Ordinary People

AMERICA’S FAVORITE POEMS: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology,
ed. Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz.  
W. W. Norton & Co.  $25.00.

AS THEY SAIL.
by Samuel Hazo.
University of Arkansas Press.  np.

UNARMED AND DANGEROUS: New and Selected Poems,
by Wayne Prunty.
Johns Hopkins University Press.  np.

SWARM,
by Jorie Graham.  
EccoPress/HarperCollins.  $23.00.  

THEN, SUDDENLY –,
by Lynn Emanuel.
University of Pittsburgh Press.  np.

MULRONEY & OTHERS,
by Baron Wormser.
Sarabande Books.  $12.95p.

WITHOUT,
by Donald Hall.  
Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin.  $13.00p.

AS EARTH BEGINS TO END,
by Patricia Goedicke.
Copper Canyon Press.  $14.00p.

HADEAN ECLOGUES,
by Frederick Turner.
Story Line Press.  $12.95p.

 

The Number One catastrophe of American poetry in the last century was its abduction by the academy; the principal challenge of the next century will be to return it to the educated common reader.  Yet even ardent believers in Poetry for the People may find themselves wincing a bit as they page through Americans’ Favorite Poems, which purports to do just that.  This book grew out of something called The Favorite Poem Project, which, devised by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, has sought, as he explains in his introduction, not only to encourage a reading and love of poetry (that’s never quite motive enough, is it?) but to “enrich the perception of Americans” by reminding us of our nation’s vast social diversity.  “Diversity” is in fact the key word here, as it seems to be in so many projects and publications these days which are ostensibly about poetry but actually about other things.  Accordingly, Pinsky devotes much of his introduction to a stirring report on the range of Ordinary Americans – from schoolchildren and steelworkers to senior citizens and homeless people – who took part in the “hundreds of readings in communities around the country” sponsored by The Favorite Poem Project.  “In Provincetown, Massachusetts,” he writes, “a Portuguese-American woman read a love poem by Camoens in Portuguese, and her son read the poem in his English translation; they were followed by the drag star Musty Chiffon; other readers that evening included a tree surgeon who read D.H. Lawrence.”  Well, bless them all, but what exactly does all this cheering for social diversity have to do with poetry?

       The book’s main text is a grab-bag of poems, new and ancient, from around the world.  They appear in alphabetical order, beginning with Akhmatova, Ammons, Archilochos, and Arnold, and ending with Yeats, Yoshitada, Zagajewski, and a Burmese poet named Zawgee.  The poems are here not because they scored high in some Gallup poll but because various Ordinary Americans chose them as their faves.  Each poem is preceded by a brief (or, in some cases, not so brief) explanatory note by the Ordinary American who chose it and by the Ordinary American’s name, age, profession, and hometown.  (Some poems carry more than one testimonial.)  Curiously, a disproportionate number of these Ordinary Americans are prisoners, which leads one to reflect that if this volume does well, Norton might want to issue a series of spin-offs: Rapists’ Favorite Poems, Murderers’ Favorite Poems, etc.  The most represented poet here is Robert Frost, with six poems; the single poem receiving the most testimonials (five) is “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden.

       The manifest purpose of the testimonials is to explain the selection of poems.  Yet there is in fact little here about the poems’ intrinsic merit; the recurring theme is that the poem in question struck a chord, “speaks for me,” “has meaning in my life.”  The Ordinary Americans include personal anecdotes – many of them quite touching, even powerful – about their family tragedies, disastrous love affairs, psychiatric disorders, and so forth.  So touching and powerful are these anecdotes, indeed, that they frequently overwhelm the poems themselves. They place the poems, furthermore, in a context that made this reader a bit uneasy.  Read America’s Favorite Poems for a while and you start to get the idea that a poem’s merit is directly proportional to the degree to which it happens to address the specifics of some reader’s life history.  And you realize that these readers have been encouraged to think that the proper – the only – way to talk about a poem is to pour out their own very intimate stories.  The problem is that while these stories explain why these Ordinary Americans responded strongly to these poems, they don’t tell us why anyone else might.

