I wanted to write a poem that you would understand For what good is it to me if you can’t understand it? But you got to try hard
—William Carlos Williams
Even before T. S. Eliot said that for poetry to be adequate to the dislocations of modernity it must be difficult, most people had already decided it was too difficult, too intimidating, too strange for them. And 80 years later, the fact is that, except for a tiny percentage of Americans, poetry survives only as Kiplingesque, inspirational verse in the occasional Ann Landers column and, of course, in manipulative greeting cards, pop songs, and advertisements. In other words, poetry as it is known and privileged in this quarterly review barely appears on the American radar screen, Bill Moyers’ PBS specials notwithstanding. With few exceptions—the works of Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver spring first to mind—poetry is just too inaccessible, too damned difficult.
Does it have to be this way? Does poetry have to be so resolutely bent on “wringing lilies from the acorn,” in Pound’s phrase, that it leaves behind, for example, that group of people, many millions strong, who were trained in the liberal arts in colleges and who might well pay attention to poetry if they had a reasonable hope that it would speak directly to them, offer them a pleasing freshness and intensity of language, and move them emotionally even as it jujitsued them into insights they could “get”?
Many contemporary poets, and most contemporary theorists, would respond that if one’s idea is to “get it” then one is not “getting it.” Poetry should elude closure, embrace discontinuity, celebrate polyvalence. For them, the idea of catering to the illusive ideal of a “common reader” who has a need to “get it” is just another capitulation to the capitalist desire to own everything, high culture included. It is to escape this grasp that a large and increasing percentage of poets have embraced marginalization and are writing what Charles Bernstein, a prominent Language poet, has recently referred to as “local” poetry. For Bernstein, “local” means not “regional,” as in “Buffalo, New York” but poetry that is written for those persons (and he is reconciled to the fact that there are not many) who know how to break a particular code. Shareholders of Bernstein’s code are avant-garde literary theorists and politically radical literati. Bernstein writes amusing, challenging, disruptive poetry. Visit his famous web site and you will see that he employs a skyscraperean intellectual apparatus to contextualize his discontinuous verbal play. Bernstein’s “Buffalo” poetry, and in a different and less radically stochastic way, the work of Jorie Graham and her followers at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, appeal to young, intellectually hip poets who accept “the death of the author” as a truism, and who applaud the demise of the hegemonic bourgeois mythology of self. They even write poetry that seems to prove such deaths and such demises. Paul Hoover’s omnibus Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology is a good place to begin a survey of the field.
One prominent figure in that field is Leslie Scalapino. Among other things, her work explores how our culture leaves us metaphysically shorn, subjectively fragmented, isolated, loveless. It evokes our sunderedness by fractured narrative and unconventional syntax. Here’s a not-unrepresentative passage, which appeared recently in American Poetry Review, from her forthcoming New Time:
Although we cannot tell from this passage or the surrounding text who “the pair” and “the corpse” are, this is not entirely incomprehensible. We may agree that “people don’t listen” and that a powerful argument can be made that our social beings are “inner.” But it’s hard to know whether this text is theorizing poetry or poem-izing contemporary theories of subjectivity. In any case, it is too baldly intellectual. It is Waste Land angst turned so academic as to make Eliot look like W.C.Williams. In previous work, Scalapino has shown a penchant for arresting images, and even for narrative, albeit stretched on the rack, but here she has arrived, at least temporarily, at almost pure abstractions. The problem is that images contain precisions beyond the reach of intellect. And without them, there’s no irreducible “yin” to counterbalance the “yang” of theory.
people don’t listen
(the corpse on the pair)
Distraction on the horizontal plain
but he doesn’t want to listen
but not listening to it.
the adamant social being
reestablishing its separation
don’t reestablish its separation, to listen
And therein lies a difference between Scalapino and the audacious Mary Ruefle, a poet who—in the present taxonomy, which ranges from the abtruse to the plainspoken—straddles the border between poems that are trackable and those that aren’t. Her Cold Pluto,(Carnegie Mellon, 1996) often stops making sense, or at least operates by oblique and sometimes opaque association. But at least when it does so, there’s a delightful, mercurial, mixture of will and whimsy in image before it dekes right, and pirouettes out of reach or steps in and slaps you with an impossible demand: “Put down your book,” she says, in the middle of a stream of marvelous, if discontinuous, pronouncements, “Look at me when I talk to you.”
