Late Registration: A Response to Some New Poems
On the morning I began this essay, September 18, 2007, there was an article in the New York Times about a meeting of the new Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Staten Island, where there is a large population of Liberian refugees. The article focused on the statements of a woman in her twenties who, as a young child, saw members of her family killed and raped in front of her in a village massacre during the civil war. She now works as a home health aide in New York, and has a child, and this is the first time in many years that she has spoken of these events out loud, events now entered into the public record.
It seems to me that in the face of such an account—the kind of thing we read or hear every day—an imaginative writer one can adopt one of three positions, or, perhaps more accurately, coping strategies. One is to say, this is terrible, this is shameful, but it has nothing to do with my work; my first obligation is to my [poem, story, novel, screenplay] and whatever extra energy I have left over ought to be dedicated to political change, charity work, and so on. Two is to say, my writing, my contribution to literature, is, in some small way, directed toward the betterment of humankind. Three is to say, my writing doesn’t necessarily contribute anything to humankind, but at least it engages with the same kinds of issues, the same themes, I see before me in this article; it is analogous, in some way related.
All of these strategies have deep philosophical and historical roots, too complex, and perhaps too obvious, to go into here. Something I’ve noticed about much contemporary American poetry—not all of it, not even the majority, but a certain very visible and influential subset, including several of the poems in this folio—is not that it adopts one of these positions in regard to the world, but that it takes no position at all. The question of suffering never seems to register—not through reference, not through avoidance, not through analogy.
Why use suffering, why use pain, as a yardstick, as a tool for evaluating the worth of a poem? To many readers this must seem deeply unfair and beside the point, and, judging from most discussions of poetry, it is. I invoke it as an outsider because to me it seems the most obvious and immediate way of talking about a much larger absence, a broader and more amorphous species of lack, that many poets today see not as a problem but as a point of pride, a step forward, or at least a significant and welcome change. Consider the statement of purpose put forward by Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis in the introduction to their recent anthology, Legitimate Dangers:
Neither of us feels that a poem needs to hold the reader’s hand or be “about” something, especially about a specific event, thought, or experience. We believe that if you start a poem with a certain aim in mind and do nothing other than satisfy that aim…you haven’t really written a poem…We feel that opacity and accessibility are relative terms: what is opaque to one reader may emotionally resonate with another.
The core of these editors’ interest is not subject matter but “aboutness” itself, whether a poem has to mean anything at all and what happens when it tries not to. Like some of their compatriots in music, drama, and the visual arts, they are arguing, or perhaps better to say still arguing, for poetry as a non-referential, non-representational form, governed by species of order other than, as they say, “event, thought, or experience.” This is an obvious explanation for why we don’t find many poems in Legitimate Dangers that refer to, say, hilltop mining in Appalachia, or the Armenian genocide, or heroin addiction, or childbirth, or divorce: if poems aren’t supposed to be “about” something, they certainly shouldn’t try to be about something so susceptible to pathos, melodrama, or cliché.
The exciting aspect of this development in poetry, to me at least, is that it has freed up, literally cut loose, unmoored, the English language, and encouraged a kind of antic irresponsibility and glorious exultation in chaos. (I remember once, a few years ago, mentioning James Tates’s “Fuck the Astronauts” to a young poet over dinner and him immediately reciting, almost singing, its climactic last lines:
red on red the prisoner
confesses his waltz
through the corkscrew lightning
nevermind the lightning
in your teeth let’s waltz
I am the hashish pinball machine
that rapes a piano.)
It has also brought about a kind of satirical energy that cuts through the tendentious sincerity of much autobiographical, “confessional” poetry. It reminds us not to take art entirely seriously or endow it with powers or virtues that don’t belong to it. It accords pop culture a place in poetry, more or less for the first time. As the poet and critic Stephen Burt wrote in an essay (“Close Calls With Nonsense”) several years ago, this new poetry demands a different approach, even a different philosophy of reading:
Enjoy double meanings; don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common—do they stand for one another, or for the same thing? Are they opposites, irreconcilable alternatives?...Look for self-descriptive or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes. Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool.
On the other hand, even Burt admits that he misses “the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions” of previous generations of poets. I would go one step further and say that I sometimes feel, when encountering this new work, that I’m being asked to read with one eye, or with one side of my brain unwired. It’s as if I’m being asked, in some important way, not to care, not to agree or identify too closely with anything the poem says or suggests. (More on the implications of the word “care” later).
