing messages; forests of symbols between us and the shrine remark our passage with accustomed eyes. Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else into one deep and shadowy unison as limitless as darkness and as day, the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond. There are odors succulent as young flesh, sweet as flutes, and green as any grass, while others – rich, corrupt and masterful – possess the power of such infinite things as incense, amber, benjamin and musk, to praise the senses’ raptures and the mind’s. Such undisguised Platonism sits easily with the maggots, bats, serpents, and putrefying corpses that haunt Baudelaire’s poetry. A wounded idealism underlies his putative “decadence,” and although that decadence occasionally strains for effect (as in “Carrion” [“Une Charogne”], which almost achieves the tastelessness of his revered Edgar Allan Poe), the decadence too is ethical. Baudelaire conceived of Flowers of Evil as an antidote to the false and shallow meliorism of modern culture. It still is. Similary, his idealism is quite at home with allegory, another tendency of his thought that seems shockingly conservative. In the proem that opens the book, “To the Reader,” la Mort and l’Ennui are capitalized as they might be in a medieval morality tale, and La Beauté, l’Horreur, le Temps, and la Vie stalk through the whole book. What we get, rather than distancing abstractions, is the best of both worlds: the particulars of a place and time that Baudelaire perceived not only with a great eye but even with a great nose (Baudelaire’s, wrote F.W. Leakey in his study Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal, “must be the most receptive and unforgetful nose in all poetic history!”) as well as the concentrated speculations of a fearless intellect. “The Swan,” for example, is a big poem about a big subject: exile, and its congeries of loss, longing, and memory. With its vision of displacement in urban squalor, the poem prefigures the scenes of refugee camps that have come to seem a permanent feature of modern life. We know the phenomenon all too well. Baudelaire takes us inside the experience that has almost become for us a numbing cliché of newsreel photography. How better to convey the agony and humiliation of exile than by allegorizing a swan? one cold morning – with the sky swept clean, the ground, too, swept by garbage-men who raised clouds of soot in the icy air – I saw a swan that had broken out of its cage, webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones, white feathers dragging in the uneven ruts, and obstinately pecking at the drains, drenching its enormous wings in the filth as if in its own lovely lake, crying ‘Where is the thunder, when will it rain?’ I see it still, inevitable myth, Like Daedalus dead-set against the sky – the sky quite blue and blank and unconcerned – that straining neck and that voracious beak, as if the swan were castigating God! It’s possible that Baudelaire did in fact see an escaped swan dragging its dirty wings through the construction site that Baron Haussmann was then making of the Tuileries Garden, or maybe he merely read about the four wild swans that bad been stranded there some years before. In any case, the imagery is expansive enough to convey a sense of the universal pain of exile and precise enough to convey a sense of the sufferings of a real animal -- once again, the best (or worst) of both worlds. And later in the poem, how like Baudelaire, when most Europeans would have regarded as barbaric or childishly “exotic” anything having to do with Africa, to take as a symbol of grieving humanity a black woman in Paris “starving / and consumptive in the muddy streets, / peering through a wall of fog for those / missing palms of splendid Africa.” Frankly, I’ve never understood why readers of self-help books waste time on frauds like “Dr. Phil.” If self-help is what they want, the book they should be reading is Flowers of Evil. Unlike the Dr. Phil sort, it has the advantage of not glossing over horror and despair, so that instead of telling readers how they should feel, it tells them how in all likelihood they do feel or anyway how they feel in some of their most vulnerable moments. This quality is also known as courage, but not for this alone does Flowers of Evil support and solace the soul. At the bottom of Baudelaire’s metaphysics of despair lies a depression that might be described as clinical. There may or may not be a way out of such depression (for Baudelaire, there wasn’t), but surely the necessary first step for dealing with it, in literature as in life, is to acknowledge it. Baudelaire’s acknowledgement took the form of certain key poems in Flowers of Evil and certain prose passages in Paris Spleen. These are landmarks in the representation of depression, no less central to their time than Albrecht Dürer’s print “Melancholia” or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Depression assumes multiple guises in Flowers of Evil, but achieves its most concentrated expression in the dozen or so poems that conclude the first section, “Spleen and Ideal.” “Craving for Oblivion,” “Sympathetic Horror,” “Alchemy of Suffering,” “The Irremediable:” we’re a long way from Dr. Phil and even from the somewhat milder treatment of ennui that had figured earlier in the book. Each of the four poems titled “Spleen” displays sovereign control over volatile subject matter, but the best may be the last, if only for its technical brilliance. Its five quatrains consist essentially of one bravura sentence structured as a series of subordinate clauses resolved grammatically -- and only grammatically -- in the two concluding stanzas. All the Baudelairian music is there: the languorous alexandrines that enforce a funereal rhythm, the perfect interlocking rhymes suggesting confinement, the touch of onomatopoeia in “S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide.” The wonder is that poetry this sonorous can induce in the reader (as it does in me) a feeling near to physical illness. Maybe spiders in the head (“infâmes araignées / Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux”) will do that every time. The fears that the imagery raises concerning the violation of bodily integrity aren’t just depressing; they’re sickening: When the skies are low and heavy as a lid over the mind tormented by disgust, and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down on us a daylight dingier than the dark; when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air, beating tentative wings along the walls and bumping its head against the rotten beams; when rain falls straight from unrelenting clouds, forging the bars of some enormous jail, and silent hordes of obscene spiders spin their webs across the basements of our brains; then all at once the raging bells break loose, hurling to heaven their awful caterwaul, like homeless ghosts with no one left to haunt whimpering their endless grievances. -- And giant hearses, without dirge or drums, parade at half-step in my soul, where Hope, defeated, weeps, and the oppressor Dread plants his black flag on my assenting skull. Can anything be salvaged from such despair? Yes, if not exactly triumphantly. The soul survives this assault on its integrity because, in the first place, there is a self to assault. Racked by ennui and despair, the self that Baudelaire depicts is in some respects a most unattractive one, yet it remains whole. Rather like Milton’s Satan, whom he rightly considered the tragic hero of his own destiny, Baudelaire preferred reigning in his own private hell to serving in anyone else’s heaven or even in the purgatory of gainful employment. Faced with such misery, a little spiritual compromise doesn’t look like such a bad thing. That Baudelaire was incapable of such compromise was his undoing and our good fortune. Like a blasphemous Jesus, he took on our worst sins -- pride, sloth, envy, lechery -- and turned them into art. T.S. Eliot and others have found in him a profound religious yearning beneath the blasphemy. I, on the contrary, find blasphemy beneath the blasphemy. Baudelaire’s “business” was not, pace Eliot, to “assert the necessity” of Christianity. He asserted, if anything, the necessity of belief in a self that, threatened from forces within and without, might remain whole and integral, if only through the consciousness of its own suffering. Even so, it’s impossible not to be moved by Eliot’s essay on the poet, which concludes not with the expected apportions of praise and censure but, astonishingly, with this prayer: “Baudelaire was man enough for damnation: whether he is damned is, of course, another question, and we are not prevented from praying for his repose." Extraordinary as Eliot’s benediction is, Baudelaire didn’t hold out for prayer. He had work to do. Tormented, slothful, and sickly, he managed to produce masterpieces in every genre to which he turned his hand: metrical verse, prose poetry (which he more or less invented), translation, and art criticism. I think of Baudelaire at work much as he depicted his loved and hated city in the last stanza of his magnificent aubade “Twilight: Daybreak” (“Le Crepuscule du Matin”). It’s a Baudelairian dawn. Whores, beggars, the debauched and the dying fitfully awaken to a cold and damp morning -- not a promising start to the day. And yet this city will clothe itself in beauty and get to work: Shivering dawn, in a wisp of pink and green, Totters slowly across the empty Seine, and dingy Paris – old drudge rubbing its eyes – picks up its tools to begin another day. Image Credit: Wikipedia
On Poetry

21st Century Butterfly, 19th Century Net: Fourteen Years in Haiku

1. Can you really write a poem a day for fourteen years? Yes, if the poems are very short, and if you think that someone will read them. I began writing daily haiku in 1999, inspired by a Soft Skull Press anthology called The Haiku Year, in which seven friends, including Michael Stipe of REM, agreed to mail each other a haiku a day on a postcard for a year. An anthropologist friend was my first haiku correspondent, inking her poems on delicate aerogrammes mailed from her fieldwork site in Papua New Guinea. My companions see that the sea-turtles are mating and put their spears away. Melissa Demian (1999) Like most Americans, I was first introduced to haiku through an Orientalizing lens of false timelessness. My elementary school teachers — relieved to offer a lesson that matched the attention span of their students — explained the so-called “ancient” art of haiku by spelling out its rules. A haiku poem has three lines. The first line has five syllables. The second line has seven syllables. The third line has five syllables. Each haiku includes a seasonal reference. Wrapping dumplings in bamboo leaves, with one finger she tidies her hair. Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) In The Haiku Year, Tom Gilroy’s forward discusses mid-20th century roots of Japanese-inspired American haiku: “Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure and the San Francisco poetry Renaissance started the concept of Western haiku...little three-line poems aiming towards a kind of Zen enlightenment. The Beat Generation was the right time to make a transition to a new kind of haiku, with all that pot-smoking and coffee-drinking and scatting and Japanese haiku books laying on couches next to Whitman and William Carlos Williams. A kind of combustion.” Gilroy follows the Beats’ lead by relaxing the 5-7-5 rules, explaining that the seven friends who wrote The Haiku Year were shooting instead for poems of three short lines each that included a seasonal reference. He added however, that they were attempting to write poems that offer both “the moment seized and rendered purely, captured in an instant of Buddhist (or Zen) enlightenment,” and “reflections on the particular consciousness, or point of view of the author, his or her loneliness, or comedy, or anger.” Nightfall, boy smashing dandelions with a stick. Jack Kerouac (1959) 2. When I began writing daily poems fourteen years ago, was I writing authentic, Japanese-style haiku (a form I will indicate with italics), in contradistinction to Western-style, Kerouac-meets-elementary-school-classroom haiku (a form I will designate with Roman type)? Nope. But what I was writing excited me. I had wanted to write poetry for years, but couldn’t: nothing in my life seemed truly poem-worthy, which meant that when I did encounter love, for example, or death, I had no poetic muscle with which to tackle it, and wrote flabby clichés instead. Writing daily haiku unblocked me as a poet.I didn’t have to wait years to let myself write a poem (which of course would have to be the best poem ever); my job was to go through each day looking for just one poem, any poem. I felt like I’d been locked indoors for years, leafing through a field guide and wondering if someday I’d find that special butterfly that would be named after me. Suddenly I was standing outside with a net and the command to just catch something, anything, every day. Suddenly there were butterflies everywhere. Bartlett pear blossoms: these long-wristed girls punch crisp holes in the blue day. EA (1999) Rethinking what counted as poetry and poem-worthy freed me to write some terrible haiku, but it also freed me to write a few good ones. Moreover, it has led me to realize that the poem itself is not the point of writing poetry. Instead, I forged this new definition. Daily haiku writing is a practice of attentiveness, the major byproduct of which is a seventeen-syllable poem. String hangs from a branch. The moment of wanting to tug it: that's the bell. EA (2012) As the years pass, I have departed increasingly from the elementary-school form. First I dispensed with the obligation to include a seasonal reference in the poem. Then I jettisoned syllable counts for each line. Although since 1999 I’ve annually made a booklet of each year’s haiku and sent it to friends, most recently I’ve been sharing these poems daily on the internet. Facebook and Twitter made my line breaks look precious rather than effortless, which spurred me to let go of the requirement that a haiku be a three-line poem at all. Night. The drag queen at the corner pauses, wonders: Walk home, or cab it? EA (2009) What remains? A seventeen (or fewer) syllable poem that tries to capture a unique moment in time as freshly and simply as possible. 3. The revelatory pleasure of listening for a poem in each day led me to develop an exercise for my creative writing students that encourages them — as writing daily haiku encouraged me — to stop fretting over what counts as worthy subject matter. At the beginning of the semester, I ask them to choose someone in their lives, and then each day throughout the semester they have to write that same person a postcard that captures a moment from the day. (They also have to type up their postcards and turn them in to me.)  Although this exercise is designed to help perfectionists stop beating themselves up, it differs from freewriting or journal-keeping in two ways: it emphasizes selectivity over exhaustive production, and it also forces students to consider what it means to write for publication — even if one’s “public” is just one other person — as opposed to for oneself. Winter Surfer ...No regard for frozen pain Cover me in neoprene... …Urine is my warm lover You’re in my wonder winter-land... --Columbia student (2005) When I apply this question of publication to my own haiku practice, although I’d be over the moon if a press picked up my haiku, I find I shy away from sending a manuscript to publishers.  In researching the origin of the actual, Japanese, italics-intended haiku, however, I’ve come to wonder if my hesitation has something to do with the form itself. 4. A relatively recent predecessor of Japanese haiku is renga, multi-authored linked-verse poetry of the ninth century to the present. Renga began as an aristocratic pastime, and though the ranks of renga poets has become somewhat more democratic over the centuries, the form remains a hobby rather than a profession. Historically, renga groups usually consisted of people who already knew one another, be they a master poet and his (or her) disciples, monks or nuns belonging to the same sect, or simply a group of friends or colleagues. Groups numbered three to six, though sometimes included as many as twenty, and tended to meet at one another’s houses, with the duty of host (which included preparing a banquet and hanging seasonally-appropriate art) rotating from member to member. Poets had only a few minutes to compose each verse, and no time to rewrite: the point was not to create and publish a masterpiece for the ages, but to show off one’s talent with a fresh-sounding verse, one’s erudition with a verse that referenced older poetry, and one’s ability to keep an eye on the big picture with a verse that linked well to its predecessors, all in front of a handful of people who might be able to further one’s political or mercantile career. Renga can be of any length, though well-known forms include 100-verse, 36-verse, and 18-verse poems. The verses of a renga alternate between two and three lines in length, the two-liners containing seven syllables each, the three-liners following the 5-7-5 pattern we now associate with haiku. A renga always opens with a 5-7-5 three-liner, known as a hokku, while all the subsequent links of verse, each by a different author, are called haikai. In the late 17th century, renga poet Matsuo Bashō began composing hundreds of verses in hokku form that were in fact designed to stand alone, a practice echoed by later poets Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827). In the late nineteenth century, a renga poet named Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) championed Bashō, Buson, and Issa’s hokku verses as well as the practice of writing stand-alone poems as 5-7-5 three-liners. Shiki renamed these short poems haiku, fusing the terms hokku and haikai, the opening verse and its subsequent links. The old pond: a frog jumps in— the sound of water. Bashō 5. I was surprised to learn that the word haiku, far from being ancient, is roughly the same age as Yeats’s Celtic Revival movement, which similarly engaged modernity while keeping one eye reverently on the past. Shiki’s invented word haiku suggests “The Opening Verse Is the Whole Poem” poetry, “Alpha-Omega” poetry, “Look No Further Than This” poetry. Shiki coined the neologism haiku in order decouple these short poems from their roots in renga, a form perhaps better suited to producing social relationships among poets than to producing poems. Unlike renga, which Shiki claimed was “not literature,” haiku were meant to be considered on their own terms. Half a world away, meanwhile, Walter Pater, the idol of the Aestheticist movement, was making similar arguments against judging art by what it could do for its producers or consumers, in language that revived the early nineteenth-century battle cry of Art for Art’s Sake. The tree cut, dawn breaks early at my little window. Shiki Shiki invented the word haiku during the cultural upheaval that attended Japan’s rapid Westernization in the late nineteenth century. Shiki, though known for his love of baseball and Western civil liberties, does not appear to have read Western poetry, no more than Gwen Stefani appears to have read Japanese in order to write her pop song “Harajuku Girls.” But he lived in a Westernizing milieu, and his friends included novelists Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai, themselves engaged in incorporating and rejecting aspects of Western literature into their work. Smoke whirls after the passage of a train: young foliage. Shiki To repurpose an anthropological term, renga can be considered a “high context” art form: its individual links of verse are not designed to stand alone, and the point of the renga is not the finished product, but the collaborative writing process, which involved an exclusive coterie of fellow-authors and the sharing of food and liquor. The Western poetry that Shiki’s contemporaries would have encountered it, by contrast — published, portable, single-authored works produced and consumed in private— could be described, on a relative scale at least, as “lower context.” Buying leeks And walking home Under the bare trees Buson How do you pitch radical Westernization to a nation of proud traditionalists? Tell them it was their idea in the first place. In 1887, when the Empress decreed that all the women of the court would henceforth wear Western dress, she did so by citing ancient precedent. In a gesture that probably appealed to nostalgiacs and forward-thinkers alike, Shiki’s invention of the term haiku both heralded a new form capable of being appreciated alongside works of Western literature and asserted that form’s antiquity and cultural purity. Weren’t Bashō, Buson, and Issa writing haiku long before Commodore Perry’s black ships reached Japan? All the time I pray to Buddha I keep on    killing mosquitoes. Issa 6. Identifying how Shiki’s new (or “new”) haiku form rejected two key aspects of renga -- its linked and participatory nature — helps me understand how those aspects live on in my own haiku practice, and in particular in my haiku publication practice. Where eighteen, or thirty-six, or even a hundred linked verses of renga constituted a poem, now one solitary verse of haiku stands in its place. While I love locking down a startling, purely-experienced moment into seventeen syllables as much as the next haiku poet, there’s also a way in which the poems don’t feel finished until they’re gathered into an annual collection, where the good-haiku-day poems balance out the blah-haiku-day ones, and the funny ones can inject breathing space around the solemn ones. The linked whole tells the story of a year. Meanwhile, the participatory nature of the form that morphed into haiku survives as the pleasure of hearing back from friends to whom I’ve sent each year’s collection, and of posting each day’s poem online. While I have had a few magical experiences of writing haiku in a group (such as the Hailstone Haiku Circle in Kyoto, led by Stephen Gill, or Rachel Simon’s poetry group in Yonkers), the sociable aspect of the renga banquet lives on more frequently in the “likes” and comments I get from friends online, and in the rare and delightful seventeen-syllable reply I receive. Reading lines like recipes. 1 tsp wimpled nuns. 1 C river. Holly Rae Taylor (2013) When I read The Haiku Year and started writing and exchanging daily haiku, I didn’t know just how young the form was, especially given the long history of the renga from which it was cut loose. Though more than a century of vigorous Japanese production and consumption of haiku indicates that Shiki’s innovation was a success, my own experience suggests that the linked and participatory aspects of renga that Shiki tried to pare away re-adhere to haiku with remarkable ease. Much as I love writing haiku for haiku’s sake, I have let many aspects of the form fall away: the seasonal reference, the number of syllables per line, even the line breaks. What persists, however, is this: It’s as parts of a whole, an art-for-connection’s-sake whole, that these seventeen-syllable verses keep me coming back for more. Old pier. Late sun lights the gray wood gold. You are still not tired of beauty. EA (1998)   Image via Wikimedia Commons
Essays, On Poetry, Reviews

