Close Calls with Nonsense
Invited to offer a “defense of poetry,” Randall Jarrell complained fifty years ago that poetry doesn’t need to be defended, it needs to be read. Since then, fewer and fewer Americans (at least in proportional terms) have read it. When successful young poets compare themselves to their friends who haven’t yet published a book, they may feel lucky; when they compare themselves to Allegra Goodman or Jonathan Safran Foer or Zadie Smith or—but pick your own Best New Novelist—even the most-celebrated serious young poets can find it hard to know they exist.
This essay will not, exactly, tackle that problem; it will, instead, tackle one of its sources, by helping you, O Reader, enjoy those young poets’ books. The poets I know don’t want to be famous people half so much as they want their best poems read; I want to help you find and read them. I write here for people who want to read more new poetry but somehow never get around to it; for people who enjoy Seamus Heaney or Elizabeth Bishop and want to know what next; for people who enjoy John Ashbery or Anne Carson but aren’t sure why; and, especially, for people who read the half-column poems in glossy magazines and ask, “Is that all there is?”
INACCURATE HISTORY LESSON (PART ONE)
Most of the new North American poets I’ve liked lately share a surface difficulty; they tease or demand or frustrate; they’re hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories. These poets agree in their tastes, but not in first principles, and they come from all over. Many hold degrees from prestigious graduate writing programs (Iowa, Columbia, Brown); some don’t. Some publish with self-consciously small, “underground,” presses (Edge, Flood, Roof, subpress), some with well-established independents (Alice James, Coffee House, Graywolf, Hanging Loose), some with university presses (Arizona, Iowa, Wesleyan), and some with the hoary New York trades. Some live in Brooklyn, some in Chicago, at least one in Seldovia, Alaska; many migrate annually, going where the (academic) jobs are. Descriptions of poets in terms of schools or regions or deepest beliefs have rarely been less useful than they are now.
Literary history, however, has rarely been more so. There is a story behind the evasive oddity of much contemporary poetry, a story that begins forty years ago; it’s oversimplified, sometimes inaccurate, and unfair to some older poets it includes—but it’s a story many young poets believe, and it might help you see what they try to do. I can’t emphasize enough that I’m describing literary history as most young poets now learn to see it; a really responsible thumbnail sketch of sixties and seventies poetry would (for instance) spend an entire paragraph on A. R. Ammons, a deeply original and deeply likable poet who died in 2001, and who has next to no influence on what’s being written today.
Despite the achievements of very famous modernists (T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams), by the mid-1950s most American poetry seemed predictable, passé; its elaborate stanzas reflected the safety of professors’ lives. (Kenneth Koch epitomized and parodied their output in one line: “This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer.”) Rebels in San Francisco, in New York City, and in North Carolina translated poetry from French and Spanish, wrote tiny songlike poems or enormous ambitious ones rather than midsize controlled formal work, and published in obscure magazines they ran themselves (like Cid Corman’s Origin) rather than in well-established ones tied to academia. Some of these more adventurous poets, like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, hung out with abstract painters; others, like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, hung out with, or were, the Beats. In 1959, Robert Lowell, once deemed an academic formalist, published Life Studies, whose poems (and prose) described in painful, self-inculpating detail Lowell’s eventful life. Its broken, apparently rambling forms looked shockingly new (they were) and easy to imitate (they weren’t, though many so-called “confessional poets” tried).
The next year—1960—brought the War of the Anthologies. Donald Hall and Robert Pack’s New Poets of England and America (1957) had already presented the formal verse of the 1950s as practiced by a then-new generation—Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, James Merrill, the young Adrienne Rich. Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) publicized the so-called rebels, Ginsberg, O’Hara, and Snyder among them. Allen grouped his New Americans by style or region: the New York Poets (Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara), the Black Mountain Poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats. The next decade generated more schools and styles, which spun apart from one another as their exponents matured. Few of these schools acquired stable names; they included urbane mandarins (such as Merrill and Hollander); terse, tormented spiritual questers (such as W. S. Merwin and James Wright); the cultural nationalists of the Black Arts movement (such as Amiri Baraka, or the later Gwendolyn Brooks); and heroically ambitious poets who tied their new, accessible styles to the antiwar and feminist movements (most of all, Adrienne Rich).