As an illustration from this folio, consider “Theory of Escape from the Old Country”:
When I raise my voice it lowers my eyes.
Bowling is a sport by default. Niles will not make a rest stop
until 500 kilometers! How tall, the rain in these parts.
Grandfather, grandfather, screamed Heidi.
Numismatics is the science of flung metal.
When I raise my hand it hurts the crops. While we dream,
the horses make plans. Something of the art
of our country was killed in that sledding accident.
We are very good at lens craft, nevertheless.
How shallow the wind in this valley. We shall go to the library,
then later a film. You must sit still, and laugh for health.
However, the idea that nothing exists.
This is a poem that proceeds as a series of non sequitirs, each line refusing to prepare us for the next. The “I” in this case, is in not a persona, a “second self”; likewise the “we” and “you” are distributed almost like thumbtacks, gestures toward a line of argumentative reasoning that never develops. What does develop is an agglomeration of images of “the old country,” described in mock-portentous detail: “how tall, the rain in these parts”; “while we dream, the horses make plans.” But the poem gives us no images in the old-fashioned sense: nothing we can apply our five senses to, nothing we can identify with viscerally. The nouns remain nouns, the adjectives adjectives (“how shallow the wind in this valley”). Does it work? Yes, absolutely it does. This poet has a masterful way with sentences and lovingly placed caesuras; he, or she, creates a tour de force pastiche of nostalgia and the romanticized past, a kind of rejection of the very language we use to describe ethnic or national origins. The poem even provides its own tagline, caption, or soundbite: “However, the idea that nothing exists.” Which is not even constructed as a sentence, so that it carries out its own refusal to belong.
A well-known younger poet once described her work to me as “vatic,” which means (and yes, I had to look it up) prophetic, divinatory, or resembling prophecy or oracular speech. As I see it, this represents a parallel strategy for avoiding conventional structures of meaning and reference, most famously practiced in very high fashion by Jorie Graham. There are at least two poems in this folio (I would also provisionally include “Orchis”) that fall into this category; and they both have a kind of hallucinatory power, a certain hyper-baroque attention to detail, and an elaborate vocabulary that is impressive, but also, at times, somewhat forbidding:
Gargarism of common Mallows, try
this Clyster, strong as you can handle.
Let a Boy piss on your favorite shirt
& Wear it. Better, find a group of Boys.
Try it: This, some claim, Elixirs past all
others. A therapeuta now addresses Thee,
starving one. There were errata that you
followed, the various fastings. Once we
learned from midwives about the ergot,
but have long since forgotten. Try this
gargle. Try this Poultis. Long as You can
Stand. (“Angel of Bethesda I”)
The glass waist of this whist-day
is prised in a vise of oaks, bloodied
glimpse of paradise lost to us,
thank God, else we’d be forced
to destroy it. (“This Is Not A Bill”)
It seems to me that one element connecting these poems is a rejection of a conventional view of the human subject, the speaking “I.” (Or, at least, the “I” as associated in any way with the author or a fictional character). This rejection may at one time have been rooted in a movement against confessional poetry and the autobiographical impulse, but it has now moved into much deeper theoretical territory, so that today the onus at least some younger poets feel is to represent no recognizable human subjectivity at all, to exemplify in their poems what Roland Barthes called the free play of the semiotic codes, without any unifying or mediating individual consciousness at work.
What can one say about this project, this impulse, that hasn’t been said before? As a Buddhist I feel much kinship with its philosophical precepts, but reading some of these poems I wonder if they are pursuing indeterminacy, or obliquity, or eccentricity, as a defensive posture against the risk of of shallowness or obviousness, melodrama or cliché. It may be, as Stephen Burt suggests, that a movement has already begun against this kind of reflexive or defensive self-deconstructing—a movement, as I heard it described recently, toward “post-ironic” poetry. I’m not attuned enough to the current poetry scene to see this happening on any large scale, but it seems to me an inevitable, and important, development.
The good news about this folio, in my book, is that it contains a significant number of poems that may already be heading in that direction—using the strategies I’ve described above to interesting, even surprising, effect, without refusing conventional modes of meaning altogether. One is the languid ode “Luxury Appointments,” which begins by scattering handsome objects down the page, as if trickling through the poet’s fingers:
But to whom, or what, is the poem addressed? A “voluminous book,” with stripes, with strings? Or some actual other, some lover in the flesh?