Occupy Parnassus!: Kirill Medvedev’s ‘It’s No Good’

1. In the fall of 2011, as the first protesters began assembling in Zuccotti Park, a different sort of occupation was underway in my apartment. My son had just turned one, and another kid was due in the spring. My life now consisted largely of early-morning adjunct gigs, late-night sessions banging my head against the writing desk, and afternoons measured out in the tiny spoons used to scrape the last bits of Gerber from the jar. Also: NPR. Lots of NPR. By late September, the top of each hour brought new details about the methods and motives of “Occupy Wall Street.” Here, it seemed, was the cause I’d spent my twenties longing to throw my body behind. But now that it had materialized, there was a catch: mine was no longer the only body I was responsible for. I could take my son with me to the demonstrations, but did I really trust the NYPD to lay off the pepper spray, should he rattle the bars of our protest pen? Plus who would take care of him if I got carted off to jail? Not his mother, whose nine-to-five job was our primary means of keeping the fridge stocked and the rent paid, and whose sick days would convert to precious maternity leave come the spring. There was always daycare, of course…but, then, as a would-be placard-carrying member of the 99%, I couldn't even afford the hours of daycare I was already paying for. And here I ran up against the first great fallacy of the mainstream media's OWS coverage. Of course the occupation as such was heavy on students, the unemployed, and men who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Wavy Gravy. Stroller-pushing contingent-workers like me were constrained from spending all day and night at Zuccotti by the very conditions that made them want to do so. Thus does insecurity—financial, physical, psychological—become the stick that keeps us on the rutted path of late capitalism. (Consumer electronics being the carrot.) Then again, another of the things too often glossed over in accounts of Occupy Wall Street is that it wasn't a top-down program, whose output was a certain number of sleeping bags on the pavement. Rather, it was a piece of tactical hardware designed to execute any app deemed useful by its users—techno-utopian cant made collectivist flesh. This should have been apparent to anyone who spent more than half an hour down at Zuccotti. At first, you'd see the modest size of the occupation, relative to the number of cameras trained on it, and you'd think, Wait: Is this it? Then, out of nowhere, thousands of union electricians would appear, or affordable-housing advocates, or undergraduates, or, more likely, all of the above, and another drive or meeting or march would whir into motion. (As Michael Greenberg has noted in The New York Review of Books, those circuits would be reactivated after Hurricane Sandy to channel vital aid to the Rockaways.) By October, my son and I had found our own way to take part. With his mother's blessing, we pursued a sunshine policy, steering clear of martial-sounding or geographically marginal events in favor of those well-publicized enough to ensure my small comrade wouldn't become another casualty on YouTube. We marched on Citigroup. We marched on JPMorgan Chase. We repaired to Zuccotti for pizza and purée, and then we marched some more. Well, I marched; he rode. One memorable afternoon, in the company of a whole holy host of freaks and straights, aging lefties and juvie anarchists, friends from other events and perfect strangers—plus, this being a Saturday, my wife—we even took over Times Square. It was the same rainbow coalition I'd observed a decade earlier, marching against the Iraq War. In 2002, though, in the streets of D.C., everyone seemed to recognize that the switches on the war-making machinery had already been thrown. You could sense the inertia in the way the message decayed into calls for the abolition of the WTO and the World Bank, the liberation of Palestine and Mumia. Those chants that managed to break through the discord rang hollow off executive buildings emptied for the weekend. By contrast, the message of Occupy Wall Street was so clear and so obvious as to subsume any ancillary concerns. Obviousness, in fact, may be why Occupy Wall Street proved such an effective counterweight to the Tea Party movement, with only a fraction of the money and organization and time. It takes great resources of all three to persuade Americans that Keynesian deficit spending is the source of our ills, because it's total horseshit, whereas it takes very little to remind people of what they’ve already discovered in the most grinding, empirical way to be true: As an allocator of resources, our economic system is needlessly unjust, and getting more so by the day. And when the hoary old cry went up from Times Square—"We are unstoppable; another world is possible"—this, too, felt self-evident, assertion and evocation in a single stroke. For here was a halter-topped woman with frizzy hair leading thousands of people in social democratic chants from atop someone's shoulders, and here was the commercial center of the world coming disobediently to a halt. Here were tourists taking buttons from engagé tweens and affixing them to jackets that would soon travel back to every corner of America. And here it all was again, up on the giant news screens overhead, the peak of a "high and beautiful wave" (to crib from Hunter S. Thompson). Under all those lights, we seemed to be waking, however briefly, from a long bad dream. 2. Notwithstanding the Monday-morning harrumphs of the commentariat, that autumn of idealism has left behind consequences of the most solid, realpolitik kind. The ongoing debate over whether creditors—i.e., capital—or borrowers—i.e., you and me—will bear the losses of the Great Recession has been permanently rebalanced, to the great annoyance of the business class. (Last December’s $43-million PR push was not so much about how to “Fix the Debt” as about whom to affix it to.) On its own terms, though, the Occupy project remains incomplete. When we argue over whether to set top marginal tax rates at 35% or 39.6%, or what to do about the sequester, or the class politics of Girls, we have turned from debates about an unjust system to debates within it. And though the possibility of “another world” has been preserved from total eclipse, it now seems hazy again, as if glimpsed from the far side of sleep. We need some outside force to jolt us back awake. All of which is a very roundabout way of trying to explain why It's No Good, the first major English-language publication of the writing of Kirill Medvedev, is so necessary, and so timely. Medvedev is a Moscow-based poet in his late 30s, and the book, the latest entry in Ugly Duckling Presse’s redoubtable Eastern European Poets Series (and the first to be published jointly with N+1), assembles English translations of his most important “poems/essays/actions” from over the last fifteen years. This was a period of radicalization for Medvedev, and the work amounts to a guerilla attack on the stagnation of Russian cultural life in the new millennium. By itself, this would make It’s No Good an invaluable document. But for readers beyond the old Iron Curtain, there’s a further twist of the knife: as with the best science fiction, the outrageous world Medvedev brings so vividly to life starts to sound awfully like our own. An introduction by editor Keith Gessen sets the scene for Medvedev’s evolution. In “the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008,” he explains, the atmosphere in Russia was one of “boredom, suffocation, and surrender...” Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. "Stability" was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence...[but was] also permanently discredited. In the texts that follow, Medvedev will link this surrender to two mutually reinforcing phenomena, one political, one aesthetic. On one side was a problem of ignorance: Members of his generation, the first to come of age after the fall of Communism, "spent the 1990s not really knowing what politics was,” he writes. “We lived outside it; we never believed it could affect our private lives.” On the other side was a problem of sophistication: literature, which might have enlarged those private lives, had become content merely to reproduce them. An exemplar here was the poet and impresario Dmitri Kuzmin, who published Medvedev's early poems in his magazine, Vavilon...and who hovers over It's No Good as a sort of Oedipal-Hegelian father figure, to be rebelled against and absorbed. A long, valedictory “essay-memoir” two-thirds of the way through the book may put some readers in mind of McSweeney’s circa 2003: The central literary tendency of Vavilon was the so-called "new sincerity": the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.) Of course, Russia’s liberalizing culture industry had no more difficulty assimilating Vavilon’s “authenticity” than the Politburo did assimilating social realism. As Medvedev sees it, this was art as gesture, as narcotic, as commodity, "a series of irresponsible infantile games and so-called independent intellectual proclamations - covering the terrain specifically assigned to such proclamations." The poems that make up the bulk of It’s No Good burst out of that terrain like bombshells. Superficially, their debt to Kuzmin is obvious. Medvedev’s voice, as translated by Gessen and others, is resolutely direct, colloquial, and personal. At times, it sounds like a Muscovite Frank O'Hara. "I don't know why / I decided to work / at the nightclub Sexton / when I was eighteen," begins one poem. Says another: "I really like when / a series of arches in moscow run /one after the other /creating their own kind of tunnel / out of arches." As with O’Hara, the specificity of reference almost overwhelms argument; viewed from a certain angle, Medvedev’s poems might seem merely a catalogue of people, buildings, and foodstuffs signifying life for a young cosmopolite. Yet read him at any length (the poems are rarely under three pages, and sometimes swell to dozens), and it becomes impossible to confuse his urbanism with urbanity, or, as he puts it, “dignified aloofness” to the wider world. Medvedev complains, of one Vavilon-affiliated contemporary: “a person in his poems is always / returning from work / moving around the glaring twilit / cityscape / given shape by information streams.” His own Moscow resists such streamlined shapes. It is “glaring” in a different sense, made discontinuous by eruptions of frustration, pessimism, and rage. One moment, it’s true, we may be among the office towers, cruising through a catalogue of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius of everyone who became an assistant to editors-in-chief or a designer for major fashion magazines.... But then suddenly, we are hearing of all the half-drunk and stunted intellectuals who (unlike me) matured too early, then burned out, of everyone who found work in the morgue of everyone who did time in jail then died of an overdose of everyone who worked at the politician kirienko’s campaign headquarters and then joined his permanent team. The closing descent from threnody back to sarcasm bespeaks the scale of Medvedev’s loss of faith in that distinctly Russian class formation, the “intelligentsia.” These were the people who were supposed to lead his country out of its slumber and instead discovered a taste for Ambien. But the dramatic expansion of the point-of-view, the deepening of emotion, and the Beatnik anaphora holding it all together produce a countervailing movement: One feels the quickening of an almost spiritual belief. Medvedev wants his poetry not only to “appeal to personal experience,” but to transfigure it, to break it open, to disclose what is underneath. And what is underneath, he insists, is always already political. The meticulously name-checked fruits of bourgeois existence—parties, nightclubs, careers, and even much of contemporary art—are underwritten by exploitation, militarism, and a more nebulous brand of postmodern unfreedom. Reader, you are hereby called to consciousness. Or at least deprived of an alibi. Alongside Medvedev’s messianic streak runs a notable impatience with the formal strictures of Russian lyric poetry—the elegant prosody of Anna Akhmatova or his beloved Joseph Brodsky. Gessen’s introduction presents these tendencies as merely coincident. But really, I think, one compels the other. Trained at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, Medvedev has a considerable, if well-disguised, capacity for artifice—for finding Pushkin in the punkish. Still, his conception of poetry is one of vision, rather than of craft. This helps explain the porousness (some might say sameness) of these largely untitled poems, which tend to flow together into a single Poem. It also helps explain their peculiar rhythms, and their general aversion to beauty. They gather force not by rhetorical turns, but by incantation, as Medvedev strains “to see without distortion by one’s social position, without limitations by one’s artistic milieu.” The results are frequently startling: we dance around others' misfortunes like mischievous wolves like some sort of lascivious bats in a frenzy we make our way toward them by the light of bonfires on the outskirts of town through desolate fields of garbage we fall on them swoop down throw ourselves at them with all of our might oozing the syrupy poison of empathy. Which isn’t to say that the artist-monk can’t be funny, because Medvedev’s puckish streak runs deep. It surfaces sometimes at the expense of others ("as a janitor / I was always beyond suspicion"), but more often at the expense of his own ambitions. One of my favorite poems in the collection concludes on a note of perfectly serious ridiculousness, or ridiculous seriousness: misha is going to do everything right in this life, whereas I'm going to continue sitting here deep in shit with my principles. 3. In 2004, Medvedev’s principles led him to make an unusual move: he renounced copyright to his own oeuvre. Henceforth, he declared in his “Manifesto on Copyright,” his poems would cease to be grist for the culture industry. They would appear on his website, and on facebook and LiveJournal, but reprinting them “in any anthologies, collections, or other kinds of publications” would be “consider[ed]...a disgusting manipulative action by one or another cultural force.” They were to be published ONLY AS A SEPARATE BOOK, collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS. The “Manifesto on Copyright” marks a hinge moment in the book, and in Medvedev’s career. Immediately before comes the longest, finest poem in the book (“Europe”) and an incendiary essay called “My Fascism.” The poems that follow the manifesto are thinner—at times they feel like Medvedev doing Medvedev—but the critical essays, by way of compensation, grow richer and more prophetic. In the piece on Kuzmin and especially in “Literature Will Be Tested,” from 2007, Medvedev begins to articulate a dialectical vision of a new global humanism. Its acolytes, he argues, must preserve “postmodernism’s irrepressible critical outlook.” At the same time, Medvedev departs from the main body of post-’68 critical thought by insisting on the value of “grand narratives and global concepts.” To forego them, he says, is to accede to “an idealized consensus between the goals of ‘diversity’ and the interests of the global marketplace.” And as he pursues the links between the stagnation he’s been confronting in Moscow and the larger, global situation, parallels that have heretofore been sub rosa become explicit. For Russia isn’t the only place where the notion of a life beyond politics gained traction after the collapse of Communism. “The end of history,” we called this period in the U.S. And what were the results? Open-ended war, accelerated environmental destruction, and the further consolidation of class power. History, history, and more history. Meanwhile, “the idea of ‘contemporary art'” grew ever more attenuated, as every imaginable gesture of “authenticity,” literary or otherwise, became a fungible commodity—one whose sale or purchase gets broadcast to your social network. “You can’t change the world that way,” Medvedev reminds us. “You can’t rise to the next level of existence that way.” After the bracing cynicism of some of the poems, this formulation might sound preachy. But as a craftsman and as a human being, Medvedev knows he must make the political personal, even as the arrow also runs the other way. Taken as a whole, then, It’s No Good is less a sermon on change than a narrative enactment of it. In aesthetic terms, the distinctions among poems and essays and actions come to seem as provisional as those subtitular backslashes suggest; there’s criticism in the poetry, poetry in the criticism, and action in all of it. And in political terms, we get a portrait of the poet’s awakening to futility where he’d thought there was power, and vice versa. The thing might as well be a Bolaño novel...albeit one with a happier ending. In another of his more unguarded moments, Medvedev confesses I think it was genuine contact-- when two completely different people begin to understand one another in my opinion this is a real event in art and in life. It’s No Good is just such an event. It awakens us to the contingency of contemporary reality’s ceaseless argument for itself, and to what might still be possible outside it. Archimedes famously said something like, Give me a place to stand, and a long enough lever, and I'll move the world. Kirill Medvedev and his translators have given American readers another place to stand, a kind of Zuccotti of the mind. Now if only we can keep our grip on the lever. Bonus Link: Four poems from It's No Good Image sources: stevendepolo, dominic bartolini, Poster Boy NYC
On Poetry