Chary of confession, sparing with autobiographical detail, Ruefle in Cold Pluto writes lyrical poetry that stays afloat above the riptides of intense emotion by virtue of fierce concentration on strong images. In an uncharacteristically short poem, “Peeling the Orange,” we get a look at the richness of her analogical or figurative imagination in service, perhaps of an ars poetica, perhaps of a love poem:
Whatever may be its thematic implications, however resistant it may be to our attempts to “get it,” there’s pleasure enough here in the freshness of expression. The orange’s skin becomes a “pile of hides.” The consequence of peeling is a burst of citric mist, “an aerosol attempt / at speaking,” followed by an “aeropause.” Whatever else it might suggest, this aerosol image is one way of describing how meaning escapes her orangey verses: not in a linear arrow, but as a tart yet impalpable mist. Or yet again as “seeds” that may require some time to take root, but result in new oranges, more marriages of yellow and red.
Pile of hides. Strips & scraps of flannel. The burning oil. The industry of identity! The sound of the sacs being pulled apart by the torque’s pressure. A burst of mist, an aerosol attempt at speaking. A whiff of the raw by-product. An aeropause. An invasion of seed. A horde of information decoded by two spies, yellow, red, secretly married.
“Peeling the Orange” is not an easy poem because it refuses to fix its theme. But it is simple compared to, say, “Cold Pluto.” Or rather, “Cold Pluto” is relatively simple, too, to a person like me, but only after I have done an abject apprenticeship in incomprehension, such as Stevens requires of us before he lets us into his attic zendo where all the signs make sense. The poem begins with two heterogeneous images yoked by violence together:
It is clear enough that the poet has just been ambushed by an uninvited resemblance. But what of it? How are we to view this heterogeneous yoke? Later, after being bit by a mosquito, the poet wishes out loud that she were free of the “King of Collisions,” a figure who then dominates the rest of the poem: “What I would give to see him dangling./ Despised. Out of power./ No one wants to live like this.” This poem makes little sense unless we can surmise who the King is. One possible answer is that the King is Jesus, who has already been mentioned at the beginning of the poem. Jesus certainly collided with the world. But nowhere else in the poem or the book does Ruefle express hostility (let Him dangle) toward Jesus or even organized religion; in fact, there is an undercurrent of heterodox mysticism that suffuses Ruefle’s sumptuous austerity. So the “King of Collisions” has got to be someone or something else. One other possibility is that the King is the faculty of mind that constantly takes note of, and is distracted by, fortuitous juxtapositions. Thus, the poet, temporarily oppressed by her eye for resemblance, yearns to be free of superfluous associations: “To live without him, to be dim, / to live under the incomparable spell of impossibly cold / Pluto. Aloof & severe.” In this reading, the poem becomes an update of an “Ode to Melancholy,” or “The World is Too Much With Us,” wherein the poet, beset by a surfeit of associations, dreams of a “Cold Pluto” where things in themselves float free of what Stevens calls “the evasions of as.” But, as the conclusion indicates, such a bare world is uninhabitable. Just one look at cold Pluto and she is reminded, by its hue, of “the green glazed tiles / of a distant Chinese roof.” And so the dance continues. The question is for readers like myself, who feel a need to thematize or “get it”: can we keep step, can we marry such a mercurial imagination?
The moon tonight—
those milky & sliding tears on the face of Christ
that hung in my grandmother’s bedroom!
The purple wardrobe of his open heart!
My grandma & Crashaw, centuries apart, collide tonight
in a lunar spell.
