I was sure that the ratio between now and then would be astoundingly steep, demonstrating, once again, how narcissistic and selfish is the Geist of this particular Zeis.
To test my theory (to prove it, I was sure) I decided to use the winners and two runners-up of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry over the last three years. I would take the first poem I could find by each poet and start counting the I’s and me’s.
Hmmm – it didn’t work out. In the poems of the nine Pulitzer poets there was not a whole lot of narcissism, nor a lot of I’s and me’s. I’m still convinced that most of the poetry being written today is more therapeutic than poetic; I just assume that Pulitzer Committee is as contemptuous of that stuff as I am.
It wasn’t a waste of time, though.
I don’t read poetry often, and not much contemporary poetry – the one or two poems in each London Review and whatever poetry I come across while I am thumbing The New Yorker for cartoons. So my little survey of contemporary poetry was enlightening.
Since my expectations were low, I was pleasantly surprised. (A good formula to remember in many situations.) Four of the nine were good poems – in other words, if I were the professor of an advanced graduate course in writing poetry, I’d give them an A. Two moved me.
These are the poems I found. And what I have to say about each.
Driving Route 20 to Syracuse past pastures of cows and falling silos
you feel the desert stillness near the refineries at the Syrian border.
Walking in fog on Mecox Bay, the long lines of squawking birds on shore,
you’re walking along Flinders Street Station, the flaring yellow stone and walls
of windows where your uncle landed after he fled a Turkish prison.
You walked all day along the Yarra, crossing the sculptural bridges with their
the hollow sound of the didgeridoo like the flutes of Anatolia.
One road is paved with coins, another with razor blades and ripped condoms.
Walking the boardwalk in January past Atlantic City Hall, the rusted Deco
ticket sign, the waves black into white,
you smell the grilled ćevapi in the Baščaršija of Sarajevo,
and that street took you to the Jewish cemetery where the weeds grew over
the slabs and a mausoleum stood intact.
There was a trail of carnelian you followed in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem
and picking up those stones now, you’re walking in the salt marsh on the
the day undercut by the flatness of the sky, the wide view of the Atlantic, the
Your uncle stashed silk and linen, lace and silver in a suitcase on a ship that
docked not far from here; the ship moved in and out of port for years, and
your uncle kept coming
and going, from Melbourne to London to Kolkata and back, never returning to
the Armenian village near the Black Sea.
The topaz ring you passed on in a silver shop in Aleppo appeared on Lexington
the shop owner, a young guy from Ivory Coast, shrugged when you told him you
had seen it
before; the shuffled dust of that street fills your throat and you remember how a
coins poured out of your pocket like a slinky near the ruined castle now a disco in
Thessaloniki where a young girl was stabbed under the strobe lights—lights that
sky that was the iridescent eye of a peacock in Larnaca at noon, when you walked
church where Lazarus had come home to die and you forgot that Lazarus died
because the story was in one of your uncle’s books that were wrapped in
newspaper in a suitcase and
stashed under the seat of an old Ford, and when he got to the border
he left the car and walked the rest of the way, and when you pass the apartment
on 116th and Broadway—where your father grew up (though it’s a dorm now)--
that suitcase is buried in a closet under clothes, and when you walk past the
at the big glass entrance door, you’re walking through wet grass, clouds
clumped on a hillside, a subway station sliding into water.
Although written in the second person, Peter Balakian’s “Home” seemed to confirm my fear that poetry was becoming just another patch of monstrous narcissi emerging from the fetid swamp of art-as-self-expression. (Remember when it used to be “the universal?”) The you of Balakian’s poem seemed, at first, to be a shorthand for I, but then I, itself, appeared and I wasn’t so sure.
Maybe you is one of the poet’s numerous Armenian cousins. (Armenians have lots of cousins; I’ve read my Saroyan.) If that was the case, or even with an ambiguity about whether or not that was the case, it became a better poem.
Sure, Balakian plays the Armenian card, but that’s okay. Great things have been written using the Irish card, the Jewish card, the New England Wasp card, the Welsh card, and the Armenian card (I happen to think My Name is Aram is pretty super).
