Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Mirage That We Call "Poetry"


When seen from a distance or just casually glanced at, poetry appears to be a substantive and singular thing. But when looked at more closely and attentively, this apparent solidity and unity dissolves: the fata morgana dissipates into the air.

Reading an article in The New Yorker on the Poetry Foundation and its president John Barr, and soon after reading the entries in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics on “Lyric” and “Poetic Meaning,” both dealing largely with problems in the definitions and uses of the terms, has reminded me of the emptiness of the word and the mental category “poetry.” As evidenced by the failure of all attempts at a comprehensive definition, we use the word “poetry” to refer to many different things. There is a nebulous family resemblance among these different things. But their attributes and aims are so distinct that it’s hard to believe they are all “poetry” in the same sense.

There is no such single thing as poetry that does or should do a single thing or set of things. When we say, “This is what poetry is” or “This is what poetry does,” we almost always mean, “This is what the kind of poetry that interests me is” or “This is what the kind of poetry that I like does.” I know what I value in poems, what I want poems to do. But I also know that what I value isn’t the definition of poetry, if only because there are so many poems that do other things, that aim at other goals. They can’t all be dismissed as bad poems. Some of them certainly are; perhaps most are. But that’s because they’re badly done in their own terms, not because they don’t match my definitions. They represent competing ideas of what poems are, of what poetry is. Ted Kooser, Barrett Watten and, to take a poet from the tradition, Milton hardly seem to inhabit the same poetic universe at all. And yet all three are “poets,” whatever adjectives one attaches to that noun.


This is not a new confusion. To adapt queer theorist David Halperin’s words to a completely different context, the definitional incoherence at the core of the modern notion of poetry is a sign of its historical evolution. These days, when we think of poetry, we think primarily of the lyric in its various permutations. Historically, however, different genres of poems have been recognized, each performing a different function. Beginning with the classical triad of lyric, narrative or epic, and dramatic poetry, these types have proliferated over the ages into lyric poems, narrative poems, epic poems, philosophical poems, didactic poems, satirical poems, meditative poems, elegies, etc. The categories often overlap, but one would not fault a satirical poem for being insufficiently elegiac.

To take only classical examples, The Iliad (an epic narrative), the Homeric Hymns, Pindar’s panegyrics to the winner of athletic competitions, Sappho’s love lyrics, and Lucretius’s De rerum natura (“The Nature of Things,” a didactic treatise on the nature of the physical and metaphysical universe) don’t operate by the same principles. The range of possible poems has exponentially increased since then.

The word “lyric” derives from the word “lyre.” Originally a lyric was a poem written to be sung, often to musical accompaniment (this sense is preserved in the use of the word “lyrics” to refer to the words of a song). Lyric has traditionally been defined by its foregrounding of the musical elements deriving from its origin (rhythmic and sonic patterning), though often the concept of “music” is metaphorical. Now the category of lyric has become a catchall or grab bag for any poem that is not explicitly and exclusively narrative or didactic, or perhaps satirical (humor tends to be excluded from most definitions of the lyric, though irony, subtler and better behaved, is welcome). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entry on “Lyric” points out that “Much of the confusion in the modern critical usage of ‘lyric’ (i.e. usage after 1550) is due to an overextension of the term to cover a body of poetic writing that has radically altered its nature over the centuries of its development” (714).

“Lyric” uncomfortably accommodates a disparate and often contradictory array of kinds of poems. As The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics puts it, “in contemporary critical usage it may be said that ‘lyric’ is a general, categorical, and nominal term, whereas in the pre-Renaissance sense it was specific, generic, and descriptive” (715). Lyric has tended to slip from a description of a kind of poetry to a prescription for what poetry should be.


This piece was originally called “There’s No Such Thing as Poetry," a deliberately provocative title. Poet and critic Joan Houlihan asked whether I would still believe that statement if I substituted the word “writing” for the word “poetry.” If one simply means putting symbolic marks on a surface with the intent of communicating something to someone, if only to oneself, or simply of recording something, then certainly there is such a thing as writing. It’s a material and social practice, and readily identifiable. If one means something more second-order than that, by which some things would qualify as “writing” and some things wouldn’t, moving from description to prescription, things get much more complicated.

Given the enormous range of things that can come under the heading of “writing,” from grocery lists to love letters to newspaper articles to poems to scientific treatises to street signs to warning labels, one could realistically say that there's no such thing as writing, even more so than one could say for poetry. It doesn’t follow from that premise that there's no such thing as good or bad writing. One would just have to define that in terms of the function of each kind of writing. Good writing for a nutritional label on a box of breakfast cereal is going to be rather different than good writing for a political speech or for a romance novel.

Any kind of writing can be well or badly written, more or less clear and accurate. Grammatical and factual accuracy, for example, are necessary to any good or effective writing, writing that successfully achieves its aims (though factual accuracy may be counter-indicated if one’s intention with a piece of writing is to deceive). Beyond this foundation of communicating accurately on the literal level (making sense in the most basic sense), the different genres of writing, from street signs to poems to instruction manuals to press releases, have different standards of evaluation, depending on their intentions and their uses. The very ambiguity that renders an instruction manual useless can be the thing we value in a poem, opening it up to multiple interpretations. When you’re trying to put together a grill from a set of instructions, semantic polyvalence is the last thing you want to encounter; but in a poem, we may find its absence a flaw, rendering the poem too flat and literal.


It would make things more clear, and eliminate much controversy and polemic, if we acknowledged that poetry isn’t a singular thing, that there are different kinds of poetry, and that these different kinds have different aims, different audiences, and different effects. Let’s see them for the distinct things they are and the distinct things they do. Sometimes one wants to be challenged. At other times one wants to be entertained, or soothed when one is stressed, or comforted when one is sad. Sometimes one wants to discover something new; sometimes one seeks familiarity. There’s no reason to think that poems should fulfill all these different needs, or that they should be expected to do so. On the other hand, there’s no reason to think that there aren’t legitimately different kinds of poems that differently address different readers’ needs and desires, or even the same reader’s different needs at different times and in different moods. To refer to another mode of artistic experience, sometimes I want to listen to Wagner and sometimes I want to listen to Webern (to take two extremes of scale); sometimes I want to listen to Joy Division and sometimes I want to listen to Kylie Minogue.

