Almost anyone can achieve a sort of excess

I confess: I’ve completely stopped reading the New York Times. I’ve moved from the daily read (while I lived in New York) to the Sunday read to the occasionally glance to nothing. The trend started while working on the Dean Campaign – I realized that the NY Time’s coverage was pedantic at best and desiring to obscure the truth at worst. As I was coming to the conclusion that the New York Times cares very little about what’s actually happening the world, I was growing more and more engrossed in blogs. These days I assume that if the House Organ of the Establishment has anything valuable to say, I’ll read about it on the blogs.

This morning, Chris Massey sent me a link to a New York Times Book Review piece on poet’s personal favorites“What book of poetry, published in the last 25 years, has meant the most to you personally — the book you have found yourself returning to again and again?

Personally, I tread a thin line between believing that there is a qualitative excellence that poetry must work towards and a post-modern acceptance that there are different aesthetics, that people have their own tastes and preferences. On the one hand, I deplore things like choosing the “best” poetry of the year – personal taste is so essential to poetry, how could you chose the best? On the other hand, so much poetry is absolutely lousy that I’m desperate for aspirations to excellence.

Regardless, the way they framed the question – what poetry have you returned to again and again? – seems to find the right middle balance between excellence and diversity, and so I settle in to enjoy what follows. Only I don’t. In fact, it makes me down right cranky. Ashbury chooses Tate after a bit of intro where he mentions Kooser, Wright, Simic – okay, I can handle that. I’ve got mixed feelings about Ashbury, who everyone says is so great and yet I’ve yet to discern a glimmer of any real passion in his work. (Maybe I’m reading the wrong poems – would someone correct me if that’s the case?). I downright enjoy Kooser, Wright and Simic’s work. James Tate I’ve only read isolated poems here and there, and generally I’ve liked them. But exactly the line Ashbury uses to raise Tate up is one that seriously irks me – an epigraph from Wallace Stevens, ”Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”

Give me a break. I guess I’m more of a William Carlos Williams fellow — you know, no ideas but in things. I’m more than willing to suspend my rationality for some mysticism or wonder – but “the the” isn’t it. That said, the Tate poems that Ashbury quotes seem pretty good, and I resolve somewhat crankily to read The Reckoner by James Tate, as recommended by Ashbury.

Now we’re on to Jorie Graham. Another poet I don’t like. I don’t care for her poetry for the opposite reason I don’t care for Ashbury’s – her poetry doesn’t seem considered enough for me. Most of her poems have smelled to me of carelessness without the real work of distilling the world into poetic language. Again, maybe I’m wrong. I haven’t been a student of Jorie Graham’s work – but what I have read makes me despair for the state of poetry. She recommends Denis Johnson, someone I’ve never heard of – which I like. Obscurity can mean that it’s really excellent, outside the watered-down main stream. But her description immediately lets the wind out of my sails – both for its awkward construction and for the sense of what it’s trying to offer. She describes his voice as “a sound I have come to think of as one of the most distinctively American sounds — the easiest to fake or betray, the hardest to make endure — the sound of a sorrow that is inseparable from terminal anger…” and closes with this:

The Vietnam-era poet of ”The Incognito Lounge” spoke for a people who knew when they were being betrayed and lied to. You have to be able to tell you are being lied to, to be this angry. In exploring to what use such anger can be put, Johnson reminds us that when anger is a useful tool, it is because one watches the speaker turn the blame inward as well as out.

Great: American poetry as sorrowful anger. More pity, rage, and sadness – over Vietnam, no less! In the immortal words of Aerosmith, Get Over It. What’s happened to poetry? Where is the wonder, the deep and abiding sense of the spiritual, the mythical intensity of passion?

Jim Harrison offers something much more on my wavelength. He’s my sort of man, grounded, close to the earth, obsessed with food, women, and his hunting dogs (and hunting gods…): as H.G. Wells said, the “primary and elemental necessities” of life. Harrison’s opening paragraph gets to what I feel is the real question that’s being asked – what poetry sustains you?

Now that I am older and am sliding into home base, I’ve become aware that I’ve read some poetry nearly every day for the past 50 years for basically nutritional reasons. It is a survival tactic, this soul food, a need to assuage the sense of incomprehension that I have lived with daily since I was a desperate and vulnerable boy. Just last week on a French book tour when I felt like a stray dog struck by a car and biting at its wounds in a ditch I stopped into a bookstore to fortify myself with a few pages of Rimbaud and Rene Char.

This is how I feel about poetry – that it is soul food, that I cannot live without it. When I’m traveling (which is a lot lately), I always bring some poems with me. I make it a point to stop in any bookstore I pass and seek out a poem. It’s sustenance, survival, manna. And that’s what most rubbed me wrong about what Ashbury and Graham wrote – they approached it too much as an academic exercise, not a monastic one. Surely they have poems or poets that they return to for strength, for encouragement, for a daily sense of what life is really about – but no, instead we get Ashbury talking about how he returns to Tate for a sense of the “possibilities of poetry”, making poetry sound like a grim professional undertaking that requires regular audits and we get Graham lecturing on the healing possibilities of anger and self-pity.

Robert Pinsky follows Harrison with something that feels tame by comparison. His claim that James McMichael is “treasured by poets, but not much noticed by academic or journalistic fashion” certainly raised my eyebrows – this is exactly the sort of poetry I was hoping to be revealed by this exercise. I’ll have to explore the claim and let you know. Generally, I find Pinsky’s poems to range the gamut from deeply sustaining to decent. One of his poems, Samurai Song, I memorized because of it’s intensity and ability to provide strength in a dark hour. Perhaps a bit machismo, but I prefer to think of it as contemplative.

