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Poetry and Poetics

“Whatever it was I had to say,” Charles Wright writes on the first page of Littlefoot (FSG 2007), “I’ve said it.”  Two years later, in 2009, Sestets, his most recent book, came out.

“Instead of going over poems today,” Charles said one day a few years ago as our small, always-awestruck-in-the-presence-of-Charles-Wright class gathered around a seminar table at the University of Virginia, “I’m gonna read you some John Cage.”  He then began to read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I am here,” he said, “and there is nothing to say.  If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.”

Thank god he does.  If he had nothing to say at the beginning of Littlefoot, a beautiful book-length poem, then he certainly had much more nothing to say in Sestets.  For, in Sestets, we find the God-hunger and dark humor from Wright’s other works—“What’s up, grand architect of the universe?” he writes in “Terrestrial Music”—but in a new form for him, and an interesting contrast to Littlefoot’s length.  Sestets is a book of brief poems, each just six lines long, the brevity of which harkens back to his much earlier work, which is similarly condensed. However, the poems that compose Sestets retain Wright’s signature long and long-winded lines that often split and drop down midway through.

Another distinguishing element of Wright’s work is his titles, which often act as little poems in and of themselves.  One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the poem “If This Is Where God’s At, Why Is That Fish Dead?” from the previous book A Short History of the Shadow. And here in Sestets, this element continues, as we get similarly brilliantly layered titles, such as, “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky” and “Autumn is Visionary, Summer’s the Same Old Stuff.”  Even “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” wonderfully humorous, opens up to suggest that even the people we most admire we forget when we age and memory falters.  “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock / is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word / uttered in childhood or back in the day,” he writes in “It’s Sweet to Be Remembered,” a title inspired by Lester Flatt.

Many of Wright’s poems are inspired or informed by songs and song lyrics, which contributes to the playfulness of Wright’s work, even as it addresses the direst of last things. “Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time” begins, “Whump-di-ump-whump-whump, / tweedilee tweedilee tweedilidee, / I’m happy as can be…” and he means it—I heard him read it once and he went ahead and sang the line.  The poem goes from this playful beginning to an impulse to remember the details about the song, and who sang it, and then a reflection about the faults of memory in the face of lost time, as then settles, as Wright often does, on a heartbreaking ending image:  “Pretty nice, but that was then, / when our hearts were meat on the grill.  // And who was it, Etta James or Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker? / The past is so dark, you need a flashlight to find your own shoes. / But what shoes! and always half an inch off the floor, / your feet like the wind inside them.”

The brilliance of these poems lies in the way they at once comment on human existence in a flawed, rough world while also commenting on poems, songs and art itself, on why art exists, and how.  “The metaphysics of the quotidian is what he was after,” reads the first line of the book, an ars poetica for this book of poems, rife with thoughts and images that occur everyday and often go unrecorded.

Sometimes, when the formal feeling comes after an encounter with the void, after, as Nietzsche would say, we look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into us, we reach out, then, for something that will console us honestly, something that goes beyond apologies for what’s newly missing, beyond the assertion that the person lost has gone to a better place, or that the relationship ruined was all for the best, the easy crutches tossed off at times of loss that actually perplex and paralyze thought.  Wright consoles us for the losses of this world honestly and almost cruelly frank at times—“We live on Orphan Mountain, / each of us, and that’s how it is”—and at other times darkly funny in the language’s colloquial tone.  “We haven’t heard from the void lately,” he writes.  And it’s implied that it’s just a matter of time until we do hear from it again.  And that’s how it is.

And around the workshop table, we listened as Charles went on, reading Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”  “We need not fear these silences,” he read, “—we may love them.”  This, for those of us in the workshop who felt that we didn’t deserve to be there and still had to turn in each week mediocre poem after mediocre poem, was incredibly consoling to hear Wright say.  And it is something many of us from the workshop, I’m sure, still go back to, just as, I think, Wright must also do during the inevitable silences.

After a loss, there is always a particular kind of silence.  I finished 2010 reading and rereading Sestets using sympathy cards, whose consolations always come up short, as bookmarks.  “Twilight of the Dogs,” a poem almost dead center of the book, begins, “Death is the mother of nothing. / This is a fact of life, / And exponentially sad. / All these years—a lifetime, really—thinking it might be otherwise.”  We get the sense that Wright uses writing as a way of filling the void, of making his way down Via Negativa trying to reconcile his hope of what might be otherwise with what simply is.

John Cage writes, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”  And we get the sense that Wright’s work comes from a place of urgency, a personal need to be consoled by language, even as it is arranged by him.  And we too need these poems, because, as Wright tells us early on in Sestets, “If you can’t delight in the everyday, / you have no future here. / And if you can, no future either.”  And I’d assert that we need these poems especially in the dead of winter, after what was for many of us a rough year, and at the beginning of a new year whose occurrences remain hidden from where we now stand.  We need these poems especially when “Everything is what it seems to be and a little less.”