The New Yorker writes that “[John] Barr envisions a poetry more engaged, public-minded, and audience-beloved than modernism—intellectual, personal, and sometimes even willfully obscure—could ever be. ‘American poetry has yet to produce its Mark Twain,’ he wrote.” I have no desire to read the poetic equivalent of Mark Twain. But I have no desire to prevent someone else from doing so. And if Barr wants to give Billy Collins a prize for writing funny poems, that’s his right. No one wants to be challenged all the time. But no one wants to chuckle or be sung to sleep all the time either.

I agree with Barr on at least one point. While I don’t think that poems need be entertaining, they should engage the reader. Poems shouldn’t be boring. A boring poem is a bad poem, no matter what its style, mode, or genre.

What troubles me about Barr’s position is what troubles me about Ron Silliman’s. Both assert that their kind of poetry is the only worthwhile kind. The vast majority of poetry out there doesn’t interest me. Much of it I actively dislike. But except in my grumpier moods, I don’t begrudge it its right to exist in its own spheres. I just don’t want to read it. I don’t object to the Rod McKuens and Matty J. Stepaneks of the world. In high school I was very taken with Hugh Prather’s New Age prattling, which I found in the poetry section of the Macon Mall’s Waldenbooks. I don’t even mind if Jewel and Ashanti and T-Boz want to write poetry, though it would be nice if Jewel knew what the word “casualty” meant. I had never heard of Jack Prelutsky, whom the Poetry Foundation named as America’s first Children’s Poet Laureate, but his rhymes about tomatoes and asparaguses seem harmless enough, and even somewhat amusing. Such work might as well exist on other planets; those worlds don’t impinge on mine.

What angers me is when the work that I care for is weighed and found wanting not because it fails to live up to its aims but because it doesn’t offer the comforting homilies of the Prairie Home Companion (which to be fair does sometimes feature interesting poems) or the narrowly defined entertainment value John Barr demands. It angers me that “intellectual” is used as a pejorative. It angers me that such pseudo-populism is held up as a model of what all poetry should be for all people. Barr even objects to writing for posterity, which would disqualify much of the English language poetic tradition.

Barr’s complaints, and those of others who bemoan contemporary poetry’s difficulty and inaccessibility, show a real lack of familiarity with contemporary poetry. He needn’t like contemporary poetry, but he should at least describe it accurately. Barr is openly hostile to modernism, but Eliot and Stevens, condemned by many then and now for their “intellectualism,” have been dead for a long time. Besides the fact that they write in free verse, for most contemporary American poets Modernism might as well never have happened. Vernon Shetley, in his book After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America, which argues that contemporary poetry needs to be more complex and challenging to capture and hold readers’ interest, quotes Joseph Epstein’s observation that “contemporary poetry has not grown more but less difficult” (3). The Ron Sillimans and Clark Coolidges of the poetry world(s) are far outnumbered by the legions of competent poets writing completely accessible poems about their divorces and their dying grandmothers. Barr’s grumblings remind me of the readers Howard Nemerov wrote of many years ago: “they don’t like poetry, even though some of them feel they ought to; and they very naturally want poems to be as easy as possible, in order that there may be no intellectual embarrassment about despising them. These readers get their entire pleasure, not from reading poems, but from wrangling interminably over ‘communication,’ as though each of them lived in his own telephone booth” (“The Difficulty of Difficult Poetry,” Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics 24).

The problem, in poetry as in our culture in general, is of leveling. Everything is brought down to the lowest common denominator. Some years ago, in Chicago, I attended a screening of a film biography of the Martinican Négritude poet Aimé Césaire, a fascinating and difficult poet who has also had a rather interesting life. During the question and answer period someone asked, “What does this film have to say to the average black kid on the street corner?” I wondered, “Why does it have to speak to him? Isn’t there enough in our culture that’s addressed to him, that panders, however patronizingly and exploitatively, to him?” And isn’t it insulting to assume that he couldn’t find something interesting and engaging in Césaire if he were given the chance to do so? To assume that the mythical “average person” can’t appreciate anything complex is rank condescension. But in our culture, anything “intellectual,” anything complex or difficult, is not only marginalized but dismissed as irrelevant or, most damningly, “elitist,” often by members of the socio-economic elite, like John Barr.


I believe that all good writing, from a political speech to a love letter to a philosophical disquisition to a detective thriller to, yes, even a poem, shares grammatical fluency (one must know the rules of syntax to break them effectively), lexical accuracy (one must know a word’s meaning in order to play with or revise it), particularity and specificity of diction, phrasing, and imagery, and an avoidance of cliché and vagueness. What may work for a song lyric or spoken word poem will probably not work for a poem on the page, bereft of the musical texture, the grain of the performer’s voice, the gestures of performance. But with regard to particularity and some degree of uniqueness, good song lyrics are not different from good poems for the page.

Within the very broad and capacious limits of what might be called good writing, I say let a hundred flowers bloom. That emphatically includes the more exotic and recherché, even the off-putting. Not all flowers are beautiful, and not all smell lovely. (Philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto has pointed out that some art isn’t meant to be beautiful, and even that some art, given the effect it aims for, shouldn’t be beautiful.) Let there be room for that which doesn’t appeal to the widest possible audience and doesn’t intend to. I have as much a right to my aesthetic pleasures (and challenges: I enjoy reading poetry, but pleasure isn’t the only reason for reading) as John Barr or Ted Kooser or Dana Gioia does. I refuse to submit poetry, or life in general, to the tyranny of the majority. There are worse things than being unpopular, and just because you’re outnumbered doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.

As a corrective to prevalent misunderstandings and misuses of the term and the concept, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins offers the following clarification: “Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive [methodological] procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our own making. Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy” (Waiting for Foucault, Still 46).

