Joe Weil—A Night in Duluth
NYQ Books, 2016
Page Length: 104 Pages
After recently re-reading Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, a book that isn’t afraid to criticize the current state of academia, contemporary American poetry, and the pressure to publish or perish, I can’t help but find similarities between Hammond’s work and Weil’s latest collection of poems, A Night in Duluth, at least in terms of argument. The key similarity between the books is their willingness to take on the contemporary American poetry scene, namely all of the hobnobbing that goes on and the rapid speed at which some poems are churned out in order to fill a CV or earn tenure. Yet, the final pages of Weil’s book remind us of the power that poetry can still have, especially when it elevates the everyday image as something of beauty.
Hammond and Weil’s books are completely different forms. Initially his MA thesis at NYU, Hammond’s book is broken into chapters and can be viewed as a collection of essays on the current state of American poetry, one that references everyone from Aristotle to Robert Bly to make its points about the proliferation of M.F.A. programs and “workshop poems” cranked out in creative writing classes. Weil’s collection employs a language that blends the high and low brow and seamlessly references Edith Wharton and Henry James in the opening stanza of “I Want to Lick Your Knee and Weep for Rahoon,” and then asks at the beginning of the second stanza, “Where the fuck is Rahoon?” The mix of working-class language and references to literary giants or theorists (another poem references Adorno) has become a staple of Weil’s work. The working-class mixes with academic culture, and the speaker isn’t afraid to criticize some of the absurdities of academia or the po-biz, which is why Weil’s book reminds me so much of Poetic Amusement.
In “What Editors Are Looking For Is,” Weil writes:
I have noticed that the poems
and the editors, and much
of the scenery surrounding
the poems and the editors is
beginning to look the same—
fixed so to speak in an “Excellence”
that does not quite cohere.
In the previous lines, Weil imagines editors who are rarely pleased, with brittle faces, eventually smiling, somewhat, with a “pinched gladness that says/I believe this poem and I can/do lunch together. This poem will/not embarrass me should we be/caught in the camera’s eyes.” This poem and the point it makes again reminds me of Poetic Amusement, specifically that there is such a pressure to publish that sometimes academic poets pen safe poems merely to add to their publication records. The gatekeepers of literary magazines, meanwhile, are also careful what they publish in order to preserve their reputations and not offend.
The final pages of Weil’s book shift away from criticism of academia and the poetry scene and are exactly the type of poems Hammond imagines are possible, if we move away from a committee mindset and teach students to deepen their reading knowledge, place their poems in historical context, and draw on rich, lived experiences, even painful memories. One of the book’s last poems, “I Was a Good Son,” is one of the most confessional in the book, but it is also the opposite of the poems that Weil and Hammond rail against. It isn’t a safe poem, but one marked with brutal honesty, as the speaker recounts the last moments with his mother. The second stanza reads:
How do I tell her I wanted to fuck girls. I wanted to
escape into flannel shirts and beer, becoming whatever
it was that was not her dying. Even now I am
ashamed, and say: I was a good soon. I was a good soon.
What I was is love and love is not good. It is not dutiful.
It does not “Stay the course.” It breaks like a cheap watch.
I was a cheap watch. Ma, forgive me. I was a cheap watch
And both of us were lying.
After reading that poem, I had to set the book down and take a deep breath, reminded of the power poetry can still have, especially when it draws on a lived experience. There are other poems that remind me of Emerson, William Carlos Williams, and the American poetic tradition, not necessarily because of their form, but in the way they praise the everyday image, including the wind in a lover’s hair, as recounted in “Vibrant Monday Poem in Which Certain Things Almost Occur,” or a childhood memory about peeling chestnut shells in “Horse Chestnut.” That poem also shifts after a few stanzas to recall Anne Frank’s story, before finally confessing that a sort of spiritual beauty exists in the most common images in this world, including trees and chestnuts.
A Night in Duluth doesn’t hold back. It pokes fun at the po-biz and academia. It also reads like a journey about a working-class poet who ended up in academia and knows that he’s a strong teacher, but doesn’t want to play the game of hobnobbing that the profession sometimes requires. The final pages, however, show Weil’s knowledge of the American poetic tradition, in that his poems reflect Whitman, Emerson, and William Carlos Williams’ theories that the everyday image, including working-class language, belong in American poetry, and there is a poetic energy and spirituality that can be found there.