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Frederica Mathewes-Green

Poetry for Dummies

I was aware that the poetry industry had gone through a number of software upgrades since I last twirled an "oftimes."

Stacks of poetry books are resting on my desk, slim books with shiny covers, like hard little pills of intensity and voluptuous emotion. They are the paper equivalent of social x-rays; they exude the philosophy "You can never be too thin or too rich." No wonder I'm intimidated.

My husband and I agreed to arm-wrestle a hearty stack o' poetry in preparation for National Poetry Month, and I think we were selected primarily for our ignorance. In my case, it's an ignorance standing in heroic resistance to years of experience. I started out writing poetry, and at the age of 13 won an award for one about a deserted town, I think because of the dead flies on a windowsill. I also got to say "thee" and "nought" and other hoity words you can only use in poems. For ten years I had a ball being a poet. I read and wrote a great deal of the stuff, then gave it up for changing diapers.

When I came back to writing, a half-dozen years ago, it never crossed my mind to resume poetry. Too many diapers, car pools, sleepovers, and prom dresses had played havoc with my ability to think concisely. But I was also aware that the poetry industry had gone through a number of software upgrades since I last twirled an "oftimes."

In a South Carolina girls' school in 1964, I was writing sonnets, ballads, an occasional sestina. Now the Queen of American Poesy appears to be Jorie Graham, Pulitzer-crowned beauty, "swathed in black from head to foot, with enough bracelets and necklaces and rings to herniate a belly dancer," according to the New Yorker's Stephen Schiff. A sample poem begins, "Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous"—wait a minute, I started laughing. Oh, my. OK, here she goes:

Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous, disciplined, beached eye in its thrall. Even the accuracy is tired—the assimilation tired—of entering the mind.

The reader is tired.

I am so very tired.

Even if we all freshen up with a little nap, this is not going to make much more sense. I have the sneaking suspicion this poem could have been written by a buzz-word generator. If I consistently read the third-to-last word in the first line as "bleached," not "beached," well, what difference does it make? The very title of this poem, "That Greater Than Which Nothing," is the equivalent of crossed boards nailed over the door of an abandoned house and painted, "Keep Out."

Living in the Resurrection
by T. Crunk
Yale Univ. Press, 1995
55 pp.; $9, paper

Graham disagrees. "[My poems] are intended to be clear," she told Schiff. "I don't use difficult vocabulary. If the poem is working, you should be able to get every image."

Gary and I could only conclude that the fault is in ourselves, that we are ignoramuses. So we checked out from the library a book to aid us in our encounter with contemporary poetry: How to Write Poetry, by Nancy Bogen (MacMillan, 149 pp.; $8, paper). Bogen's cheerful and relentlessly encouraging little book is aimed at the do-it-yourselfer and explains how poetry works from the inside. It teems with helpful hints like, "Don't say, 'My poem is too plain, I have to put some metaphors into it.' " Perhaps with this mechanic's handbook we could better understand the lofty heights of verse. We each went through the stack of poetry volumes separately, then met to compare notes.

"I think this one is my favorite," said Gary, holding up Living in the Resurrection, by Tony Crunk. Crunk grew up in rural western Kentucky, grandson of a Baptist pastor, and writes clear, spare verse that has a quality of weightlessness. The first poem in the collection, "Christmas Morning," establishes this characteristic transparency and hint of melancholy:

The cold reveals everything …
two dogs chained to a fencepost sleeping
on bare dirt, brown smoke and ash
rising from the rusted oil barrel
where my brother and I are burning
the wrapping paper
behind my grandmother's shed.
I was aware that the poetry industry had gone through a number of software upgrades since I last twirled an "oftimes."
Every year we do this, every year
scuffing at the gravel and coal chips
to keep warm, until we are called
for dinner.

And every year I look closer
into his clear, unhindered face
and think that we are finally growing older—
one of us

still saved by the blood of the lamb,
one still waiting for the dumb to speak.

It was while reading Crunk that I began to see that, because poetry is so very condensed, it reveals the personality of the writer more starkly than any other form of writing does. In this stack of books, different poets examine similar topics. There are poems about sex, poems about landscape, even several about watching someone sleep. What you like or dislike about these poems reflects what you'd like or dislike about the people who wrote them. (In litcrit land, that's heresy, I know, even more crudely retrograde than the intentional fallacy. Just call us Mr. and Mrs. Philistine.)