Sestets is what it seems to be and a lot more: a small book of small poems that resurrect what they can from the nothingness.  Sestets is Charles Wright at his best, yet again.  Read it with a sympathy card as a bookmark.

Of course, the first guest on the show to grow up in one of the largest wilderness preserves in the United States, Yosemite National Park, provides me with a photo of herself taken indoors. Dawn Marie Knopf’s poetry feeds off a particularly American mythos: old wives’ tales, Farmer’s Almanacs, the revered stories of American pop heroes before they made it big. Playing both sides of the coin, Knopf enjoys both the extension of these fables to a magical extreme and the reduction of them to a sorry tall tale. Does the ball ultimately land in- or out-of-bounds? Listen to the interview to find out.

Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 1

Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 1

Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 2

Dawn Marie Knopf, Part 2

Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.

Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.

Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.

Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:

But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar

The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.

Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like

when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)

A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.

It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”

I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)

and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:

nobody waits
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls

Poem in the Manner of Charles Bukowski

You do what you want,
I’ll do what I want,
and we’ll see which one of us
gets to the twenty-dollar window
in time for the fourth race at Del Mar.

On the goddamn radio
that’s always playing
in my bitch’s kitchen,
I heard some East Coast big-shot author
say he needs to jerk off before he can write.
All is I can say is fuck that shit.

I hate poets who beg you
to like them because you feel sorry for them.
Do not feel sorry for me.
I won on Bitches’ Brew in the fourth
and went home and drank
a fifth of bourbon
and got laid.

___________________________________________
David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford American Book of Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at The New School.

A special thanks to Brian Adams for letting us use his photos in this post. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.baphotos.com. To see more of his pictures of David Lehman, click here.

Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Late Ripeness.”

If Martha Stewart had a child who went rogue, moved to New York City, and started writing poetry and making books, that child may have turned out to produce something as crafty-bohemian as Small Anchor Press does. Their carefully assembled chapbooks are often made with hand-marbled paper, complete with twine, stitching, high resolution images, and tiny folded windows and flaps.

The Dory Reader ($21 + $8 shipping / 12 print and audio issues) is a monthly periodical for subscribers, featuring a single established or emerging voice per issue. Each subscriber can feel special since each series is editioned according to the number of subscribers and is “intended to be read or listened to on a morning commute.” Subscribers receive a “kit” which consists of a letterpressed box (beautifully done) to store all the incoming pamphlets.

Issue I, featuring the incredibly innovative artist-poet Jen Bervin, almost self-consciously begins with lines seemingly echoing a creative process: “the best part of the weaving / was the drawing pressed / up against threads so / carefully arranged / to look simple.”  The issue caters to Bervin’s love of the look and texture of words, with beautifully rendered close-ups of the lines done on the typewriter, so every blob of white-out and slight bleed of a letter becomes another element of the poem, another aspect of poetic form, a tiny work of art. Small Anchor clearly wants to make an objet de’art, but they are also concerned with lyrical quality in the poetry, which is what I find most enjoyable about Issue I. Lines like “I am waiting for you / I cannot leave until / you answer with a poem”  or “glassed over shelves / books wild in their selves / give light back” all seem so wonderfully inviting for the reader and are aware of the space in which they exist. It leaves one looking forward to the next issue with anticipation.

(submit now!)

[Do you get any reception here?]

Do you get any reception here?
I think if you face West.
You await silent sadness to filter in.
Or if you shut it off you will be the same.
Cracked open and with a scar.
Light getting in through chinks at night.
Bits of information like a glorious blanket over the sky.
A window box of purple basil.
A dried chili in a bowl of water.
Blossoms exchanging news across the rooftops of the city.

____________________________________________

Matthew Rohrer teaches at NYU and is the author of A Plate of Chicken and Destroyer and Preserver (forthcoming), among other books of poetry.

When gaining a foothold among the establishment, it is important the so called “outsiders” or mavericks have a figure fully anchored within the establishment who can be “acceptable” to the degree that he is:

1. Friendly to their cause, or, at the least, suffers their presence gladly.

2. Perceives himself (or herself) as being “forward thinking” (it does not matter if he or she is truly forward thinking as long as he or she considers his or herself as having a nose for future value).

3. Often someone with disposable income or privilege fully willing to dispose of it.

4. A disgruntled, black sheep member or son or daughter of the highest inner circles willing to defect and lend their support and contacts and influence to the “new” order.

In terms of the Black Mountain school let’s fill out that order. William Carlos Williams, especially in his more objectivist, socialist form was perceived as friendly to the cause of poetic innovation, and was enough of an outside/insider to prove acceptable as a substitute for Eliot whose triumphant followers in the form of the post-war formalists, and metaphysical poets had a lock on academic positions and public adoration. As the Agrarians had done twenty years before, the Black mountain school found a camp in the wilderness, but, unlike the agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc, etc) they did not embrace a local, southern aesthetic, but used the isolated camp in the mountains of North Carolina as a meeting ground for international figures of the “new.” The romance of this camp caught the imagination of one of the most “inside” figures in all of poetry: Robert Lowell. Lowell, bi-polar and supremely gifted, and from one of the most powerful and gloried families in New England, was the chief darling, along with Randal Jarrell of the late thirties and early forties elders. In post-war poetry, he was dominant.