Try Not to Shield Your Eyes: On Mathew Henderson’s The Lease

A major challenge for any kind of writing is getting a payoff that justifies reader attention and effort. The challenge is major because often what makes work interesting to a writer -- formal tricks and wordplay, intertextual references, plotlines tiered like wedding cakes -- is identical to what makes work boring and aloof to readers. The harder your stuff is the better it’s got to be, the so-called physics of reading that is, ultimately, about being honest regarding your motivations for writing a particular way. Stuff that’s obscure and dense will never be accused of pandering, whoring itself to simple minds, but also never risks serious emotional connection, opens itself to genuine interest and love and sadness. What makes us human also makes us vulnerable, the reason great art’s not just glorious but courageous. Poetry, I’ve always thought, takes up this challenge with a handicap. Its formal weirdness, restrictions on length and meter, enjambment, are known intimately to the writer, but are much more difficult for readers to parse, decode, understand the reason for. There’s built-in distance with poetry that demands not just good writing but a close match between subject and structure. A poet must make sure what they’re writing about is amenable to poetic description, that their form’s obtrusiveness enhances, illuminates, augments whatever experience -- humanity-- they’re trying to depict and share. It’s precisely this kind of artistic judgment that makes Mathew Henderson’s The Lease such a sneakily brilliant, beautiful work. The collection of 50 poems, most of which are one-half page or less, describe Henderson’s life on the oilfields of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan: laying pipe, moving rigs, feeling lonely. Hard men, harder women. The collection’s full of little details, turns of phrase that you just know other writers are going to try and steal: “quiet,/ liquored fucking”, “hung up his husbanding boots for good”, the character sketch clipped for this review’s title. And while writing this good easily repays your attention and patience, what marks Henderson’s book as an extremely good work of poetry is its marriage of subject and form: how the stuff Henderson is writing about is structured in a way that poetic expression seems uniquely suited to capture, decoct, accommodate. To see why, you have to know something about the territory from whence these poems. Saskatchewan and Alberta comprise two-thirds of the Canadian prairies, with virtually all of Saskatchewan and a good chunk of Alberta being table-flat, vast, biblically proportioned. Highways pitch and roll imperceptibly, the sky’s hem almost invisible in every direction. Most oil work happens in the north and during winter, when the earth is frozen hard enough to support rigs and trucks, some of which are house-sized. Earth that’s overcast with ice and frozen ground but even in summer, still, “always/ the sky is just another dead prairie above you.” So the setting for these poems, the physical space involved is just too large, expansive, to countenance all at once. Working in the prairies means working amidst space that transcends perspective and exists primarily in your imagination, wrapped around by sky. An instance of the sublime, the bulk of which largely unknown -- physically, directly -- yet still there, amassed and edgeless: At three a.m. there is no world but what’s contained by the flare’s domed light. A great dark glass over an insect; you are the only thing with feet and hands on a flat and dying moon. A man trapped twelve hours in the caves of the opened land with no one searching for him, no one to know he’s gone. Also the particular work being done, an oilman’s relationship to this: There is earth below your earth, a deep room where gas and oil, rock and stone, circulate like slow blood through a body. Notice how the structure of this physical space mirrors precisely the structure of the poetic form. How the importance of all that’s not said equals what can’t be seen or felt, known in any direct, tangible way. Your relationship to the text of The Lease -- its language terse, precise yet allusive, lyrical -- ends up being identical to the relationship between Henderson and the land on which he worked and lived, verily made a living. Language as picture of reality, of the lived experience Henderson’s trying to communicate, limn, transfigure. Poetic structure in space but also time and memory, weirdly compressed, telescoped by imagination. Henderson’s poems recount a number of seasons on the oil patch, the course of his interaction with place that’s ancient: oil rigs harvest time and past life, the substance of this. Henderson’s poems don’t just recount but represent, or conjure, as all stories do, but here the conjuring’s emphatic, the result of poetry directing so much attention to what’s off the page. Is it too hokey to say between the lines? That’s at least how I feel, hokey, reading most prose fiction attempts to compress time and experience: those tight, digressive overtures to show what the author’s just told. A different kind of formal convention that pales, corpse-like, next to poetry like this: Everything you remember lives inside the chicken-farm homestead with its back-broken frame and that reek of old water sitting still. At night the house breathes with open windows, swells at the seams. At sunrise, it exhales a dust so fine you think of bull hearts, dried and ground. When it’s gutted of furniture you find imprints in the carpet: four beds, two dressers, a shelf. And from those years when no one kept it, from before the oil and the oilmen came, the mark of where the deer walked in, lay down and died. Whether you write it or not, there are good reasons to read poetry, nearly all of which are exemplified in The Lease: precision, imagination, patience, but especially the use of formal ingenuity to enliven. The best kind of artistic transfiguration feels not just appropriate but necessary, singularly apposite to communicating the artist’s heart and mind. I read quite a bit and don’t often feel this way, even about prose, good writing notwithstanding. (And to be fair, Henderson’s writing could, at times, be harder: imagine Cormac McCarthy without the uptown vocab, panoramic allusion.) What’s remarkable about Henderson’s book -- the reason to take a chance on a 27 year old’s first work from a small press -- is its demonstration of artistic judgment, what this looks like and why it matters. Writing that’s meant to be read, like light through ice, hard and clear and true. Try not to shield your eyes.
On Poetry, The Millions Interview

Topographies of Desire: The Millions Interviews Megan Kaminski

Megan Kaminski's first book of poetry, Desiring Map, revels in landscapes and ecosystems -- both natural and manmade -- as well as the disturbances that assault them. Her poems are often characterized as quiet, but they’re wrought with a subtle violence, such as where, according to poet Dan Thomas-Glass, the “jet set’s excesses and the bleak horizontals of the mid-country clash to great effect.” Joshua Clover calls Desiring Map, “a book that approaches us cannily, drenched in form, never word-spent and never without cocktails; a 21st century pleasure with a keen eye on the terrain and something to say.” Since I first encountered Megan’s poetry, I’ve been drawn to the intelligence, the linguistic precision, and the fascination with systems -- ecological, financial, neural -- that inform her writing. Megan teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas and also curates The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, recently named one of the top 10 reading series in the Midwest. Megan and I corresponded via email about Desiring Map, in a conversation that touched on “our very weedy human appetites,” the slippery boundaries of “I,” catastrophe theory, and admiration for “unflinching and unapologetic” female writers. The Millions: The idea of place is central to so many of your poems in Desiring Map. From the prairie to the coast to the Florida wetlands, your language revels in site-specific spaces. Could you talk more about the role of landscape in your poems, as well as the ways that desire is evoked by environment? And also, having lived in many diverse locations, ranging from exotic (Casablanca) and cosmopolitan (Paris, LA, NYC), to the prairie (Kansas), could you speak to the ways that your physical environment informs, invades, and influences your writing? Megan Kaminski: Yes, place and especially the "natural world" (and we can talk about how we want to define that) is very important to my creative project, and it's a tricky thing to write about in certain ways. As a writer, sitting at my desk or at a table typing away on my computer and looking out the window, I am always looking at the landscape -- here in the town where I live in Kansas, or in Oregon looking out at the ocean or the gorge, or in Paris looking down on the tree-lined street -- and of course its beauty inspires me, but there are problems with writing from that perspective. I'm wary of the tradition of the poet who stands outside of the natural world, observing it with some sort of special authority and then seeing it primarily as a site for personal transformation. I'm not interested in the kind of poetry that Evelyn Reilly describes as the "aesthetic use of nature as mirror for human narcissism.” I think that sort of rendering of landscape -- as background or as subservient to human demands and desires -- does real violence to the natural world, a world which we surely exist in, rather than outside of. That said, I am very interested in our very weedy human appetites, such as longing and desire. Along with that exploration of human possibility in nature came questions of subjectivity in the questioning of the lyric "I." This questioning played out in the form of a slippery subject, an "I" that is fixed momentarily in a time/space, but then becomes quickly dislodged. I'm not willing, or perhaps even able, to abandon the lyric "I" in my poems -- at least without taking on a subject voice that has its own equally problematic implications -- but I am very interested in challenging and chipping away at the "I"’s authority. It's this beautiful thing, the way pronouns work -- the ease in which a person can slip into and out of the subject position. The "I" in my work that isn't necessarily the "I" of Megan Kaminski/poet. TM:  Could you talk more about the way that words function as landscape in your poems? There seems like an overlap between word and place for you, linguistic terrain and landscape. One specific passage that comes to mind is, “I put the words on the page / pulled from beneath skin / for what passes as something / simplified and promoted bilaterally / we exist for many reasons / concentrated on small pieces / of production and landscape.” MK:  I think that sense of overlap starts with the sense of landscape becoming language -- the movement from the world to the text. But there is also a sense in which language becomes landscape, too. I am very much interested in the dissolution of these boundaries between language and the outside world. And this all also very much relates to neural patternings, which also become landscape in the book (and vice versa). Much of this has to do with the nature of cognition on a very basic level. If all human thought occurs in language, then we are constantly dissolving in and out of language. I experience the prairie -- I see it before me, around me; I perceive it with all my senses -- and while this is happening my brain is also processing it all. The prairie is taken into my neural pathways and taken into language -- it translates and dissolves into my body, my thoughts, my tongue when I speak it. And at the same time, when I write about and talk about the prairie, it spills out of me into the world. TM: There’s a subtlety and quietness to your writing that’s dually menacing and alluring. Like in the second poem of “Across the Ruins:” Tracks carve through Florida florid wetlands wilderness breaks down my estuarial intent         he fell in love with the s-curve of her neck to spine                                                 simple mathematics         could explain the reappearance of other things too do we all dream of swash-buckling adventures and text anxiety mothers sharpening knives. I admire how the domestic and wild as well as the textual and physical are in dialogue here and elsewhere throughout your work. What are the crucial tensions that pervade and inform your work? MK: I am definitely interested in the tensions between wildness and cultivation, both in the natural world and in our own human natures. I just proposed a course for next year entitled “Weedy Appetites and Feral Longings.” (Actually, that’s my own secret title for the course -- I was afraid it would be confusing to students, so I officially called it “Literary Wildness and Incivility.”) Anyway, that is a long way of saying that I am continuing to think about what it means to be wild and uncivil, specifically as a rejection of cultivation. One of the texts that weighs heavily in my imaginative considering is Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which presents a kind of feral domesticity. There is, at least at the beginning of the novel, very much a sense of a domesticity that entails keeping a home spiritually and emotionally for one’s family in the face of loss. Even though Sylvie is obviously a horrible housekeeper in the traditional sense of keeping things clean and tidy, there is a sense of care and looking after. Of course, that all kind-of falls apart -- but there is that seed of an idea. And maybe this is part of the reason why I keep being interested in and coming back to this tension. There is something beautiful about providing a home and comfort, something beautiful about the domestic arts. But there is also this sense of having been mastered, of women being responsible and unrecognized for performing all sorts of affective labor, of performing domesticity as a way of submitting. This is all complex and tricky, though, because I do think that mothering (as well as other sorts of care-taking) is important work -- that kindness and nurturing has its own value. I’m more interested in gentleness, though, than in gentility. And, of course, I am also interested in cultivation and wildness in the natural world. Weeds and feral animals cannot come into being without humans. Weeds were just plants before their growth became counter to productive agriculture, and animals have to have been domesticated at some point in order to become feral. So conceptually, weeds and feral animals reclaim the wild. I am also interested very much in the greening, both planned and unplanned, of Detroit and other post-industrial spaces around the world. TM: In Desiring Maps, your long poem, “Carry Catastrophe” is made all the more delectable because it’s such an unlikely elegy for the financial markets. Could you talk more about its roots in catastrophe theory and the economic crisis? MK: In some ways it might seem conceptually strange to have a long poem about the economic crisis in a book that is largely concerned with a revision of the pastoral genre and of human possibility within nature. I think these things are all very much connected. The first poems in the book came out of my research and thinking about enclosures, both contemporary and historic. John Clare's enclosure elegies were a source of inspiration, as were readings about contemporary enclosures and forms of resistance to this privatizing of the commons in Africa and South and Central America. Also playing into this were contemporary works like Lisa Robertson's Debbie: An Epic (which in some ways revisits and revises Virgil’s pastoral mode) and Stephen Collis's The Commons. I am very much interested in poetry as a sort of linguistic/creative commons and also as a method to think about the world, so it seemed essential to me to include a consideration of the economic crisis. And, yes, it is in some ways an elegy for the financial markets and perhaps late capitalism as well. As Joshua Clover said in a recent interview, “Late capitalism is terrible and ruins people’s lives but it also produces astonishing, beautiful things.” “Carry Catastrophe” is certainly filled with the beautiful stuff of late capitalism, but it also has a sense of impending collapse. The use of the imperative, which had more of a sense of imploring and seducing earlier in the book, becomes a little tyrannical here. As for catastrophe theory, I’m sure that a mathematician could explain it better than I can, but I will give it a try. An early version of “Carry Catastrophe” was published as a chapbook by Grey Book Press, and in this version the cover depicts what is called a “cusp catastrophe.” The classic example of a cusp catastrophe, or at least the example that I was offered by a mathematician once, is that of a stressed dog who smoothly transitions from obedient to angry when subjected to moderate stress. However, with higher stress levels, the model changes, and there is a “fold point” where the dog becomes angry and will remain irretrievably angry even if the stress level is reduced (on the old model we would expect him to become obedient again). That’s the basic thought behind it -- the sense that once something/someone -- people/the economic system -- gets pushed far enough, his/her/its behavior is suddenly and permanently changed. TM: You also write essays, and were just on a panel of women who write creative nonfiction for a literary conference in Seattle. You read your essay “Chatterbox Confessions” (forthcoming on Puerto del Sol), where you out yourself as a reformed chatterbox. You discussed how women are conditioned to be more aware of dominating conversations than men are, and also how the personal essay as a form has been less open to women (or, at least that comparably fewer women essay writers have been acknowledged). You cite Chris Kraus when you speculate, “Perhaps it isn’t that women lack the ability to coolly analyze and reflect on their personal experiences, the issue is instead discomfort on the part of readers and critics when they do so.” Could you speak more about this and strategic ways for women writers to approach this? MK: Wow -- I’m definitely still working through this one myself. In some ways I think that writing is tricky business. In general, it is considered to be completely open to women. There are so many women writing and so many readers picking up their work. On the other hand, though, many major awards and prestigious publications are still very much dominated by men -- and, in my opinion at least, this does not reflect talent in the actual literary landscape. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young wrote a terrific piece, “Numbers Trouble,” which does a better job of exploring this subject than I could do here. When I think about these issues, I keep going back to Deborah Tannen's assertion that “there is no unmarked woman” -- that every decision that a woman makes about how she presents herself is one that marks her, that conveys something about her. And I think this carries over into writing as well. One of my good friends is a very successful novelist. I was with her when she was approached by another (male) writer who was attempting to deride her work: “Aren’t all your books about the same thing?” My friend asked him what he meant by that. He replied without missing a beat -- “Well, aren’t they all about women?” Seriously, how many times have you heard books dealing almost exclusively with men -- and there are a lot of them, referred to as “men’s fiction.” But if a woman writes about women -- who, by the way, make up half of the world’s population -- then that is a choice and the writing often gets ghettoized into categories like “women’s writing” or “chick lit.” I also think that there are parts of our society (and in academia and in the literary community, too) that are still very conservative. There are some men and women who are still very uncomfortable with strong women and women’s voices that are unflinching and unapologetic. For me, though, these are some of the most vibrant and interesting writers. I’m thinking of some recent books that I have read that really stuck with me -- Cheryl Strayed's Wild, Elissa Schappell's Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, Kate Zambreno's Heroines, Roxane Gay's numerous essays (on her blog and other journals), and Lidia Yuknavitch's gorgeous and brave essay, “Explicit Violence.” TM: You’re very active within the literary community -- you run a reading series, The Taproom Reading Series in Lawrence, Kansas, you teach at the University of Kansas, and you recently finished a month-long stint as guest editor at Adam Robinson's Every Day Genius. Basically, you have your hands many pots. Would you talk more about poets, presses, and ideas that deserve more attention, and give us some pointers on who should be on our radar? MK: Sure. I’m going to apologize in advance because I am sure that I am leaving a lot of people out, but here are a few people and presses who are on my mind right now. I’ve been reading a few Oakland poets recently -- and their work has really been sticking with me. I’m in love with Kathryn Pringle's latest, fault tree (Omnidawn 2012), and also (perhaps, especially) her first book, RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY (Factory School, 2009). I’m working on a poetry manuscript and also some scholarly work about the body and the city/an ecopoetics of the city and so loved thinking about these things as I have been reading RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY. I am also very much enamored by Tiff Dressen's chapbooks Messages and Because Icarus-children. And Juliana Spahr’s work continues to be some of the most important writing in terms of shaping my sense of possibilities both in terms of poetry and in terms of seeing/living in the world. I’m teaching her book Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow 2011) in my poetry workshop next semester, and I am super enjoying revisiting it in preparation for that class. I’m also really into Jordan Stempleman’s latest, No, Not Today (Magic Helicopter 2012). Jordan just read at a house reading in Kansas City, and I was reminded of how much I love his work. I don’t know where or when the new work he read that night is coming out in book form, but I am certainly looking forward to it. Also: Evie Shockley, Erín Moure, Bhanu Kapil, Carmen Giménez Smith, Joshua Clover, Lisa Robertson, Joseph Massey, Dan Thomas-Glass, Hanna Andrews, Ji Yoon Lee, Gina Myers, Chus Pato, Jen Tynes, Danielle Pafunda, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Mike Sikkema, Sampson Starkweather, Shanna Compton, CA Conrad, Bruce Covey, Kate Greenstreet, Michelle Naka Pierce -- the list could go on and on. As far as presses go, I would be remiss not to mention my own much beloved publisher, Coconut Books. I love the new books that they released this fall -- from Jenny Boully, Emily Toder, Hanna Andrews, and Christie Ann Reynolds. I’m also a big fan of Dorothy, Bloof Books, Birds LLC, Letter Machine, Ugly Duckling, Omnidawn -- really, there are so many wonderful small presses putting out great work.
On Poetry