Madonna anno domini
by Joshua Clover
Louisiana State Univ., 1997
68 pp.; $19.95

A collection of poetry books is like a collection of people at a party. You might want to go stand by Tony Crunk, though he probably wouldn't talk much. Over in the corner, Jorie Graham is impressing people by breaking cement blocks with her forehead. Other poets are fluting about their traumas, making catty remarks, or otherwise exhibiting core traits.

Joshua Clover, for example, is being a jackass, but a very clever one. Bogen would have good advice for him, suggesting in her passage on simile-versus-metaphor that "'How like a jackass I am' lacks the pizazz of 'What a jackass I am.' " But one can only write about what one knows, and we suspect that Clover does not yet know this.

"Did you get a load of his photo?" Gary asks, and I did; the jacket flap of Madonna anno domini shows him standing bare-chested before a mountain range, blond and sunglassed, unbuttoned flannel shirt flapping in the breeze. Perhaps this is left over from some previous career dream of being a supermodel. Perhaps he turned to poetry for consolation.

I doubt it consoles anybody else. The jacket copy tells us that "Madonna anno domini is a sacrament for the twilight of the atomic age, a hellish Interzone with 'God in abeyance' where dazed speakers search through the vertigo of negation for love and belief." That, or maybe you could just see if there's anything good on tv.

But against our wishes, Gary and I found ourselves enjoying it. Clover's poems are poprocks of image and intellect, frequently showoffy, but nevertheless infectious. "I had a little desert, I kept it in the study, / it was a few inches across, like a hand mirror, / it moved a few inches at a time, like an ice age," is the pleasing delicate rhythm that begins "Bathtub Panopticon."

Sometimes Clover reminded me of early Dylan liner notes: "Zaffer, baby, milori, cŽleste, the sky so blue-colored / it's almost blue & you falling away from the world / into description" ("Blue Louise"), or

There must be the sense that in
the next
moment one can
head off
in any direction when one can
in fact turn only to
the west
murmuring 'how lovely
the west is' even though it is lovely
as the painters constantly remind us
with their famously winsome strata
of ceramic azul and cochineal
if you like that sort
of thing.
Then one day both armies
pass through town
in the same direction
—"Remarks on the Word Lucrative"

This is whimsically engaging, but I'm not sure it justifies the claims made in overheated blurbs that Clover has a fine mastery of formal poetic conventions or is a "physicist of syllables" (Jorie Graham, being cryptic again).

The Gold Cell
by Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
91 pp.; $13, paper

Clover's poem on the Los Angeles riots, "Radiant City," captures the airy, disconnected feeling of watching disaster on television: "First it was one thing then it was / one thing after another … / I / saw it live on tv. / From overhead it's possible / to speak of the whole thing." Airy and disconnected seems to be his specialty, and I wish there were more like "Totenbuch," which strikes more solemn chords. He wakes to see guards

delousing a woman with a razor …
I mean they were shaving
her head. Her scalp barely scarred hauled
out of her boot-colored hair so whitely
the treeline came loose from its
famous color
& stood in relation …
even before that she was a ledger
entry. I mean the booted guards
numbered her. At the edge her scalp
was barely scarred in rosy runnels where
the razor did the only trick it knew.

A Far Rockaway of the Heart
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
New Directions Books, 1997
124 pp.; $21.95

Clover weaves again and again images of snow, hair, and boots, layered with the regular hesitation of "I mean," grasping at the awful unsayable. At the end, "the train began / to arrive. Hauling out of the treeline it made / a monocle & brought no luggage."

When I tell Gary, "I think this one is my favorite," he makes a face. I guess it depends on where you open Sharon Olds's The Gold Cell. The book is divided into four untitled parts, roughly representing themes of danger and rescue, childhood memories, sex, and her own children. I hand Gary the book, opened to the last poem, "Looking at Them Asleep."

I see my girl with her arm curled around her head …
her mouth slightly puffed like one sated but
slightly pouted like one who hasn't had enough,
… the son he is sideways in his bed,
one knee up as if he is climbing
sharp stairs up into the night,
… I look at him in his
quest, the thin muscles of his arms
passionate and tense, I look at her with her
face like the face of a snake who has swallowed a deer,
content, content—and I know that if I wake her she'll
smile and turn her face toward me
… if I wake him he'll jerk and say Don't and sit
up and stare about him in blue
unrecognition, oh my Lord how I
know these two. When love comes
to me and says
What do you know, I say This girl, this boy.