His “conversion” to free verse and to writing from life in mid to late fifties put a stamp of approval upon what had been the outsider’s position. I forgot to mention the idea of the “sacrificial lamb” or “innocent victim” around which the outsiders rally, and thereby seize power. In this case, the most comical, and unlikely lamb in literary history: Ezra Pound. Lowell’s championing of Pound, and the defense of Pound, the fight to get Pound out of jail for treason, brought Williams, Pound’s college buddy, and the Black mountain school, as well as Lowell into alliance, putting the final seal of “greatness” on Williams which had begun with Jarell’s introduction to his selected poems, and the rich James Laughlin’s interest in publishing Williams’ work,  This rallying around Ezra brought certain poets into prominence much as the Vietnam war protests of the sixties brought Bly, Merwin, and the Deep Imagists to the fore. So that’s the other condition for outsiders becoming the insiders: a proper “victim” or martyr they can rally around. (“Free Mumia” t-shirt anyone?)

We will be studying these mechanisms in detail through both the poems and essays in the following movements:

1. First and second generation romantics.
2. The Imagists.
3. The Black Mountain school
4. The Beats/ San Francisco/Confessional schools
5. New York School/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Surrealists
6. Deep Imagists
7. Multicultural (or the cannon warriors)
8. Gender, queer, and green theory

And their various alliances, misalliances, temporary marriages of convenience, hybrids, and finally:

9. Slam and spoken word, and its mixture of multi-cultural, beat, gender/queer identity and post-Lenny Bruce menology (as well as aspects of the self-acceptance movement).

Certain suppositions:

1. With the possible exception of spoken word and multiculturalism, none of these “mavericks” were truly outside the power structure, and all of them depended on converts within the power structure to gain a foot hold.
2. All movements, once gaining a foothold, take on the characteristics of power against which they rebelled, and the re-affirmation of elitist exclusion/inclusion tactics. All end up being part of the academic and publishing establishment, and are distilled beyond their original definitive traits into what I will call “establishment and normative” sea. All rivers run to the sea, and that sea is both the death of a dynamic, and the force of the power in all dynamics.

We will be studying these power games through certain theories of co-operative evolution, and one thing the evolutionists are never interested in and ought to be: the tendency of movements and isms to create abnormative, non-breeding “heroes”– not unlike priests who function in the realm of  what I will call “virtual mate selection” and produce “virtual” progeny. The way this is done bears many common traits with actual mate selection and the bearing/raising of children. So we will study these movements in relation to “courtship.

The distinction between what it is that constitutes the “amateur” poet and what constitutes the “expert” is slippery, yet should be considered in an extensive discussion.  To begin, let me address the amateur’s typical testimonies:  “I write to express my emotions,” or “No, I would never show my poetry to anyone!”  The truth is that all poets want readers.  One of the differences between the amateur and the expert is that the amateur feels he is at the risk of exposing something “personal” about himself, and is hesitant because he feels he will either be made to feel vulnerable or will be relegated to the subject of ridicule, while the expert, on the other hand, disguises and crafts his poetry through a language and imagistic lens which allows him to remain distanced from the poem, and what the poem speaks to.  If a novice poet wants to be recognized, it is usually not about inventiveness of metaphor or image, but because he wants not feel so alone, because he wants someone to know his pain, and because perhaps, he is masking as someone who resists conformity or is practicing all the semiotics of how he assumes a poet should present himself to the world.

Let me elaborate.  When I was a high school student in the tenth grade, I ate my lunch alone in one of the cubicles in the library, wore “goth” clothing, and pierced my own ears with a sterilized safety pin. The trouble with wearing your pain in a semiotic costume is that the person wants to be noticed, and often times saved.  Eventually a teacher noticed me and told me that I ought to be writing poetry.  So I wrote horrendous poems and prayed to God that someone cared about my inner turmoil.  I’ve seen this plenty of times with high school students, and even freshman college writers.  Why do poets insist that they are required to write about their own pain?  Maybe it is because pain is more intriguing than writing about a Christmas that goes along merrily and just as planned, or because since the punk rock era, pain is “fashionable.”

The expert poet might be in pain, but somehow has learned not to indulge in it.  He has taken poetry workshops and knows that he must mask this pain behind an exterior that appears normalized, and not sit around the workshop table sulking.  He has learned not have a nervous breakdown when someone attacks his poem, because it is neither “professional” nor socially appropriate. He knows how to assume an air of aloofness or arrogance where it is necessary.  He knows how to cajole publishers and editors with a subtle charisma.  In some respects, he has lost his innocent and bleeding heart to “the business.”

Here is where the amateur exhibits more authenticity.  He has not surrendered himself to competition or the battlefield of what he wants to seem like effortless metaphor and allusion.  The amateur simply wants to be recognized as human, with something to say, and not necessarily for any other audience other than that mentor (and we have all had those) who will assume the role of therapist, or savior, or suicide prevention official.  The problem with this is that the poetry gets lost in the need to feel important.