       Virtually none of these people appear to have chosen poems whose settings or situations, at first blush, seemed alien to them.  One woman picked Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks” because “I have knitted socks.”  Another selected Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” because she used to date a big man who lifted her up to dance, as the father does in the poem.  And so on.  When I finally came across a testimonial that actually zeroed in intelligently on what made the poem in question special as a poem, it was only to discover that the Ordinary American responsible for the testimonial was no Ordinary American at all but was, in fact, Hudson Review contributing editor Clara Claiborne Park.

        To turn from America’s Favorite Poems to Samuel Hazo is to leap from the populist to the academic.  Not that Hazo, a professor emeritus at Duquesne, is some ivory-tower obscurantist.  On the contrary, the poems in his new collection As They Sail – most of them meandering free-verse reflections on politics, travel, marriage, mortality, etc. – tend to be colloquial in tone, and eminently accessible.  Indeed, at least one poem here – a tribute to the poet’s dog – caused this reader to reflect that, with a few changes (among them omission of the seemingly arbitrary line breaks), it might be a Reader’s Digest article.

       A typical Hazo poem consists of a prosy, glib account of everyday experience and emotion, at the end of which we are reminded (sometimes quite gently and effectively) of the larger verities that loom beyond the quotidian.  In the aforementioned dog poem, for example, Hazo wraps up his perhaps overly familiar litany of praise for Man’s Best Friend with a nice pair of concluding lines that find the poet sitting at home of an evening with his loyal companion panting by his side: “We share mortality / in silence, breath by breath.”  Often (but not always) Hazo signals the shift from mundane surfaces to deeper meanings by rhyming the final lines of otherwise free-verse poems.

       Reading Hazo, one finds oneself thinking of Louis Simpson.  Like Simpson, Hazo isn’t afraid to ponder the dailiness of life, and to risk banality in doing so.  What Hazo lacks is Simpson’s snap and wit, his irony and music, and above all his genius for quietly and powerfully articulating the tender and momentous truths at the heart of ordinary existence.  That these truths are precisely what Hazo’s trying to get at is made clear by the title of one of his earlier collections: The Holy Surprise of Right Now.  Yet Hazo’s problem is not that he has no ear (that godawful title notwithstanding), but that he’s not listening carefully enough.  Twice in As They Sail he writes “opthomologist” for “ophthalmologist.” Clumsy lines abound: “Killing his country’s / match of Sweden’s total / census was Stalin’s way / of keeping Russia leninized.”  (He isn’t looking carefully enough, either: he refers to “a tight isosceles / of billiard balls,” when of course billiard-ball racks are equilateral.)

       Hazo suffers, too, from that common academic-poet affliction, the compulsion to prove how sensitive and liberal he is by advertising his love of animals and hatred of war, and by offering pat moralisms about the stock market and suchlike.  Hazo, who would seem to hold all the correct liberal positions on absolutely everything, never proffers an even slightly original twist on any topic. Whether fretting about homelessness or paying effusive tribute to Eugene McCarthy (“Almost unnoticed, you landed / in New Hampshire, spoke / to smallish but determined crowds, / and entered history.  / Who / could have guessed your saga / would include an abdication, murder / in Los Angeles, a lost election, / and the Nixon follies?”), Hazo sometimes reads like a parody of earnest academic liberalism.  And what he lacks most conspicuously is a sense of urgency: never does he convey a sense that these generally offhand, easy-listening poems matter.

       This is likewise the case with Wayne Prunty, who in Unarmed and Dangerous reminds us at every turn that he is a tenured professor.  The book’s title notwithstanding, these are for the most part depressingly tame poems, all too clearly issuing from an academic subculture in which certain ideological postures and patterns of thought are taken for granted and a poem, in order to be considered successful, need not consist of anything more than a lax, nebulous cluster of words and phrases suggestive of those postures and patterns.  One poem, for instance, is entitled “O General, O Spy, O Bureaucrat,” and we don’t even need to read it in order to know what Prunty thinks about all three.  A poem about immigrants to America, which incorporates just about every imaginable cliché and easy irony about the harsh realities awaiting those who pass through Liberty’s Golden Door (it begins “We come to this country / By every roundabout, / With hunger like a startled face / And passports folding doubt”), exemplifies the utter lack of surprise and of original thought that characterize too many of these poems.  Yet some of Prunty’s sonnets, such as “Stick Builder,” are fresh, real, well observed, and more skillfully made than his longer poems might lead one to expect:

Hammer, nail, and board I go, pounding

Without blueprints so stud, joist, and rafter meet

As though I built by ear; stout hammering

And saw they say I know board feet

By the shapes they take, each room expanding

Six ways from two hands, until complete.