Unfortunately, the tone of “Home” is Robotic Narrative, in which the impassivity of the recital of incidents and sensations is meant to contrast with, and thus accentuate, their emotional content. It doesn’t work in “Home”.
To live in someone
(the musician not the composer is free)
a divine contention
like the damp carpet
of liquored olivia trees
(something my favorite you
finding in a hollow day
a winter keeper
a paper woman
caught in the torrent
not quite falling
Figs of lost thought
rainy differences and non-glides
feverish in girlways
the tenuous escape of a patient
jeweled or pinked
a pilling station
behind a gay exterior
or broad caplet
too tough to swallow
Carrying an atmosphere
beaten out like sound
a still life of amnesty
on the little lane
trees are safely tucked
below the wires
a darkness carried
out of childhood,
and fell to
Unable to hire oneself
for labor or to know
the green, braided thing
forgetting your grasp
in a paper understanding
a paper flap of happy self
your dream above your head
like comic weather
The teacher's love
of someone's children
a flash of light
in white air
so loving love
we lack science
and in ourselves
touch up the little teacher's picture
a desperate wedge
of indivisible ink
I fall in filaments
an uncontrolled breeze
forged & forgot
crawling (not climbing) down
netted, I bet
As proud & difficult as greek
a vigil (or Virgil)
waiting to happen
your father walking
toward your mother
as you briefly look away
then follow like a nonsense syllable
Loving the human bird --
the bright converse
of yellow-flowered grasses --
why aren't we lying
in miles of weedy clover?
The bright boat, tumbling through it
the blue of it -- Or,
taking the kid out of the picture
(what you loved to see)
a girl who talks to bird Don't go
Let's delay or -- like Shakespeare -- "fly"
in the green and untidy
Song in my heart
If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom
of the cage I bury it, like God tromping the sky
in his undershirt carrying his brass spittoon,
raging and sobbing in his Hush Puppy house
slippers with the backs broke down, no Mrs.
God to make him reasonable as he gets out
the straight razor to slice the hair off his face,
using the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.
Yes, and I liked this, too. The I stands in for everyone, not just the poet; the lament is universal, not particular.
Too bad the wonderful analogy at the end is not made with the same panache that strikes sparks at the beginning of the poem.
The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.
Too many words, too much detail, too much thought and not enough poetry to describe the inherent loveliness of girls jumping rope. I’m not saying that Pardlo should get it down to the bare bones, like William Carlos Williams does, but at least he should try.
A man hauling coal in the street is stilled forever.
Inside a temple, instead of light
a slow shutter lets the darkness in.
I see a rat turn a corner running from a man with a chair trying to smash it,
see people sleeping at midnight in a Wuhan street on bamboo beds,
a dead pig floating, bloated, on water.
I see a photograph of a son smiling who two years ago fell off a cliff
and his photograph is in each room of the apartment.
I meet a woman who had smallpox as a child, was abandoned by her mother
but who lived, now has two daughters, a son, a son-in-law;
they live in three rooms and watch a color television.
I see a man in blue work clothes whose father was a peasant
who joined the Communist party early but by the time of the Cultural Revolution
had risen in rank and become a target of the Red Guards.
I see a woman who tried to kill herself with an acupuncture needle
but instead hit a vital point and cured her chronic asthma.
A Chinese poet argues that the fundamental difference between East and West
is that in the East an individual does not believe himself
in control of his fate but yields to it.
As a negative reverses light and dark
these words are prose accounts of personal tragedy becoming metaphor,
an emulsion of silver salts sensitive to light,
laughter in the underground bomb shelter converted into a movie theater,
lovers in the Summer Palace park.
No, sorry. Polemics in the form of cool observation. Similar to Balakian’s poem, but Balakian’s poem is poetry, Sze’s (despite its form) is prose.