Playing Telephone with Emily Dickinson and Paul Legault

“Go forth! Translate.” – Michael Henry Heim 1. I traveled to Brooklyn in early October in hopes of sighting the poet-translator Paul Legault in his natural habitat. I left my copy of his third book The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems back home because I feared the gold-edged volume with its golden yellow ribbon bookmark and queen’s blue hardcover would make me too conspicuous. Only later did I discover that blue and gold are the borough’s official colors. As I waited to catch a glimpse of Legault in situ, I noted hipsters and normals carrying books with their bare hands, but none were the blue and gold volume I speak of. Members of all the tribes, including tourists, read on the subway: e-readers sheathed in leathery sleeves alongside yellowing paperback copies of lesser-known works by Vonnegut and Murakami. I also sighted two pairs of unicorn skinny jeans in the same afternoon (one pair boasted an army of tiny silver unicorns scattered evenly across the fabric, and the other featured a lone faded unicorn prancing across the wearer’s lap). I entered cafés, apothecaries, bookstores, hat shops, vintners, and corner bodegas stocked with organic everything. I overheard pods of Parisians arguing about who discovered Williamsburg first. I encountered languages, ages, skin tones, and walking styles as varied as I have seen back home, yet not a single pair of flip-flops. My thoughts always returned to Legault and his Emily, who – he says – “if she were still alive, I would attempt, and inevitably fail, to be her best friend.” Smitten and unrequited, Legault offers up translations of Dickinson’s “complete poems” – all 1,789 of them as presented in R.W. Franklin’s definitive edition. He transports Dickinson into mostly fortune-cookie length snippets of contemporary English, more specifically into a dialect of American English spoken widely in urban pockets like Brooklyn, where increasing numbers of the highly educated and literary classes live, procreate, keep each other amused, and make their own cheese. Whether his exuberant game should be called a triumph that reignites our Dickinsonian fires, as the reviews thus far have concluded, or whether one should call Legault’s Dickinson Reader a joke he might have taken more seriously is a question best answered, I think, with another question: Are these among Legault’s strongest poems? I am not sure, though I find the project as a whole admirable and exciting. And I suspect that Legault, as a poet-translator and editor of ambitious translation projects, would want the answer to be an unequivocal yes. The Emily Dickinson Reader is Legault’s third book in as many years and his first composed exclusively of translations. His debut The Madeleine Poems received the Omnidawn Poetry Prize in 2009 for its series of invocations of the figure Madeleine in her various guises (poems include “Madeleine as Travelogue,” “Madeleine as Matador,” and “Madeleine as Forest Gospel”). His second book The Other Poems earned distinct praise from Marjorie Perloff, who describes the collection as “seventy-five taut and dazzling sonnets” that break “genuinely new ground for the lyric.” I would like to compare lines from all three books, and the translation in question to its original, to suggest that Legault’s Dickinson lacks some of what we have come to expect of him. Legault translates Dickinson’s 20-line five stanza poem #340 “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” as follows: “Suddenly it is as if all plurality became one thing, and in / becoming so died. Or else just I died.” He distills, or collapses depending on your point of view, a poem built with more than 100 words on a frame of slant rhyme and hymn-meter into two colloquially phrased sentences of 20 words total. Let us agree that Legault’s version cannot, and is not meant to, rephrase Dickinson’s original, but rather seeks to recreate the spirit of the poem in a style and length that speak to today’s readers (who tweet and text while reading multiple books on a single flickering screen). Let us ask, then, if Legault’s 20 words do enough to be called a felicitous or persuasive version of Dickinson’s poem #340 with its “Mourners to and fro” and “beating – beating –” of a funeral service in the speaker’s brain that leaves her “and Silence – some strange Race / Wrecked, solitary, here –”. Before we answer the question, let us consider how much Dickinson achieves in the final four lines, a stanza that was not included by the editors of the 1896 edition of her work possibly for being “entirely too explicit” in its description of a “mental breakdown” (see Helen Vendler’s Dickinson): And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down - And hit a World, at every plunge, And finished knowing - then - The reader is left hanging with “then” suspended by two dashes in the final line. The vertigo and shattering of worlds, and the ambiguous possibility of a new world or worlds that might follow “- then -”, are not elicited by Legault’s translation, which produces an almost opposite effect through the portrait of a rational mind calmly questioning its perception of reality/plurality and being. If Legault meant to give us an anti-Dickinson poem #340, all understatement and twenty-first century ennui, then he succeeds in his intent, but his translation of the poem does not have a pulse (and what is poetry without the lyric beat). Now let us compare Legault’s version of Dickinson’s #340 to poems, from his first two books, that offer strange and lyrical worlds in transition where vertigo and ambiguity have a place. First, Legault’s #340: “Suddenly it is as if all plurality became one thing, and in / becoming so died. Or else just I died.” Next, we can weigh in his “Madeleine poem,” two lines in its entirety, titled “Madeleine As Stone, What Is To Die of You?”:  “Dolls seldom have teeth. Still, I want a doll’s tooth / for my wedding ring. After all, it is my birthstone.” Finally, the opening two lines from his “Other Poem” titled “The Things You Find Underwater”: “Now that we’re on the level, / I’m unsure of where we were before.” I suggest, if it’s not too brazen, that we take the first two lines of “The Things You Find Underwater” as a stronger version, by Legault, of Dickinson’s #340. That is to say, when the plank in reason breaks, the speaker enters an underwater world that calls into question everything she was and knew before. While Legault’s Dickinson translations may vary in persuasiveness, their presentation on the page is beguiling. The text is centered and many of the translations are short enough to fit on one line; at first glance, one may think that these poems are prose poetry, or simply prose, laid out on the page the way a book of proverbs or witticisms or a line-a-day of self-help might be. But they do more. The sequence of translations on page 158, for example, includes several poems of multi-line length that display how Legault’s lineation works. 1233. I was happy until I was actually happy at which point I wasn’t happy. 1234. I remember all kinds of useless shit. 1235. I’m not afraid of swimming. I just don’t like to get wet. 1236. Little boys are kind of like puppies. I guess that makes me an old, bitter cat. 1237. Sometimes it’s hard to see where I’m going and I stop so I don’t trip but it takes me longer to get where I’m going because I keep stopping. 1238. The best way to break up your routine is by meeting a stranger and getting them to kill you. 1239. People look better when you can’t see them. 1240. There are a lot of turtles in Heaven. 1241. Apples keep well. 2. Legault calls his translations “personal” in his introduction, and explains further: “If Emily Dickinson were a church, I would be inside of her right now, writing this. If she were a bee, I would buy a flower costume. [...] Instead, I’ve settled on being her humble translator.” But he is not, I would argue, Dickinson’s “humble translator” at all. His translation of her complete oeuvre, or “distranslation” – the word Legault uses in reference to “In the Zone,” his version of Apollinaire’s first poem in Alcools – positions him as the opposite, as Dickinson’s twenty-first century fan in search of hyper-intimate status (he wishes “to be her best friend”) by poking the maximal amount of fun possible at her and the machine of academic scholarship behind her poetry. The Q&A between Legault and Legault-as-Emily published on the McSweeney’s website on August 13, 2012, the day before the book was released, reveals more about the impetus for his project: ED: How did the idea of translating my work come about? PL: I was in a seminar about you in which we would sit around reading your most private thoughts, trying to disassemble your psyche like a time-bomb. At first I got defensive. It seemed ok to interpret the love letters you wrote to your sister-in-law, but I thought your poems couldn’t be reduced to simple ideas—without removing their lyric intensity / ruining them; i.e. my version of #72: It’s my birthday! But then I thought it’s nice that you have a birthday. It’s nice that you were a human and would be one if you weren’t dead. That you would get a twitter account were you alive — and not tend to it. That you wrote a poem about every idea I’ll ever have. That some of those ideas are stupid (but true); i.e.: 485. Death is mean. Why not say it two ways? #485 [“The Whole of it came not at once”] is still a poem — no matter what I do to it. And death is mean. So I wrote that down. Though Legault is right – death is mean – his translations nonetheless upset some readers who, like Legault, get “defensive” and want to protect the poems and Dickinson’s legacy. Meanwhile, the book provides titillation to others who appreciate Legault’s humorous take on the originals and who might use his versions to have more fun with Dickinson, perhaps for after-dinner games of fortune-telling and eurythmy. The nerds (like me) will debate both sides and conduct comparative analyses of the translations to the originals. In slant rhyme. Everybody wins, to Legault’s delight, because everybody ends up talking about Dickinson anew. The love song flowing through Legault’s Dickinson Reader is not, however, to Dickinson, but rather to all the perversities and pitfalls of our poet-translator’s true mistress and muse, translation. We can read his sequence of Dickinson-inspired meditations as an extended ars poetica to twenty-first century translators of poetry and to poets themselves, as a manifesto-in-disguise in an age when the remix replaces the political treatise. Legault’s (per)versions of Dickinson’s poems, renditions without a dash or hymnal beat in sight, are a call to consider how we cast and recast language, not just from English to [English/Polish/Spanish/Chinese/Russian/etc.], but also from one person to another, from silence to word. Legault’s commitment to translation is evident in his work as co-founder and co-editor of Telephone Journal, which debuted with the Fall 2010 issue featuring translations of poems by the German poet Uljana Wolf. Legault and co-editor/founder Sharmila Cohen describe the framework for each issue of Telephone Journal: The journal is called Telephone, like the children’s game in which phrases change as you whisper them from one person to the next. We are featuring four to five poems from one foreign poet in each issue, which are then translated roughly ten times by multiple different poets and translators. There are no rules about how each poem should be translated and we are soliciting a variety of interpretations. Thus far Telephone Journal has appeared three times, each issue published as a physical book-object, though a few examples of translations can be read online. The Spring 2011 issue centers on the work of Montréal poets Renée Gagnon and Steve Savage, and the Fall 2011 issue revisits the word-things of the Brazilian poet, translator, critic, and artist Augusto de Campos. The de Campos issue appeared in conjunction with an exhibition at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space in New York City that included lectures, performances, live collaborations, and a closing night featuring a game of telephone where participants whispered down the line, and thus reconstructed, the original “Concrete Poetry Manifesto.” Written by Augusto de Campos, founding member of the Noigandres Group based in São Paolo along with his brother Haroldo de Campos and their partner in poems Décio Pignatari, and first published in 1956, the manifesto contains 11 key points about a new kind of poetry that is dynamic, built on the “tension of word-things in space-time.” The concrete poet should approach each word as “a magnetic field of possibilities – like a dynamic object, a live cell, a complete organism, with psycho-physico-chemical properties, touch antennae circulation heart: live.” If words are living organisms, then poems are ecosystems: “the poetic nucleus is no longer placed in evidence by the successive and linear chaining of verses, but by a system of relationships and equilibriums between all parts of the poem.” The reconstruction of the manifesto through a game of telephone is the enactment of a lyrical ecosystem ruled by the “tension of word-things in space-time.” The de Campos issue of Telephone Journal was sadly the last, but the spirit of the project moves forward with Legault and Cohen’s current venture, a new publishing arm called Telephone Books expected to launch in late 2012 with The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare. This project pairs each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets with a different poet-translator who creates an English-to-English translation. Participating poet-translators include Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Jen Bervin, Paul Celan, Tan Lin, Harryette Mullen, Ron Padgett, Donald Revell, Jerome Rothenberg, Juliana Spahr, and many more.  In the introduction to The Sonnets, Legault and Cohen explain what makes these rewritings of Shakespeare necessary: Of course, we are aware of the many translations of Shakespeare’s works into modern English... We also want to offer a new and contemporary understanding of Shakespeare, but something beyond that of simply breaking through the boundaries of an ever-changing lexicon — our hope was that the contributors would approach the original texts from their multitude of vantage points, that they would board the ship, loot and pillage, break things down, and reconstruct it all in a fashion that would allow us to view multiple dimensions of the original work in a new light, as a new structure. The homepage of Telephone Books boasts the tagline: “Telephone Books publishes works of radical translation” and offers a link to the “Manifesto of the New Translation”. The manifesto is made up of 11 points, like Augusto de Campos’s “Concrete Poetry Manifesto.” However, the “Manifesto of the New Translation,” unlike de Campos “Concrete Poetry Manifesto,” is embedded within a long poem that opens with the line, “We can’t sleep, me and @everyone being / in this digital light whose pixellation glows as live-streamedly as / a charge that can think – ” The text of the manifesto’s 11 points folded into the long poem and set off in bold print suggests that while the manifesto is at the core of the poem, it requires the poem to exist. The interrelationship between the poem and the manifesto-within-the-poem attests to the word as a living organism and the poem as an ecosystem. The manifesto’s first point is clear and sets the tone for the other ten: “1. We want to sing the love of translation, the habit of renewable energy and reconstitution.” The “Manifesto of the New Translation” is an echoing chamber with hyperlinks, tiny urls, yawps, quotes, hashtags, and a call to the future: “When we are gone let younger and stronger remakers than we translate us like ancient fragments.” The poem’s closing refrain is repeated in many languages: “The new is made of itself.” Recycling, of course! Make it new. Make it alive. 3. Augusto de Campos recently published his translations of 45 of Emily Dickinson’s poems in the volume Não sou ninguém. We can read a few en face translations in issue #4 of the online literary journal Mnemozine, which is devoted to de Campos’ oeuvre as a poet, translator, artist, and musician. In his introduction to Não sou ninguém, de Campos admits that he does not expect his versions of Dickinson to “always get it right," but nonetheless he "hopes that the original poem continues to be original in Portuguese." In the spirit of dynamic translation and concrete poetry, in celebration of the “tension of word-things in space-time,” I would like to call special attention to de Campos’ rendition of Dickinson’s “A word is dead, when it is said.” Dickinson: A word is dead When it is said Some say. I say it just Begins to live That day. De Campos: A palavra more Quando ocorre, Se dizia. Eu digo que ela Se revela Nesse dia. My translation from de Campos’ Portuguese version back to English: The word dies When it arrives, Some said. I say that she Reveals herself On that day. 4. I never found Legault, or Legault-as-Emily, in Brooklyn. (How silly of me to expect that a poet-translator born in Canada, raised in Tennessee, and trained in screenwriting at the University of Southern California and in poetry writing at the University of Virginia would stay put in his current place of residence; of course he travels constantly, everywhere and nowhere, and you can always find him here.) Before I returned home, I stapled a poem onto a half-dozen telephone poles scattered throughout the blue and gold borough. My missive takes the literary form of an “other poem” as coined by Legault, which per Marjorie Perloff’s definition “begins with a cryptic couplet, follows with a four-line dialogue [...], and then puts four more couplets to work, analyzing what we have just heard or spinning variations on its tense, absurdist drama.” A detailed formula for how to construct such a sonnet appears on page 77 of Legault’s The Other Poems. It’s not a formula, actually. It’s an invitation. UT, LEGAL! by Madeleine as Reviewer (aka the other Magdalena) To cast the rod into the sky and find no lark, no star, but an expanse of dark. WHITMAN: I sing my body eclectic. LEGAULT: Knock knock… DICKINSON: The stitch to sew – I straight the dash – DE CAMPOS: I am Augusto. I catch poems scattered for squirrels racing winds carrying poems to future squirrels. A sound tied to syllable, untied, to split infinity. VEGETABLE: I am a vegetable. MADELEINE: Eat me. 1571: Asterisks are stars too. The book is a rectangle a diamond a boomerang slicing my heart, open to ooze, we drink.
On Poetry

