You Must Be Suffering from Poetry
Poets grow old like everyone else, and often their ideas about poetry grow old too. They come to seem shabby or quaint, old fashioned or even antiquated. Occasionally shabby, quaint, and antiquated approaches to poetry, like Formalism, come back and get re-baptized with a Neo or a New and pass for a while as the opposite of what they are, the old masquerading as something fresh. Yet sometimes truly fresh ideas are promulgated through poems too; they may seem weird, unpoetic, ghastly, even illiterate. Pound’s “Papyrus” surely sounded illiterate in its time. Olson’s “The Kingfishers” must have seemed like a cypher, or at least a poem impossible to scry with the normal tools of the day, post-literate in a way though “postmodern” was the word its composer came up with. And today, as usual, there are young poets writing poems that seem to have little in common with what the established poets of all ages identify as poetry. Allen Ginsberg, and Mina Loy, and T. E. Hulme, and Blake, and Christopher Smart, and many others before him and them did the same. Cicero thought that Catullus was a semiliterate upstart crow.
Patricia Lockwood does not write poems that sound like anyone else, and her second collection, with its odd and neologistic title, will strike many readers as just too weird for words. Lockwood became famous for a prose poem entitled “Rape Joke” (collected in this book) and for a silly Tweet that pulled The Paris Review’s tail—a tail well worth pulling—to which the editors eventually responded with good humor. (It had to do with why The Paris Review had never reviewed Paris, the city. So they did.) In one of her poems, Lockwood refers to “language on my shoulder like / claws of a parrot,” and that admission lies, I think, at the heart of her weirdness and her sometime success. Language gets ahold of her and makes her hurt, so she talks to abate her discomfort, usually about bizarre imaginings, including (and I want to stress that I am not making these up) so-called “tit-pics” of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, pornographic movies made by deer, and so on. She often ignores normal grammar although unexpectedly her lines can fall into discernible metrical patterns, sometimes for long enough that one begins to sense an unanticipated controlling voice behind the surreal and grody thematic material, a voice that seems most of the time to unspool like an improvisation. Here is a passage from the early portion of a poem entitled “Natural Dialogue Grows in the Woods”:
The fresh and slangy
crows, who end every last word with the letter
A. Rats, say the mice in the woods, and What’s
the fuckin difference, Dad? My PawPaw
always says, says the voice inside the fruit tree.
Good ears and great ears and even uncanny
are trembling here in the woods, perked every-
where are ears for speech as it is spoke. Stiffies
of dialogue circle the trees and look for holes
in the conversation, and wait to get Red Riding
Hood as soon as she leaves the wild.
That first observation is rather nice: crows do end every sentence with an “A,” but who ever noticed it in a poem until Lockwood did? Much of what follows, however, seems associative rather than necessary (from rats to mice, from Dad to Paw to fruit tree, etc.). The metaphor around “stiffies of dialogue” strikes me as unconvincing if not a bit silly. The poem goes on to end in a moment more emotional than linguistically goofy, when a couple, after making love in the forest, find their mouths “full / of the air of natural dialogue,” and the question posed (“Can we stay here forever[?]”) is a moving if perennial one. So this poem, like most of the poems in the collection, unnerves one with emotion and annoys one with a kind of post-adolescent logorrhea.
“Rape Joke,” a long prose poem, garnered hundreds of comments when it was first published in the online magazine The Awl. Readers, women largely, found it devastating, shattering, and powerful, and so it is. It evokes Margaret Atwood’s 1977 story “Rape Fantasies” in its use of humor (the rapist has a friend called Peewee, he wears a goatee, etc.) although in the end it was written expressly to reject the very notion that there can be a joke about rape, or that anything about it is at all funny. The speaker spends five years after the rape in a state of craziness, going “down into the sinkhole of thinking about why it happened.” She survives and can even wonder aloud whether by writing a poem entitled “Rape Joke,” she is not “asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.” Patricia Lockwood can relax on that score. As unforgettable as that poem is, and despite her conviction that “metaphors are dangerous,” her talent is undeniable, if sui generis.