Just as anthropologists have recognized that there is no such singular and universal thing as “culture,” we in the literary world should acknowledge that there is no such unitary thing as “poetry.” I call for a poetic relativism modeled on Marshall Sahlins’s definition of cultural relativism, which doesn’t exclude judgment, but postpones such judgment until the poem has been understood on its own terms. It is only then that one can determine one’s position toward those terms, to evaluate whether what was done was done well or badly, and to decide whether it was worth doing at all. Joan Houlihan cogently points out that letting all flowers bloom doesn’t preclude the possibility or even the necessity of weeding once they’ve done so, though this would hardly be the wholesale mowing-down (of poems or of poets) that the allusion to Mao might imply.

Friday, February 23, 2007

On W.S. Merwin's The Lice

I have the impression that W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, visionary, apocalyptic, yet spare and pared-down, is not much read anymore, although it made an enormous impression when first published in 1967. Indeed, Merwin himself, while still a prominent figure in the contemporary American poetic scene, seems to have fallen into some neglect. He is widely esteemed and honored, but not widely read. (He has also been immensely influential on many of today's writers who may not even realize the source of that influence.) This may be an inevitable consequence of becoming a literary elder statesman. And Merwin’s work has rarely again attained the intensity of The Lice.

But many of that book’s poems, with their poetic, political, and moral urgency, their desperate sense of speaking at and against the end, are even more necessary now, in our new world order of perpetual war against not only various demonized others both outside and within America but against the earth itself, than they were when the book was first published.

These are poems not written to an agenda but that create an agenda, preserving and recreating the world in passionate words. Merwin has always been concerned with the relationship between morality and aesthetics, weighing both terms equally. His poems speak back to the fallen world not as tracts but as artistic events.

The Asians Dying

When the forests have been destroyed their darkness remains
The ash the great walker follows the possessors
Nothing they will come to is real
Nor for long
Over the watercourses
Like ducks in the time of the ducks
The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky
Making a new twilight

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

The nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed
The dead go away like bruises
The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands
Pain the horizon
Overhead the seasons rock
They are paper bells
Calling to nothing living

The possessors move everywhere under Death their star
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future

When the War Is Over

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

The Animals

All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw

I with no voice

Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again

For a Coming Extinction

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And foreordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

These poems are taken from Migration: New and Selected Poems, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2005.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Picture This: On the Concept of Poetic Imagery


A teacher I had in high school said once, “Images are a dime a dozen. I’m tired of them.” A professor in college warned, “Don’t let metaphors become pets.” Some years ago, a student told me, “I don’t want to look at pictures when I’m reading a poem.” The still predominant scenic mode, to use Charles Altieri’s term, is so heavily dependent on imagery and visual description that it’s become completely rote. If I’ve painted a verbal picture, I’ve written a poem. It sometimes seems that anyone can come up with a string of images. It’s the structure that’s hard to produce, some reason that these particular images appear together in this particular order or constellation. Of course, it’s sadly impressive how many writers can’t even come up with disconnected images of any precision or impact. But while I’m critical of the scenic mode, I’m quite wedded to images, and to the specificity and groundedness images can provide. I don’t like poems to float off into the ether, and imagery can provide ballast, a route from here to there, wherever “there” may be for any given poem. Vivid, striking images make a strong impression on me, and I strive for them in my own work as part of the sensuous experience of the poem. All good poems, of whatever mode or style, have in common specificity and particularity. In contemporary American poetry, that specificity is primarily imagistic.

What we mean when we talk about images in poetry are mental images. A mental image can be defined as “the connecting link between experience (object) and knowledge (subject). An image [is] the reproduction in the mind of a sensation produced in perception….But of course the mind may also produce images when not receiving direct perceptions,” as in remembering past events or objects no longer present, in dreams, or in reading, where words “may refer either to experiences which could produce physical perceptions were the reader actually to have those experiences, or to the sense-impressions themselves” (“Imagery,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 559, 560). While the words “image” and “imagery” have been used in many and various senses in literary criticism, it is in this basic sense that I use them here.

In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound writes of three ways that language can be charged with meaning, which he calls phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia. He defines phanopoeia as “throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination,” much like projecting an image onto a screen (63). The reader’s imagination is presumably the screen which passively accepts this image. (This is a problematic view of the reading process, discounting the reader’s active role in producing the text, but I will leave that discussion for a later time.) Pound emphasizes that phanopoeia includes not just the fixed, still image but the moving image, that is, “praxis or action” (52). Most imagery in contemporary American poetry, as in Imagism, is of the fixed, still variety. (For Pound, at least for a time, vorticism was the solution to this problem of stasis.) Melopoeia induces “emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech” (63). Pound describes, in turn, three kinds of melopoeia, “verse made to sing; to chant or intone; and to speak” (61), and recommends the first. Louis Zukofsky followed this line of thinking with his diagram of poetry as “Upper limit music, lower limit speech.” Pound’s definition of logopoeia is the most problematic of the three. Logopoeia induces “both of the effects by stimulating the associations (intellectual or emotional) that have remained in the reader’s consciousness in relation to the actual words or word groups employed” (63). It’s unclear to me what the two effects are meant to be. It seems that they are visual imagery and emotional associations, but since the effects are induced by the stimulation of intellectual or emotional effects, that doesn’t seem possible, unless Pound is saying that emotional associations are induced by the stimulation of emotional associations, which is completely circular.

In the interest of clarity and at the risk of distortion, I define phanopoeia as the deployment of imagery to produce an effect upon the reader; melopoeia as the use of the range of verbal music toward this aim; and logopoeia as a second-order technique, using ideas, connotations, and intellectual and emotional associations to produce an effect in the reader. In Stevens’s terms, logopoeia may be referred to as the poetry of the ideas, as distinct from the poetry of the words (melopoeia) or, to add a category Stevens does not write of, the poetry of the images (phanopoeia).

Not all imagery is visual. Norman Friedman’s New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entry on “Imagery” lists a whole panoply of kinds of mental imagery: “visual (sight, then brightness, clarity, color, and motion), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch, then temperature, texture), organic (awareness of heartbeat, pulse, breathing, digestion), and kinesthetic (awareness of muscle tension and movement)” (560). It also points out that different poets may use different kinds of imagery, arguing that Keats’s poetry is dominated by tactile and organic imagery and Shelley’s by kinesthetic imagery. At the risk of simplifying a complex topic, I concentrate here on visual imagery, as most imagery in contemporary American poetry is of the visual kind.

