Monday, February 24, 2003

Woke up this morning thinking about how bad the poetry I used to love is, and wondering about how I came to have such a different perspective on it. I used to think that this was a good poem:

Near Klamath

We stand around the burning oil drum
and we warm ourselves, our hands
and faces, in its pure lapping heat.

We raise steaming cups of coffee
to our lips and we drink it
with both hands. But we are salmon

fishermen. And now we stamp our feet
on the dnow and rocks and move upstream,
slowly, full of love, toward the still pools.

Can't you just hear Garrison Keillor's reverent baritone caressing every inch of this banality? What makes it even worse is that the poem is by Raymond Carver, who I think even the most hidebound pipe-smoking literary types agree makes a much more convincing short story writer than he makes a poet. I cringe with embarrassment when I remember the one creative writing class I taught at the University of Montana in 1998, where I presented this in all seriousness to my students as a "good poem." Yeesh. I mean, the line breaks don't even make any sense—my fingers hesitated before hitting the enter key after "hands," and the break "salmon / fishermen," which I once found affecting, now seems merely comic. It would be a much better poem if "we" really did turn out to be salmon, holding big masculine mugs of coffee between our fins. The kicker, of course, is "full of love," which I admired at the time for creating a punchline ending (I thought all good poems had epiphanic punchlines) which retroactively revises the meaning of the poem just as T.S. Eliot imagined "The Waste Land" to have retroactively revised the meaning of all preceding English poetry. I suppose it's a genuine effect, but one produced by megalomania. Of course it's sentimental as hell. I suppose I looked to crap poems like this (and marginally better poems of the same ilk by James Wright, Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, etc.—though these last have also written poems much better than anything Carver produced) for some sense of masculine authenticity—this is the Brando-esque club of poets forced into macho postures because they know in their hearts that poetry is an effete practice. This "authenticity" is really just the flimsiest, most transparent possible kind of sentimentality—the kind of display of feeling exceeding any proper objective correlative (thanks, Tom! that's two today) which most men reserve for football games.

I suppose what happened is I got a little smarter and decided that poetry wasn't effete if it took on the hard, metallic sheen of linguistic surfaces. And then I got a little smarter still, as well as a little braver, and decided that poetry probably was and always had been effete, and I didn't much care. Probably what was most important were the teachers who came breezing through the Montana English department (which was otherwise pretty much dedicated to the fly-fishing aesthetic) who gave me examples of poetry not written by crankily sentimental Northwestern white men to read. Mark Levine will always have my affection for coming to workshop one day with a clenched forehead, pacing up and down in front of us for what seemed like several minutes, and then burst out with, "Have any of you guys read Walter Benjamin? You MUST read Walter Benjamin!" Another time he read Allen Grossman's "Poland of Death" to us. 'Annah Sobelman came to teach one semester and forced me to buy amazing books, most of them by women: Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters, Brenda Hillman's Loose Sugar, Jane Miller's August Zero, and a few others I can't remember. (She also made us by a book by Tess Gallagher, Moon Crossing Bridge—I didn't like it as much but the fact that she had been Raymond Carver's wife perhaps made her an appropriate springboard to more interesting poetries.) And Mary Jo Bang raised my awareness of Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, the Black Mountain School, etc. See: an MFA is good for something.

Yikes, look at the time.

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