So the expert is made to feel important by extensive publications, and laudation, not necessarily for the poet himself as person, but for his brilliant rhetorical tactics.  The amateur poet might write about the “hissing wind” as opposed to “anorexic women floating away in the wind,” and this might be so important to him that his heart breaks.  So does the almost ersatz recognition of twenty editors make the expert feel better for his gratified ego, or does this just leave him feeling empty, in that unrequited manner he can’t expose behind his flashing smile?  Does he want to be loved for his humanity or for the name on the page?

The truth is, no one can take a name on a page out for a romantic dinner.  A poet CAN be taught to twist his pain into clever metaphor and image, but at the same time, must have healthy relationship to his sanity.

The advantage of being married to another poet who recognizes me for my humanness and also (the horror) loves me more than he loves my poetry is that I know I can break down in a hysterical fit of tears over nothing, while at the same time he can say, “edit the lineation in the poem.”  I am by far an expert, though I have been fortunate to attract the literary eye of many editors.  Suffice it to say that the recognition of my work can never be a substitute for the love that my husband gives to me.  It is certainly fantastic to have your work recognized, but if you don’t have someone to make you less alone, and someone who recognizes your pain as something he wants to save you from, than the idea of real human interaction is obliterated.

My advice to both amateurs and experts: care for yourself first.  If the roof caves in and you walk outside your front door some morning to find a dead raccoon, write about it.  If you go to a carnival and the balloons look lonely, investigate why.  Tell your loved one about the lonely balloons in your sleep, and then sigh when he kisses you and makes the balloons seem less lonely.  Tell him that the instrumental version of “C’mon it’s Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with You” upsets you because of the sound of the whip against the reindeer’s posterior.  But never lose your wanderlust, and be naïve about the world.  Do not indulge in the pain of having no one show up for your fortieth birthday celebration in literal terms.  Personify the wall or the tea kettle.  See yourself as a medium, and speak through objects and images which might implicitly reveal your pain, but not render it the primary focus of the poem.  Speak through “things.”  Speak through “event,” as a bystander and unassuming observer.  Be the corner of the room where the dust gathers.  And never underestimate the amateur poet.  Cater to his insanity.  As an editor, in the words of my husband, “see what the poem wants to say or do.”  Regard the poem as an extension of someone whose voice must be crafted in order to be heard.  Poetry, as necessity, should never neglect the person behind the poem.

Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Czeslaw Milosz’s poems “On Prayer” and “And Yet the Books.”

I’ve never seen Evan Hansen wear a cowboy hat, but his pensive look in this picture displays the same concern he shows in his poetry for people and the tremendous, unspeakable burdens they carry on a daily basis. While the characters in these poems at times find solace, it is by no means permanent, and Hansen makes us wonder if a lifetime of momentary relief might be the best we can hope for. With that in mind, here’s to the upcoming long weekend providing us all with a little more time to relax our way into the summer.

Evan Hansen, Part 1

Evan Hansen, Part 1

Evan Hansen, Part 2

Evan Hansen, Part 2

Big Badness

A dead CEO admonishes me to do
what I love, which he can’t see me
doing. I need only a clean place to lie

around, to see a few decent things.
You’re lucky if you have half
of that, but which half. Also look

up to see everything has gone
a shade of purple which should
only last a few minutes but goes

on for an hour because of the clouds.
And why is that, an equinox
or its afterbirth staining everything

some of the other words there are
for purple. Go find them for me
and keep maybe one for yourself,

give them to me and invent more
and I will acquire them, hand over
the ones you were making and I will

tell the world I invented them. They are
mine (Lilac™, Violet™) and I will kill
you to impress upon you that I can.


________________________________________

Mark Bibbins teaches at The New School and Columbia. His books are The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon, 2009) and the Lambda Award-winning Sky Lounge. He is poetry editor of The Awl.

Piety: We will be using this term in its extra-religious sense as first defined (in that sense) by George Santayana, and greatly expanded upon by Kenneth Burke in his work Permanence and Change. I strongly suggest you read Burke’s chapter on piety since it is an astounding critical work. At any rate, you can get the whole of Permanence and Change on PDF by Googling it. Do so.

For now, let us give Santayana’s definition of piety: “loyalty to the sources of one’s being.” Now this is not confined to physical being, but to one’s cultural, sexual, political, professional, and symbolic being, also one’s semiotic being (for example, brand names and fashion). A person may contain conflicting pieties. This is why a “noble” person who does the grand gesture of forgiving a criminal and is gladly arrested while protesting his execution might, a week later, fly into a fury and rage and think evil towards someone who has messed with the order of the pencil’s on her desk. In rational terms, they are just pencils. What’s the big deal? In symbolic terms, they may represent her sense of control, her sense of private space. Once we see this as a loyalty to the sources of her being, but realize that those sources are complex and varied, and might even be in conflict, we get an idea of why human behavior is so complicated. A theory in current evolutionary psychology might offer insight.