By 1975, Ashbery, Rich, and Merrill had won major prizes. Many young people learned to write their own poems by imitating one of the three; others were imitating Lowell’s “confessionalism” or Elizabeth Bishop’s emotional reserve. Increasingly, they were doing so in college courses, as creative-writing programs proliferated. These programs encouraged a realistic, accessible, personal sort of verse: students wrote poems other students could understand, and they wrote what they knew—their own lives. Outside the classroom, American feminism and African-American cultural politics encouraged similar trends: successful anthologies carried names like Naked Poetry (1969) and No More Masks! (1973).
Writers who preferred their poems less “naked,” and more challenging, formed their own magazines, reading series, small presses and social circles. The best-known such circle now gets called “the Language Poets,” after the mimeographed magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E that Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews ran from 1978 to 1981. While its poems and poets differed considerably, all avoided the easy epiphanies, the focus on personality and emotions, and the storytelling that (in their view) made so much sixties poetry (especially protest poetry) complicit with the social order it hoped to oppose. Some of these poets’ academic champions liked that argument (others just liked very difficult poems). Many more critics liked the friendlier, less aggressive difficulties in Ashbery, whose Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and Houseboat Days (1977) established his continuing prominence.
INACCURATE HISTORY LESSON (PART TWO)
Ashbery won prizes, and poetry critics admired him, but ordinary American readers did not buy his books: in fact, as the 1970s became the 1980s, ordinary American readers, the ones who kept the literary novel afloat, seemed to buy less and less poetry of any sort. Not only did sales decline; newsweeklies and book reviews assigned fewer column inches to poetry than they had ten or twenty years before. Even the university seemed to lose interest, as European theorists (Foucault or Derrida) replaced modern poets (Lowell or Stevens or Eliot) at the center of many English departments, and “creative writers” established their own academic fiefdoms.
Could poets regain their lost audiences by making their work more traditional, or easier to understand? The so-called New Formalists of the 1980s, led by Dana Gioia, thought so. Because they wanted to conserve old ways of writing, New Formalists were frequently assumed to be politically conservative; some were. (Gioia himself now heads the National Endowment for the Arts.) Whatever the New Formalists’ success as artists, they clearly failed to restore poetry’s popularity. By the late eighties, contemporary verse seemed at home only in the academy, where most well-funded journals and programs promoted autobiographical free verse. Sick of those models, some students sought something new—something more open to personal emotion, to story and feeling, than language poetry, but more complicated intellectually than most of the creative-writing programs’ poets allowed.
For many, that something was Jorie Graham, whose third book, The End of Beauty (1987) flaunted its philosophical ambitions, sporting abstract terms, endless sentences, fragments, elusive references, even the occasional _______ where a noun belonged. Yet the book also included familiar myths (Adam and Eve, Orpheus, Persephone), American locales (Grand Forks, ND), and a clear sense of voice and personality. Graham’s teaching job at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop made it even easier for nascent writers to discover and imitate her style, and the styles of 1970s and 80s poets (Michael Palmer, for example) from whom she had learned. By the early nineties difficult writers with small-press links had become well-known teachers themselves, among them C. D. Wright and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop at Brown and Bernstein at Buffalo. Heather McHugh at the University of Washington–Seattle, Donald Revell at Denver (now at Utah), and Richard Howard at Houston (now at Columbia) supported new poets with projects unlike their own, poets who looked to Allen’s New Americans, to the Language Poets, and, behind them, to Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, or George Oppen for devices that could challenge or free them.