The Poetry of Mental Unhealth: Philip Larkin

To my knowledge, the last poet to have made the bestseller list -- in England, anyway -- is Philip Larkin, whose Collected Poems spent several months in 1988 battling it out with Robert Ludlum’s The Icarus Agenda. That’s a remarkable achievement for a poet whose constitutional cheerlessness would not seem designed for popular success, but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. British readers in 1988 apparently found in Larkin what most readers would delight to find anywhere: a compulsively readable meditation on the common life rendered in language formally rigorous yet wholly accessible. Larkin’s poetry, wrote Clive James in As of This Writing, “gets to everyone capable of being got to.” In composing superb lyrics for ordinary readers, Larkin in some ways faced a more daunting challenge than some of his modernist forbears, who, writing for a coterie, could occasionally allow the large or small passage of complete gibberish to pass through the net. After three slender volumes of mature verse, Larkin essentially gave up the job forever in his middle 50s. Unlike more typically gargantuan Collecteds, his is an inviting and readerly 200 pages. Or was. The newly issued Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Archie Burnett, weighs in at 729 pages. Is Larkin well served by exhaustive annotations and the preservation of every scrap of juvenilia and disjecta? Such is the unhappy fate of a major writer, even one as scrupulously self-editing as Larkin. Must we now read every word, the obligation that, according to T. S. Eliot, is the debt owed to every major writer? I like to think Eliot was just kidding; I haven’t read the collected works of anyone. The nearest I’ve come is Larkin, whose Collected Poems (the nice friendly early one, not the big daunting new one), two fine early novels (Jill and A Girl in Winter), one collection of critical essays (Required Writing), one collection of music criticism (All What Jazz), and the posthumous Selected Letters can be got through in a couple of months. Brevity -- some might say parsimony -- not only shaped his career; it inhered in his poetry. Aside from a few narratives and quasi-narratives, all of his poems are lyrics, most fitting comfortably on one page and some a mere quatrain or two of tetrameter or less. Brevity, however, is not the same as reticence. For all his Englishness, Larkin was, superficially at least, as “confessional” as any of his American contemporaries, though what he had to confess was rarely so lofty as the rarefied anguish of Lowell or Plath or Sexton. In “If, My Darling” he inventoried the contents of his mind, there to find:                                            [a] creep of varying light, Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate; Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove, Then sicken inclusively outwards. Although the Larkin persona obviously resembled the man himself, he unashamedly distilled his worst qualities for literary effect. Neither “If, My Darling” nor any other poem tells you that Larkin ran a major research library at the University of Hull with uncommon perspicacity and professionalism for 30 years. Narrow, small-minded, and willful as his letters sometimes show him to be, Philip Larkin was hardly the monstrous collection of resentments and fears and lusts that the poem describes; or if he was, we all are, for the contrast “If, My Darling” makes between inner and outer, appearance and reality extends well beyond the individual case. It sickens inclusively outwards to us. During the 1990s a great storm arose over the seamier revelations of Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life and the even seamier revelations of Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Selected Letters.I found all that censoriousness much too pleased with itself. Larkin hoarded like the miser he was, collected mild bondage magazines, and occasionally used the “n” word -- hardly laudable traits, but not exactly war crimes either. Persona or no persona, didn’t he make it clear in “If, My Darling” that he was no model of mental health? The argument seemed to be that if someone used the word “nigger” in his correspondence (which he did -- half mocking his own bigotry, but only half), the poetry he wrote must reflect the same racist, rancid prejudices. But it doesn’t. Larkin, who was very far from confusing art with life, knew that his prejudices and pettinesses were inassimilable to his poetry. “Wogs,” “niggers,” and “bitches” belong to the lexicon of his prose, not to his verse, which does indeed sometimes express conservative social and political views. Yes, I too wish he had been a liberal, but I fail to be horrified by the nostalgia for duty (“Next year we are to bring the soldiers home / For lack of money”) expressed in “Homage to a Government,” which happens to be quite a good poem. Readers have a perfect right to regard Philip Larkin, as I do not, as a complete shit. But if they consider his personal failings indistinguishable from his poetry, I think the loss is theirs. Did the celebrated author and distinguished university librarian really believe that “Books are a load of crap,” as the last line of “A Study of Reading Habits” has it? Unlikely, even if the Larkin-like speaker of that poem gives vent to feelings of bibliographic disillusion and disgust that even the most enraptured bibliophile will secretly have experienced. As it happens, the sorts of books the poem describes (“the dude / Who lets the girl down before / The hero arrives, the chap / Who’s yellow and keeps the store”) are a load of crap; they certainly have damaged the speaker, who, unlike the poet, made the fatal mistake of confusing art with life. Any poet/librarian can gush about the wonder of reading; it takes a special kind to deplore it. Philip Larkin is so hated in some quarters that it may be necessary to point out that the pulp fiction fantasies of “A Study of Reading Habits” (“Me and my cloak and fangs / Had ripping times in the dark. / The women I clubbed with sex! / I broke them up like meringues”) are not intended as models of social interaction. Larkin neither broke up women like meringues nor recommended doing so. Nevertheless, it would be hard to mistake the bitter irony of the title. This study of a severely damaged psyche does not hide its meanings in layers of symbol and allusion. None of Larkin’s poems do. Rather shockingly, they mean pretty much what they say. “There’s not much to say about my work,” he told the Paris Review. “When you’ve read a poem, that’s it, it all quite clear what it means.” I’ve read many fine essays about him but no book-length critical study. What would be the point? An ordinary reader with a modicum of experience in poetry and its forms is as likely to appreciate Larkin as any scholar or poet. Aside from the rare hermetic specimen like “Dry-Point” or “Myxomatosis,” every Larkin poem is eminently paraphrasable. This one is about the tedium of working for a living, that one is about visiting provincial churches, another one is about listening to jazz, and they are all, to invoke the similarly tarnished Matthew Arnold, a criticism of life. How is it that verse that can be reduced to paraphrase and that offers restricted scope for interpretation can be so affecting? Maybe it’s because the poems still allow for mystery, uncertainty, doubt. In “Days” Larkin asked the unrhetorical questions “What are days for?” and “Where can we live but days?” and proposed an unrhetorical answer: Ah, solving that question Brings the priest and the doctor In their long coats Running over the fields. Larkin’s poetry may be unfashionably paraphrasable, but it rarely takes positions or declines into the merely personal; that’s what his letters were for. (“The Slade [art school] is a cunty place, full of 17-year-old cunts,” for example, or, thrillingly, this bit of railway intrigue: “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train, next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolatey baby -- apart from a few splashes of milk, nothing happened to me, but the strain of feeling it might was a great one.”) How a dour, penny-pinching, provincial fussbudget created poetry of such delicacy and grace might in the end have something to do with the person in the persona. Could it be that Philip Larkin wasn’t such a horror after all? I leave that question unanswered. However, the sympathy he extended to ordinary suffering mortals is no less characteristic of his work than the mordant wit and atrocious honesty for which it is equally reputed. The temptation with any Larkin poem is simply to quote it. What can be said about the overwhelming pathos of “Deceptions,” a depiction of the rape and abandonment of an impoverished girl in Victorian England, that isn’t already in the poem? Oh, I’ll think of something. In fact, I will stoutly rise to Larkin’s defense, because the tact with which he treats the subject has sometimes been mistaken for callousness. It’s true that “Deceptions” lacks all declamation or handwringing; therefore Larkin must be on the side of the rapist, mustn’t he? But after all, Larkin is merely writing about rape and abandonment. Unlike the girl whose testimony serves as the poem’s epigraph (“I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt”), he’s not actually suffering these things. These are rather different orders of experience, as he acknowledges in the lines, “I would not dare / Console you if I could.” He had the luxury to reflect in rhymed pentameter on the girl’s violation. She didn’t: Even so distant, I can taste the grief, Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp. The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief Worry of wheels along the street outside Where bridal London bows the other way, And light, unanswerable and tall and wide, Forbids the scar to heal, and drives Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives. And if she was, as the second stanza maintains, “the less deceived,” this hardly excuses her persecutor. The victimizer was more deceived than the victimized because, being male, older, and of a higher social standing, he could afford to be. The poor start out undeceived, and stay that way. Unless you think that the act of writing enacts the crime symbolically, the cruelty and coldness here belong to the rapist, not to the poet. Put it another way: If you read this heartbreaking, miraculous poem -- a Dickens novel in 17 lines-- and find in it nothing but confirmation of Larkin’s bad faith and misogyny, maybe the problem is you. Paraphrasable but irreducible, Larkin’s work remains poetry, not argument. What possible ideology can be inferred from “Water” other than a nostalgia for transcendence? Typically for Larkin, such transcendence as can be imagined is to be found not in some exotic tarn or “crouched in the fo’c’scle” of a freighter rounding the Horn but in a glass of water: If I were called in To construct a religion I should make use of water. Going to church Would entail a fording To dry, different clothes; My liturgy would employ Images of sousing, A furious devout drench, And I should raise in the east A glass of water Where any-angled light Would congregate endlessly. As often as not in Larkin, such moments of nearly visionary consciousness are as likely to be negative as positive, but his work is in fact full of intensely lyrical apprehensions that belie his reputation as a crusty conservative with no patience for the inexplicable or the numinous. The man who revered Margaret Thatcher, wrote weekly letters to his nagging mother, and vacationed in provincial British resorts like Sark, Malvern, and Chichester, had more poetry in his soul -- perhaps that was his problem -- than he knew what to do with. To return to the question of how Larkin’s poetry can be so affecting, I repeat that I have no clear answer except to say that his remarkable technique clearly has something to do with it. Like Thomas Hardy (his principal influence) or, for that matter, Shakespeare, he uses established poetic conventions as beautiful in themselves and as the most efficient means of carrying content. I like a little showing off, but Larkin’s most brilliant effects are deployed so subtly as to be undetected until the third or fourth or 20th reading. The concealed intricacy of his rhyme schemes and enjambments allows for a seemingly straightforward, conversational style; it sounds as if a man of unusual fluency is simply talking to you. For instance, the three stanzas of “Faith Healing” (“Slowly the women file to where he stands / Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair”) rhyme ABCABDABCD -- often enough, that is, to knit the poem together, but at such spatial and temporal distance as to avoid any sing-song predictability and to afford pleasures both conscious (if you notice the pattern) and subliminal (if you don’t). And that’s an easy one. Sometimes the rhymes are consonantal (park/work, noises/nurses in “Toads Revisited”), sometimes they’re whole words (home/home, country/country, money/money in “Homage to a Government”), and sometimes I know they’re there but I can’t quite determine where (passim). Nor is this to speak of the variety of stanzaic and metrical variation, the enjambments, the half lines, and the metaphors so powerful that they lodged even within a mind so unpoetic as Margaret Thatcher’s. (When they met in 1980 the Iron Lady favored him with a misquotation of the lines, “All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives” from “Deceptions.” “I . . . thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads,” he noted to a correspondent.) Even readers hostile to Larkin will generally acknowledge his extraordinary craftsmanship. What ultimately matters, of course, is not this or that bit of adroit versification but the intellectual and emotive truth of his work. Even here, alas, we’re not quite in the clear, because Larkin’s pessimism is sometimes hard to distinguish from morbidity. I believe that his work is fundamentally humanistic and humane, but a poet capable of lines like “Life is first boredom, then fear” (“Dockery and Son”) and “Man hands on misery to man” (“This Be the Verse”) was not out to provide easy consolations. No work of Larkin’s is more “challenging” -- that is, more apparently inhumane -- than “Aubade,” a sort of “Anti-Intimations Ode” and certainly his last great poem. Its theme, to put it more bluntly than the poem does, is that the horror of death renders life meaningless. (In a nice bit of Larkinesque irony, “Aubade” appeared in The Times Literary Supplement two days before Christmas in 1977.) It would be difficult to overstate the bleakness of this poem, starting with its savagely ironic title. The poem is, literally, an aubade -- a song of dawn -- but whereas most aubades herald the coming of light and life, Larkin’s proclaims the immanence of “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die.” The speaker -- oh, what the hell, let’s just call him Larkin -- has awoken at 4 a.m. and waits out the dawn in existential terror. Till then the darkness will serve quite nicely as a metaphor for “the total emptiness forever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.” Well, Larkin certainly had the courage of his convictions. No stoicism or detachment softens the harshness of “Aubade.” The subject announced in the first stanza -- “the dread / Of dying, and being dead” -- is carried with remorseless consistency to its remorseless conclusion four long stanzas later. I might as well admit that I'm determined to find whatever shred of humanism I can in this pitiless poem, but others have given it up as a bad job. No less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz called it “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason -- about the complete absurdity of human life -- and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death” (Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 2006). It’s not that Milosz objected to Larkin’s thematics, and he greatly admired his “wonderful craftsman[ship].” What he found “hateful” about “Aubade” was its passivity, its “attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.” With this attitude, he went on to say, “Poetry cannot agree...Poetry is directed against that.” The first and perhaps feeblest answer to Milosz’s objections is to point to the sheer beauty of the poem, its equipoise and fluency. Any formal structure won out of the materials of horror and death represents some affirmation of the will, does it not? Larkin might simply have got “half-drunk,” lost the battle to insomnia, and succumbed to despair, as he no doubt did on many a night and as a few million people are probably doing at this very moment. But he also ordered his thoughts about that experience, conjoining the intimate and the cosmic in five 10-line stanzas rhymed ABABCCDEED, with a penultimate half line setting off the devastating apercus of the concluding pentameter line. And he makes it look easy. Seamus Heaney, who shared some of Milosz’s doubts about the ultimate value of “Aubade,” nonetheless found a moral significance in its artistry. “When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life” he wrote in Finders Keepers. “When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity...In this fundamentally artistic way, then, ‘Aubade’ does not go over to the side of the adversary.” Nevertheless, Heaney believed that in every other way “Aubade” does go over to the side of the adversary. I maintain, on the contrary, that this doom-ridden dirge is on our side. You may disagree, and if you do, you should never read “Aubade” again. A book or a poem may chasten or challenge or disturb or disillusion, but if it just makes you feel lousy, you are well advised to toss it out the window. In the end, “Aubade” doesn’t make me feel lousy, though God knows it’s not a poem I can read casually or without a certain tautening of the nerves. In the first place, why would Larkin, who repeatedly and strenuously objected to what he considered the inhuman alienations of modernist art, inflict punishment on his readers? This was a man who adored Beatrix Potter’s fables for children and believed, as he wrote in “The Mower,” “We should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.” Still, the gentle, nostalgic Philip was quite at home with the scabrous, vindictive one, and there’s no reason that the latter couldn’t have written “Aubade,” as the less forgiving, bitterer man wrote “The Old Fools,” “The Card Players,” and some other characteristically intransigent pieces. “Aubade” is a long way from Beatrix Potter, but its ferocity is conditioned by an almost shocking -- in the context -- mildness of tone. The poem is not fundamentally about “remorse -- / The good not done, the love not given,” but it includes those things, and if despair is inherently solipsistic, that too is conditioned by a recognition of a very special horror: at death there is “Nothing to love or link with.” It’s in the final stanza, however, that Larkin opposed, albeit gingerly, a rather surprising counterforce -- life: Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape. It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know, Have always known, know that we can’t escape, Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go. Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring Intricate rented world begins to rouse. The sky is white as clay, with no sun. Work has to be done. Postmen like doctors go from house to house. Life, be not proud. It and we are going to lose this battle -- forever -- but on the way to defeat, people love and link, work gets done, responsibilities are met. It’s a sunless day to be sure; how much cheer can you reasonably expect from Philip Larkin? But ringing telephones, regular mail delivery, and relatively engaging office work were no small matters to him. The assertion of continuity that they represent gets the last word. One way to regard this tenuous and temporary victory for the human is as a hollow joke; another way is to regard it as a tenuous and temporary victory. In a similar vein, many readers find the last stanza of “High Windows” blankly nihilistic. Here, I think I can be more assertive: they’re wrong. It’s as if the poem argues against itself, the first four quatrains rationally putting the case for the absurdity of our delusions, and the last quatrain triumphantly ignoring those very same arguments:                                                          And immediately Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: The sun-comprehending glass, And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. There’s much to be said for nothing and nowhere and endlessness. What strikes some readers as an ice-cold vision of the Void strikes me as a nearly Zen-like apprehension of emptiness in fullness and fullness in emptiness, rather like Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” but without all the difficulty. O.K., so maybe some of Larkin’s poems give in a little too easily to his predisposition to desolation. Martin Amis, who as a boy received grudging “tips” from his parents’ frequent and melancholy houseguest, wrote in The War against Cliché, “For his generation, you were what you were, and that was that. It made you unswervable and adamantine.” Although I want and maybe need to believe that Larkin’s dauntless pessimism represents a valid and responsible ethics, I don’t really care if his views are unbalanced, unhealthy, unsound, and unheroic. He turned them into something human, something I can use. I happen to believe that the light that seeps into the last stanza of “Aubade” redeems the poem for its mortal readers, but no such redemption touches the earlier and starker “Next, Please.” This is a poem that insists with an almost perverse satisfaction on the absoluteness of death and the folly of our pathetic fantasies. I ought to be appalled. That I admire, even love these lines is partly an effect of Larkin’s usual mastery -- in this case the way the poem builds to the apocalyptic from the banal, using the controlling metaphor of an approaching ship of death, like some nightmare out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Right to the last We think each one will heave to and unload All good into our lives, all we are owed For waiting so devoutly and so long. But we are wrong: Only one ship is seeking us, a black- Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back A huge and birdless silence. In her wake No waters breed or break. I could say that qualities of courage, honesty, and resolution inhere in “Next, Please,” but so do some other qualities -- fatalism, perverseness, and morbidity, for example. Yet against these less ennobling qualities is a human sympathy that more than anything explains Larkin’s hold on his audience. To begin with, “Next, Please” is utterly accessible to the common reader. Nothing could be less esoteric than its form (couplets in quatrains) and nothing more straightforward than its argument -- that we necessarily delude ourselves again and again until, finally, there’s no more life left to delude. The operative word is “we.” The poet clings to the same illusions that his readers do. After the poem is written and read, all of us will go back to the same “bad habits of expectancy / ...Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear, / Sparkling armada of promises draw near.” I would like not to face death or even life the way Philip Larkin does in “Next, Please,” and I think I more or less succeed in doing so. But while I wait to achieve a heroic control over my fate that is never going to happen, I turn to Larkin’s poetry for companionship in my loneliness.
On Poetry, Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Spencer Reece, The Poet’s Tale