Much contemporary American poetry neglects melopoeia, the music of syllables and words and phrases, in favor of phanopoeia, the play of imagery, or in the case of avant-garde poetry, some of which reads like a Cliff’s Notes version of theory, logopoeia, the play of ideas. Too often, however, the images neither play nor work, and the ideas are out on strike. (Horace wrote that poetry should instruct and delight, but too much contemporary poetry skimps on the delight and teaches nothing one didn’t already know.)


I’ve become interested in what I call the image-phrase, which isn’t strictly descriptive or visual but evocative or connotative (something along the lines of the absent presence of a flower that has never existed conjured up by the word fleur for Mallarmé). The image-phrase strikes me as a more flexible concept than the image per se. The image-phrase mingles perception and conception; it captures the inseparability of image and language, and also the way that a phrase can produce an image that is not a picture of something. The aim is a perhaps paradoxical sharp-edged, precise evocation.

Words are not pictorial, except in their visual presence as marks on a surface, a presence which is in itself not linguistic. There are no images in poems. There are conjunctions of words by means of which the poet hopes to induce the reader to produce a mental image in his or her mind (and such an “image” is as much verbal as visual), an image that will be analogous to the image the poet wants to appear at that point in the poem. “As far as poetry is concerned, there are no sensuous visions that correspond to what a poem tries to say. Instead,…the concrete actualization of poetry lies in its linguistic shape, not in the highly problematic visual representations poems are supposed to stimulate. Poems do not need sensual representation to actualize themselves. They are concrete enough in the medium of language” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 143-144). In Saussurean terms, one presents the signifier rather than the referent, which is always unattainable in any case: the concept rather than the thing in the world.

Jack Spicer writes in one of his letters “to” Lorca that he has tried to be “independent of images…to make things visible rather than to make pictures of them” (After Lorca, in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer 34). This is close to what the image-phrase attempts to do, knowing that it is an impossible aim. Spicer, though, claims to seek “to make poems out of real objects,” though he also claims, contradictorily, that he wants “to point to the real” (op. cit. 33), which would indicate that those objects have stubbornly stayed outside the poem. An object in a poem, unlike the strips of newspaper and wallpaper pasted into Picasso’s collage painting Glass and Bottle of Suze, is not a real object, but a virtual object, a verbal simulacrum of objecthood. A poem cannot be constructed out of things, or even ideas and emotions. As Mallarmé reportedly told Degas, poems are not made out of ideas, but out of words. The only objects in poems are words, and words are not objects in the same way that globs of paint, that shapes and colors are.

Words can elicit visual responses in the reader’s mind (though the relationship between a reader’s visual response and the visual impression aimed at by the poem is contingent at best), but the paradox of how a visual impression or experience is conveyed or recreated in a nonvisual medium is irresolvable. Much as we might wish them to, words do not embody things. How often I’ve been frustrated by language’s incapacity to capture a visual impression, the nearly-full moon at eight haloed by a pink-tinged mist and wreathed by a half-circle of bare and partly-bare branches black against the blue-fading-into-deeper-blue night. So many words and that moon’s still not there. As W.J.T. Mitchell points out, “Since literary representation does not represent by likeness the way pictorial images do, literary representation is itself only and always metaphorical” (“Image,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 557). The idea of representation is itself a metaphor when applied to literature. Visual images bear a perceptual resemblance to the things that they represent, but words do not resemble that which they attempt to represent, except insofar as they represent other words (as in literary presentations of speech, writing, or verbal thought). Verbal descriptions are never depictions. “The concept of ‘poetic imagery’ is thus a kind of oxymoron, installing an alien medium (painting, sculpture, visual art) at the heart of verbal expression” (ibid.).


Painting and writing work very differently in this regard, because a painting is always itself an image, even if it’s not an image of anything. There are actual colors and actual shapes that, whether or not they refer to something else, exist as material entities in themselves. A painting, or a sculpture, can be thought of as an image of itself. I often prefer nonrepresentational art exactly for this reason. Representational paintings seem on the one hand redundant (an image that’s also imaging something else) and on the other hand distracting (the image being represented takes one’s attention away from the image the painting is: and I’m very easily distracted by subject matter). I’ve seen the world, and I don’t particularly need copies of it. My interest is in the painting as a painting, not as a painting of something. As Adorno writes of traditionally representational paintings, “To the extent to which we detect in them images rather than replicas of something, they are ‘abstract’” (Aesthetic Theory 46).

Clyfford Still’s wholly abstract paintings are landscapes of color and shape. There’s a large all black painting of his at the Art Institute of Chicago (I can’t recall the title, though I’ve tried to look it up) that’s like a sea of black with black islands of textured paint rising out the surface. How often I’ve been tempted to touch that painting, to feel the textures that the eye only intuits. But words, as words, don’t have that palpable solidity, that visceral immediacy. We hear or we read and we must then translate.

Language is an in-betweenness, the interrelation of elements. Language doesn’t just relate things: language is relation. If it’s purely material, its no longer language, just scrawlings or noise (though it might then become visual art, like Arakawa’s work, or music, like some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s language experiments). If it’s purely conceptual, without manifestation, then it’s no longer language either. Some experimental poetry (concrete poetry, for example; I don’t know what the poetic equivalent of conceptual art would be) tries to approach one or the other of those extremes as closely as possible while still remaining language.

The sound of a word can fill the mouth or ear with pleasure, but that sound isn’t the word. A beautifully scripted or typeset word can give visual pleasure, but those marks on the page aren’t the word either. Nor is the verbal concept in the mind, unspoken. Words are defined by their liminal state between the immaterial and two states of concretion, thoughts on the one hand and marks or sounds on the other. It’s the conjunction and co-presence of these two modes that makes language language.

Friday, February 16, 2007

How Not to Read a Rembrandt

The British Marxist art critic John Berger is not much read now, at least in America, but he was a very important figure in the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. Ways of Seeing, published in 1972 as the companion to a BBC television series, is by far the most famous and influential of his many books. It was a major text in disseminating the idea of seeing as a social practice: as he writes in the book, “all images are man-made” (9). The book played an important role in popularizing the notions of seeing as a mode of reading and of the social world as a text to be interpreted. It was a major impetus in the development of what has come to be known as cultural studies.