These trends made the nineties the first decade since T. S. Eliot’s 1910s in which the emerging styles proved harder for neophytes to understand than the old ones. New styles (and new cliques) required new magazines, and the magazines came—in print (Apex of the M, Conduit, Fence, Jubilat, lingo, No, Spinning Jenny, Turnrow, Volt) and on the internet (Slope, Jacket, Web del Sol); new editors adapted older journals to newer styles (Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly). University presses (Wesleyan, Iowa) that would have sniffed at Language Poets in 1980 began to publish their work, and work by their students and imitators. Some poets cared very strongly for independent, or nonacademic, publishing practices, worrying that rivals had “sold out”; other poets welcomed the wider attention (and the health insurance) which came with professional success. Though The End of Beauty hasn’t a prayer of matching sales figures for Nevermind, people who listen to lots of rock music might do well to make an analogy between the post-Graham poetry world and post-Nirvana indie rock: in both cases a big success from the early 1990s scrambled both the commercial field (as it seemed to record labels and radio stations, to publishers and magazines) and the self-definitions of artists in what had been a discrete set of “mainstream” and “underground” styles.
As with rock and roll, some clear lines and labels remain. (Poets published by Story Line or Sewanee/Overlook, for example, will tell clear stories about identifiable people, and their poems will probably rhyme; poets published by Sun & Moon, or subpress, will probably admire some Language Poets, and may even be them.) Most younger poets of promise, however, now resist labels for schools and styles; most poets want us, instead, to read, enjoy and judge individual books and poems. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to discuss contemporary poetry without naming camps and schools: sometimes, people won’t let you. The first time an editor asked me to survey contemporary American poetry in general, I needed a hook for the piece: I took the advice of a friendly rock critic and invented the Elliptical School, an ex post facto name for some of the newish poets whose background I’ve just sketched. “The Elliptical Poets,” I wrote, “seek the authority of the rebellious”; they sound, I wrote, “desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish.” I explained that they break up syntax, but then reassemble it; I wrote that they try (as Graham tried) to adapt Language Poets’ disruptions for traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings), and that they try (as Graham had not tried) to keep their poems short, songlike, or visually vivid. I named Elliptical Poets’ poetic ancestors, and their preferred rhetorical devices, and quoted exemplary poems; I also named the poets themselves, starting with Mark Levine and Lucie Brock-Broido, and extending to C. D. Wright, Susan Wheeler, Karen Volkman, Claudia Rankine, and more.
Since 1994 I have published (not counting unsigned work) about eighty essays and articles about contemporary poets and poetry, from 7,000-word arguments to 500-word reviews. “The Elliptical Poets” garnered more American reaction than any ten others combined. Some of the feedback I got was jazzily positive, even thankful. Some of the feedback was negative but attentive: readers pointed out (as my essay acknowledged) that some of the poets I grouped together were hardly friends, and that the books which founded the putative school had come out years apart. Outweighing both the supporters and the disputants, however, were the curious: students who planned term papers on the Ellipticals, academics who wanted to hear more about it, poets who wondered if they belonged in the school. Gelett Burgess, the American humorist who composed “The Purple Cow” (“I’d rather see than be one”), gave his quatrain an equally catchy sequel:
O yes I wrote “The Purple Cow,”
I’m sorry that I wrote it;
But I can tell you anyhow
I’ll kill you if you quote it!
I’m not sorry that I wrote “The Elliptical Poets”: if it created new readers for Mark Levine, or Brock-Broido, or Wright, it did what I meant it to do. At the same time I wondered whether anyone would notice a broader, more careful, introduction to the contemporary poets I liked—poets who share tactics, interests, and a generation, but who often have not met, and who would not fit comfortably (let alone consciously) into any school. You are reading that introduction now.
HOW TO READ VERY NEW POETRY
The most important precepts are the simplest: look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. 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? Or do they fit together to represent a world? Look for self-descriptive or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes. (Classic Ashbery poems tend to end with these: “I will keep to myself. / I will not repeat others’ comments about me.”; “A randomness, a darkness of one’s own.”) Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool: many of these poems include attacks on assumptions or pretenses that make ordinary conversational language, and newspaper prose, so smooth.