I’m not able to say, but I love the way this poem seduces the reader with verbal wit and sly rhymes before making a frank declaration: “I’m not afraid of love/ this morning./ I’m only afraid/ of losing you.”
I wish I had time and room to address three other poems that draw on other American models, and that deserve long and full readings (“Mortal Combat,” “A Night at High Spur,” and “Swarm.”). I also wish I had more time to express my admiration for “Spiritus Mundi,” a melancholy autobiographical—and yes, openly confessional—self-portrait of an Indian poet in midlife, having traveled across the subcontinent and settled in an East Coast city:
Now 45, my hair gone sparse,
I’m a poet of small buildings:
the brownstone, the townhouse, the cold water
walkup, the tenement of two or three floors.
I cherish the short ones still standing.
But the last poem I want to focus on is, I think, the most extraordinary example of early twenty-first century style—dense, opaque, declamatory, skeptical, mercurial—in search of an important argument. This is “Johann Sebastian Summoned to the Royal Court”:
And then to find ourselves again
as we’d once been in morning sunlight
ages ago before the second visitation,
when terror waned, disease retreated,
when all of poverty forgave the rich,
and every universal garden flourished
in all its blooms together, all birdlings
sang amalgams of single melodies to
infinitely variable musics – this was,
it seemed to us, the dream of paradise
[what if illusion, ah, pitiless illusion!]
It’s true that at times the poem seems charged with the kind of imagery that seems to have no purpose other than to make the line of meaning more difficult to track— “To go back to our long white houses, / furthest away from this white palace, / the wicker furniture, also all white”—but at its core is both a lament for the poet’s dream of unstained, worldless Art and a seething indictment of our current situation:
which kept us deaf to any summons,
before the ruling classes lost their minds,
their properties; before we served only
bureaucracies as spare-time artists, mere
intellectuals, performing elephants and
Consider the poem’s structure: a single column of lines compacted as tightly as a stack of playing cards, so methodically enjambed that it threatens to become prose over and over again, and tilting like the leaning tower of Pisa. Speaking fancifully, we might say that this suggests the entire poetic enterprise, the “po-biz,” at this moment in time: top-heavy, too cerebral by half, perpetually in danger of collapse, yet never actually collapsing. Not that the danger isn’t real: anyone who has ever applied for a teaching job, or filled out the paperwork for a writing fellowship, could be forgiven for muttering, like a mantra, “before we served only bureaucracies as spare-time artists, mere intellectuals, performing elephants and fleas.” This is a poem crackling with verbal energy and ideas, a poem that doesn’t evade argument but manages to avoid seeming didactic—I haven’t seen anything like it in a long time.
I’d like to return for a moment, in closing, to the argument about poetry and suffering with which I began this essay. Referring to the question of suffering as a kind of criteria or evaluative tool for poetry, as I said, may seem very strange to a contemporary reader, but there is one context in which it is actually rather obvious: namely, Heidegger’s treatment of poetry in Being and Time (and throughout his later career) as a “disclosing of existence,” and in particular as a “deposition,” a demonstration, of his concept of care (Sorge). For Heidegger, of course, “care” doesn’t mean putting a band-aid on a skinned knee; it doesn’t refer to suffering as such, but rather responding to the appeal of Being itself. In his introduction to Poetry, Language, Thought, Albert Hofstader, Heidegger’s translator, summarizes it this way:
…this means to exist as a human being in an authentic relationship as mortal to other mortals, to earth and sky, to divinities present or absent, to things and plants and animals; it means, to let each of these be—to let it presence in openness, in the full appropriateness of its nature.
Later philosophers, particularly Emmanuel Levinas, recast this sense of “responding to an appeal” in more specifically ethical terms; Levinas bases his ethics on the response to the appeal of the face of the Other, the human subject whose existence is irreconcilable with our own. But for the purposes of this argument, I would like to stay for a moment with Heidegger’s original sense of care as a kind of engagement with the world-as-it-is, with the world that calls out to us—for example, when we read the newspaper. This may seem like a rather pedantic and old-fashioned way of putting it, but I suppose what I’m really wishing for in the future is that more of our attention will be drawn to poets with subject matter, who embrace “aboutness,” informed by our contemporary suspicion of referential and conventional language but not overwhelmed or cowed by it. There was a certain joy in the sheer refusal and rejection of meaning, perhaps back in the early eighties, or the early twenties, for that matter; but that’s over now. On, I say, I hope, to the subtler, trickier joys of recognition and affirmation.