Berger has been very important to my thinking about visual art and visuality. But his reflectionist view of art, in which elements of the artwork are equated to elements of the world and specifically of the artist's life, has always bothered me. Among several other more useful things (including surveying the history of the oil painting as a medium intimately associated with property and possession and analyzing the female nude as a specifically voyeuristic instance of that mode of ownership he sees the oil painting as embodying and enacting), Berger takes biographical information about the artist, or rather, biographical conceptions about the artist and the meaning of his life, as constitutive of a given painting’s meaning. Berger’s brief comparison of two Rembrandt self-portraits, the first as a young and prosperous man, the second as an old and presumably much poorer man, exemplify this reductive approach. Berger takes a version of the shape of the artist’s life, supported by specific biographical data (Rembrandt had just married Saskia when he painted the first self-portrait; six years later she would be dead), as the meaning of the painting. The basis of this elision of the painting, its meaning, and its creator’s biography is a representationalist view of the painting, deriving from a representationalist view of knowledge. For Berger, the painting means only insofar as it resembles in a two-dimensional format some aspect of human life or the phenomenal world (which in turn resembles some world of meaning) which it, by means of and directly as such resemblance, represents. This view presumes a direct correspondence between the painting and that which it represents: the painting is a mimesis of something in the world rather than an object in that world.

For Berger, a painting’s meaning is constituted by what it says about something else; the painting is always a reference to some other thing. It is this implicit premise that allows Berger to enlist the artist’s biography as a source of meaning, however much he discusses oil painting as a medium. For him, the meaning of a painting is the meaning of its subject matter. The subject matter of the two Rembrandt self-portraits is the painter; thus, their meaning is the meaning of his life.

Berger confuses the subject matter of a painting with its content, as many people confuse the reference of a poem with its sense. He conflates the referent with the signified, as if the relationship between the two were intrinsic and not conventional. The visual image, even more than words (simultaneously the most abstract and the most concrete of entities), exists as an object as well as a representation of an object. Berger reduces form to nothing more than a vehicle for meaning, though the painted image is by its material constitution more a form than a content. The content a painting embodies is equated with the subject matter to which it refers; form, structure, style, technique, are all merely the means by which this is presented to view. The painting is a mirror of the phenomenal world. This conviction underlies Berger’s often-evident but never, to my knowledge, thematized hostility to artistic abstraction. Abstraction makes explicit that paintings are made out of paint, whatever shapes that paint may mime. For Berger, if a painting contains no image that can be interpreted as some item of the physical world, and preferably of the human world, then it can have no content and thus no meaning.

Berger’s assumption of a natural, self-evident relation between a painted image and its meaning is shown in such statements as “if one approaches [Rembrandt’s painting of himself and his first wife] without sentimentality, one sees that its happiness is both formal and unfelt.” Art historian E.H. Gombrich has exploded at some length this myth of the “innocent eye” which simply sees things as they are. In the later self-portrait “[Rembrandt] is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question.” Would Berger say the same thing if Rembrandt had been smiling? If the painting were revealed not to be a self-portrait at all? If it were proven to have been painted in Rembrandt’s youth? Existence, after all, would still be a question. In these passages, the idealism of Berger’s view of paintings (as distinct from the materialism of the painting as an aesthetic object) is clear. What, exactly, is this universal “existence” which is shown in the later self-portrait as a question? Berger’s readings derive from certain always already-given ideas of the meaning of prosperity and good fortune and their relation to real happiness, of old age and poverty as the states in which some universal “one” engages “the question of existence.” What they do not derive from is any particularly close attention to the painting as such, rather than as a stand-in for something else. In this case, the something else in whose stead the painting stands (or hangs on a museum wall) is Rembrandt’s life and its exemplification of a certain idea of the meaning of life. While Berger calls the painter in Rembrandt “both more and less than the old man” portrayed in this painting, in practice he conflates painter and subject.

Art historian Nicos Hadjinicolaou, author of Art History and Class Struggle (1978), perhaps a more rigorous Marxist, would object to Berger’s emphasis on the painter as unique individual as the source of a painting’s meaning, but only because his interest is in the painter as agent of a particular class ideology. Hadjinicolaou makes a useful distinction between painting seen as an ideological form (including just what we consider to be a painting and why) and painting seen as a vehicle of ideologies (which is reductionist): a distinction that produces the valuable concept of “visual ideology.” But this useful idea slips from that of the ideology of the visual to that of the ideology in the visual, an altogether cruder conception. The painting is the expression of visual ideology, which is in turn the expression of general social ideology. Thus Hadjinicolaou would fault Berger for discussing the two Rembrandt self-portraits in individualist terms, rather than in terms of ideologies and class positions. But their potential disagreements are quibbles within a fundamental agreement about the nature of the artwork and the nature of knowledge.

For Hadjinicolaou, not just paintings but people represent and refer to reality, and are significant only referentially. Berger, who is at heart a humanist, though a critical one, remains far more committed to the significance (in both senses) of the individual. For him, human individuals are the reality to which paintings refer. Hadjinicolaou takes the initial representational premises further than Berger does, so that not human beings but their social context are the final meaning, the transcendental signified, in Derrida’s phrase. Both are agreed in allowing art no independent reality of its own.

The analogies with the worlds both of contemporary American literary criticism and of contemporary American poetry are clear. In both, literature is seen as a social symptom. For Ted Kooser, a poem is a symptom of the person who wrote it, to the point that he professes to be disappointed in a first-person poem that is not a factual representation of the poet’s life. For Ron Silliman, a poem is a symptom of the poet’s position within the map he has drawn of the poetry world, and its significance in all senses of the word can be read off where he places its author on that map. In neither case is the poem much more than a stand-in for something else, something both more interesting and more important than mere literature. But just as a painting is not just a representation or reflection of the world but a new object in the world, so is a poem a new object or, perhaps more accurately, a new event or occasion in the world, an addition to the world.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My New Book of Poems

My fifth book of poems, Fata Morgana, is now out and about in the world. It can be purchased here, and here, or directly from the publisher, the University of Pittsburgh Press.

