The phony cry for poetry that speaks to our time

by Djelloul Marbrook 

Give us poems that speak to today’s issues.

How often have you heard editors and critics dine out on that rhetoric? That false rhetoric exposes a fundamental flaw in their understanding of poetry. Poetry, like all art, is the news of the day. It is the cutting edge of our sensibility, whether it talks about Ted Cruz’s latest loony tune or the horrors of moneyed suburbs.

The problem is not with poets who fail to rise to the grandiloquent challenge. The problem is with the intellectual lassitude of the bogus challenge, a challenge suspiciously similar to complaints about inaccessibility and opacity in poems. What a son-of-a-bitch you are for trying to make me think harder, probe deeper—that’s what these highfalutin complaints are about. They are admissions of torpor.

The poetry volumes discussed here are examined in light of this premise.

download(Zen and the Art of Poetry Maintenance, Non-Sutras, Seb Doubinsky, Leaky Boot Press, UK, 120pp, 2015, $14.95)

In confronting the grand and ferocious limitations of poetry Doubinsky defines its grandeur. “Poetry is positive catastrophe,” he writes on page 27. That’s all, one line, one poem. Could you say it of a newspaper, a broadcast, an industry, a state? No, and therein is poetry’s grandeur, in its tragic confines.

These terse, unpunctuated, uncapitalized poems have a Stoic’s austerity—the unflinching mind of Marcus Aurelius comes to mind—but not the asperity. They’re elegant, instantly classic, and more than any news story or analysis, they stare our lies in the face:

banks do their laundry
democracy shrinks
kids laugh in the garden

Even on the rare occasion when the pronoun appears it exhibits the dervish’s yearning to disappear.

I erase the words about to be
I erase the images about to be
I erase the rhymes and lines
I am Shiva the Destroyer

Doubinsky doesn’t rise to editorial demands for contemporary relevance, he exceeds them, and in so doing he diminishes them to their rightful place among the bogus and pretentious pronouncements of our time.

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The problem with demanding poems that address contemporary issues is that it presumes editors know what those issues are, but it is the function of poetry and art to define our issues, not to allow the press, with its canned and authorized versions of everything, to define them for us. Such editors are acting out of an omniscience that is not theirs to claim. It’s an adolescent trait that later wisdom should dispel. They’re laying down a spread of assumptions that belong more properly to the newsprint world with its addiction to punditry and didacticism than to art. For example, the press persists in talking about conflict in geopolitical terms, somehow managing the stupendous feat of doing so without context, but refusing to address the issue of who profits, which tells us everything about conflict. A poet is far more likely to do the latter, which is one of the several reasons the press is always writing poetry’s obituary, because it so often embarrasses the press.

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(Paradise Drive, Rebecca Foust, Press 53, 94pp, 2015, $12.92)

John Wayne is forever associated with the word “pilgrim,” which he used in the films McLintock and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Will Geer used it speaking to Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. The word derives from peregrine and means someone from outside your country. Wayne, a right-wing icon, was predictably concerned with belonging and unbelonging. But when Rebecca Foust uses it in Paradise Drive, her prize-winning book of sonnets, Pilgrim might be herself, her outsider self looking in on her own life with the stark succinctness that only the sonnet could achieve.

At first glance it’s another book about savage privilege in the suburbs, a book that would satisfy an editor’s demand for with-it relevance, but once you stop glancing and start reading you’re enmeshed in a pitiless, ruthless and at the same time profoundly compassionate autopsy of a life not willing to end with the mistakes it has made, not willing to blink. Foust goes back into the burning house and brings out the frightened child.

In her hands the sonnet is a scalpel. Everything that is familiar, our preconceptions and her names for them, is turned inside out and upside down, weighed, measured. It is as if she woke up one morning, found nothing familiar, not even her own face, and wrote this all down in a tsunami of finely cadenced prosody, and we are reading it aloud as the flotsam and jetsam of her new vision ebbs out to the horizon. It is a stunning feat, executed with a mathematician’s focus.

Well, what the hell is there to do
besides sling words like arrows back
into Fortune’s outrageous face?