Mary Karr I cannot comment on, for I know neither her work and I’m only slightly acquainted with Zbigniew Herbet’s work. But lines like “Herbert poems are slapstick for intellectuals and philosophy for the ill educated” raise my hackles and provoke some of my worst instincts. On the other hand, she says Herbet “advances local experience to mythic scale” and ends with “In a time of great terror and prevarication, this voice can heal us.” Okay, I’ll give it a try – but I’m suspicious that a voice that is “slapstick for intellectuals and philosophy for the ill educated” can also “heal us”.

James Fenton (whose work I do not know) hits the mark with his mention of Thom Gunn. I think Fenton’s on to something: Gunn’s poems can indeed be food for survival, soulful even – perhaps because of their proximity to death and Gunn’s peeling away to the bone in an intense desire to be real, to be true, to be authentic. Sapphire follows Fenton and chooses Lucille Clifton. I once heard Clifton read at the Library of Congress (with Eamon Grennan) and found her poetry to be sustaining – but I’m not sure Sapphire has chosen the poetry to make her case. I’m headed back to no ideas but in things but I know we don’t have to go down that road again, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Harold Bloom brings the whole thing full circle and seems to directly single me out and chastise me for earlier comments about Ashbury. But at the end of the day, I still don’t buy it. I generally like Bloom’s criticism, but with lines about Ashbury like “Which is to say that Ashbery, unlike Wordsworth, cannot labor to keep his eye steadily upon the object, because every object now belongs to anteriority, and not to us,” I just can’t handle it any more. You’re telling me that Ashbury, who you’re calling “our major poet since the death of Wallace Stevens”, can’t focus on objects in his immediate vision because they aren’t apart of his world anymore? It’s completely circular, and ultimately belies what drives my dislike of Ashbury: his extreme self-centered, self-obsessed style. Moreover, Bloom’s critique exposes what seems like the worst sort of poetic cope-out – that ultimately we don’t really understand Ashbury, so we should stay out of his way and revere him as great. Bloom himself notes he has never “mastered” Ashbury and finds him “maddening”. I agree – but that’s not because there is enormous greatness here (as Bloom says with his obligatory comparison of Ashbury to Whitman). It’s because there isn’t anything very good or very real here (and the two — good and real — are ultimately related).

I’m on the same page with Bloom that we’re looking for poems that are ”inexhaustible to meditation.” I just think it’s absurd to think that Ashbury belongs in these ranks, unless you’re self-obsessed and absurdly interested in abstract academic discussions of poetry.

The whole thing ends with Sharon Olds citing Stanley Kunitz, Yosef Kumunyaka and Debroah Digges. All is well and good here – these are all fine poets whom I admire, but I’m so worked up about the Bloom-Ashbury love fest at the cost of poetry that I can’t enjoy the closing entry.

Overall, I left the article unsatisfied, cranky, and even a little angry. There is the larger shape of my aesthetic – which is undoubtedly more in the vein of William Carlos Williams and a less abstract poetry. I heavily (but not exclusively) value a more traditional rhyme, rhythm, and meter in poetry – something that feels absent from many of these assessments. Of course, I’m miffed at the absence of some of my favorite poets like Philip Levine, Eamon Grennan, C.K. Williams, and Tom Andrews. For the last six years, I’ve turned almost every day to poems by Levine or Grennan. I even find myself returning to Billy Collins, for his contemplative consideration of the every day.

But there are two other things at work here – one is what kind of poetry feeds you. The other is the overall state of modern poetry. The editors specifically asked for poems written in the last 25 years – recent poetry. I just can’t help but feel that most of these people missed the point – what poetry sustains you was the question, not what poetry do you enjoy or do you want to show off. What volume of poetry induces panic at the thought of losing it forever? What poetry is that urgent to your life? I’m unconvinced by the answers most of these poets and critics offered. Is it possible they don’t know what that means? That they don’t know what the primary and elemental necessities of life are about? That might explain the shape of modern poetry, and how a lot of it seems completely useless to me, removed from the things that matter. And it would explalin why so many people seem to have such limited use for poetry these days — it is not necessary or sustaining. What do I mean? Time for H.G. Wells:

But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbor’s eye, there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, we find ourselves by accident. Always before these times the bulk of the people did not overeat themselves, because they couldn’t, whether they wanted to or not, and all but a very few were kept “fit” by unavoidable exercise and personal danger. Now, if only he pitch his standard low enough and keep free from pride, almost anyone can achieve a sort of excess. You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor pionately stirred your highest moment a mere sentimental , and our first real contact with primary and elemental necessities the sweat of your deathbed.

3 Responses to “Almost anyone can achieve a sort of excess”

  1. Nick Says:

    Interesting that none of these poets go further back than their contemporaries. Myself, no professional poet, I keep returning to the later poems of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, John Donne and a grab bag of other English and Amrican poetry, not too much of it contemporary. There is one Amy Clampitt book I really like, “A Silence Opens,” and Wendell Berry’s “Sabbaths” and much of Seamus Heaney. Adrienne Rich. So I guess I am an old fogey more or less. No mention of these people by the poets in this symposium. Hmmm.

  2. anne Says:

    Glad to see that Tom Andrews now makes your lists of favorites. The Collected I lent you is making its mark! And joy, I got my copy of Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle back from E., so I’m no longer without the good man myself.

    I have a friend with a Jorie Graham thing — I’m more sympathetic to her than to Ashbery. He spoke here a couple years, and I went to determine whether my perplexity at his popularity would withstand a personal encounter. (It did.)

    Also, three exlamation points to Pinsky and his Samurai Song! one! two! three! HOT. Thanks for drawing that one to the surface.

  3. silbatron Says:

    wonkish and beautiful. the NYT needs to read and publish this.

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