While Ruefle feels the lure of astringent and even ascetic removals, her book is not most aptly titled. It is much more about celebrating the dance of particulars. It is much more a “Merengue,” which is, to me, the signature poem in the volume. The first three lines are a frame, a shock, and a hook:
I’m sorry to say it, but fucking
is nothing. To the gods, we look
like dogs. Still, they watch.
What follows is, presumably, what the gods see, put as a series of inquiries, which might be tender or imperious, depending on how one construes the godhead:
Did you lose your wallet?
Did you rip up the photo?
Did you pick up the baby
and kiss its forehead?
Did you drive into a deer?
In all, 27 questions occur, each poignant in its evanescence, but overwhelming unless we understand what principle links them. We glance at them like faces in a passing train.”Did you do the merengue?” flies by, giving its name to the poem, letting us see it as a dance. And just before the end, the stakes go way up. Instead of asking us about happenstance, the poet queries, “Have you been born?” Ah, this must be what the poem is all about! Are we truly alive, conscious of our life as it is constituted and given specific gravity by events, collisions, juicy particulars? In the last three lines, I hear a generous but ferocious, almost Marianne Moore-ish challenge:
What book will you be reading when you die?
If it’s a good one, you won’t finish it.
If it’s a bad one, what a shame.
Finally, Ruefle’s poems are about living one’s life with great intensity, with interrogative adamancy; they challenge us more or less literate readers, drowsed by the fume of poppies, to wake up before we’re beheaded.
Another poet, many of whose poems can be understood if we try really hard, is Dean Young. In Strike Anywhere (University of Colorado, 1996), the processes of association are even wilder than in Ruefle’s work, but unlike Ruefle, Young is more inclined to enter the poem at some point, not wearing his coat of many colors, to let us know what is the underlying motive for his current spate of tropes.
Sometimes the title is the key, as for example, in the first poem, “Upon Hearing of My Friend’s Marriage Breaking Up, I Envision Attack From Outer Space.” Like Frank O’Hara, to whom he owes a great debt, Young’s poetry is never more alive than when it wrestles with despair.
Even in September noon, the ground hog
casts his divining shadow: summer will never
end and when it does it will never come
I’ve only the shadows of doubts, shadows
of a notion. The leaves turn in tarnished
rain like milk. Hearts, rotund with longing,
explode like dead horses left in a creek.
Here Young begins with a dark meditation on things passing; the melancholy is thick, but one way he negotiates it is to push gloominess to point of zanily Gothic absurdity: hearts exploding like dead horses. The news of his friends’ divorce provokes in the speaker a bout of pathetic fallacy, expressed in a survey of life in the neighborhood. The speaker imagines aliens asking us to stop broadcasting so much garbage. But we don’t hear their requests because “Bill next door [is] / blending his Singapore Slings during Wheel of Fortune” while someone else is running his lawn mower in the bedroom. Except for this lampooning of our cultural noisiness, the speaker allows himself no consolation until the final lines where he imagines a bit of solace:
I like a decent chair where you can sit
and order a beer, be smiled at while you wait
for a friend who just had his sutures removed,
who rolls a quarter across his knuckles
to get them working again.
There may be something too theatrical about this alienated tableau, but in some ways, this is Young’s project, poetry as rehabilitation after a serious wound. It’s about looking suffering in the eyes, and then seeking the solace provided by humor, by feats of association, and by lyrical beauty. The lyricism comes in unexpected bursts, as in “Frottage” where “daylight fidgets / across the frothy waves” and the “wolfs mouth is full / of strawberries, [and] the morning’s a phantom / hum of glories.”
The humor and the feats of association can be seen at work together in the poem “While Tony Hoagland Reads at The Poetry Society of America.” The speaker frets compassionately about his somewhat bedraggled non-highbrow friend who he knows is reading at the august Poetry Society. At the same time he frets, this being a post-modern world, the speaker also listens to the band King Crimson as he boils “something chthonic / off the bottom of my good pot.” It begins:
I am not worried much. The music is very
loud. Two inches of snow killed everything
outside but there is still some blooming
inside, the last of my cosmos drizzling
their yellow pollen uselessly upon my desk.