Marilyn Chin comes from the generation before Patricia Lockwood (their birthdates are 1955 and 1982 respectively), but the poems in her fourth collection stretch most anyone’s definition of poetry somewhat as well. Chin puts reviewers, especially male reviewers, on notice in a poem called “Cougar Sinonymous” (the misspelling is obviously deliberate in order to invoke “sino-”):
Hell no Dude-bro! You think you own this poetry
I see your lips trembling counting syllables
Cry epiphany long before the penultimate turn
A dry cough and a verse smears the ceiling
Nothing about her formal strategies really tempts one to count syllables. She has some tics: using space for pauses, leading her lines more than the standard measure (I assume this is her choice and not a design decision), and a lot of repetition (one four-line stanza in “Every Woman Is Her Own Chimera” consists of the phrase “A pink horse is not a horse” repeated four times). There is not much concern with line construction or music, and too often making a point is more the impetus for a poem than poetic technique—indignation over inspiration. For example, even a male reviewer can sympathize deeply with the question posed in “Kalifornia (A portrait of the poet wearing a girdle of severed heads)”:
If God is a woman
Why does the world remain
Why indeed? But this is not poetry; it is nothing more than a sentence spread out over four lines in an unthinking fashion. The question has a place in a sociology class but not in a poem, at least not in this bald form; certainly it has no place in a book by a poet who is capable, at the other end of the gamut, of a beautiful tercet like the final lines of “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony,” the last poem in Hard Love Province:
In the land of missing pronouns
Sun is a continuous performance
And we my love are nothing
Chin is indeed at her best in this elegiac or reflective mood; high dudgeon makes her (as indeed it does most poets) less articulate and certainly less concerned for the complexities of poetry. Listening to her bewail the death of “fat” singers (Barry White, Pavarotti, Israel K.) is rather tiresome; listening to her meditate while watching the moon is thrilling, even if I am not quite sure what “his own soft sacks” are:
Last night through the camellia boles
I gazed, transfixed, at the moon—
I know that she is my mother
Staring back from death, a dark matter.
For hours, we were one
With the earth’s static blindness.
She did not envy the living
And I did not mourn the dead.
Tenderly, she lit up my face,
The camellia tree and my lover.
He, asleep on his side, cradling
His own soft sacks.
No one can charge Mary Oliver with blathering at the cutting edge. Her poems gravitate relentlessly toward the natural world; she simply takes the pathetic fallacy for granted as a way of being in the world. Very few pieces in her new book deal with anything else. She listens to the birds, lets the lawn go uncut to foment “leaves of grass,” observes a gull brooding, the “terribly important” clouds, hummingbirds that are “busy, as all things are, with their own lives.” She is rarely anything but dreamy and happy walking through her world, “dazzled at least / ten times a day.” She mentions God, and she alludes to angels, and she appears to believe in both with some hesitation:
The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s
The level of philosophical thought in this passage is minimal, and its expression, to my ear at least, achingly far from poetry’s requisite music and power. Even in her more usual sphere of animals and birds and flowers, Oliver’s aesthetic rarely rises above the flabby unimpressiveness of talking to oneself. When she pushes herself beyond nature’s ardent realm, even there she is given to sentimental imaginings. The title poem, for example, begins with Franz Marc’s depiction of four beautiful blue horses (from a postcard drawing he sent to the poet Else Lasker-Schüler) into which Oliver steps so that she can interact with the animals. She hugs one and allows that she cannot bear the thought of explaining to it “what war is.” To a horse. “I do not know how to thank you,” she says to the artist, and, not really expecting the horses to speak, unsurprisingly “they don’t.” The theme of the poem is that beauty rescues us from the intransigence of the world. It is a lovely theme, but here it is communicated in a welter of anthropomorphism and sentimentality, to such an extent that the reader winds up being puzzled and slightly embarrassed rather than enthralled.
“I’m just chattering,” ends one of the poems in Blue Horses, and it is a characterization that can be made of too many poems in the book. Fuzzy thinking that could be very readily satirized runs rampant. Oliver takes a walk in “Drifting,” describes what she sees, and then, after an unfortunate “anyway”—she might just as well have said, oh what the hell, I really cannot tell you how wonderful my walk was, despite being a poet—she tells us to “think about what it is that music is trying to say” as a way to understand her experience. What music? “Blue Suede Shoes”? Mozart’s Symphony no. 41? Bach’s Mass in B minor? “Lush Life”? I get it that she expects us to think that music is indeterminate and unable to express things, only emotions; but this sort of generalized statement sinks too many of her poems and leaves them haunting a space more usually occupied by diary entries or letters between friends. Poetry can do so much more than that.
Most of the poems in Matthew Zapruder’s new collection could be described as consciousness improvisations. A typical piece will begin prosaically with a simple description, of walking, say (“yesterday at the Oakland zoo / I was walking alone for a moment” or “for months we have been walking / sometimes with earbuds in our ears”), and it will wend its way almost carelessly, usually with little or no punctuation, as though the poem itself is walking and noticing various things along the way. But also typically a point will come when the tenor of the language changes and becomes more heightened. The casualness is dropped and analogy, metaphor, and leaps of meaning take over. The title poem, which is placed first in the collection, is an excellent example. The opening is barren of poetic effect; it could be a label on a cage or a cutline beneath a photograph the poet is sending to a friend:
yesterday at the Oakland zoo
I was walking alone for a moment
past the enclosure holding the sun bear
also known as beruang madu
it looked at me without interest
it has powerful jaws and truly loves honey
it sleeps in a high hammock
its claws look made out of wood
After a little more in this vein, the poem shifts noticeably. The poet thinks about the zoo animals at night and then goes on to speak about “the weather going insane” and how “the animals cannot help us,” moving the piece away from description and toward a meditation on the natural world and love. The ending is typically bleak and typically complicated syntactically:
the problem is
in order to love anything
but an animal you cannot allow
yourself to believe in those things
that are if we don’t stop them
going to destroy us
(Zapruder loves unpointed Germanic-sounding constructions, and this one is mild compared to others, such as “He looks like the dignified / slow moving born / during the last great war / people I passed / that summer in Paris” or “lately we have to the grocery store / been walking” or “the covered / faces of the beneath / their helmet totally / human riot police.” One gets used to this odd way of writing but not so used that it doesn’t always rankle a little.)