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. I try to recall what made me run out and buy Spencer Reece’s debut poetry collection. The book had been recently published, so this would have been 2004. Back then, I still got my news in paper form, the daily New York Times. I enjoyed especially the Sunday morning ritual -- cover to cover, coffee and breakfast. I needed rituals back then: newly divorced, living alone for the first time in 10 years, past 30, with a demanding day job; and anxious that I’d never get back to writing, that it was all a silly fantasy I should put to rest. Sunday with the big fat New York Times was soothing somehow. I even cut coupons. I do a quick search at the Times online, and there it is: a piece on Spencer Reece, Sunday, May 9, 2004. And yes, now I remember, it was in the Style section. The silly headline: “O Khaki Pants! O Navy Blazer!” Like many – like the editors of the Times – I was taken with Reece’s life before coming to know his art. It was his personal story – the romance of it, the near-tragedy, the “stylish” way in which it all turned around for him, one night, when he came home from his job as assistant manager at Brooks Brothers to a message on his answering machine from Michael Collier, chair of the prestigious Bakeless Prize committee. Louise Glück, then Poet Laureate of the United States, had selected his manuscript as that year’s winner. He’d been working full-time at Brooks Brothers for several years, first at the Mall of America in Minnesota, then in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The book had been submitted to contests and publishers, in various forms, and rejected, some 300 times over the previous 13 years. Spencer Reece was 40 years old when he got that call; he’d been writing poetry since college, had sent out thousands of submissions to magazines (three at a time, 10 magazines each round), diligently, year after year. Even so, he’d lived and wrote mostly outside the literary world. The title of the book – and of the collection’s most well-known poem – was The Clerk’s Tale. I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, selling suits to men I call "Sir." Not long after that phone message, another call came, while Reece was at work, from Alice Quinn of the New Yorker. “I was fixing a pair of pants for a man and his wife, the wife was very upset,” Reece recalled. “I couldn’t stay on the phone long, because I had a pair of pants and the woman was getting more and more upset.” The New Yorker published “The Clerk’s Tale” in June 2003, devoting to it the entire back page. Even without knowledge of Chaucer's original -- the tale of a peasant girl's harrowing trials of love and loyalty -- Spencer Reece’s Cinderella story was irresistible. And we needed such a story. Well, I did. The romance, the sense of “close call,” i.e., what if he had never won any prize or come to anyone’s attention, but continued to labor in the dark – 40, 50, 60 years old -- a melancholy retail clerk, making $30,000 a year, estranged from family, with two master’s degrees (in Renaissance poetry from the University of York, and in theology from Harvard Divinity), living in suburban Florida. It could have happened. It does happen, all the time. We need these stories to counter the inevitability of obscurity; we need stories that kindle our sense of hope, and possibility. 2. We needed Reece’s story so much that we began to own it for ourselves, at times adjusting and embellishing. As I delve into research, poring over interviews and profiles from the past eight years, I find inconsistencies: it is notably difficult to piece together the chronology, to get the narrative right. Here, we have him graduating Harvard at 27, then entering a mental hospital at 29, after an acrimonious break from his family; another account has him closer to 31 or 32 at the time of the break and breakdown. Had he spent three full years in the mental hospital, or was it three years living with the nurse and her husband who took him in afterwards? In one version the root of acrimony was money and alcoholism; in another, the central conflict was Reece’s homosexuality. It is also unclear whether Reece did not work at all while he lived with the nurse, or if he did this and that – radio work, freelance writing. Was it eight years at Brooks Brothers by the time he got the call, or was it closer to five or six? In one account it is Collier’s message on the machine; in another, it is Louise Gluck herself. One profile has Reece working on his poetry “in secret,” his “only literary encouragement an epistolary friendship with famed poet James Merrill.” (He met Merrill “through friends,” one article states. In a later interview, we learn that he met Merrill through Frederick Buechner, though we don’t know how Reece knew Buechner.) Elsewhere we learn that Annie Dillard was also an early encourager, and eventually a champion of The Clerk’s Tale. By his own account, Reece was once a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award and received consistent encouragement from the nurse, Martha, and her husband; from the poet Clare Rossini who lived across the street; from writers involved with The Loft literary center where he took classes and won an award; from the Minnesota State Arts Council from which he’d won an artist’s grant. “I read with Galway Kinnell, that was early on, so I want to paint an accurate picture," Reece said in an interview. "There were little blips, things that were encouraging and that were happening. It wasn’t like nothing was happening. But I wanted more to happen faster.” In truth, I wouldn’t blame fans or journalists for altering or exaggerating the story. I understand why we need it to be as dramatic as possible. I wouldn’t even blame Reece himself if he occasionally magnified certain truths over others, or melded details for narrative effect (“much I knew I would forget or remember in a way my own / which would not exactly be correct, no, not exactly” he later wrote in “The Road to Emmaus”). With such compelling bare bones, we need the story to rise and fall in a particular way, we need cause and effect to play out convincingly. I am reminded of a visit I made to my MFA alma mater a few years ago, upon the publication of my novel. My former professor had asked me to visit his workshop, to encourage the students and be a kind of poster child for “Yes, you can.” The students asked good questions about my Road to Publication. The day after, one of the students confided in me that among the after-chat was a horrified sentiment along the lines of It’s been 12 YEARS since she graduated? What TOOK her so long? So much for poster child. 3. But Reece is, in many ways, a poster child for the Post-40 Bloomers series. Although, I rather dislike that expression, which implies, literally and otherwise, a two-dimensional representation. My efforts to track Reece’s story in a linear, progressive way – and finding this challenging – showed me that his story is messier than that, fully three-dimensional, with diversions and detours, hills and valleys, all along the way. How else could it be? Reece lived a lot of life as he worked on his poems; in fact he’d lived many lives. He’d aspired early on to be a poet, then a poet-slash-hospital-chaplain (in the footsteps of George Herbert and John Donne, whom he studied at York). Discouraged from pursuing that particular path after finishing his degree at Harvard Divinity (“A religious career seemed impractical,” he wrote, reflecting in 2008, and “I was immature”) – he spent the next few years living alone on a farm owned by his family in Minnesota, writing poetry, managing a bird sanctuary, and writing for his father’s medical newsletter. When the break with his family came, he lost his bearings, along with any financial stability, and checked into a mental hospital. In our romanticized version of Reece’s story, this was rock bottom, and thus the epiphany moment, the turnaround. Perhaps. Or perhaps the years following were even more difficult, and unstable. At any rate, there is a beautiful story he tells about meeting nurse Martha: they became friends when he read to her Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” “Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft,” wrote Louise Glück in the Foreword to The Clerk’s Tale. Its light touch and connoisseur’s passion for surface notwithstanding, this is a book of deprivations and closures [...] I do not know a contemporary book in which poems so dazzlingly entertaining contain, tacitly, such deep sorrow. The average contemporary reader may find poetry difficult to access, even more so to “evaluate.” Glück describes Reece’s work in terms of “tone” – one of “artless naturalness[…] so capable of simultaneous refinements and ironies as to seem not a tone, not an effect of art, but of truth.” I love this about Reece’s poems – an erudition that is sensual; formal beauty that is also earthy. We see this especially in the collection’s two ghazal cycles – a form characterized by 5-15 couplets per cycle, traditionally incorporating a rather strict rhyme-and-refrain scheme. But Reece plays with the form and makes it his own, moving audaciously between high and low registers: Hey you! Come unto me! Let the meadow march into my mouth! I’m due for a moist trembling emotion, don’t you think? Well, don’t you? [...] The animals are back and they’re singing their prothalamia. It’s about time. And get a load of that forest! It’s squirting filigree. In the remarkable “Florida Ghazals,” we are immersed not only in this tone, in this earthy erudition, but also in story and character, an ensemble cast (including Reece’s cousin who was murdered at 23, the local prostitute, an escaped convict, and Elizabeth Bishop) whose fates are both remote and hauntingly proximal. Dolores teases her blonde hair a foot into the air, her hair the one perfection in this low-income town, a conspicuous example of Darwinian sexual selection.[...] Weather. Weather. How's the weather? When I speak of the weather is it because I cannot speak of my days spent in the nut house? Juan sinks into the swamp thick with processed excrement. Nude paper ladies sinking like cement, silencing him. [...] All this beauty. Butterflies at the ankles. Birds, birds. When hurricanes come with their bad names, they ruin this place like madness. Elizabeth Bishop was five when her mother went mad. They locked her other away in Nova Scotia and Elizabeth never saw her again. [...] It was dark and my cousin was alone. They dragged him to the river. It rained for three days. They could not find him; when they did, no one knew his name. We see Reece’s comfort with informal formality – a grooving box-step -- in Reece’s rhyming poems as well. From “Chiaroscuro”: When the ficus beyond the grillwork darkens, when the rind cools down on the lime, when we sit here a long time, when we feel ourselves found, when the red tile roofs deepen to brown, when the exhausted beach fires with blues, when the hush of the waves reminds us of regrets, when the tides overtake the shore, when we begin to place God in our sentences more, we will turn at last[...] We see here too the quality of Reece’s attention to minute detail, blooming into metaphysics – the rind cooling on the lime blooms into time passing; the browns and the blues and the hush of the waves bring forth memory’s regrets; through the composition of sentences, our spiritual state emerges. “I admire his studied attention to details” says the narrator of “The Clerk’s Tale” of his co-worker, “an old homosexual” who refers to himself as “an old faggot.” In this case, such details include “a layer of Clinique bronzer,” “manicured lacquered nails,” “his breath mint in place.” At the end of “The Clerk’s Tale,” “Sometimes snow falls like rice,” and then the remainder of the poem is written in the imperative, the reader implored to See us take our dimly lit exits [...] See us loosening our ties among you. We are alone. Here, the metaphysics pivot to me, the reader, to the meaning of my life as this attention to details becomes my own responsibility, to See us. As in many of Reece’s poems, our engagement becomes simultaneously intimate and expansive, personal and universal. From “Midnight”: The rest of this panorama is immense, dark, impenetrable, unstructured. But if you look closely in the left-hand corner, I can just be distinguished from the blue blue brilliance of all this land, A tiny figure, no bigger than a grass blade, a shadow hugged by shadows From “Etude”: and if a new friend should take your arm do not define the gesture, no, let the moon spread shampoo all over you, allow the palm trees with their shallow roots to lull you down the broad avenue 4. The narrative of Reece’s last nine years – since the Bakeless, since that first New Yorker publication – is indeed remarkable, and yet still, also, textured and surprising. He continued to work full-time at Brooks Brothers for another two-plus years, through The Clerk’s Tale's acclaimed publication. Then, in 2005, he won a Guggenheim, an NEA fellowship, and the Whiting Award. He decreased his retail-work hours to four days a week, then eventually to three days (“to keep my benefits”). On his off days, Reece began volunteering at a nearby hospice center – in his own words, “whispering into the ears of the dying.” After two years of volunteering, Reece came to a decision; or, as he put it, felt “called.” He wrote: “Perhaps thirteen years in an Episcopal prep school, a seemingly dead-end graduate degree, twelve years in retail, a first book published in middle age, a priest could make. Why not? [...] Each door I open at Hospice, I move closer to something brightly intimate.” In 2008, he left Brooks Brothers, Gerstenberg (hospice) Center, and Florida for Connecticut -- his birthplace (Hartford), and also where he went to college (Wesleyan) – specifically for Yale Divinity School, with the renewed intention of becoming a priest. Reece was ordained in the Episcopal church in 2011. And all the while Reece has continued to write poetry, answering finally to the hybridized vocation he envisioned in his early twenties. Since 2008, he has published primarily in the New Yorker and Poetry magazine, and his second collection, The Upper Room, is due out with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2014. The story of Reece’s life comes to us now mostly through his poems – “The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him,” he wrote in the 2011 prose poem “The Manhattan Project,” about his father and paternal grandfather, an engineer who worked on the bomb. “I was wrong to judge it. Speak, father, and I will listen.” (In a 2011 Yale Divinity School alumni note, Reece writes of “reconciliation with family.”) In two narrative poems, “The Road to Emmaus” and “Gilgamesh,” both written in linear first-person fragments, he explores the intimate relationships of his life -- with his mentor and AA sponsor Durrell Hawthorne (who died in 2003, the day “The Clerk’s Tale” appeared in the New Yorker), and his five-year love affair with an older man – both as retellings of Biblical narratives. In an interview accompanying “Gilgamesh,” Reece reveals that he continues to engage formal conventions while also personalizing them: “I need the poems to be understandable to me” and also, “Memoir bores me. But in poetry, the autobiography becomes something else entirely, somehow selfless [...] I am unconventional but always trying to adhere to convention.” He could just as easily be speaking about his work as a priest. At Poets.org, Reece’s official, complete biography currently reads: Spencer Reece is the chaplain to Bishop Carlos Lopez-Lozano of the Reformed Episcopal Church in Spain. In 2014, I suspect that may once again change. Reece will be 51 then, both deeper inside and further outside the literary establishment. I look forward to both the poems and the publicity. I can see the Times article now, perhaps in the Book Review, perhaps in the Religion section: “O, Holy Poet.”
On Poetry