Is the speaker not too worried because he trusts his friend will survive the reading or because he is playing music so loud that it washes out the space needed for his heart to open into full concern? The speaker ricochets back and forth between boiling his pot imagining Hoagland moving through the crowd, and listening to a battle with nothingness as manifest in the orchestration of King Crimson’s “Law of Maximum Distress, Part One.” We never find out about the fate of Hoagland, but we do discover that King Crimson’s song, at the point of its maximum distress, almost fades out of being, but rises on the strength of a violin and mellotron to a resolution that provokes wild appreciation among the hippies who heard the concert at the Zurich Volkshan in 1973.The contrast between the Volkshan and the Poetry Society is comic more at the expense of the Society and, thus, is altogether characteristic of the blue jeans emphasis in Young’s work.
Perhaps the most poignant of the poems in Strike Anywhere is “White Crane” which finds the poet overloaded with thoughts of mortality. The refrain of the poem is “I don’t want to know any more about death.” Why he doesn’t want to know remains a mystery until the end. Initially, all we know is that he is pained by his neighbor’s chemical warfare against Japanese beetles: “You can almost watch them writhe and wither, / pale and fall like party napkins / blown from a table just as light fades.” As he imagines the napkins blowing off into the long grass, he thinks of Basho, alone, in the mountains, carrying everything he owns on his back. This image of crossing a threshold alone finds its echo in the conclusion where we find out why the world is too much with the speaker:
I wonder what your thoughts were, Father,
after they took your glasses and teeth,
all of us bunched around like clouds
knocked loose of their moorings,
the white bird lying over you,
its beak down your throat.
Rain, heartbeats of rain.
This is an extraordinary image, the white crane, the image of eternity, turned devourer. But just as extraordinary is the final line, “Rain, heartbeats of rain,” which modulates the violence, deflects it into a precariously maintained natural rhythm.
Dean Young is now enjoying considerable popular currency among other poets for his hip, poker-faced feats of comic association, and rightly so. But the compassion in the poems is, finally, the most attractive thing about them, and also the surest route into their heart for a reader intimidated by the wildness of Young’s associative leaps.
We turn to the poetry of Joan Aleshire not for wild associations or explorations of linguistic polyvalence. As near as possible, Aleshire in her luminous, tough, and tender third book, The Yellow Transparents(Four Way Books, 1997), wants language to be transparent, wants to bring the reader with her through narratives that are straightforward in construction though rich in implication. Most of all, in Aleshire, it’s the voice that rings through, rich in all the virtues which urban, intellectual post-modernism can no longer believe: sincerity, authenticity, humility, vulnerability, fidelity to the lessons of personal history. The feeling of the book is rural and, indeed, many of the poems have rural subjects and natural imagery. But not all of them. The poems are occasionally urban, surprisingly political, and, despite the extraordinary degree of tenderness and personal suffering they reveal, never less than resilient.
“Door to Door” illustrates the primary strategy Aleshire employs in her political explorations—the weighing of the personal and the political in the same scales. The speaker recalls her involvement in a romantic relationship that was dying even as she worked door-to-door for a peace candidate in a doomed campaign. In Aleshire’s poem, the speaker describes canvassing in a ghetto. In the midst of squalor they would find warm welcomes, invitations to come in and sit underneath the portraits of “Jesus, the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King.” In return, the speaker promised, through voting, a miracle equal any of Jesus: “the vote that would change the street / to lawn, shotgun flats to whole houses, neighbors / living hard against one another to friends./ And the rats, with nothing to gnaw on, gone.”
When the relationship ends, and the election is lost, she describes the morning-after landscape: “The streets were dirtier even than before, with all the handbills torn / and blowing, winter clamping on, no saviors / other than ourselves rising from anywhere.” This is as unsentimental a view of continuance in the face of defeat as one could imagine and is one example of how Aleshire earns her tone of sincerity, her reportage of authenticity.