The majority of the poems in Sun Bear use a very short line, mostly varying between two and four words; and this, in combination with Zapruder’s characteristic stream of consciousness, tends to produce poems that read too fast in a peculiar way and leave one rather confused. The ending of “Your Story” is typical of this problem:
I had a couch
it was totally red
I gave it to Betsy
her gray cat sleeps
she is in her garden
confusingly most geraniums
they are some other flower
I for one finish this poem thinking, “What was that?” It strays almost unconnectedly from couch to cat to woman to garden to geraniums that are not geraniums to a question to an answer that does not seem remotely like an ending. By contrast, the poem that follows, titled “Poem for Lu Chi,” perhaps because the line length is slightly greater and the poet’s brain is more settled, begins quite beautifully and moves to an equally beautiful conclusion. These are its opening lines:
All day it has wanted to rain.
A constant breeze
from the north where shadows live
in ancient government
among the old huge trees
carries a little scent of wood
into the city.
Zapruder may be translating here—I’m not sure—but in any case the result is more than usually stately for him and, more importantly, slower and more focused outside his head rather than inside it. It is a fine piece, and I wish its style were more predominant in Sun Bear.
Dorothea Lasky’ s Rome is also her fourth collection. Her poems are constructed line by line with very little enjambment, and the pressure of strong emotions, especially the feelings constellating around romantic rejection, keeps the poetry just this side of blowing apart. Perhaps that is why she hews so closely to a line-by-line approach; it is a matter of necessary control. She is unabashed at revealing the entire range of her feelings, from the naive (“my true love”) and the self-satisfied (“Dottie, you are blessed”) on the one hand, to the elegiac (“But to think I will never smell your hair in the rain / Is something I cannot bear”) and even the high erotic (“I want you to eat my menstrual blood / And soft juices”) on the other. She has provocatively chosen as an epigraph for her book two lines from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal.” It seems to me this pair of lines is both appropriate and inappropriate. The poems cogently and profoundly attest to Lasky’s sick heart, without a doubt. But Yeats wrote that poem when he was over sixty years old and feeling (he felt it earlier than most of us) like an old man whose continuing lust needed to be transmogrified into “the artifice of eternity.” I suppose that we are all dying animals at any age, but Lasky is surely being a bit premature in allying herself with the aged male poet who wants surcease from physicality. The poems themselves, no matter how drearily confessional about the ravages of erotic rejection, remain linguistically lively and emotionally punchy. This poet really should definitely reconsider sailing to Byzantium just yet.
Lasky’s language is resolutely demotic. In her improvisation on Catullus’ Carmen 43 (“Never Did Amount to Anything”), Catullus’ opening “Salve” rather charmingly becomes “Hi there,” and a couplet such as “Newsflash: no one cares about time / But you do it like it’s so moral being punctual” certainly continues the assumption of contemporary speech. The ending of the piece is a bit more formal (and has no parallel in the Catullus poem):
If somebody asks me what I like
It’s not food or sex
It’s looking at things and being in love
Not sure what of this you did offer me
Never did amount to anything
So with this
Other poems use the voice of speech to compelling effect. Here is the opening of “Once It’s in the Picture”:
Once climax is in the picture
The desire is over
But baby I desire you over and over
And it never stops
And when I really get going
I really get going
Catullus has nothing to do with this poem, but Catullus—rather than Yeats—seems a more natural tutelary poetic deity in Rome, both because of Lasky’s obsessive writing about the travails of love (requited and unrequited, rejected, phony, unequal, etc.) and in light of her neoteric voice—not especially allusive (as the original Neoterics liked to be), but certainly modern sounding and poetic by virtue of its individuality. The title poem, a work in ten parts, imagines the semi-ruined Colosseum as a theatre in which the poet battles her demons and her lover—a performance space, as it were, for language engaged with the heart. Decisive battles in Roman history are mentioned (Zama, Alesia), and Augustus and Livy are invoked (somewhat mysteriously, since both predate the construction of the Colosseum), as the poet does the strange dance that is love (“a strange dance / I do with myself / But I won’t give it up”). The boy-man who has wounded her meanwhile wanders in “where only a dumb coward” would go, which is to say, into her “empty heart.” “Rome” is a moving conclusion to a book of poems that is rife with hurt, but also sparkles with linguistic virtuosity.