Poems

Yesterday was a day of unexpected poetry for me. I studied the stuff in college and wrote a book-length honors manuscript of poetry that mostly I choose these days not to think much about. I’ve been pretty disillusioned about poetry for a while, after years of reading contemporary poetry in magazines and finding it to be unsatisfying as a reader. Every once in a while, a bit of poetry pokes back into my life, though.

Last night, it was at the market — our local food cooperative, which I suppose isn’t quite the same as your typical Bi-Lo or Kroger. It’s staffed by people who strike me as hippies and hipsters and the odd grad student, perhaps one or two libertarians. They’re generally friendly in a way that seems more genuine than the dead-eyed “how are you today” I’m accustomed to receiving from the high school kid checking me out when I use one of the bigger grocery stores. (And little wonder, since the staff at the co-op are offered health benefits, a retirement plan, holidays, and I imagine something resembling a living wage vs. getting the stink-eye as they punch in for hours approaching full-time that would require the payment of such benefits. So to be clear, it’s not my intention to generalize about people who work at chain grocery stores but more to make an observation about the apparent quality of life and attendant cheerfulness of people who work at the co-op and how, you know, being a good employee is good for the world.)

Ahem. So, I was picking up a few things from the market and heard a cashier telling a customer about a persimmon poem. The customer was buying a persimmon and didn’t really know what to do with it, and the cashier reported that the poem offered some instructions. This made me think of a neat poem by Henry Taylor that explains how to eat an artichoke. I mentioned the poem to the cashier as I walked by, and since it wasn’t a busy night, he went hunting for it while I shopped. I picked up my little basketful of things and thought also of a poem about sweetbreads by Robert Wrigley, which I misremembered as having the line “neither sweet nor breads.” It turns out that I was wrong, and it’s an Ogden Nash poem that has a similar line. The Wrigley poem is a good one (one of many good ones; although I don’t often read poetry these days, I can usually dip into Wrigley and find something I’m glad to have read). By the time I returned to the front of the store to check out, the cashier had found the Taylor poem and I mentioned the sweetbreads poem too, and we had a nice little exchange about reading.

When I got home, I discovered my wife looking for a poem for a lesson plan she’s writing. So I went to the bookshelf and reached behind all the delicious fiction to the poetry I keep stacked in a second row behind the main attraction to pull out a few volumes. We looked at some Robert Morgan, some Michael Chitwood, some Wrigley, some Andrew Hudgins, and it was nice to revisit some of the dog-eared pages. I thought also of the old Auden poem that appeared so touchingly in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and that reminded me in turn of Conrad Aiken’s lovely “Music I Heard.”

It was nice to spend a few minutes dipping back into some familiar poems.

Joyce Carol Oates’s Frost

The November edition of Harper’s included a story by Joye Carol Oates entitled “Lovely, Dark, Deep” that has had many in a bit of an uproar. If you’ve retained much of what you read in high school or college English, you’ll recognize the story title as a borrowing from a line of Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

The story grips you right away, bringing you in as a voyeur as you join an interviewer who comes across the venerated man himself asleep and in disarray, and very human (which is hard to imagine of the famous). Frost bloviates and insults the female interviewer, even makes sexual innuendoes. He says predictable, rehearsed things he’s said in a thousand interviews, shows no little degree of hubris, and winds up showing himself to be ruthless and un-self-aware.

Toward the end of the story, the first-person narrator, whose boldness has grown during the story to the point that she ultimately begins needling Frost aggressively, turns into a third-person narrator. By the very end, she has disappeared altogether, leaving Frost stumbling around the yard jabbering to himself about demons until he falls and is collected by others on the grounds of Breadloaf who find him there. Notably, he has by this time begun expressing some self-doubt; he’s not a changed man by any stretch of the imagination, and he continues to puff himself up a bit as well, but there is at least a sense of rue, an acknowledgment perhaps of fallibility that has so far been missing.

The story, offered as the fiction it clearly is but citing some controversial biographical work on Frost as source material, is about as far from a love song to Frost as you can get.