Ask what kind of nonpoetic speech or text a given line evokes: does the poem seem to quote, or remind you of, an adventure story? A tell-all memoir? A bureaucrat’s memo? “Madame Deluxe’s Instructional Manual and Marriage Guide” (the title of a very funny poem by Tenaya Darlington)? A high school yearbook, as in C. D. Wright’s “Autographs”?
Site of their desire: against a long high wall under vapor light
Most likely to succeed: the perpetual starting over
Inside his mouth: night after night after night
Directive: by any means necessary
Wright’s take on “senior superlatives” invokes the mingled and conflicting stories that mark many Americans’ high-school years, with their new passions and their incompatible hopes: the two-page poem concludes with its own “Mantra: no one has been hurt, no one has been killed // P.S.: have a wonderful summer and a wonderful life.” Many other new poems pretend to be personal letters; almost every literary magazine these days seems to contain at least one poem that opens “Dear—,” flaunts a dateline, or offers a fictive return address.
Look for the patterns you might seek in visual art. Especially if the poem avoids grammatical sense—if it looks like a canvas strewn with phrases—try treating it as just that. Why place the phrases in this, and no other, array? What sort of person would juxtapose them, and why? Do they imply a hierarchy of importance, or a temporal order (“I noticed first this, then that”)? Take Monica Youn’s “Hand to Mouth”:
the fields flooded with milk
the herbs shining on the mountain
the strong salt soil my dear
you stoop to pinch off eatings
while behind you a vast
task is rising
a skein of use
Fields, herbs, milk, scenery: Youn begins by depicting a place to relax. As the poem shifts from an aerial view to a closeup, though, the mountain resort gets less comfy: in “salt soil” little or nothing can grow (compare ancient Carthage, demolished and sown with salt). “You” thought you had a vacation, or a romance where your partner made no demands: in fact, you’ve landed amid “vast” responsibilities, which feel like a “skein” (a net, a trap). Youn’s poem of single suggestive words simulates changes in how we view a landscape: those changes map, I think, the unpleasant surprises human relations can also bring.
If some poems resemble pieces of visual art, other poems resemble games, whose rules you can learn. Their patterns can be as abstract as the alphabet, or as socially grounded as fighting words. Harryette Mullen’s prose poem “Denigration” runs teasing variations on a racial slur:
Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children who reminded them of clean pickaninnies on a box of laundry soap? How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third longest river of the darkest continent? In the land of the Ibo, the Hausa and the Yoruba, what is the price per barrel of nigrescence?
(The Ibo and the Hausa live in Nigeria; the river is the Niger.)
Other poets’ games reuse traditional forms. The sestina (six six-line stanzas each with the same six end-words, concluding with a three-line coda) lets poets show off and act playful, even hokey or self-satirical, without penalty. It has therefore become both a leading form for light verse and a form for poems about poetry. Joanna Fuhrman’s “Stable-Self Blues” begins:
I’m just another pizza delivery girl
Without a pizza, a raconteur with nothing
To recount. I heavy-breathe by the rabbit
Iconography, refusing to multiply. Mina Loy
Is my favorite video game.
I love blowing up those enemy nouns.
Such gamelike poems focus on artifice (and personality) at the expense of “sincere” or “natural” speech. That artifice can carry meaning in itself: often it tries to demonstrate that selves, personalities, egos, are themselves artificial, effects of a social matrix. Nonetheless, contemporary poems like these hold together if we can imagine a personality behind them. The poem carries, as people do, a social or regional or ethnic context; it leaps, as a person’s thoughts do, from topic to topic, and it lacks—as real people usually lack—a single all-explaining storyline or motive. Being like a person, such a poem can also ask what exactly makes us persons, how we know a person when we see one, or how we tell one another apart.
These questions, and the techniques that go with them, can (like any techniques) be made into routines; some of the most celebrated “difficult” poetry of the past ten years seems to me derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half. But that’s no reason to dismiss the whole lot. The two poems below strike me as very good, and unheralded, examples of the new poetry I’ve just described; you can use them to try out the ways of reading I’ve tried to recommend.