It’s page 47 when she asks this. It’s what she has been doing, and she wants to know if you have a better idea. It’s the poet’s classic question, and all criticism falls short of answering it. Notice that this is not the iambic pentameter of the Elizabethan sonnet. The line is spondaic, the words are sprung, but in the midst of this modernist tack she capitalizes Fortune, because she wants us to remember we have a boatload of hack ideas to deep-six, all of us.

Foust reminds us there are no used-up subjects, just hack approaches to them. “I miss your tongue /on my spine,” she writes in “Bourbon Elegy,” “the crack of your fist / on my jaw.” 

The press that claims to tell us how we live doesn’t. The press tells us, like standardized tests, what to think. Poetry helps us think. Poetry is witness; the press recounts, redacts and omits. Poetry is happening; what we read in the press happened, or perhaps not, and rarely the way it’s described. Here’s what I mean:

The Swede to her left leaned in
to discuss Pilgrim’s “Asparagus” son,
worried, it seemed, that his own son
might be part green vegetable too.

These four lines in “Elocution” convey the sense of still going on. The Swede is still leaning in, and although he is technically the foreigner, Pilgrim is more so, because she’s describing in. She’s here and she’s there, and we’re with her. This is the shape-shifting quality of poetry that the press cannot faintly resemble. Poetry is always about what is happening. The press is about what somebody has decided happened. Foust is with it in a way the editors demanding with-it-ness fail to understand.

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One reason editors and critics go unchallenged when they demand political poems, poems about the injustices and inequalities of society, is that they have settled for definitions imposed by the so-called news media. American society, stem to stern, defines news according to the principles of 19th-century press lords and their minions, men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The latter was an exception, but most of these press lords were arch conservatives. They defined news not in terms of how we relate to each other, not in terms of how ordinary people think and feel, but in terms of geopolitics. And they defined politics in terms of hierarchies. In the 21st century we should challenge these narrow and misdirecting definitions of news. News is not what trained journalists and their corporate bosses say it is, it is what we feel, what we experience, and what we do. The press as we know it is reporting a chosen microcosm and claiming it to be “the news” of the hour. We should be fit to be tied by the claim of The New York Times that it prints all the news that’s fit to print. The news ought to be about the limits of human perceptivity, the frontiers of the mind and imagination, not what one damned fool after another says to a microphone.

Without intending to, not consciously anyway, Michael T. Young’s handsomely produced volume of poetry, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, addresses just this predicament.

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23593548(The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, Michael T. Young, Poets Wear Prada, 76pp, 2015, $1.40)

Titles of volumes of poetry in their striving to connect often mislead or turn out to be irrelevant, but this title is key to understanding what the poet is doing. By being lost in the moment we adore it, we respect it, and, above all, we do not forfeit our lives to remorse and anxiety about what comes next. By becoming lost in these poems one finds one’s life.

With some poets, even the most acknowledged, you sometimes get the sense of a striving for elegance, but Michael Young conveys that incomparable sense of having an elegant mind—

I like to think of Lot’s wife not looking back,
but going on to another city with her husband,
Hebron maybe, or Gaza, even a small unknown town,
where she gives birth to two daughters and a son,
lives in a house with vineyard and a view of the sea.

—not just an elegant mind, but a gracious one.

The poet, while seeming to speak casually, is metrically painstaking, aware always of the pervading melody of his impulse.

His work is the apotheosis of the disquieting contention that poetry is the news of our time, not the strings of events, the blather, the dissonance of what we call news. Here, live in this moment, join its molecular structure, and you will be the news, not merely its partaker, its observer, but its interactive maker, the poet seems to say. Otherwise you are mute and passive, a couch potato. But in poetry you live the moment and therefore are a more active builder of tomorrow than if you had just voted.

Crossing the Hudson River on a ferryboat
I’m distracted by the sensation that the river
appears as if it should be draining, spilling
over some remote and unseen rim.

The news media, as we know them, can’t impart this sense of presence, this immediacy, this conviction that something is happening. They are always about what has happened and what may happen. They leap over the moment while pretending to be up-to-the-minute. But their irrelevance to the very thing to which they claim to be all-important is even greater, because, unlike the poet, they omit, they disdain context and history, whereas the poem is all about connecting the dots.

