Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fled the heat and into the local imperial outpost of Barnes & Noble, where I drank Starbucks coffee and considered the June issue of Poetry. I did an unscientific survey of last lines, hypothesizing that most of the energy of the poems they choose to publish manifests there:
Linda Gregerson
   — "in heaven to be called upon"
   — "that. The earth this time will have to scrape us off."
(Hers are the only poems in the issue that don't adhere to the left margin. Page as field breaks up the overriding narrative and helps concentrate the energy in the phrases.)

Jill Osier
   — "in the carved spaces of something new."
   — "you wouldn't know it. Would you."
   — "to a lake."
   — "suddenly their bed's a moon, too big and too bright."

Edward Hirsch
   — "is forever singing above the choppy waves."
   — "radiating heat, singing with joy."
(As Eric points out, Hirsch is a prominent spokesman for the "High Church" approach to poetry. But in these poems, at least, "approach" it is all he does, as though a misty celebration of the numinous were enough to conjure it.)

Talvikki Ansel
   — "round legs, arms and trunk."
   — "go back, take some dirt with you."
   — "count the gusts behind snow."

Tom Sleigh
   — "of a smouldering poker and calls the court to order."

Sarah C. Harwell
   — "where I am not, and yet every night I urge her, go."

Mary Karr
   — "a strong bone in the crypt of meat I am."
(Yow! The end of "Revelations in the Key of K" more verbal energy line by line than anything that's preceded it.)

R.S. Gwynn
   — "than the alternative."

John Rybicki
   — "and you are one day less in this hard Eden."

(A general observation: the main difference between the use of persona and the "I" in this kind of poetry and that of the post-avant seems primarily to do with tone and affect. Poetry-poetry strains after dignity, courtliness, and decorum—high church indeed—but too often points at the empty altar rather than summons any spirit into being. There's a sameness here, a restraint. Sometimes post-avant poetry has the sameness of unrestraint [a willed profanity, phrases meeting cute] but there's more spark on any given page of Carve or screen of Can We Have Our Ball Back? than in this issue as a whole.)

Anne-Marie Cusac
   — "quaking in my wetted clothes, know."

Lawrence Joseph
   — "the blues and greens fired by crimson are the sea."
(I rather like this one for the way the clarity of its imagery is backed up by a glimmer of insight into what lies behind such appearances. Or maybe I just appreciate his mention of Gertrude Stein's "Composition as Explanation.")

John Skoyles
   — "and the fish, and the hook, and the wound."
   — "and you and you."
(A break from the decorous, at least in content: the second poem, "Uncle Dugan," evokes the hardscrabble streets of an old-time New York in neat little quatrains. Somehow the exception that proves the rule, the necessary other to the other poems' dignity, but no less smug.)

Teresa Leo
   — "He did not have an eye for ghosts."

Martha McFerren
   — "Knosses with the roof off. Newgrange. Malta."
(A marvelous assemblage of nouns at the end of an otherwise modest anecdote.)

Kathleen Halme III
   — "that is my brain and me."
(This poem, "The Other Bank of the River," is staged as an apology for the personal [the closing lines: "Again, I apologize / for the three pound storm / that is my brain and me." Shouldn't the editors have put a hyphen in "three pound"?] and an attack on what she construes to be the smugness of the poetry of underdetermined referents [recalling Eric's invocation of Bourdieu]: "I'll be impersonal as dust, the lord / protector of less, as self-indulgent as an egg.")

Samuel Menashe
   — "In the storm's eye"
   — "Wake up late"
   — "The only one"
(The gnomic simplicity of Menashe's poems reminds me of William Bronk; these three last lines make kind of a nice poem in themselves.)
Probably this proves nothing without the accompanying text of each poem, but I do think the weight of pivot can be felt in many of these lines. Certainly years ago when I was modeling my own poetry on what I could find in Poetry I internalized the lesson that a poem ought to end with some kind of twist or punchline.