And of course many have jumped on Oates for writing the thing and on Harper’s for publishing it. I’ll confess that my own feelings when reading the piece ranged from a sort of voyeuristic and probably vulturish curiosity (maybe the author had had such an experience herself and had some dirt to dish on old Uncle Poet!) to indignation at his behavior, which seemed possibly at least partly based on facts, to pity. I’m not sure what to make of the story. I don’t think it’s strictly a revenge piece. If it were, why endow Frost with any humanity at all rather than making him a monster pretty much all the way through the piece? And why would Harper’s publish a revenge piece (unless it’s Lapham writing about a Republican or something)? But what to make of it?

For the moment, I’m giving Oates the benefit of the doubt. Consider the shift in point of view and the disappearance of the narrator by the end (I’m not left with the impression that she walked away so much as that she faded out of the story — that is to say that she didn’t in fact exist to begin with). Consider the fact that the story opens with Frost asleep and ends with him raving on the lawn, perhaps still waking from a tormented sleep. For me, the story works pretty well as a plumbing of the old subconscious. When alone with our thoughts, we think and give mental (if not physical) voice to things we would never say aloud. We may puff ourselves up a bit about our accomplishments or linger on dirty jokes or less than flattering or chaste thoughts. Sometimes we’ll think about our failings. As often as not, we’ll start with puffery and end in doubt and despair.

So maybe it makes sense to think of the story as a portrayal of a great and probably misunderstood man grappling in a troubled sleep toward the end of his life with his successes and his regrets, with how they fit together. It’s a topic worth writing about, however controversial it may be when presented in a way that’s reasonably interpreted as a sort of defamation. But maybe that’s part of the point too. Even the greatest among us, and so on.

Anthologies

One of my former professors (my mentor, really) has published an essay entitled “Anthologizing” in Epoch that’s being featured at poems.com. Some of the material I had heard before in class and discussions with him, but it’s as always a lovely piece of prose. If you’re into anthologies or poems or writing, you might enjoy the essay. His essay collection The Napkin Manuscripts is full of great stuff as well if you like prose about writing.

I’m sort of down on poetry lately, but McFee also has a bunch of collections of poetry, and though I suppose I’m biased, I have a soft spot for his work. There’s plenty to appreciate in each of his collections.

Pinhole Poetry

When I was in college, I read poetry with great interest because I was interested in writing poetry. It all started, of course, with the composition of terrible sad poems when I was in high school, but as I read more and wrote more, I grew more interested in poetry as an art rather than just as a way of sharing how I felt about things. I went on to get a minor in poetry writing and was considered, I suppose, among my peers and teachers to be not altogether lacking talent (though not the voice of my age either).

When in college, I read all sorts of poetry, Romantics, Victorians, Modernists, mid-century folks, and contemporary poets. I went to poetry readings any time I could. I curled up in the periodicals section in the library with the latest poems of the day. I picked random slim volumes from the poetry shelves and fairly well immersed myself. And in my writing, I emulated those I liked — Wordsworth early on, somewhat comically, and William Carlos Williams, occasionally Creeley. I wrote in conventional poetic forms as often as not but was also interested in turning convention on its head, probably more as a gesture of a sort of bratty defiance than as anything terribly meaningful or original.

After college, I wrote much less. I continued to read poetry for years, though. I kept a subscription to Poetry magazine, let it lapse, and then renewed it. I was less tapped into contemporary poetry, but there was a handful of people whose work I kept an eye open for (I’ll still go out of my way to read Atsuro Riley). A couple of years ago, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse again. I found that, more and more, I enjoyed the prose sections of the magazine but found the poetry opaque, trivial, irrelevant to me, above me, or, maybe, sometimes, just bad. There were better magazines to read for good prose content.

In the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, Mark Edmundson writes an essay entitled “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse” that eloquently captures some of what has led me away from poetry in recent years. Of course he also says plenty of things I hadn’t really thought of.

There’s a danger of seeming simply to be a malcontent in articles like Edmundson’s. Someone is always saying that the world has gone to pot along one axis of interest or another. The critics of 200 years ago had plenty to say about the poetry of their day. Still, Edmundson does an admirable job of describing some of the things that sapped my interest in poetry, so for me, his essay registers as more than the ranting of a malcontent.

For example, in describing how the most respected poets of today often write blandly and circumspectly, he says the following:

Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.