Let’s start with a trip to the beach. Here is “Aqua Neon” by Ange Mlinko:
You shouldn’t live your life in anticipation of so much
‘cause now nothing can fill you
which can be found in the modern supermarket
where sensation as food is also found.
Endless stairwells leading to terminals leading to planes
distracting the sky to itself with skylights athwart hills
meeting one gaze straying nowhere if no bag falls
to burst with free clothes in the streets where the avid
giftwrap of a crowd’s swept away by police.
This is expectation, stupid.
And on the seashelly stretch your bare feet gingerly cut peach flesh
find no relief, either from running or stopping
after you said we can sleep on the beach
if we drink all night and drive in the morning.
“You” begin as a generic reader, receiving the poet’s advice, and end as a friend or lover on a road trip to the sea. The hunger your “anticipation” produces should make “you” seek not consumer goods, not ordinary supermarket “sensations,” but a psychological as well as a physical getaway. Yet once you head for the beach (via airplane) you’ll remember that many people must work to get you there. Airplanes “distract” the sky because the view from the airplane distracts the passengers; on the boardwalk, town cops disperse “avid” crowds (“giftwrapped” because they accompany the beach, which is the true gift, and because they dress gaudily, like wrapping paper). You can run, rather than walk, along that beach, once you know that it will cut the “peach flesh” of your feet (shades of J. Alfred Prufrock); is the pleasure worth the labor, or the pain?
With her chatty, speedy lines, Mlinko has written a poem about the defects, the attractions, and the inevitability—for certain temperaments—of the student slogan “Work hard, play hard”; it’s also a poem about the aqua, neon, peach, day-and-night atmosphere of certain (East Coast) beach towns, set on the day Mlinko and friend arrive.
Or so I think: I’m surer of the personality and the places than I am of the story I’ve just told, and I’m also sure that story is one among several Mlinko’s poem allows. The point is the sense of the world the poem produces; that sense of the world comes largely from the particular phrases, the sense of line, and the way abstracts (“sensation”) match concretes (“neon”) and offhand phrases match familiar behaviors (“drink all night and drive in the morning”). Mlinko’s casual tone might reflect her stated admiration for Frank O’Hara; not coincidentally, Mlinko (who holds a graduate degree from Brown) “belongs” in the downtown New York community around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, which has long made O’Hara its patron saint.
Mlinko offers both a likable persona and a sense of place: Allan Peterson relies mostly on the latter. Many of his poems reinvent the Anglo-American, nineteenth-century tradition of landscape poetry to fit both his adopted home in Florida and his alienated, abstracting temperament. One such reinvention is “From Now On”:
A force like water turns the mill wheel.
A cocktail of current turns the dream.
But that is useless now.
No one remembers a mill wheel and dreams
are described as random activity,
hearts more turnips than Valentines.
Frances is awake and beating the organic mattress flat
to take back what it borrowed of her body overnight.
Things sap us while they work,
so no more sweet descriptions of flowers as flames,
even though the azalea is bruning inside the window.
No more sanding my knees looking for shark teeth,
though sleepless oceans thrash the shore.
I will try harder than water.
I will be telling you the worst.
The oddball grammar, with its string of passives (“dreams / are described”), alerts us to a lack of agency in the poet’s life. Frances may beat the mattress, but “I” take action only in the future tense: “my” surroundings instead control me, in a way that seems dreamlike, though dreams now lack meaning (seem “random”). Nature seems to want something from Peterson, but what? Perhaps nature wants him to admit—as he finally does admit—that he and Frances live a domestic life, one without “flowers as flames,” with neither amorous immediacy nor danger. The worries endemic to that life involve housekeeping (“beating the mattress flat”), frugal eating and practical gardening (turnips), and by extension money. Can he hope for anything else, or anything more romantic, from now on?