"That's wonderful," Gary concedes. The poems about her children will give many parents piercing shocks of recognition: "The Gerbil Funeral," "When My Son Is Sick" ("I think about the / half-liquid skin of his lips, / swollen and nicked with red slits like the / fissures in a volcano crust"), "I See My Girl" ("your small torso under the / load of your heavy knapsack the way a / boulder would rest on the body of a child, and / suddenly I see your goodness, the weight of your / patient dogged goodness").

The thing that struck us about Olds was her drive to communicate—as opposed to a lesser poet's drive to express himself. Olds comes at you with an auger, ready to drill in, passionate about getting her vision across. You get it; her poems are not coy or cloudy. "I feel like I'm not going to earn a headache trying to understand this," Gary said. "She's bent on revelation, not writing for the sake of obscurity."

Olds describes herself as a "salvation addict," who craves happy endings for poems—yet she doesn't always supply them. Her poems about an unhappy childhood are raw, and may strike many readers as almost embarrassingly self-revelatory. But when NPR's Terry Gross suggested to her that they were the sort of thing one might put in a locked diary, Olds protested that such poems should be read only "as if" to the writer's parents; "I would never talk about them as poems about my parents. … I keep my private life very separate from my life as a writer." She wouldn't ask, she said, whether a student's poem was really about his or her own family, but whether the writer had described "a human experience that feels real or useful or moving." This suggested a whole new category of poetry: achingly expressionist pieces that could in fact be works of fiction. Far from feeling cheated, I think I could like this better. It's like being able to enjoy the movie more if you remember it's only fake gore.

Because poetry is so very condensed, it reveals the personality of the writer more starkly than any other form of writing does.

Sometimes you can spot a literary problem from a long way off; an example would be the title of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's new book. Here it comes, edging above the horizon—oh, no, it can't be—A Far Rockaway of the Heart. And a guttering cry of dismay breaks over the populace. Yes, this is the "sequel" to A Coney Island of the Mind, that spry and winking 1958 collection with "hip, daddy-o" written all over it. (For example, "a kind of carpenter / from some square-type place / like Galilee / … starts wailing / and claiming he is hip / to who made heaven / and earth / and that the cat / who really laid it on us / is his Dad").

My college copy of Coney Island was well-loved, and lines like "Don't let that horse / eat that violin / cried Chagall's mother" were declaimed in the dorm hallways with great glee. But it's been 40 years since Ferlinghetti wrote it, and you hope now for something more. "The new poems are less tired than I expected them to be," my generous husband says, and I agree, but that's not exactly the problem. At this age, "spry and winking" takes on an entirely different connotation, suggestive of Gabby Hayes. Indeed, the author photo looks like " … and starring Lawrence Ferlinghetti as 'The Old Prospector.' "

The new poems employ the same creatively broken lines as the old, have some flashes of interesting description, but lack the electric charge of surrealism that made Coney Island so exhilarating. There's not much in its place. Far Rockaway is a series of 101 numbered poems, most shorter than a page, many about travels in Italy and Greece. Here's number 61, in its entirety:

made of flesh and stone
madness and misery
laughter and forgetting
In the shadow of its night streets
sleeps the old dream:
Light out of night
The sun bursts forth
over the Piazza del Populo.

Okay, well, let's try number 72: "The long boats / sail into the night— / Farewell!" Hmm.

One of the recurring tricks in this book is a sampling of famous lines, delivered with a heavy load of irony, though it's never clear to what end: "So much depends upon / a very yellow taxicab"; "our evening spread across the sky / like a patient etherised upon a table"; "the isles of Greece / upon a wine-dark sea"; "By the statue of Rodin / I sat down and wept." What's lacking here, I think, is heart. The poems just don't go very deep. Never did, I suppose, though they were clever. You just hope for more at this end of life, that "wiser" has tagged along with "older."

In her lesson on the Petrarchan sonnet, Bogen admonishes, "Get to work, bearing in mind that your effort should in some way be emotional." If Ferlinghetti misses making heart-contact, Harriet Levin's The Christmas Show wrestles with frightening situations and resulting deep emotion. Levin's title poem is about an incident from her childhood: While she was watching the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, her sister was being raped: "my youngest sister lies / on a cold cellar floor / in a house whose broken windows hold back nothing / and three boys pin down her shoulders / and force their way past her belt buckle."

In the wake of this horror, the sister became a problem in herself, as the watching poet continues to record: "My sister drove up on the lawn just in fun, / then struck down the birches—saplings just planted, / spun off the lawn, circling our street's dead end." Later, "We think she has come home to us, / bird of paradise, finally driven out / from her world of drugs and pain." Finally, "When we asked her if she wanted to go to the beach / with us, she raised her arms despairingly, / arms already weighted down. / … this / is how my life is different from my sister's, / I have not been forced to struggle for it."