Edmundson’s central complaint seems to be that poets write on a small scale. No more do we have poets writing about the human condition from the perspective of a universal “we.” Instead, they navel gaze, sometimes make attempts at writing in the vatic voice without much of discernible substance to say. He goes on:

When contemporary poets do write at length, with what appears to be large-scale designs, they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion: witness Paul Muldoon’s “Madoc: A Mystery” and [Jorie] Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field,” two poems by talented poets that, for this reader at least, fail to make repeated reading worthwhile. “Madoc” is about Wordsworth and Coleridge and their poetic collaboration: I have studied and taught these poets all my adult life and still have barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.

And (of a selection from Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field”):

The lines are portentous without touching on any fundamental truth of human experience. Who wouldn’t like to write as if he or she held the key to the universe? But at a certain point the key must fit a groove and turn.

Edmundson warns that one of the dangers of writing either unmoving or opaque poems is that doing so shuts out the common reader (as happened with me). But he also warns that it gives too much power to critics. For Edmundson, this is a problem not because he desires to strip the critics of power but because the poets are leaving the job half done. Although this may seem like a sort of old-fashioned criticism, I’ve read enough poems and stories in which I felt that the author had hung me out to dry by making me wonder what interpretation to arrive at or how even to begin formulating one that it seems apt.

I’ve never had a great relish for long or grand poems, so Edmundson’s arguments about the function of the poet and the need for poets who’ll write on grand topics of humanity bear only so much weight for me. I have no quarrel with his arguments, but I’m not more likely to sit through a long poem that does what he pines for than I am a poem today that doesn’t.

What he does say very well that describes why I essentially gave up on poetry goes as follows:

What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. One might call it — after the poet who is, however indirectly, behind much current work, Wordsworth — a spot of time. Suddenly, through luck or grace, application or inertia, the poet sees into the life of things — or more likely into the life of his own being. Yet this moment of illumination need not contribute to any coherent whole. American poets now usually do not seek to weave a comprehensive vision… Now the poem is a pinhole in the massing darkness, not part of any grand illumination in the making… The poet writes the fragment that is given him to write; the idea of chronicling all experience, or all experience that matters, is entirely foreign.

I’m happy enough to read a poem that does a nice job evoking one of those pinhole moments, but ultimately these works feel lightweight and unimportant to me. I also enjoy looking at the pictures my children draw for me, but they seldom provoke thought or, on their own merits, stick with me as significant works of art. So, for all that I’m not terribly interested in reading contemporary epic-length poems that take on the human condition, I also have trouble taking pinhole poems very seriously, especially when I have to pick them out from among the poems made awful by opacity, in-jokes, and so on.

Edmundson writes a bit about poetry in the academy and a bit about fairly recent folk like Yeats, Eliot, and Ginsberg, who didn’t always get it right but who at least took strong positions rather than hedging and who wrote big.

For all his complaints, Edmundson’s not wholly down in the dumps, though:

I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom. Many of our poets are capable of work that matters. There’s a lot of talent in the room. But we need them to use it and to take some chances. We need their help.

I don’t know how much I agree that we need the poets’ help. We’re not a society much inclined to poetry, which maybe is why poetry now isn’t much inclined to take on the problems of our society. If you’re shouting into the wind, you may as well shout things for yourself. I’m not at all convinced that a poetry of the sort Edmundson craves would work today. The audience for it would be so very limited, would be the audience that’s already considering the universal “we” in one way or another. Still, I found much of Edmundson’s article convincing. I admire his passion, and I appreciate that he wrote a piece that articulated better than I’ve ever articulated it for myself some of the things that’ve turned me away from poetry (both reading and writing — for it’s not as if I ever wrote more than pinhole poetry myself). It’s worth a read if you’re a reader or writer of literature or criticism.

Ozymandias


I had cause today to look up the poem “Ozymandias” and happened to land on its Wikipedia page. I’ve so far resisted the urge to tag along on the meme that has people snapping screen captures of article titles nestled below donation appeals that feature the head shots of Wikipedia contributors, as if the titles are captions for the head shots and not for the articles themselves. But this I could not resist, since the poem and the notion that Wikipedia might not survive without contributions seemed funny companions, and putting a face with the once-mighty king’s name made me giggle.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!