As now the whole house stands complete, waiting

Those who moving in will sleep and eat

Inside the idea I have built for them,

Which is as close as I will ever live to them….

If longer, looser forms allow Prunty to indulge his tendency toward ragged, inflated language, the rigors of the sonnet seem to bring out his gift for the plain, concrete, and rhythmic.

       Jorie Graham is a poet to whom other poets write fan letters, then get together and gripe about enviously.  (Her tin ear must always be buzzing.)  The back cover of her latest production, the handsome, expensively produced Swarm, contains no promotional copy, no author bio, no blurbs: plainly we are meant to understand that Graham (“the Pulitzer-Prize winner”) is above such things. Instead, the back cover is filled with a stark, glossy black-and-white close-up of the author, who stares into the camera, wide-eyed, Poetic, her grave, intense look somehow partaking at once of both Plathic tragedy and Forchéan glamour.  

        Graham’s book issues not an invitation but a challenge: Think you’re so smart?  Figure this out.  If there are Reader’s Poets and Poet’s Poets, Graham is a Critic’s Poet – or is, rather, the sort of poet whose primary aim is apparently to provide a certain sort of critic with cryptic material to analyze, thus demonstrating to readers the brilliance of both poet and critic.  But there’s not a single line in the consistently cryptic Swarm to make you consider such analysis worth the effort. In most of the poems, each line is divided from the next by a one-line space (or an asterisk with one-line spaces both above and below it), and frequently words within lines are also separated from one another by sizeable gaps, as if to isolate them like crown jewels displayed in a royal museum.  Graham’s intent here may be to give each word its due, or to underscore the isolation at the heart of the human condition, or to capture the difficulty of her own struggle to articulate meaning, but one suspects that the main point is to make one think there’s more here than there really is.

       Graham’s great coup was winning the support of Helen Vendler, the longtime doyenne of American poetry criticism and a professor at Harvard (where Graham now holds an endowed chair).  Vendler has spent years extracting meanings from Graham’s lines, of which these from Swarm (each separated from the next, remember, by a one-line space) are typical: “Citizen    Sacrifice / My sacrifice: what shall I use / Face dawn and pour out / What shall I use / What offering sufficient / Say act / Be called  / What shall I use.”  (What shall she use, indeed?  One wants to tell her: Use clearer language! Rhyme!  Meter!  Anything!) If Graham has any lyrical impulse, any temptation to use words to weave a spell, she effectively squelches it here; these poems’ anxious, unsettled, exasperatingly neurotic tone is established rather by her continual abrupt jerking away from incompletely expressed ideas and feelings.  The result feels, to this reader anyway, like sheer posturing.  The triumph of such balderdash in today’s poetry marketplace is as grim and telling a spectacle as American literary culture has to offer.

       Lynn Emanuel takes her epigraph from Jabès: “The book is the subject of the book.”  I don’t mind texts that are mesmerized by their own textuality, so long as they’re about something else, too. Alas, the easy, jokey, stream-of-consciousness poems in Then, Suddenly— show little sign of any struggle to articulate a deep emotion or a complex idea about the world.  Emanuel prefers to play language games: repeatedly reminding the reader that he is in fact reading, she addresses him as “you, who have / been hovering above this page, holding / the book in your hands.”  And what of the world outside the book?  Emanuel doesn’t think much of it: “We’re headed for empty-headedness, / the featureless amnesias of Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, / states rich only in vowel sounds and alliteration.” Nor does she hold her readers in terribly high regard: “I’m tired of the dark forest of this book / and the little trail of bread crumbs I have / to leave so readers who say garsh a lot / can get the hang of it and follow along.”