One of the most consistent themes in The Yellow Transparents is the tension between “the old hope of transformation,” born partly out of the pain of physical disability, and an acceptance of things as they are. It is not that Aleshire’s poems recommend meek adjustments, but they do proffer an almost Buddhistic letting go of desires that will only lead to destructive suflering.”Windfalls in Snow” illustrates this with touching clarity. In order to see deer enter her neglected orchard, the speaker waits up late, but in vain. Instead, in daylight “a young doe steps from the screen / of trees, from her unseen life.” As the deer sniffs out the windfall apples, the snow blurs the “already shaggy pines, blurring fur,” creating an idyll that is disrupted by the speaker’s awareness that the deer must be desperate to come out in daylight. Her impulse to provide the deer with nourishment is canceled by her recognition that any food she’d leave out would attract dogs who would, in turn, attack the doe. So she lets go of her desire to transform the situation, and she does so again in an interestingly parallel situation provoked by an old lover’s phone call:
What is it draws me
from shelter? As if nothing ends,
nothing is let go, you call
after years, teasing as always, cajoling:
Will I drive the snowy road to meet you?
Whereas in the past, she would have made the drive, courted the intrigue, now she lets “thickening snow” dissuade her.”Have I grown old, and un- / adventurous?” she asks herself.”Or is there something else / to love: snowfall and the deer under it, / nose tunnelling after windfalls.”
Perhaps the most ambitious poem in the volume is “Toward Guatemala,” a poem in eight sections that explores a mother’s anxieties about her daughter’s safety while living in Guatemala and caught up in political struggle. Each of the sections explores some frightening peril, real or dreamed, that involves the speaker’s daughter. Each section is prefaced and followed by statements from two texts, one an oral history of the Guatemalan resistance and the other a revolutionary text. The affirmations of those ready to die in the struggle for freedom provide a stark contrast to an American mother’s worries:
I began to take strength from the deaths instead of pain. . . (Everardo)
We go on as before, you say, but no one
wants to answer the phone: a joke
for the tapper, as much as us. Go on,
but I don’t want to know how the soldiers
stopped the bus, pushed the driver aside—
guns evident by then. How they knew
which he was: the unionist
you’d been with
hours before. How they took his film
and shot him. . . .
Give us a steady light, a level place,
a good light, a good place,
a good life and beginning.
The journal-like language here is not distinguished, but the juxtaposition of the other, heroic, true-believer discourses gives her worries an ironic context in which to resonate.
In an interesting conclusion, the speaker’s daughter returns, temporarily it seems, and tells her mother that she loves Guatemala and that her mother needs to let go, which provokes in the mother a recognition that her nightmares of people being tortured and drowned were not so much about her daughter as about herself. In the end, the different voices in the poem—worried meditation, rapt political affirmation, dreams—create a texture that lets us experience, not the truth about politics in Guatemala, but what it feels like for some of those involved in it. That is what poetry is best at helping us understand: feeling. In a challenging but finally very clear poem Aleshire puts conscience into a telling dialectic with fear.
The last, clearest, and most plainspoken poet to be considered here, albeit briefly, is the late Jane Kenyon. Her selected poems, Otherwise, do not need another full review. One of only two books of poetry recommended for summer reading in The New York Times Book Review, it has already received more attention than any other poetry this year. The essence of Jane Kenyon is that she was interested in essence, and she got better and better at seeing it in plain things, even got more courageously simple in expressing it. There is an intense contrast between the convulsive braininess of the Language poets and Kenyon’s almost Eastern reliance on silence and quiet suggestiveness. Put next to Kenyon, Language poetry seems ludicrously, almost insanely, over-intellectualized. Undoubtedly, I understand only very imperfectly the project of Language poetry. Otherwise, I might not be tempted to say Jane Kenyon’s one poem “Otherwise” will serve to quicken and encourage and humanize more people for a longer time than all the output of all the Language poets now and forever. Here it is hard to imagine that any literate human being would require a meta-textual loading ramp to get aboard:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
it might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with painting
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.