Tuesday, October 21, 2008


An unhealthy obsession with political blogs, plus keeping up with three classes and spending time with my family, has left poetry (and this blog) in the dust. This worries me a little. It's not that I think the world thirsts for my opinions, but rather that the blog has been my primary means of engaging with poetry for so very long. And if neglecting the blog had somehow led to my writing or reading more poetry that would be an acceptable bargain, but it hasn't. Instead the only poetry I read is the poetry I teach: very good stuff (Whitman this week and Dickinson next week in my nineteenth-century class; Ginsberg this week and Gwendolyn Brooks next week in my modern poetry class), but by no means new to me. Which doesn't mean I won't make discoveries reading Song of Myself for the umpteenth time, but my role as a teacher does tend to confine me to reading for the clearest through-line that I can offer my students, as opposed to getting caught up in eccentric eddies as I would be if reading for my own pleasure and advancement.

On the other hand, engaging in the contemporary for the contemporary's sake may be the most rapid path to irrelevance. Getting the news from poems doesn't mean reading the latest poems as though they were the newspaper (or Juan Cole or Talking Points Memo). Having for a while been most engaged by the poetry of news, or the pomo poetry of poets striking tragical-comical-pastoral poses amid the potpourri of capitalism, I now feel my inclination drifting toward a more Romantic stance. Which leaves plenty of room for political engagement and critique, but doesn't depend on a shielded persona, either. The contemporary poets who've been my most steadfast mental companions are those who—I hate to resort to workshop-speak, but it seems inevitable—stake themselves in and on their poems. Julianna Spahr, Lisa Jarnot, Jennifer Moxley, Claudia Rankine, Lisa Robertson, Alice Notley. It's not too much to say that these women are some of my heroes for writing smart, thorny, sometimes luxurious and sometimes threadbare verse in which I feel the presence of a living person who situates her whole mind and body in a world I recognize anew through her vision. They bare their injuries to the reader, but not to feed her prurience a la the Confessional poets; they're simply unwilling to play the fundamentally adolescent game summed up in the warning phrase, "Be cool."

It's strangely difficult to think of contemporary male poets who do this, whose work isn't suborned in some way by the need to shield their egos. (Heterosexual male poets, I should say: I would classify the work of my friend Brian Teare, for example, with that of the women neo-Romantics I've mentioned.) Older poets come to mind, Allen Grossman chief among them, but not those of my own generation or younger. Because of that I've come to prefer those male poets who are very far from cool—whose vulnerability is made transparent by their self-aggrandizement—a mode I associate with the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Ted Berrigan. But it's hard to write that stuff without veering off into camp, which is another defense, another version of "the cool." Gabe Gudding comes very close to what I have in mind. So does Dan Bouchard, and my other great poetry friend, Richard Greenfield.

This is all very personal: I've never been cool, and now that I'm a father I feel warmer than ever, repelled by even the mildly ironic carapaces of the professoriate I'm now a part of. And the temptation of being accepted as "one of the cool kids"—a running buddy of the Flarfists or post-Language poets or any clique you'd care to name—has lost much of its hold over my imagination. Which is not to say I reject the possibilities of the group or wish to retreat to some naive atomized model of the lone poet. Most of the poets I've mentioned have been part of some group or other at one time in their careers—we all need comrades. It's more that I want to take up the other strands of relationship in my life and have those networks be of at least as much importance in my work as other poets and writers. The point of writing for me, always, is to put an end to isolation.

That also means ending the isolation of the body. I want to get closer to the physical in my writing, both in terms of sound and image, and in terms of content. The body in poetry seems either to lyricize into the ether or else present the sick plummet into matter and mortality. There has to be another way simply to breathe and move and touch in poetry. Maybe I should try rhyming again.

In between, for now.

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