A fata morgana is a mirage or optical illusion, most commonly seen off the coast of Sicily. I thought it an appropriate title for this book, as questions of perception and misperception are recurring themes in my work.

This book mingles personal experience, history, mythology, politics, and natural science to explore the relationships of perception and conception, the self making its way through a physical and social world not of its own making, but changing that world by its presence. History—individual, political, natural, and mythological—becomes a landscape, whose contours, pleasures, and dangers these poems map out.

I seek in this book to meld the methods and aims of experimental poetry, its interrogations of language and perception, with the musical, imagistic, and emotional resources of the traditional lyric in order to arrive at a more capacious and elastic poetic mode of lyrical investigation: poems that, in Archibald MacLeish’s famous words, can both “mean” and “be.” Holding enchantment and disenchantment in balance, exploring locales from Chicago’s exposed industrial exoskeleton to an upstate New York resonant with classical names to northwest Florida’s lush, chemically poisoned terrain to ancient Troy’s layers of ruin, I work toward what Paul Celan called “polysemy without mask.”

I include four sample poems below. I hope that you will all take the opportunity to read my newest book.

How People Disappear

If this world were mine, the stereo
starts, but can’t begin
to finish the phrase. I might survive
it, someone could add, but that
someone’s not here. She’s crowned
with laurel leaves, the place
where laurel leaves would be
if there were leaves, she’s not
medieval Florence, not
Blanche of Castile. Late March
keeps marching in old weather,
another slick of snow to trip
and fall into, another bank
of inconvenient fact. The sky
is made of paper and white reigns,
shredded paper pools into her afterlife,
insurance claims and hospital reports,
bills stamped “Deceased,” sign here
and here, a blank space where she
would have been. My sister
said We’ll have to find another

And this is how
loss looks, my life in black plastic
garbage bags, a blue polyester suit
a size too small. Mud music
as they packed her in
damp ground, it’s always raining
somewhere, in New Jersey,
while everyone was thinking about
fried chicken and potato salad,
caramel cake and lemonade.
Isn’t that a pretty dress
they put her in? She looks so
. (Tammi Terrell
collapsed in Marvin Gaye’s arms
onstage. For two hundred points,
what was the song?) Trampled
beneath the procession, her music.

Pieces of sleep like pieces of shale
crumble through my four a.m.
(a flutter of gray that could be
rain), unable to read this thing
that calls itself the present.
She’s lost among the spaces
inside letters, moth light, moth wind,
a crumpled poem in place of love.


A state becomes statement, Petrarch
trips on a pile of laurel bones, severely damaged
except for two lines. The body absorbs
all kinds of things, a useless brilliant nothing
guarding the borders of witness
where the metaphors start, and the snow.
Petrarch doesn’t dream of snow, except
in silver bowls with syrup
mixed into it, pomegranate or persimmon
chasing summer somewhere next to lost,
and then the brilliant birds
fly from his mouth, perhaps
just one, a bird of paradise with no
legs, no feet, a lifetime’s inability to land.

Petrarch whispers leaves into my ear,
thinks Boys smell nice, boys smell
like spring preserved in a December jar, open
the lid and it escapes me just now, haunts
the room all day: stains air, stains
nostrils, cedar-pressed seasons sweetbitter
somewhat like eros, like crushed laurel
leaves stain fingers. He loves me nowhere
but in words (another of the several things
which I refrain from mentioning), boys’ names
on trees or boys named after trees:
fixing beauty in the wind, fixing hunger
in the eye, the x of it. (I miss the men
midnighting Lakeview streets.)

Wind only visible in what it touches
leads astray, disturbing to discard;
trees shed their way toward nakedness
leaf by leaf until the bough has been broken.
A spatter of small nameable wings
takes to the wind, takes care not to wake
Petrarch, who’s dreaming rain’s
refrain, fall down, fall down,
but he’s already one with grass.
And then a hero comes along
with birds flying out of his mouth:
one of the old verbs might be true,
park paths of wind-polished pebbles
lead one astray, into the snow.

Homeric Interim

Distance is money just out of reach,
a kindness like rain-laden clouds
that never drops its coins. Epochs
of fossilized trees crawl rusting hillside
strata: they smell like somewhere else
I’ve never been, an Anatolia
just outside the mind. Geometries
of travel and desire (from here to want
and back again), the myths of pleasure
reinvent another ancient world: oiled boys
racing naked around the circular walls
of Troy to find out who will wear
the plaited wreath, parade painted circuits
of unburnt parapets waving
to the crowds. See, even night
adores him, dresses him in its moon
and apparition. The sheen of intention
is on him, translates his motions
into marble, alabaster. (Cassandra
wakes and says There isn’t going to be
a Trojan War
. Centuries of fossil speech
fill up the space that comes after
currently, years spent talking
to paper.) Man and moment
become one, his reliquary skin
makes white occur (by now
the sweat has faded from his garish
details). The things his hands become
act out interruption, history
is his story, held at bay. He wears time
on his body (wears it out), chases gods
from mountaintops until the myth-smoke
clears. His old world’s blurred
and hard to read, misunderstanding
becomes a place: galley
run aground on shallow skin
the color of no event.

You, Therefore

For Robert Philen

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters as cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"Cultural Capital" and "Alternative Culture"

If you’ll pardon the pun, I don’t buy into the notion of cultural capital. Knowledge of poetry, literature, art, music, high culture in general, isn’t fungible, has no exchange value: it can’t be converted into more concrete forms of capital, nor will it advance one’s social position in any significant way. At most it has an ancillary value in confirming one’s already existing social position, as an accessory indication of the possession of those more material modes of capital. A small proportion of those possessing certain academic credentials (not the same as cultural, artistic, or intellectual knowledge, as my experience in academia has repeatedly confirmed) can trade those in for a position (often low-ranking) at some level of the educational system, but that doesn’t represent many people in the aggregate. And again, most successful academics come from comfortable, not to say privileged, social backgrounds. Their success in academia is merely the confirmation of their pre-existing social success.