The Holy Surprise of Right Now
by Samuel Hazo
Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1996
262 pp.; $22, paper

Levin records the pain, but doesn't seem to know what to do with it; she's unable to transform it. Similarly, she records observations of her father's and grandfather's hostility, incidents when she felt threatened by strangers, and arguments with her lover, and in each case, she appears as a helpless observer, timid, unsure how to respond. Her effort is "in some way emotional," but not very constructive.

Rape is a popular subject in these poetry books, perhaps because the subject is so freighted that it gives the poem an easy jump-start. Nevertheless, it should go somewhere from there and not be merely reporting or deploring. Contrast, for example, Sharon Olds's "The Girl," which describes a 12-year-old's recovery from a brutal rape and near murder. She goes staunchly through the trial, returns to school, and as a cheerleader, "shakes the / shredded pom-poms in her fists." Something happens in this poem; in Levin's, it doesn't seem to get beyond handwringing. If the writing were truly extraordinary, these still lifes might still be appealing, but little lingers in the memory when the book cover is closed.

Samuel Hazo, on the other hand, is a mature poet who knows exactly what he's doing. The Holy Surprise of Right Now collects new poems with those stretching over a 40-year career. It's an awful title, not assisted by the book's tall, thick hymnal format and a cover design that makes the heart sink. The title, set with knowing Gothic accents and a hint of stained glass, marches down a luxuriously swirly field of luggage brown to meet a brown-tinted photo of smiling, balding Samuel Hazo himself. Of all these books, this is the only one where the designers elected to put the author's photo prominently on the front cover. Apparently they thought this would be a big draw. The world of big-time poetry marketing remains a never-ending source of mystery to me.

Hazo's work is appealing because of his sure-handedness; he combines this with a warm heart and sense of humor that war against the trademark image of angst-ridden poet. The more discursive poems can veer off into "and that's my philosophy of life," to which a response of "That's nice" is more accurate than "That's interesting." But his descriptive poems hit the mark solidly. Hazo is at his best, as Bogen would say, "describing appearances from the world of 'reality.' " From "Castaway":

Purple, navy, aquamarine,
and emerald, the combers tumble
brown to Byblos and its walls.
Each wave shatters in blustery
applause across the reefs …
Wave on wave reshuffles, cuts,
and deals the shore its solitaire
of shells, leafmuck, or seavines
webbed around a fin.
and everything's sucked back to sea
again or pummeled undersand.

When combined with his tenderness for his family or friends, Hazo's word power blooms forth even more surely. In "Carol of a Feather," the simple image of his son shuffling through autumn leaves is conveyed through careful use of alliteration and internal rhyme: "He runs ahead to ford a flood of leaves— / he suddenly a forager and I / the lagging child content to stay behind / and watch the gold upheavals at the curb / submerge his surging ankles and subside."

The next verse makes it personal:
"A word could leash him back or make him turn / and ask me with his eyes if he should stop. / One word, and he would be a son again / and I a father sentenced to correct / a boy's caprice to shuffle in the drifts."

As with some of the other poets in this stack, I've been almost foolishly grateful that I could understand what Hazo was talking about. "It's intelligent, but not esoteric," Gary said. "Even with passages I didn't quite get, I felt OK, not like I was being tricked."

National Poetry Month

But is clarity a necessary element of good poetry? A few paragraphs ago my writing was interrupted by a phone call from daughter Megan at college. She's excited because she's studying Eliot's The Waste Land.

"It's so fascinating, Mom," she said. "And so complicated. The more I learn about it, the more I want to read it, although we're having to go real slow.

I just love it."

I remember feeling that way, about T. S. Eliot specifically, my favorite poet in high school. In his case, clarity wasn't a necessity; the power of the words pulled me along irresistibly and sank into my memory, ancient bells waiting to be rung. Is there some reason I can respect obscurity in Eliot but not in Clover? How can Hazo make plain-speaking elegant, while Levin just makes it plain? And why does beatnik Ferlinghetti seem amusing while geezer Ferlinghetti is vacant, since on the page the products are so much alike?

What's a stumped writer to do? Bogen has the answer. "Go for a stroll—remember, poets stroll."

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a columnist for Christianity Today and a commentator for National Public Radio. Her book Real Choices: Listening to Women; Looking for Alternatives to Abortion has recently been reissued by Conciliar Press.

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