On to Peter Campion's piece. "Grasshoppers: A Notebook" (oddly missing from the online table of contents) includes an attack on blogs—he can scarcely bring himself to type the word. Yet it is itself rather bloglike, albeit polished to a high gleam of decorousness that can lead to some ludicrous sentences, as when he writes regarding poetry's relationship to solitude: "That feeling of sublime aloneness might have arisen in response to a historical truth, but it will remain palpable when the best poems of today are read in the lunar condominiums of the future." (A deeply conservative sentiment ensuring the separation of "feeling," not just poetry, from "historical truth.") The difference between "Grasshoppers" and a blog is the medium: Campion attacks bloggers for the narcissistic recording of attempts to breach the wall of publication—and there's some justice to this, as I think the recent debate with Jordan shows—yet his attack is presented within the pages of the best-endowed literary magazine on Earth. The result comes off as an unseemly attack on the have-nots by a have.

Later in the essay Campion calls for more narrative in poetry, or a blending of narrative with lyric— what amounts to a call for "experience" that is to some degree answered by the following essay, Christina Pugh's "No Experience Necessary". I have much more sympathy with Pugh's position, which requires "experience" to be transformed into "occasion," the "means to stir" a reader—and the possibilities of occasion ("be they empirical, imaginative, aleatory, linguistic, discursive...") incorporate and supplement the restrictive meaning often given to "experience." In his attack on bloggers Campion asks rhetorically, "Could these writers really have such little felt experience outside of 'the poetry world'?" That question only reinforces the separation between "the poetry world" and the implied "real" of "felt experience"—as if it were impossible for one to incorporate the other. It's fascinating to see a call for poets to engage more closely with "felt experience" that simultaneous demands the repression of a considerable swath of that experience.

The piece ends with an implicitly anti-intellectual gesture of abjection, in which Campion, summoning up Plato's banishment of the poets, writes, "I'm willing to bear the philosopher's contempt" and happily accepts Plato's fable in the Phaedrus which imagines poets as impractical grasshoppers, forgetful of all practical matters. "What sheer exultance to be a grasshopper, king among bugs!" I find this to be the most craven possible assertion of the autonomy of art, which, like Poetry itself, studiously restricts the energy of reason and excess alike. It's no surprise that in D.H. Tracy's review of Susan Wheeler's Ledger the sentence, "The book is very difficult" is intended as condemnation. Tracy's "Ten Takes" are a breathtaking array of sanctimonious priggery in which the highest praise is reserved for the admittedly "slight cloying facility" of narrative in Glynn Maxwell's >The Sugar Mile and for the modesty of Joshua Mehigan's achievement in his first book, The Optimist (Tracy writes that it "is by some margin the best book in this roundup. It's not innovative, but what it does it does well and very consistently."). Poets are attacked for their lack of ambition, but any moment of excess (of the signifier, of emotion, of thought) is ruthlessly criticized. Disjunction is ipso facto bad, "unmotivated," incoherent. In reviewing Thomas Sayers Ellis' The Maverick Room, Tracy quotes from Ellis' wholesale indictment of "white poetry," a poem with the self-explanatory title "All Their Stanzas Look Alike." (I heard Ellis read this poem at the PSA Festival last March.) Ellis' poem opens up a site of racial difference that leads Tracy to claim that far from being homogenous, "white poetry is heterogenous to the extent of losing communication with itself." I suppose heterogeneity within some larger communicative boundary might be Tracy's ideal, but mostly I hear another attack on excess and on difference itself. Incidentally, it goes without saying that all the books under review are published by university presses or the larger independents (Graywolf, Copper Canyon).

The letters section mostly follows the implied editorial line—one letter, responding to the use of postmodern theory criticized in a vicious take-down of Reginald Shepherd's fine Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, smugly dismisses all academic intellectual inquiry as fashionable theory-chasing. I was pleased to read R.A. Stewart's letter, however, which attacks the albatross of modesty that hangs from Poetry's neck and calls for us to "reclaim our conviction, our passion, our intensity, even if it takes a leap of fatih to do so" in the face of the tyranny of our "rulers" and "tera-corporations." Of course this kind of poetry—if poetry is indeed the place to look for this decidedly political "intensity"—is everywhere today. The editors of Poetry simply aren't interested.

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