David Buller, in his wonderful work, Adapting Minds, both takes to task, and explores a belief common in 1980’s and 90’s in evolutionary biology known as the modularity thesis:

Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychological adaptations take the form of modules, special purpose “minicomputers”, each of which is dedicated to solving problems related to a particular aspect of survival or reproduction in the human environment of evolutionary adaptness (EEA). Summarizing this view, Steven Pinker says, “the mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.” Given that evolutionary psychologists claim that there are hundreds or thousands of modules comprising the human mind, this view of the mind has been called the “massive modularity thesis.”

Such division of labor, such independence and non-coherence of modules might well explain why a person dead set against the death penalty might fly into a rage over a shifting of her pencils. Of course, if the module of her anti-death penalty belief, if one of the mini-computers in a set of mini-computers, and her reading, political mind set, and awareness of semiotic piety is in full force, then she might not rage, even if she feels infuriated. After all, someone might think it odd that a person against the death penalty is “freaking out” over her pencils. She might keep her voice at a “peace activist” level. She might patiently and gently express to the sinner that she likes her pencils just so. She may even make a little self-deprecating joke about her own “OCD.” It depends on the level of stress. Still, if this person continues to fool around with her pencils, our activist might find a way to exile her from her life. She will keep the murderers close, and exile the pencil terrorists! After all, a murderer might kill a family in cold blood, but he never fucks with your pencils. To put it in an adage: “men may forgive murder, but they will never forgive a mooch who never has his own money or cigarettes.” This is the loyalty to the sources of one’s being in a nut shell. But notice the conflicting piety. Perhaps we can see piety in the following manner (cheap but effective):

Macro-piety: Those core loyalties to one’s being concerning how you and others should live, how the world should be, and how it really is (idealism/criticism/ realism)
Micro-piety: Those little habits, those beneath which nots, your sense of space, choice of music, quirks, tendencies of personality that define you moment by moment.
Pietistic integration: The attempt to make macro piety and micro-piety accountable to each other, and to live as a seamless whole.
Pietistic conflict: Those conflicts between pieties that cause us to be unique, complex, contradictory, and weird or misunderstood.

With this knowledge we could have no trouble doing a typical romantic comedy eco-disaster movie: in romantic comedy, boy and girl or girl and girl, or boy and boy meet, dislike, are thrust into a situation with each other, compromise, fall in love, have one more major falling out, then reunite: lights outs. Now for the movie:

Wendy, a crusading, passionate ecology doctoral student is hired to work with the world renowned Peter Thorndike, the leading authority on studying glaciers for evidence of global warming. She has heard that he is called the “monster.” But she has read and admired all his work. Like Katherine Hepburn in the days of yore, she is undaunted and believes she can work with the monster. In point of fact, she is looking forward to the challenge. She is 100% eco: hemp, her whole being expressing a life of hiking, veganism, chanting, political activism, etc, etc.

Enter Peter Thorndike, the monster. Peter, about six years older than Wendy and a thousand galaxies removed semiotically: never saw a cheese burger he didn’t like. Listens to death metal. Wears shirts given to him by his aunts at Easter from Wal-Mart. Smokes, and not hand rolls, or American Spirits, but Pall Malls. Drives a gas guzzling pick up. Gets along with the locals, talks hunting, and has no patience with tree huggers, though he is, at heart, a profound lover of the woods and of nature. He is grouchy, prone to getting ranch dressing on his reports, a person who any tree hugger might hate if he wasn’t so brilliant and dedicated to his work.

Wendy’s perfect boyfriend (there are always these perfect boyfriends in such movies, a man with a perfect integration of macro/micro pieties, all except for one thing: he’s too perfect. No one likes too perfect. they are the kind of romantic character we despise). He’s hot, plays bluegrass bass & fiddle in a eco-cowboy punk band, and always says the right thing to Wendy at the right moment except they are too comfortable with each other: no tension, no real passion. He’s wonderful in bed, but when she tells him she’s going to work with Peter Thorndike in some back water town in Alaska, he barely misses a beat and has no problem with it. His fatal flaw is he doesn’t care enough to stop “caring” in all the expected ways.

The first scene would be the meeting of Wendy and Peter under the rules of antipathy common to romantic comedies. She might enter his office while he is finishing a bacon double cheeseburger, polishing it off with Orange cream soda, and dancing around his charts and stats to a speed metal band. They conflict, but their common thread is the work. One night they get stranded on a mountain, and of course, this is where the bonding takes place (like the drunk scene in Jaws). They become friendly in spite of all their difference. We first know she might be falling for him when she Googles speed metal. We might know he is falling for her when he brings his bottle of hot sauce to the dinner she has made him of Tempe, and goes to pour it on the food, and then desists, looks at her, takes a bite, and actually likes it. We can see the romantic comedy in terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We can go all Hegel on this. But the active literary interest and drama/comedy will be created by a creative between conflicting pieties, and over all growing affinity.