       Emanuel repeatedly likens the world to a text, even says: “I am a kind of diction.”  “God, I hate prose,” she admits (in a prose poem), and she loathes movies, too – despising, in both cases, their persistent engagement with the specifics of physical reality.  Yet she adores poems, with a well-nigh religious love: “A sentence, unlike a line, is not a station of the cross.”  Or, at least, she loves the kind of poems she writes.  (For she confesses that she has also “come to hate Nature & its Poetry.”)  Or perhaps she loves only her own poems?  True, she admires Whitman – but mainly, it seems, for his shining example of egoism: “Walt, I salute you! / And therefore myself!”  Tellingly, the name that occurs most frequently in this book is her own: “My name is Lynn Emanuel.  I am the writer / trying to unwrite the world that is all around her.”  Which is to say, apparently, that her poems, refusing to be distracted by the irrelevant surfaces that preoccupy novelists, filmmakers, and nature poets, seek rather to hone in on deeper, more essential truths.  Yet what they mostly give us is Emanuel’s own chattering delight in every whim or notion or vagary that happens to meander idly into her ever-dithering consciousness.  Looking at nature, all she can see is Lynn Emanuel:

        Today en route to the studio

A dogwood hovered above me, so thick and bright,

it was as though the woods had spun a ghost; its pale

and sloppily anthropomorphic form was more spacious

and more flexible than “Tree.”  Humble and penetrating.

….It’s “spiffy” and “impudent.”  The tree

that is.  That’s why I like it.  That white is a loose

shirttail.  Does it seem like bragging to say it reminds

me of myself?

       It’s refreshing to turn from Emanuel to Baron Wormser, who actually pays attention to his fellowman.  What’s more, Mulroney & Others is genuinely funny.  In the opening poem, two underachievers, one of them named Mulroney, are baffled by the wedding announcements in the New York Times: “Where the hell do these people come from? /…/ Young lawyers in love with account executives. / Their fathers were surgeons and vice-presidents; / Their mothers were psychologists and counselors.”  Mulroney, we’re told, “barely knew what Vietnam was / And it was 1975.”  Thus does Wormser set his tone – vigorous, irreverent, smartass.  Yet for all the verve and waggery, this isn’t a superficial book; Wormser is as good at communicating credible feeling as he is at laugh lines.  Above all, he is haunted by the odd fact of pastness, and by his sense of a void at the heart of the present moment.  “Was there anything glibber than time?” he asks.  “It was like the bottle redemption center / Where you counted empties.”  In one poem, a character sits at a computer

and looked at headlines that weren’t

That old – ten years – but already seemed quaint with

The incapacity and indifference of age.

                                        There is nothing:

He could feel the void within him like a spoon

In his mouth or a chill on his flesh, not a scary feeling

More like a terrifying calm, the serenity of a blank screen.

At their best, Wormser’s poems have the mordant humor, urgency, and dread of Hemingway’s short stories.  They’re the real thing.

        Still in her forties, the poet Jane Kenyon died in 1995 of leukemia.  Her widower, Donald Hall, has now published a haunting, plain-spoken, low-key, and astonishingly explicit sequence of short poems about her illness and death, some of which take the form of letters to Kenyon and some of which refer to both writers in the third person:

                Daybreak until nightfall,

        he sat by his wife at the hospital

                while chemotherapy dripped

        through the catheter into her heart.

                He drank coffee and read

        the Globe.  He paced; he worked

                on poems; he rubbed her back

        and read aloud.  Overcome with dread,

                they wept and affirmed

        their love for each other, witlessly,

                over and over again.