Peterson’s line-breaks make the poem resemble a series of independent sentences (even proverbs, “sayings”). You can’t get blood from a turnip, one saying runs, but can you get love from one? Can you keep love if you tell your lover the worst? Perhaps, but only if he or she shares your attraction to oblique ways of stating it, ways as oblique as “no more sanding my knees.” Peterson has tried to make this problem sound as strange as it feels once we encounter it in our own lives—as strange, and as hard to solve: the indirections help the poet keep going, just as indirections, changes of subject, distracting jokes, can do in real life.
If Peterson makes a good example of the difficulty, the indirection, that pervades American poetry now, he also illustrates what we ignore if we look at poetry in terms of cliques and schools: Peterson holds a graduate degree in visual art, teaches at a junior college in Florida, and wrote poetry for twenty years before his first collection appeared. Not coincidentally, the poets with the fewest hip connections, farthest from the metropolitan centers, are the likeliest to get overlooked: they can win competitions, as Peterson’s volume did, but aren’t likely to sign on to manifestos, found cool magazines, win academic awards, or turn up at glittering po-biz events. Yet, of course, they may write better, or more original, poems than the people who do.
WHAT I MISS IN WHAT I LIKE
In pursuing certain virtues—colorful local effects, persona and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language—the current crop of American poets necessarily sacrifices others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and in W. H. Auden, and in Marianne Moore). I’ve started to think that I’m not the only one. Jennifer Moxley—associated since her first publications with the post-language-poetry small presses—exists in an upside-down world relative to most poets of previous generations: for her, slipperiness and linguistic resistance are normal, expected; self-revelation, explicit argument, and confident clarity seem odd, daring, and new. Moxley has come out on the other side, so to speak, of the most radical projects in contemporary writing, and sounds, often, clunky; oddly Wordsworthian; frequently fascinating; and deliberately naïve:
Long lost friend, with whom I once spoke into the night of books and left, thinking to myself on my short walk home of all the things I wanted so to tell you in a poem, I am lonely in the in-commiserate word, its small sound remains an incipient dis-harmony sounding through dissembled day’s would-be routinization.
American poetry also harbors a few new-ish poets devoted more straightforwardly to argument and wit; the best of them remain both easy to like and easy to understand, if you already like the poetry of the past. Some of those more traditionally minded poets want to be heirs of Merrill; others (Greg Williamson, Robert Shaw) might consider themselves heirs of Robert Frost. And then there is Kay Ryan, whose concentrated, rhyming, epigrammatic forms let poets who should know better regard her as minor. Ryan’s first book came out in 1983, but she garnered national attention with her third, fourth and fifth books during the nineties. Here is “Grazing Horses,” her expertly oriented extended metaphor for mental and emotional disorientation:
of the mind
The grazing horses
on the frictionless
on the incline,
unhorsed by slant
designed to climb
Ryan’s horses no longer know, and cannot stay, where they are; they stand for a disorientation so total as to affect one’s identity. What does it mean to be a person, to remain the same person you were, after you’ve had this kind of experience? Ryan’s poem admits that we don’t know: it approaches, through one consistent metaphor, some of the questions more obviously difficult poets tackle through their disorienting styles.
The science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90 percent of anything is no good: contemporary poetry is not, and never has been, an exception. No poet can whiten your teeth, improve your dating skills, or make you taller. Nor will poets decide the next election. Reviewers, moreover, participate necessarily in the game by which everyone in the “book world” (academics included) pretends that this year’s work must hold more interest, show us more about human life, than work from 1850 or from 1961. (That’s why few kinds of writing seem so dated, so clearly wrong, as old book reviews.) “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to,” Frank O’Hara quipped; “if they don’t need poetry bully for them.” Yet poetry lets us imagine that certain arrangements of words, and nothing else—no camera, no lights, not much action—can tell us what it’s like to be other people, and (in another sense) what it’s like to be ourselves. In poems, we believe that language alone can reveal what Proust called “the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, without the aid of art, we should never know.” Contemporary poets like Wright, like Mullen, like Mlinko, like Peterson, have found modes of writing—ways to put language in order—which did not exist before, which present otherwise unknowable individuals, and which seem to fit our experience now. I think we’ll be reading some of them for a long time.