Many American intellectuals have been led astray in their thinking on this matter by too close (not to say slavish) adherence to theoretical models deriving from Europe and particularly from France, where high culture has had and still has a function of ideological legitimation of power, as attested to, among many other examples, by the numerous monuments to himself that François Mitterrand erected during his reign as president of France. They have read or heard about Pierre Bourdieu’s work, particularly his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, and have applied not the content of the arguments but the examples to the American context, which those examples simply don’t fit. High culture has never had such a central place in America, whose traditions are of anti-intellectualism and philistinism, of pragmatism and legitimation by what works and what turns a profit (what Jean-François Lyotard calls performativity), and of the suspicion of anything that smacks of pretension. George W. Bush would probably not argue with the call to burn down the museums—they’re so stuck-up and highfalutin’.

To the extent that there is such a thing as cultural capital, which is basically the extent to which education at certain institutions and publication in certain venues can be exchanged for academic employment and some tenuous place in the literary world, then I am interested in accumulating as much as possible. As a black gay man who grew up in poverty and still has no resources on which to fall back, no economic capital on which to rely, my interest in the “alternative” publishing and dissemination of my work is rather small: I simply cannot afford it. Straight white individuals from comfortable backgrounds can afford to rebel against the established cultural apparatus, to set up their little salons des refuses (or rather, salons des refusers) in a way that I cannot. I don’t have the means to do so in any case. It takes a certain sense of security to engage in such refusals, an entitlement to that which one is rejecting which I don’t feel. (It mustn’t be forgotten that, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, such rebels can also refuse their refusals at any point and rejoin the social mainstream, a social mainstream to which I have never belonged.) It has been too difficult for me to attain whatever I have for me to feel free to turn my back on it: I’m not prepared to give up what I have worked so hard to (tenuously, contingently) attain. As an actual outsider, racial, economic, sexual, and social, I have no interest in romanticizing exclusion.

Many such transgressive subversives or subversive transgressors, busily undermining the foundations of the hegemonic capitalist institution of bourgeois literature, are simply hypocrites, published by university presses or the larger literary presses, drawing salaries from academic institutions whose function is largely that of the confirmation of social hierarchy and its systems of exclusion, part of what Louis Althusser called the ideological state apparatus.

Unlike the people with whom I lived in a Boston communal house in the early Nineteen Eighties (they lived there out of conviction, I lived there because I couldn’t afford anything else) who told their parents to stop sending them their allowances so that they could live like “real people,” who called me “bourgeois” because I didn’t want them to use my stereo or lend out my records when I wasn’t home, I can’t afford to turn my back on whatever opportunities may be available to me to legitimate my artistic activities and indeed my life, not on a theoretical level, but on the practical level of allowing me to continue to exist. Having grown up in actual poverty, I have no interest in playing at poverty. And I doubt that any of those people live in communes today.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A New Blog Worth Reading

For all who may be interested, my partner, Robert Philen, a cultural anthropologist of wide-ranging interests, has started an insightful blog on culture theory, cultural and political commentary, and anthropology.

The blog address is Robert Philen's Blog. I urge you to give it a look.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Daring to Disturb the Universe

In a graduate contemporary American poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. It’s an impossible ambition, but I can see no reason to write if one doesn’t strive for the unattainable. One is deluded if one believes one has achieved it, that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try. I don’t believe in reaching only for what one can grasp, in doing only what one knows can be done, especially since what can be done is never knowable in advance, though what we decide we can do strongly conditions what we are able to do.

The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. And to save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As Yeats wrote, “Minute by minute they change;/….The stone’s in the midst of all” (“Easter 1916”). Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that in this regard poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers 71).

But at the same time, elements of the world can be and have been saved. Thus the history of art. Each artwork that has endured through time is a piece of the world that has survived, and carries with it other pieces of a world, of worlds, otherwise gone. That we are able today to admire the sculpture of Praxiteles, to gaze upon a Rembrandt painting, to read of Keats’s fears that he shall cease to be, is evidence that something does remain, something can be carried over, rescued from oblivion. The artwork is evidence of its own survival. Allen Grossman writes: “My most fundamental impulses are toward recovery, the securing once again of selfhood in something that lies invulnerably beyond history, something which promises enormous, inhuman felicity” (The Sighted Singer 41). I would add that, for me, the impulse is not just for the conservation of personhood, but of worldhood. I seek to save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world.

Perhaps to believe oneself equal to such an ambition, to claim be, at least in potential, a poet powerful enough, important enough, to nurse such an ambition, is presumptuous. As Spenser wrote, "Be bold, be bold, be bolder still. Be not too bold." One must remember one’s place, one mustn’t get above oneself. I have never been one to know my place. I would never had gotten out of the Bronx ghetto, would never have achieved anything other than a life of grinding poverty, had I not gotten above myself, had I not presumed that I could be more, that my life could be more. Unlike Eliot’s Prufrock, I do presume, and I do dare disturb the universe, or at least I try. I find nothing unseemly about ambition. Ours is a society in which everyone expects to be accepted just as he or she is, even to be lauded just for being him or herself, however false or inadequate that self is even to itself. But in life it’s a failing not to try to be more than one is. In art, it’s an unforgivable sin.

The drive to be more, to be too much, even, is the engine of art, which at its best exceeds definition, determination, domination. If one cannot make grand claims, one cannot make grand attempts. Modesty can be charming in life, though it’s often a cloying pretence; in art, modesty is almost always a failing, an admission not just of failure but of the failure to try. Most contemporary poetry, of all schools and camps, is entirely too well-behaved, too content to remain within its proper bounds, to do what’s expected of it. I have no interest in reading or in writing such poems.

I am not embarrassed to make large claims for poetry. Their impossible possibility is one of the things that first drew me to poetry, and it continues to compel me. I can see no point to writing, to being an artist, if one doesn’t want to matter to the world, if one doesn’t strive toward something grand. This grandeur need not be merely of scale, though size and importance are often confused in our world. As Eliot concludes after many equivocations, to be a major poet does not require that one write a long poem. There are major poets who have not done so, among them George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Paul Celan. And to write a long poem does not make one a major or important poet, let alone a great one. Many minor poets have written long poems (Robert Bridges comes to mind), often with the ambition to become major poets. The aspiration is a noble one, even if the results fall short of a goal perhaps defined too narrowly or on shaky premises (“A long poem is a major poem. Thus I will be a major poet if I write a long poem”).