Dream a Little Dream of Me: John Berryman

If poetry is going to be tortured, agonized, and morbidly introspective, it might as well be funny too. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are all that and more. Half elegiac lyricism and half lowdown buffoonery, they’re like nothing else in American literature, though they owe a debt to Saul Bellow’s breakthrough mixture of high and low in The Adventures of Auggie March. (The two men shared an office at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Can you imagine being an undergraduate there and making a routine appointment to discuss your C+ with Mr. Bellow or Mr. Berryman?) Although I can’t claim to understand The Dream Songs fully, I'm not required to. No one said it better than Berryman himself: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand./They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” Reading all 385 of them at a stretch (not recommended), I sometimes find myself bored as well as baffled. This too is allowed: Peoples bore me, literature bores me, especially great literature, Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes as bad as achilles. Perhaps the first thing to be said about The Dream Songs is that there are too many of them. By my reckoning (every reader’s will differ), fewer than half are truly first-rate or even intelligible, yet the good ones wouldn’t be so good if not set off by the messiness and prolixity of the others -- and even the good ones are pretty messy too. It took Berryman years to break through to the mess that allowed life in. He served his apprenticeship under the ideal of formal severity and impersonality bequeathed by the gods of modernism. Not that he ever surrendered the modernist ideal of difficulty. Them Dream Songs isn’t easy, pal. But although their elisions and allusions seem to invite the sort of interpretive ingenuity that used to make academic careers, they succeed best when speaking more or less clearly about the elemental things: love, lust, friendship, death, despair, memory, and John Berryman. John Berryman isn’t exactly a veiled presence in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), the major work that preceded The Dream Songs, but that strange narrative poem of 57 stanzas does give us something rarely encountered in his work thereafter: other consciousnesses. It’s true that friends, lovers, wives, children, students, rivals, doctors, nurses, mothers, and murderers populate The Dream Songs, but their appearances are always and openly grist for “Henry’s” -- that is, Berryman’s -- mill, objects in his psychic landscape. It’s also true that the Anne Bradstreet he brings into being is as much Berryman’s alter-ego or freely imaged object of desire as the actual Puritan poet who married at 16, crossed the Atlantic in 1630, bore eight children, wrote some of the earliest verse in America, and died at the age of 60 in 1672. Nevertheless, he was too much a scholar not to give a convincing sense of Puritan culture and the people who inhabited it. No scholar alone, however, would have dared to create an interior life for his protagonist the way that Berryman does. It’s hard to imagine the Harvard historian Perry Miller, for example, whose studies of Puritan thought and culture Berryman drew on heavily, trying to get inside the head of a woman in labor, as Berryman does in the stanzas describing the birth of Anne’s first child. (Another part of his research consisted of asking extremely intimate questions of mothers that he knew, including his own.) Magnificent in itself, this celebrated sequence is also a useful corrective to those who believe that the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet couldn’t write about anything but his own consciousness: Monster you are killing me Be sure I’ll have you later Women do endure I can can no longer and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me drencht & powerful, I did it with my body! One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous, unforbidding Majesty. Swell, imperious bells. I fly. Nevertheless, the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet did write primarily about his own consciousness, and in The Dream Songs, to return to his signature work, he did so over the course of about 400 pages and 7,000 lines. The question almost asks itself: Why should any of us struggle with 400 pages of fractured, nonlinear verse describing one mid-20th-century white academic’s private torments, not excluding details of a hemorrhage in his left ear and much grousing about the weather? Well, if you think The Dream Songs are excessively self-involved, try Love & Fame (1971), which goes on and on and on about insanely trivial matters, as if daring the reader to find the poetry in this mass of congealed autobiography. It’s there if you look hard enough, but some of the verse is so hilariously awful it must be intentional, as in this reminiscence about Berryman’s college years: I must further explain: I needed a B, I didn’t need an A, as in my other six courses, but the extra credits accruing from those A’s would fail to accrue if I'd any mark under B. The bastard knew this, as indeed my predicament was well known through both my major Departments. Unlike The Dream Songs, Love & Fame is meant all too clearly to be understood. It’s so lucid, in fact -- a scrupulously detailed bildungsroman in verse -- that most of the poetry gets lost in the glare. No one ever accused The Dream Songs of being too lucid. At their frequent worst, they are so clotted with private reference as to be impenetrable. Any poem that requires an annotation like the following (from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary by John Haffenden) plainly doesn’t give a damn whether it’s penetrable or not: The ‘Little Baby’ is Berryman’s daughter Martha; Diana, the daughter of Kate Berryman’s friend, Eugenia Foster. ‘The Beast’ is the nickname given to the boy who lived next door to them in Lansdowne Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin. ‘Mir’ is the family name for Berryman’s mother. Furthermore -- to get the bad stuff out of the way -- even if Songs were consistently successful, they would still suffer from the defect of most uniform poetic sequences: too much of a good thing. If Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets begin ever so slightly to pall, Berryman’s 385 sonnet-like Songs -- 18 iambic lines divided into stanzas of six, six, and six, with varying rhymes and half lines, usually in the middle and end of each strophe -- can hardly escape a similar but much heavier numbing effect. There is, of course, a fairly simple solution to this problem -- don’t read them straight through. Although there are sequences within the sequence, the ordering has no organizational principle that holds for long. You could read them backwards and do almost as well. Another difficulty is the minstrel dialect that Berryman mixes with the slang, jokes, baby talk, impossible grammar, and syntactic inversions. Readers of modern poetry are accustomed to such unstable compounds, but the appropriation of an idiom associated with racial oppression induces squirms, and is meant to. At least I hope it’s meant to. Sometimes I'm not so sure. I feel a little better knowing that Berryman’s friend Ralph Ellison had no problem with the blackface dialect and especially admired Song 68, which deals in part with the death of Bessie Smith. I guess I’ll always have some qualms, but would anyone really prefer The Dream Songs to be shorn of their outrages to decorum and taste? Don’t we read them partly because they’re so unlike what “great” poetry is supposed to be? The half-lunatic syntax serves many purposes -- chiefly, the subversion of psychological defenses preventing access to primal guilts, fears, needs, and shames, or as Kafka might have said, the taking of an ax to the frozen sea within. The Songs are, after all, inspired by dreams, where we take our clothes off and don’t speak or think the King’s English, but Henry’s language is also extremely funny, an all-American music of boisterous vulgarity. Troubled and troubling as they are, The Dream Songs give back in delighted sound what they darkly ruminate on sense. The overall tenor of the book might be roughly stated as follows: Just because we’re buffoons, it doesn’t mean our lives aren’t tragic. In the preface Berryman explains, somewhat misleadingly, that the poem “is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.” Although just enough distance exists between character and creator to allow for the writing of the book, few people believe Berryman’s disclaimer. Berryman is Henry, and Henry is, to a greater or -- let us hope -- lesser degree, us. More useful, I think, is Berryman’s statement to The Paris Review: “Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life -- namely, he didn’t know and I didn’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next.” This barroom wisdom underwrites every line of the book. (“Parm me, lady,” drunken Henry says to his seatmate on an airplane in Song 5. “Orright” she replies.) I might add, before I look at a few Songs, that the principle of chaos and disorder to which this wisdom attests found spectacular expression in the poet’s everyday life. According to Bellow, Berryman “knocked himself out to be like everybody else,” but despite his efforts to be a responsible husband, father, citizen, and colleague, he failed in every respect. In Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman Paul Mariani describes a fairly typical night in the life of the poet when, drunk as usual and declining out of envious pique to attend a poetry reading at Berkeley, where we was then teaching: Berryman came over to see Miriam [Ostroff, a faculty wife], chatted with her, read her some of his Dream Songs, and was soon boasting of his sexual prowess. In spite of her protests, he began chasing her around the room. When she told him to get out, he suddenly became contrite and downcast and promised to be good if only he could stay. After a short while, however, he started again, until he finally browbeat her into letting him spend “ten or fifteen minutes reverently caressing her feet, while reciting poetry.” Then, realizing that the house had windows and that someone might be watching, Berryman recovered himself, hailed a taxi, and went home. Mariani’s biography is not edifying. Out of such squalor, however, Berryman created masterpieces like Dream Song 4, Henry’s appallingly believable version of “lust in action”: Filling her compact & delicious body with chicken paprika, she glanced at me twice. Fainting with interest, I hungered back and only the fact of her husband & four other people kept me from springing on her or falling at her little feet and crying ‘You are the hottest one for years of night Henry’s dazed eyes have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon (despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed, de world, wif feeding girls. -- Black hair, complexion Latin, jeweled eyes downcast . . .  The slob beside her     feasts . . . What wonders is she sitting on, over there? The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars. Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry. -- Mr. Bones: there is. The self-disgust is palpable and -- who can doubt it? -- thoroughly earned. Why then is this poem so exceedingly funny? Perhaps because like the best of the Songs it manages to be so many things at once. There ought to be a law against Henry, but his raging sexuality doesn’t stop him from idealizing both the object of his desire and his desire itself. The funniest thing about the Song is that it exists -- a gross parody of poetic adoration that is touched with the lyricism of jeweled eyes and an apostrophized “Brilliance.” Helen Vendler writes in The Given and the Made, “We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention.” Nicely put, but somehow it sounds funnier when Henry says it. Among the adjectives Vendler applies to Henry are “regressive, petulant, hysterical, childish, cunning, hypersexual, boastful, frightened, shameless, and revengeful.” Also, “complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse.” Did we miss anything? How about self-pitying, irresponsible, envious, and grandiose? Vendler, who notes that Henry is simultaneously “imaginative, hilarious, mocking, and full of Joycean music,” is making an important point about the intrusion of the Freudian Id into the august precincts of lyric poetry. If Henry’s worse than we are, it’s only by a matter of degree. Why shouldn’t self-portraiture, in poetry as well as prose, allow for the base and ignoble as well as the socially approved? Maybe because I’ve written a few myself, I’ve never understood the knock on memoirs as pointless exercises in narcissism. Until we all live lives of wholly integrated personhood, there will be much to learn from the microscopic examinations of the self performed by Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff or Henry Adams or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Because The Dream Songs derive so much from the model of self-examination provided by psychotherapy (and from Berryman’s long hours in group and private sessions), they’re more uncensored than most such memoiristic exercises but are unique only in their peculiar combination of hilarity and despair. I’ve mentioned self-pity as one of the characteristic modes of Henry and his Songs. Since this particular vice isn’t going away any time soon and is, in fact, more ubiquitous than the alcoholism and lust for fame that the Songs also relate at inordinate length, I consider it wholly to Berryman’s credit that he presents Henry, in the midst of all his tribulations, feeling genuinely and unrepentantly sorry for himself. Instances aren’t hard to find: “Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry/did will not bear thought” (DS 74); “This world is gradually becoming a place/where I do not care to be any more” (DS 149); “The only happy people in the world/are those who do not have    to write long poems” (DS 354); “Mr Bones,/stop that damn dismal” (DS 98). Mr Bones never did stop that damn dismal. Berryman, who regularly assigned Miguel de Unamuno to his students, must have learned something from the Spaniard’s metaphysics of pity. In the Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes, “Man yearns to be loved, or, what is the same thing, to be pitied. Man wishes others to feel and share his hardships and sorrows. The roadside beggar’s exhibition of his sores and gangrened mutilations is something more than a device to extort alms from the passer-by. True alms is pity rather than the pittance that alleviates the material hardships of life.” For Unamuno the next step in the progression is turning the pity for the self outwards, towards a universal compassion for all suffering beings. Berryman never got that far. He occupied the huge gray area where self-pity and genuine pathos blur their edges. Song 149, for instance, sounds outrageously petulant -- because Henry’s friends have died, he hates the world. Yet this petulance frames an elegy for a man whose sufferings easily surpassed Henry’s (or Berryman’s), his great friend Delmore Schwartz. A sober, chastened acceptance of death is precisely what Berryman does not provide. Henry’s refusal or inability to come to terms with necessity makes the Song doubly true -- true to the intractability of grief, and true to the memory (half solace, half torment) of a loved friend: This world is gradually becoming a place where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die? I don’t suppose in all them years a day went ever by without a loving thought for him. Welladay. I imagine you have heard the terrible news, that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone, in New York: he sang me a song ‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’ when he was young & gift-strong. Berryman had a lot of grieving to do in The Dream Songs -- for “Delmore,” “Randall” (Jarrell), “Richard” (Blackmur), “Louis” (MacNeice), and other friends, but mostly for himself. He too sang “Harms & the child”: his father’s suicide occurred when Berryman was 12. His unseemly bewailing of this primal wound is one of the glories of The Dream Songs. If you don’t feel sorry for yourself after a trauma like that, you’re probably damaged beyond redemption. I remember reading reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published letters, The Habit of Being (1979), in which critic after critic marveled at her complete lack of self-pity in the face of rural isolation, degenerative illness, and overwhelming household cares. My response was more like Henry’s: What was wrong with this woman? On the other hand, who was I to judge this brave, unassuming, Roman Catholic stoic who virtually re-invented the American short story? Yet the feeling remains with me still -- if Flannery O’Connor had ever permitted herself an occasional howl of self-pity, she might have extended a similar sympathy to the freaks, half-wits, criminals, con artists, and fanatics she depicted with such icy detachment. However brilliant, she was also, in my opinion, the coldest and cruelest of all major American writers. What Berryman says about Wallace Stevens is Song 219 is partly right; he just applies it to the wrong writer. Substitute “O’Connor” for “Stevens” and it makes perfect sense: He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s wits, though, with a odd . . . something . . . something . . . not there in his flourishing art. “Better than us; less wide” is Berryman’s final and misapplied verdict on Stevens. John Berryman was emphatically not better than us (though he’s speaking here as a poet to a poet), and there was nothing narrow or “less wide” about his emotional devastations. I’ve got my own Henry-like traumas to deal with. “Get over it,” people tell me. I can’t; that’s one of the reasons why I read poetry. Since all of us are damaged to one degree or another, I regard the shameless exhibitionism of The Dream Songs as not only essential to their success but a public service. But note: the Songs are art, not therapeutic transcripts. In 384, the penultimate Song, Berryman/Henry returns to the primal scene, his father’s suicide by shotgun. After all those years, after all those Songs, no resolution or catharsis is to be hoped for. There is only the consolation of expression through form: The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done, I stand above my father’s grave with rage, often, often before I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one who cannot visit me, who tore his page out: I come back for more, I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn O ho alas alas When will indifference come, I moan & rave I'd like to scrabble till I got right down away down under the grass and ax the casket open ha to see just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard we’ll tear apart the mouldering grave clothes ha then Henry will heft the ax once more, his final card, and fell it on the start. It’s no accident that this poem of violent rage and hatred adheres with strictest discipline to a rhyme scheme of abc/abc and a metric of 5-5-3/5-5-3. The visionary power so overwhelms that the regularity passes almost unnoticed, but without the regularity controlling the passion, the Song wouldn’t be nearly so overwhelming. To offer any explication of a poem so primal in its address would almost seem an impertinence. The only analogue I can think of is the climax of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican B-movie version of Wuthering Heights -- fabulously titled Abismos de Pasión -- in which Heathcliff breaks into Cathy’s crypt with an ax and is shot while holding the decomposing corpse in his arms. Out of such subterranean currents of rage and despair are our ordinary lives made. “When will indifference come?” If it had come, Berryman wouldn’t have needed to write the Songs and especially not 29, a nightmare of guilt and horror at the furthest extremity from indifference. I surely don’t understand this one fully, though it all feels sickeningly right, down to the unexplained “little cough” of the first stanza and the tantalizing/tormenting serenity of the Giotto-like figure that looms up in the second. That little cough may emanate from an imagined victim of Henry’s murderous fantasies. I myself am not bedeviled by recurring nightmares of committing violence against women, but I know how desolation and despair feel. Like this: There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart só heavy, if he had a hundred years & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time Henry could not make good. Starts again always in Henry’s ears the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime. And there is another thing he has in mind like a grave Sienese face a thousand years would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly, with open eyes, he attends, blind. All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears; thinking. But never did Henry, as he thought he did, end anyone and hacks her body up and hide the pieces, where they may be found. He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing. Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. Nobody is ever missing. The third stanza presents a mind so disturbed as to risk foreclosing the possibility of any sympathetic response. For a moment it makes me think of all those pictures of naked little girls with penises by the “outsider” artist Henry Darger; if he hadn’t been drawing little girls, he might have been raping and murdering them. But there’s a reason Berryman called them “Dream Songs.” Their flashes of nightmarish, hallucinogenic imagery light up the darker recesses of the mind. John Berryman never hurt a fly (neither did Henry Darger), and The Dream Songs do what folk art cannot -- they illuminate rather than exemplify pathologies of the soul. They’re also pretty good at illuminating ordinary experience. John Berryman lived in the world we live in, and when he wasn’t drunk or in detox or suicidal (or even when he was), he could describe the world and his place in it with grace and wit. After all this Sturm und Drang, I'd like to close with a lovely little poem (not a Dream Song) occasioned by the birth of his son Paul in 1957. Berryman of course turned out to be a negligent and mostly absent father to the boy, but he did leave him with “A Sympathy, A Welcome” -- which excuses nothing. Whatever his feelings about his catastrophic father, I hope Paul Berryman had a happy life and that “loverhood” swung his soul like a broken bell. Feel for your bad fall how could I fail, poor Paul, who had it so good. I can offer you only: this world like a knife. Yet you’ll get to know your mother and humourless as you do look you will laugh and all the others will NOT be fierce to you, and loverhood will swing your soul like a broken bell deep in a forsaken wood, poor Paul, whose wild bad father loves you well.
From the Newsstand, On Poetry

Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler

If your Twitter or Facebook feed includes anyone who cares about American poetry, you've probably seen a link or 11 to Rita Dove's recent letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books (and Helen Vendler’s painfully terse reply). If not, here’s a quick rundown: The November 24 issue of the NYRB included Vendler's review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dove. The anthologist responded with a letter calling Vendler to task, in particular, for explicit and implicit dismissals of poetry by black Americans. Vendler replied, in full, “I have written the review and I stand by it.” To understand what Dove objected to, you needn’t read any further than the opening paragraphs of Vendler’s review: Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound). Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations. Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology? Notably, Vendler’s list of America’s foremost 20th-century poets is entirely white -- a fact that becomes especially significant when set up against her subsequent suggestion that this legacy of greatness is being crowded out in part by “introducing more black poets.” Up to a point, it's worth going easy on Vendler. Like Dove, she had a job to do -- the same job, really: make a case for what was worth reading in 20th-century American poetry. Dove made hers, and the NYRB asked Vendler to evaluate it. And after those two paragraphs Vendler’s argument mostly shifts away from issues of race and into critiques that, accurate or not, have more to do with Vendler’s dislike of what she calls “accessibility;” her defensiveness about what Dove refers to as the “poetry establishment;” and what Vendler describes as Dove’s “breezy chronological introduction, with its uneasy mix of potted history (in a nod to ‘context’) and peculiar judgments.” While any of these could be stand-ins for racial prejudice, I don’t believe they are. Instead, they feel like an uncomfortable mix of, on the one hand, Vendler’s legitimate arguments about selection and interpretation and, on the other, her fear that the poems she loves most won’t matter enough to others. But those first two paragraphs can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Dove rightly takes her to task for this, effectively unpacking the implications of, for example, dismissing minority writers as being of merely “sociological” interest; suggesting that such writers tend to be valued for their “representative themes,” whereas the major white writers Vendler lists are supposedly notable for their “style;” and asserting that they write poems because they “wouldn’t be able to take on the long-term commitment of a novel.” (Vendler might argue that she didn’t mean any of these observations to be specific to minority writers, but she introduces all of them right after complaining that black writers are over-represented, and a critic who’s famous for her attention to detail should know that she’s setting up that reading of her remarks.) Dove also fairly marks the places where the shadow of such remarks can be discerned later on in the review. Ultimately, I think Vendler’s condescending talk about race and writing is driven by her defensiveness about her own tastes (and more about that in a bit), which of course does nothing to excuse it. But given that Dove and others have already effectively unpacked this most glaring aspect of the review -- and given that Vendler’s case seems far from unique -- it’s worth stopping to look at the assumptions that underpin most arguments against inclusiveness in art, including this one. Part of what leads Vendler astray is her belief in a kind of literary value that’s all noun and no verb -- that is, one that wants to define value without making room for the fact that many people do in fact value the very writing that, she says, is not, well... valuable. In the process, she, like many other critics (and not just of poetry), creates an oddly unpeopled universe -- or, at least, one that’s strangely devoid of living people. Vendler asks us to think of value in terms of a hypothetical and permanent future, one that will have unvarying and therefore conclusive (that is, correct) notions of what was good and bad in our writing. It’s an exasperating argument, since it asks us to defer to the critic’s mystical conjuring of our far off progeny, a population that will, of course, have the same values as the critic herself. But even if the critic is somehow right about what the academics of the 22nd century will value (and even if the 23rd, 24th and 25th centuries value the same things), it begs the question -- why should it matter? Our current canons are based on what a select group of current readers find useful, pleasurable, interesting, meaningful. Were readers in the 17th century wrong for sometimes finding pleasure in other places? Should they have been more concerned with what a Harvard professor might care about today? With some notable exceptions, taste is not a moral category. Yes, it makes a difference if we eat meat; and it matters, too, if our diets are full of sugar or salt. In different ways, it matters if we embrace art that enforces our prejudices, degrades others, or results from exploitation. The same is true if we choose to read in ways that inspire pettiness or abet us in living timid, unfulfilling, unimaginative lives. But more often than not, none of that is really at stake in these arguments. Just as some people will like poetry and some will like fiction, some sculpture, some movies, some wine -- some many things, some few -- there are countless ways to get to meaning through poems and just as many different experiences of meaning to arrive at. And almost all of them are worthwhile. In fact, we can enlarge ourselves by being more imaginative about value; it’s a way of learning about others that resembles the experience of art itself, an act or curiosity and creativity and engagement. Many critics seem to move in the opposite direction, letting in a sense that the appreciation of writing outside of their preferences somehow threatens the value of the poetry they want to champion. If page-counting is a necessary part of reviewing an anthology -- of unpacking its claims -- the treatment of artistic appreciation as a kind of zero-sum equation is not. There's a strange logic here, one that feels a little like the idea that gay marriages would threaten the sanctity of straight marriages (which is not to accuse any critics of homophobia -- just to note the ways in which a lack of imagination about other people's pleasures can turn into an unwarranted prejudice and a strangely militant attitude about the things others do and love.) Vendler's hardly alone in this. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself by defending the great tradition, as he imagines it, from the encroachment of all kinds of writing. In a nice bit of synchronicity, Bloom actually moved to the vanguard of the cultural wars by releasing his own anthology of sorts -- The Western Canon -- which made headlines for selecting 26 essential authors and defending their pre-eminence against an army of straw-men and -women: feminists, cultural theorists, etc., a group he likes to refer to as “The School of Resentment.” He, too, has passed judgment of Dove’s anthologizing, in his case when he made the selections for a Best of the Best American Poetry that largely discarded the choices of the series’ first 10 editors, including Rita Dove, and instead came up with his own roster of works that “will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets.” It’s likely that some of the defensiveness that critics like Bloom feel comes from their awareness that their own selections may be subject to attack, their awareness that championing an all or mostly white or male roster of artists is going to leave them subject to charges of racism and sexism. But there’s a simple way around that: admit that the kind of writing you value is just one kind of potentially valuable writing. Keep in mind that, in trying to maintain the prerogatives and preferences of the establishment (quotation marks deliberately omitted), you’re trying to sustain a series of cultural traditions and institutions that have been hostile to women, blacks, and other minorities on grounds that have nothing to do with merit. Take seriously the ways in which others experience and uncover meaning at the same time you ask others to preserve space for the things you value most. And (hey, why not?) take a little bit of time to consider the possibility that female and non-white writers are already doing important work in that same vein -- and that maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you at first glance in part because you haven’t yet immersed yourself in a slightly different set of cultural experiences and associations. (On that last note, Vendler does eventually get around to praising both Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa, but it comes so late in her review that it doesn’t provide much counterweight, and her assertion that the “excellent contemporary poetry” of these two writers “needs no special defense” revives her claim that many other black writers are valuable only under the terms of some separate and lower standard.) The importance of this extends beyond racial inclusiveness. One of the most useful things a critic can do -- and one that Vendler herself has done at various points in her career -- is to open us up to new sources of pleasure and insight. In denying the value of so much that clearly does provide value for others (including, for me, the brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Vendler faintly praises for a “pioneering role” before expressing wild outrage at Dove’s claim that Brooks’ first book “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”), a critic works against our capacity for imagination. We can, should, and will continue to argue about artistic quality, but we should do so while remembering that poetry can only live in the minds of living readers, and that its value comes out of their encounters with individual poems, which are, thank god, incredibly various (both the poems and the encounters.) Too much criticism suggests that we must serve art -- a supposedly timeless art removed from the particulars of people immersed in culture and history. And yet the most enduring value of Shakespeare -- the favorite cudgel of literary culture warriors -- is his ongoing service to individual readers, his ability to bring them joy and inspiration, bring them a more vibrant connection to the language we all speak in our own ways, rich grief, and insight into people living very different lives. Why worry so much about any other writing that provides the same?