Alan R. Shapiro
Old court. Old chain net hanging in frayed links from the rim,
the metal blackboard dented, darker where the ball
for over thirty years has kissed it, the blacktop buckling,
the white lines nearly worn away. Old common ground
where none of the black men warming up before the basket
will answer or even look in my direction when I ask
if I can run too, the chill a mutual understanding,
one of the last we share, letting me join them here,
if nowhere else, by not letting me forget I don’t belong.
Old court. Old courtesy, handshake, exchange of names,
in the early days of bussing, between assassinations,
before our quaint welcoming of them had come to seem,
even to ourselves, the haughty overflow of wealth
so thoroughly our own we didn’t need to see it.
Old beautiful delusion in those courtly gestures
that everything now beyond our wanting just to play
was out of bounds, and we were free between the white lines
of whatever we assumed we each of us assumed.
Old court, old dream dreamed by the weave, the trap,
the backdoor pass. Old fluid legacy, among the others,
that conjures even now within our bodies and between them
such a useless, such an intimate forgetting, as in the moment
when you get a step on your defender and can tell
exactly by how another man comes at you
where your own man is and, without looking, lob the ball
up in the air so perfectly as he arrives that
in a single motion he can catch and finger roll it in.
Old court. Old dwindling cease fire, with no hope of peace,
that we silently turn away from when the game is over,
hurrying back (as if believing contact meant contagion)
to our separate tribes, to the cleansing fires of what,
despite ourselves, we momentarily forgot:
old lore, old news, old burning certitudes we can’t
stoke high or hot enough, yet won’t stop ever stoking
until whatever it is we think we are anneals
and toughens into an impenetrable shield.
Polemical poetry that I find moving, which is rare. I know the feeling, Alan R. Shapiro. I too mourn that loss, and I’ve never played basketball.
Bright Copper Kettles
Dead friends coming back to life, dead family,
speaking languages living and dead, their minds retentive,
their five senses intact, their footprints like a butterfly’s,
mercy shining from their comprehensive faces--
this is one of my favorite things.
I like it so much I sleep all the time.
Moon by day and sun by night find me dispersed
deep in the dreams where they appear.
In fields of goldenrod, in the city of five pyramids,
before the empress with the melting face, under
the towering plane tree, they just show up.
“It’s all right,” they seem to say. “It always was.”
They are diffident and polite.
(Who knew the dead were so polite?)
They don’t want to scare me; their heads don’t spin like weather vanes.
They don’t want to steal my body
and possess the earth and wreak vengeance.
They’re dead, you understand, they don’t exist. And, besides,
why would they care? They’re subatomic, horizontal. Think about it.
One of them shyly offers me a pencil.
The eyes under the eyelids dart faster and faster.
Through the intercom of the house where for so long there was no music,
the right Reverend Al Green is singing,
“I could never see tomorrow.
I was never told about the sorrow.”
This is a poem, a real poem. It makes poetic sense of the journey of a mind. To put it another way, it maps, or diagrams, a sequence of consecutive thoughts and sensations – something which, usually, is patently unmappable and undiagrammable. Only poetry can make sense of our synapses.
If it’s a map or a diagram, the finishing curlicue of the last quatrain, turns it into a work of art.
(The website where I found this poem had an audio player, with which you could listen to it being read. Why not? I thought. I had assumed that Seshadri would be the reader. Perhaps he was; but it sounded like a twenty-something-year-old. Moreover, he read in that robotic monotone that, unfortunately, so may writers use when they read in public. Sometimes it sounds like modesty – yes, I wrote it, but I don’t want to make a big thing about it; sometimes it sounds like boredom; sometimes embarrassment over having to say aloud what had been written in private for the eyes of just one person at a time. Lately, I’ve gotten the feeling that stories and poems are read that way because that’s how it’s done these days. That was my feeling about the reading of the Sheshadri poem.
I switched it off immediately. I can confidently say that if I had listened to the entire poem read like that I would have decided that it was a bad poem – instead of the good, very good poem, I ended up reading for myself, to myself, at my own pace, pausing whenever I wanted, and free to go back and read something again, and again perhaps, before moving on.)
"Gymnopédies No. 1”
That was the week
it didn’t stop snowing.