Piety then is what we value, or that loyalty to the sources of our being, but it is more than value. In the full complexity of human constructs it is the rhetoric of conflicting and supposedly coherent values. We will now look at a famous poem, and see it in the terms of this piety (loyalty to the sources of one’s being). The poem is by William Carlos Williams. He is considered an arch-modernist and an enemy of the sentimental tradition of Edwardian and romantic literature. Some claimed his poems are “anti-poems.” Nicanor Parra, a South American poet heavily influenced by Williams, had the temerity to call his Williams-influenced poems “Anti-poems.” At the same time, Stevens charged his friend Williams with the sin of sentimentality (a terrible charge against a self proclaimed champion of the new). Both Parra and Stevens are right, for, in Williams, as in many dynamic and important poets, we find what I will call pietistic conflict. On the one hand, Williams was all for throwing out flowery speech and the overly rhetorical convolutions of the European (read English) tradition. On the other, he was raised in a world of flowers and color; his mother was a gifted painter, and Williams had a blind spot in his otherwise clear headed doctor way of thinking—or rather than a blind spot, let us call it a conflicting piety. Also Williams, in his earliest years, was completely enthralled by the poems of John Keats. In his poem “The Act” he makes two characters, but I believe they could be seen as a dramatization of his own inner aesthetic conflicts, his conflicting pieties. At any rate the poem:

The Act

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded. They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me in my hand.

In this poem, Williams plays the aesthete to the woman’s practical and unsentimental notions. He is defending the source of his being in beauty. To cut the roses in the rain would be a sin against the source of beauty. That is the speaker’s piety. She is enforcing a piety or an impiety of utility, of “brutal” realism. This explains the dynamic energy of the poem. It is an essay on conflicting realms of piety. Burke, in the beginning of his chapter on piety, speaks of a man felling a great tree. He needs it for firewood. After felling it with his axe, he feels strangely at odds with himself. He may associate the tree with the father, with the sacred strength of the father. There may be a symbolic parricide in this act, one a poet might perceive more readily (of course, in the Mother earth realm of present day ecology, the great tree might as well be a mother). In ancient cultures such “sins” could be purged by a ritual act of cleansing. In a sense, the modern man’s act of cleansing is to fall upon the rampart and “piety” of the utilitarian. “nonsense!” The man says. “I need the wood. It’s just a tree. There are plenty more where that came from.”

We may not be aware of many of our pieties until they are trespassed against. As Burke points out in another book, The Rhetoric of Religion, the words Quoseth (Hebrew), Hagios (Greek) and Sacre (Latin) are traditionally translated as holy or sacred ground, but they are not that limited. A truly more literal translation is “ground set apart”—in which case, that ground can be sacred or accursed depending on the piety or impiety of the situation. Piety, in a sense is ground set a part, isolated from its semiotic indicators and its symbols, until those indicators and symbols are threatened or made unstable, or come into conflict with others. Let us look then at another poem grounded in piety as we are discussing it here: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

There are several conflicting pieties here. The section where Oliver goes on about penitents seems to be an implicit slap upside the head of standard, “guilt ridden religion.” The New Agers cheer! Yes! I don’t have to be good; all I have to do is let my body love what it loves. The overt piety of this poem is nature as a form of salvation, but the covert piety of this poem is the natural (as in organic), self-love, choice culture of spiritual consumerism. This choice culture only has to love what it loves. It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be a shopper. In point of fact, nature, in the later part of the poem “offers.” Now that’s a word dear to every consumer’s heart. I don’t know if Oliver intended this piety to be there, but it’s there in spades.

Also, it harks back to an earlier Protestant piety: the rejection of good works in order to emphasize faith and grace—election. We are “elected” if only we let our bodies love what they love. So, in going against the piety of guilt and repentance, she embraces the theological concept of election. She goes on to say (I am paraphrasing here): “Tell me your troubles, I’ll tell you mine.” This sounds like a good deal, except she immediately cancels troubles by implying they are negative in comparison to the majesty of the world as ongoing and healing process, all of which is at our disposal. How dare we waste time looking at our troubles? That is the lesser choice, the “bad” choice. So, to amend her opening gambit: you do not have to be good, but you can’t focus on despair because that is bad. You do not have to be good. You have to be positive. Could a new age consumer be more thrilled? I have seen otherwise sensible poets go into ecstasy over this well made, very good, but not great poem.

Unwittingly, it is touching and massaging every button of our choice culture, (the knee jerk I am spiritual, not religious) and the piety of choice, middle class privilege, consumer satisfaction, and positive thinking, plus “green think.” The geese are personified. They are angels, the angels of the new order which is an order of post-Wordsworthian salvation through communion with all sentient being. OK, fine. But this poem contains even more conflicting piety than Williams, and it reeks of the chief contradiction of the new age: A conflict between choice, and unlimited vistas, and very real concerns about conservation. In a more sensible argument, these conflicts might be resolved with: “you have choices, and you do not have to be good, but make sure you are organic.” At another point, Mary Oliver would not be so ready to say: “you do not have to be good”—if a group of hunters were out there, plugging away at the geese. God forbid! This would hit her dead center in her conflicting piety. Of course, if they were Native Americans, taking the geese and singing praise over them, that would be a different story.