        Abounding in both life and death, Without vividly captures a horror-filled present suffused with memories of a happy past: “Each morning we worked together / apart, I in my downstairs study / and Jane at her rolltop desk / above the kitchen, making poems / until dew dried and she mulched / her roses.”  The book never wanders far from the plain, often horrible specifics, or from the quiet, controlled tone with which it begins – there are no flights of rhetorical fancy, no overworked symbols, no outbursts of despair or rage at God – and for this reason is all the more powerful.  This is a poetry of honest engagement, and of miraculous balance in the face of death’s prodigious effort to unbalance.  Hall’s willingness to reveal the most intimate moments of the couple’s final days and weeks together makes some of these poems as shocking as any I’ve ever read.  He recounts their collaboration on Kenyon’s obituary and their selection of the clothes she would wear in her coffin; he tells us her last word, describes their last kiss.  One feels as if one is spying at a deathbed.  How on earth, one wonders, can a man bear to auction such private griefs? To read these poems, with their utter lack of self-pity, on the heels of a virtuoso of conceit like Lynn Emanuel is nothing less than staggering: “When you were dying / you said you didn’t fear / punishment.  We never dared / to speak of paradise.”  It feels obscene to presume to pass judgment on such a book.

        Inhabiting nearby thematic turf is Patricia Goedicke’s twelfth collection, As Earth Begins to End, in which the aging poet ponders her long marriage, soon to be ended by death.  What does it mean to exist, and then not to?  How to understand this, to find words for it?  Where do the self and love go when life ends?  These questions, though never so explicitly voiced, preoccupy Goedicke, who pours out her passionate musings on being and nothingness, and on the love that makes a horror of mortality, in lyrical lines that often drift back and forth across the page like leaves in a breeze.  And indeed these are poems full of blown leaves, of mists and winds and tides; poems that, merging the macro (universe) with the micro (atoms) and juxtaposing the language of faith with that of science (one poem refers to the “vast slide smear of heaven”), present us with a distinctive music and a sensibility deftly captured:  

                                Even the kindest

        words scrape against each other like seashells,

        flesh, kneecaps, numb lips

        nearly raw now, almost ready to break up,

        crumble themselves into that loud

        nameless energy we must return to

        and can’t, not yet,

        nervously tying our pajamas

        as tight as we can against the taut

        temporary skin

        of the bodies we tremble across the world in.

To be sure, Goedicke’s intimations of the world’s end, which she imagines constantly in terms of catastrophic planetary-scale explosions (“The bomb / at the end of the world going off, / the monster bear reared up / on its hind legs with claws, with red slavering tongue / over the entire city, refrigerator in one paw, / skyscraper in the other”), can be repetitious; yet they add up to an eloquent, harmonious book with a mesmerizing vision and a cumulative power.

       To pick up Frederick Turner’s Hadean Eclogues after reading several other collections is to recall Eliot on the Metaphysical poets: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary.”  If to a poet like Donne “a thought…was an experience” that “modified his sensibility,” the Romantics, Eliot claimed, “felt by fits and starts, unbalanced.”  One doesn’t have to agree with Eliot on Donne and the Romantics to be struck by the intensity with which the contrast he draws is brought to mind by the poetry of Turner and some of his more ordinary contemporaries.  One need only compare Hazo’s sentimental dog poem, for example, to Turner’s stately elegy for his cat:

Ah, we go armored into that good night:

Math is our breastplate, and the logos sings,

A bright sword in our hand; and we can fight

With fame and art, the wings

Of angels, and the glory of the state,

The promises of heaven, and the city

Graved with the names of heroes consecrate:

And so the more the pity

They, whose sole garment and possession is

Their bodies’ agile life, their quick warm breath,

Should thus so naked and alone, like this,

Be cast out into death.

These lines, whose combination of dignity and proportion is entirely representative of Turner, form part of a long work entitled “Death Mass,” which borrows the structure of a Mass; this and the book’s other long poem, “Field Notes,” in which Jesus is the speaker, are striking both for their literary ambition and for their serious and successful engagement with traditions of the sacred.  At once a traditionalist and a rebel, Turner rages in these poems at poststructuralism, with its denial of truth, of nobility, and of beauty; his passion for meaning, love, art, and the idea of the holy – and his masterly command of poetic form – are on display throughout.  Yeatsian in their assurance and mythic vision, their combination of esteem for the monuments of civilization and an original, even radical sensibility, Turner’s poems breathe new and radiant life into what can often, these days, seem a tired, lethally compromised, and depressingly ordinary art.

THE HUDSON REVIEW, Summer 2000