That was the week
five-fingered trees fell
on houses & power lines
broke like somebody waiting
for payday in a snowstorm.
That snow week, my daughter
& I trudged over the broken branches
fidgeting through snow
like hungry fingers through
an empty pocket.
Over the termite-hollowed stump
as squat as a flat tire.
Over the hollow
the fox dives into
when we open the back door at night.
That was the week of snow
& it glittered like every
Christmas card we could
remember while my daughter
poked around for the best place
to stand a snowman. One
with a pinecone nose.
One with thumb-pressed
eyes to see the whole
picture once things warm up.
Who cares? This is just the kind of poem I expected to find. So, you went out for a walk in the snow with your kid. So what? It could be the subject of a lovely poem, but not just by making it look like poetry. Matejka should listen to Satie again.
There is one wonderful stanza:
Over the hollow
the fox dives into
when we open the back door at night.
“Over” refers to the trudging of the father and daughter "over the broken branches... Over the termite-hollowed stump... Over the hollow.” But the stanza, on its lonesome, especially with “Over” indented (which it is not in the stanza above), seems to refer to the fox, as if the fox dives “over the hollow.” But then “into” bumps into “when” and we realize we have read it wrong. I find pleasure in reading it right to myself: not “Over the hollow the fox dives” but “the hollow the fox dives into when we open the back door at night.”
If I wanted to develop an aesthetic based on curlicues – which I don’t – I could include this stanza as an example, as well as Vijay Seshadri’s Al Green quatrain, above.
The Wife of Job
Well, now, I never heard the whirlwind speak
to me—though I did lose
my children to a windstorm, saw the lightning's sleek
flame have its way,
scorching the servants and the sheep,
and though I won't deny
that my husband here—the most pious man in Uz--
still claims an angel whispers in his sleep,
a plain fact that I don't discuss in mixed company.
You've seen such men, eyes dazed with righteousness,
who think they catch a whiff
of sin in everything: a neighbor's Sunday dress
hitched just above
the ankle, or a child's stray smile
when pies cooled on the stove
or a few idle hours, say, tempt him to mischief.
Such men may fast, or pray; all the while
salt loses its savor and milk sours in the pail.
And wives grow tired. Oh, not that I complain,
mind you—but certain nights
Job prayed above me as if Jehovah lay between
the sheets with us:
his breath in my hair was like a psalm,
each spasm a new promise
heaven might fullfill. Job's ways were just and right,
no doubting that; though later, in the calm,
I'd listen to him snore and know we were alone.
Still, who would strive to be more just than God?
My husband, I suppose.
And everyone knows that saints are first to feel the rod
and lash of grace
descend upon their lives, to bear
the blade of sacrifice
above their squirming sons, or as the future grows
in their daughter's wombs, to know they've sown it there--
needless to say, their wives and children share that grace.
We've sheep and sons to spare now, true enough;
and I've long salved the sores
that once blistered my husband's skin. But I've no love
or patience now
for piety. I do my chores,
—darn clothes or mend the plough--
and try not to think how such foolishness could stir
whirlwinds and voices, storms and random fires,
or draw down on us the thunder of the Lord's error.
Nothing wrong with adopting a classic form: in Creech’s case, WPA Vernacular. Look at Edgar Lee Masters. My parents had Spoon River Anthology on their bookshelves. I read it again and again. When I first opened Faulkner, I already knew where I was.
Creech’s poem catches the old Appalachian spirit (the literary one, anyway), which is its intention. It’s a Spenserian impulse, with the Bluegrass Mountains of Americans' dreams taking the place of the Arthurian England of the Elizabethans' dreams.
A Little Something Sweet for Afterward
(Or The Three Lives of Morri Creech)
Here is Creech’s photo there.
I took to him at once. He was so familiar: he was one of those romantic boys with dreamy eyes and tousled hair and supple minds who could charm any girl in the White Horse or the West End home with him, and you couldn’t blame the girls.
Whoa! Is this the same guy? this haggard academic with the brave smile that, at last, becomes a resigned one?