This is the danger of piety: it shows all our utopias to be greatly compromised by our pietistic contradictions. I think of the squatter I knew when I was homeless, returning to his parent’s Scarsdale mansion on the weekend to do his laundry. I think of the radical feminist who I saw torture a waitress because she wanted her toss salad “just so.” In terms of piety and even in terms of the “modularity” thesis, these are not acts of hypocrisy. Our pieties are hidden, especially the ones that conflict with our core sense of self. They jump out at odd times to bite us on the ass.

But I want you to question your own piety and so, here, so I must figure out why Mary Oliver’s lovely poem enraged me.

It is probably not the poem at all, but the fact that I saw it raved about by affluent well-educated poetasters who were snobbish towards me. After all, I was not a wild goose. I was a working class prol who, somehow, because of my odd predilection and knowledge of poetry, had blundered into having authority over them in a work shop. They were all fans of Mary Oliver, and they hated anything brutal, or violent, or outside their piety of New Age epiphanies. They savaged a woman who had brought in a poem by Philip Larkin. I am not a big fan of Larkin, but I consider him at least the equal of Oliver. They savaged him for being a pessimist. I countered: “yes, but can you extend beyond your dislike of pessimism to look at his craft and skill in being a pessimist?” They could not. They savaged him for rhyming (someone had told them rhymed poetry was always suspect unless it was before the 20th century). One woman spoke up and said: “he’s just a clever dead white male.” I said: “so is Shakespeare… Do you think Mary Oliver is a better poet than Shakespeare?” She paused, thinking it out, then replied: “Shakespeare was good for his time. Mary Oliver is more relevant to ours.” I then launched into my knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s nature poetry, his superior knowledge of animal husbandry, his closer, almost daily encounter with a pre-industrial world. She said: “Well, you don’t like Mary Oliver because she’s a strong woman.” Then, unable to hold back, I said: “No I don’t like Mary Oliver because I think she’s just an upgraded version of self help drivel. I think her love of nature is privileged. I think John Clare far superior to her.  As for strong women, I was raised by five aunts and a strong mother. They got dirty. Bugs didn’t eat sugar from their hands. I think her easy spirituality is horse shit, and I think you can’t love nature in that way unless you come from an income of at least 100,000 a year, and can afford to have such wise sentiments. Every time I see a Mary Oliver poem, I hear the eco-friendly middle class trampling on the graves of working people. You don’t have to like what I say, As Mary tells us, I do not have to be good.”

I went away greatly puzzled by my anger. I felt awful. I actually liked “The Wild Geese,” but they also claimed it was superior to the sixth part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and that I could not stand. I examined my conscience. I had slipped into demonizing mode. It was not Mary Oliver I disliked. It was her gatekeepers. I went back the next week, apologized for my vehemence, and we entered a new realm. We started talking about received value and piety. I conceded it was a good poem. They conceded Larkin was funny. So it goes. Know your mechanisms before you proceed. More importantly, know that you can never know them fully. That is both to the pain and the glory of the human construct.

~
The way I see it, history as a subject reads best when it is both documented and re-imagined (In Cold Blood, Ragtime, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men come immediately to mind); when a literary revelation emerges as a result of source material from the scene and from the bigger world get all mixed up.  Artistic freedom applied to the narrative of seeing the world gives historical events a kind of literary sense beyond the mere recording of something that happened in time.

By nature, history is haphazard and at its core, personal.  And I can’t think of any American poet who knows that fact as deeply and successfully as C.D. Wright who has, in a number of books, combined poetry with other kinds of writing to make a history about prisoners in Louisiana (One Big Self:  An Investigation a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster), or America’s relationship with itself and the rest of the world (Rising, Falling, Hovering) or, in her most recent book, One With Others,  her own, even more familiar smalltown Arkansas and the civil rights movement in the late sixties.

_____It smells like home.  She said, dying.  And I, What’s that you smell, V.  And V, dying:  The faint cut of walnuts in the grass.  My husband’s work shirt on the railing.  The pulled-barbecued evening.  The turned dirt.  Even in this pitch I can see the vapor-lit pole, the crape myrtle not in shadow…

So begins this brilliant book of poems, prose, oral history, collection of historical records and eyewitness accounts about a group of blacks living in rural Arkansas and their ‘walk against fear’ in 1969 (most strongly felt as a response to King’s assassination the year before).  This account of second class citizenship (culminating at one point in a round up of the town’s black students into an emptied public swimming pool) is told from different points of view – most luminously revealed in the life of a woman known as “V” (Wright’s mentor and guide):

_____They drove her out of the town.  They drove her out of the state.  Until they burned up her car, she drove herself.  Burned her car right next to the police station.  She had just begun to drive, I mean she had just learned to drive and she had many miles to go.  Then, whoa, Gentle Reader, no more car.  The white man burned that MF to the struts.