In some ways a collection of poems is like jackstraws. Too many editors look for overt and obvious themes, but the poems drawn from a certain period or experience in a poet’s life have their own themes. They fall in their own pattern, like jackstraws. And trying to impose an overlay is like pulling out a straw and subverting the natural whole. Perhaps the situation is not unlike comparing classical to natural geometry. The theme that emerges in The Beautiful Moment of Being is that only by exploring the moment can we fathom the momentous.

This poetry deserves the production values Poets Wear Prada have bestowed on it. We can’t hear enough of this poet.

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(The Cave, Tom Holmes, The Bitter Oleander Press, 73pp, 2014, $11.40 )download (2)

Tom Holmes in The Cave undertakes the ambitious project of searching the present with Paleolithic light. Just as starlight takes millennia to arrive, so understanding of the past arrives with its own light slowly through the labors of time travelers like the poet.

The poem “Fireside” gives a hint. It begins:

A time revives,
I gather those embers

and give them away—
presents of what may arrive,
an horizon suggesting light.

The Cave provides just what the 21st century, operating in the vast chambers of cyberspace, ought to and so spectacularly fails to provide: historicity, context. Take the poem, “Paleolithic Person Explains Her Footprints”:

I needed something to burn,
something to light this hollow of the cave,
something to warm me against the wind,
I was sucking marrow from a bone.

This one amazing stanza could be employed as a metaphor for our times, for any time. And it could be read in many different ways. We need something to burn, don’t we?

And that tells us something we need to know about Tom Holmes. There is all too often about contemporary poems a there!—take that! quality, a can-you-top-this? exulting that comes through in spite of the poet’s attempts at modesty. But doing what this poet is doing, using the poetic sensibility to search the cave—it doesn’t matter if it’s Plato’s or a cavewoman’s—requires a great soul. It’s something like a mother’s compulsion to nurture, a scholar’s quest to instill. It requires a generosity rooted not in a quest for recognition but an obsession with shedding light.

“Hearing from other worlds is rhapsodic,” the poet says in “Paleolithic Person Explains Hand Art.”  Hart Crane would applaud.

Rarely has any poet explained so well and succinctly what he is up to as Holmes does in the poem “The Invention of Inspiration”:

Down here, the sun is a deep pond,
and I’m a diaphanous shadow—
the air tastes good to my palate
and the slow colors rise in me.

Beasts leap from my hand.
I may never return.

We don’t know if Tom Holmes has returned. We’ll know by his next poems. But we know he is a light bringer, while a pretentious commentariat today brings us gewgaws and gimcracks. We know that he has journeyed, not like a conquistador in quest of riches, not like Columbus, but like Thucydides and Abd al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, to tell us where we ourselves have been when we wore other faces in other times.

The Cave is a book of beasts leaping from the hand. They have been set free and will not readily return to the book. Of how many books of poetry today can we say such a thing?

Bitter Oleander Press has honored this memorable adventure with high and handsome production values.

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To borrow from Giordano Bruno, the heretic priest and magus burned at the stake in 1600, the poem is a star beast whose favor is sought by the reader in order for collaboration to begin. Celestial figures are drawn by connecting the dots, exactly what the press fails to do, which may explain the obscene eagerness of the press to write poetry’s obituary. Poetry is a collection of the dots, and it is up to the reader and the instrument, the beast, to operate in the heavens to generate light and influence events. Orion is a clutch of stars until it is discerned by connecting the stars, the dots.

Another way of putting this idea of the poem as living instrument is via Aristotle’s idea of the common sense being the aggregate of the five senses. News as a mess of incidents is not a fit idea for the 21st century and the accommodations of cyberspace. Poets make common sense of the incidents and thereby push the limits of human sensibility. Contrarily, news as we now define it fragments, polarizes, divides, and conspires against the idea of oneness, against ideas like the Chaos Theory.

These four poets—Doubinsky, Foust, Young, and Holmes—affirm this distinction between what we regressively call news and the real news in which we are all swept up and are invited to influence.


 

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