While this is a book about memory (and how it mixes with politics to form a kind of seam against oppression) it is also a reminder of how the story of civil rights continually evolves with differing sets of explosive situations to set the next call to action in motion:

To act, just to act.  That was the glorious thing.

and

Walking we are just walking
Dead doe on the median
Whoever rides into the scene changes it
Pass a hickory dying on the inside
A black car that has not moved for years
Forever forward/backwards never

One With Others with it’s look back at the history of a march is also interlaced with looks into the future.  V, for instance, ends up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York – the place one senses, that names a location as much as a state of mind:

_____IN HELL’S KITCHEN:  Her apartment is smaller by half than the shotgun shacks that used to stubble the fields outside of Big Tree.  Stained from decades of nonstop smoking.  The world according to V was full of smoke and void of mirrors.

_____She was not an eccentric.  She was an original.  She was congenitally incapable of conforming.  She was resolutely resistant.

_____Her low-hanging fears no match for her contumacy

_____Grappling books in the mud leaf out in the mind

What gives this book it’s great heart and beauty is how it follows not only the force and fragmentary transcription of history and civil rights on a local level, but that it follows thinking itself:  a fixation on a memory, the confusion over time of who is who and the indelible way activism and art documents a time.  (Aside from the march and outcries, there is also a continuing devotion to literature, painting and music).

This feeling of the mind working in time is also drawn literally, typographically, with continuous placements of wide white spaces between lines and paragraphs and list items.  By the end, the book takes on the form of a list undulating into a paragraph followed by lines breaking away: the way, as if the past is a dream, we make ourselves remember it and piece it together:

_____Not the sound but the shape of the sound
_____Not the clouds rucked up over the clothesline
_____The copperhead in the coleus
_____Not the air hung with malathion
_____Not the boomerang of bad feelings
_____Not the stacks of poetry, long-playing albums, the visions of Goya and friends
_____Not to be resuscitated
_____and absolutely no priests, up on her elbows, the priests confound you and then they confound you again.  They only come clear when you’re on you deathbed.  We must speak by the card of equivocation will undo us.

_____Look in to the dark heart and you will see what the dark eats other than your heart.

One With Others is a masterpiece.

At a recent Poet’s House reading, Demosthenes Agrafiotis had some harsh things to say about haiku written in English. They fail not only because English can’t possibly pack as much information into a syllable as Japanese does, but the form itself is tied to a cultural imperative, a way of thought that one learns for so long that to even ponder how it works unravels the meaning.

That said, Brian Kalkbrenner’s Foul Feelings is the closest thing in English, spiritually, to haiku that I can possibly think of.  Sure, the poems are pithy and zazen, which is an easy link to the Japanese form. But these often tiny poems are ponderously gargantuan. Brian is a modern western ronin, wandering the new nature of urban living (as urbanized development has taken the majority of the Earth’s surface, it might as well be the modern rendering of nature) and living the poet’s path, sharpening his pen and honing his skills.

Such a road is not easily traveled, and to compound his difficulties, Brian has chosen to commit poetry seppuku by self-publishing Foul Feelings. How is self-publishing like slicing open one’s belly in disgrace? Samurai committed ritual sacrifice for many reasons large and small, but I believe that Brian has chosen to publish this book himself and therefore alienate the work from a large segment of the larger (read: academic) poetry world because that world has gone from focusing on art to focusing on the numbers, specifically the number of dollars given as prizes, scholarships, fellowships, etc.

You might as well save your Stegner application fee and invest in some Mega-Millions tickets because you have about the same chances of winning either. And even if you do make it, what guarantee is there that you will be a better writer, let alone a “successful” one? Brian bypasses the lottery of modern poetic politics, instead choosing to release these poems of their own volition. One would realistically consider this a grave mistake, given the stigma against self-publishing, if not for two things: the poems are sharp enough to parse atoms, and no journal would ever accept them. Brian had no choice but to climb the mountain and meditate on his craft.

It’s hard to talk about these lines without giving anything away, though there isn’t really much to give away. They are mostly small, ranging from seven words to paragraph-length prose poems. Not all of them are philosophical but neither are they simple narratives. They’re surreal in the way that you are given two things that don’t exactly connect logically but don’t exactly disconnect either; they are reflections from a broken mirror. Any meaning pulled from the lines are refracted through the reader.

Not that Brian is only writing about the big pictures here. In fact, that’s what makes these poems so haiku-like in the first place: modern life is explicated through the small moments, images, and thoughts of everyday life and everyday language. That same daily word choice, the common words we all utilize hourly, transformed like sand into glass by Brian’s capable hands. That’s the strength behind Foul Feelings and poetry at large, the way it can take something we thought we new and twist it into new meaning. Any publisher would be honored to have Brian in their ranks, but perhaps it would be best for us if he continued to walk the way of the warrior-poet.

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M.A. Vizsolyi’s first book of poetry, The Lamp with Wings: Love Sonnets won The National Poetry Series, selected by Ilya Kaminsky, and is forthcoming in the fall 2011. He teaches ice hockey and ice skating lessons in Central Park, and lives in New York City with his wife, the poet, Margarita Delcheva.