The major poet is one who has not only written wonderful poems (and again, the wonderful poem is much more rare than some think it to be), but also one whose work adds up to more than the sum of its parts, the accumulation of those wonderful poems. Obviously one can’t predict this about one’s own work or about the work of one’s contemporaries. But Stevens was able in his late poems “The Planet on the Table” and “As You Leave the Room” to look back on his life’s work and know that he had accomplished something that mattered: “his poems, although makings of his self,/Were no less makings of the sun.” And Pound could look back at The Cantos, his failed epic, and realize that, though he had tried to write paradise, he could not make it cohere.

I won’t live to know whether my work has outlived me. But one can’t predict the future in general, and this doesn’t prevent us from making decisions that influence, change, and often determine that future. The future isn’t wholly unknowable, and the future doesn’t just happen: in large part we make it. This works no differently in poetry than in any other field of endeavor. There is no guarantee that one will reach any of one’s goals in this life. But not to struggle toward those goals is to guarantee that they won’t be reached. I choose, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Why I Write


I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me. That the people and things I love will die wounds me as well. I seek to immortalize the world I have found and made for myself, even knowing that I won’t be there to witness that immortality, mine or its, that by definition I will never know whether my endeavor has been successful. But when has impossibility ever deterred anyone from a goal? As Alvin Feinman once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?”

My aim is to rescue some portion of the drowned and drowning, including always myself. For a long time my poetry emerged from and was fueled by an impulse to rescue my mother from her own death and from the wreckage of her life, out of which I emerged, in both senses of the word. That wreckage made me who I am, but also I escaped that wreckage, which she, by dying, did not. So I had a certain survivor guilt toward the person who both made my escape possible and represented that from which I had escaped. Many of the poems in my first book, Some Are Drowning, centered around an absent, speechless other, an inaccessible beloved who frequently stood in for my mother, though she’s an explicit presence in very few of my poems. But her absence was always palpable, a ghostly presence haunting the text. My poems were an attempt to speak to her, to get her to speak back to me, and above all to redeem her suffering: that is, to redeem her life. “Danger invites/rescue--I call it loving,” as James Tate wrote in his early poem "Rescue." That project is over, not completed but abandoned (as Paul Valéry said all poems are), but the attempt to rescue my mother through poetry was a major motivation for many years.

The possibility of suffering being redeemed by art, being made meaningful and thus real (as opposed to merely actual, something that happens to exist, happens to occur), is still vital to me. Art reminds us of the uniqueness, particularity, and intrinsic value of things, including ourselves. I sometimes have little sense of myself as existing in the world in any significant way outside of my poetry. That’s where my real life is, the only life that’s actually mine. So there’s also the wish to rescue myself from my own quotidian existence, which is me but is at the same time not me at all. I am its, but it’s not mine. For most of us most of the time, life is a succession of empty moments. You’re born, you go through x experiences, you die, and then you’re gone. No one always burns with Pater’s hard, gem-like flame. There’s a certain emptiness to existence that I look to poetry, my own poetry and the poetry of others, to fulfill or transcend. I have a strong sense of things going out of existence at every second, fading away at the very moment of their coming into bloom: in the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.

In that sense everyone is drowning, everything is drowning, every moment of living is a moment of drowning. I have a strong sense of the fragility of the things we shore up against the ruin which is life: the fragility of natural beauty but also of artistic beauty, which is meant to arrest death, but embodies death in that very arrest. Goethe’s Faust is damned when he says, “Oh moment, stay.” At last he finds a moment he longs to preserve, but the moment dissipates when it’s halted. The moment is defined by its transience; to fix it is to kill it. Art is a simulacrum of life that embodies and operates by means of death. The aesthetic impulse is the enemy of the lived moment at the same time that it attempts both to preserve and to transcend that moment. This is the inescapable aporia of art. “One has to be downright naive to think that art can restore to the world the fragrance it has lost, according to a line by Baudelaire” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 59). Art itself is so vulnerable, to time, to indifference, especially in a society like ours that cares nothing for the potentials art offers, that if anything seeks to repress them in the name of profit or proper order. I have an intense desire to rescue these things that have touched me and place them somewhere for safekeeping, which is both impossible and utterly necessary.

What we take out of life is the luminous moment, which can be a bare branch against a morning sky so overcast it’s in whiteface, seen through a window that warps the view because the glass has begun to melt with age. Or it can be the face of a beautiful man seen in passing on a crowded street, because beauty is always passing, and you see it but it doesn’t see you. It’s the promise that beauty is possible and the threat that it’s only momentary: if someone doesn’t write it down it’s gone. The moment vanishes without a trace and then the person who experiences that moment vanishes and then there’s nothing. Except perhaps the poem, which can’t change anything. As Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen, which also implies the possibility of making “nothing” an event rather than a mere vacancy. Poetry rescues nothing and no one, but it embodies that helpless, necessary will to rescue, which is a kind of love, my love for the world and the things and people in the world.


I write not to be bored. I hate being bored, and I don’t want to bore others. Unlike Zelda Fitzgerald, I can’t say that I’m never bored because I’m never boring. I am often bored, and undoubtedly I am sometimes boring. But I try not to be boring in poems, and in turn I don’t want poems to bore me. Poems should be interesting, should engage and hold the interest. The most basic level of interest is the sensual, the aural, the texture and feel of words and phrases: the poem in the ear, the poem in the mouth. Helen Vendler has called the poem a musical composition scored for the human voice. The poem is a palpable sensuous entity or it is nothing.

What is it that I seek when I read a poem, when I write a poem? Above all, I desire an experience, a mode of experience available to me only through poetry. “The reading of a poem should be an experience [like experiencing an act]. Its writing must be all the more so” (Stevens, “Adagia,” Collected Poetry and Prose 905, 909). A true poetic experience is worth more than a thousand oppositional critiques, most of which tend to be rather predictable in any case.

My interest can be defined by at least part of Charles Reznikoff’s characterization of his poetry: “images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse.” As a reader, I look for such clarity of image and phrase, for a rhythmic pulse and a rich verbal texture, for a sense of shape and coherence even in the midst of apparent fracture. As a writer, I try to provide these things. But an overall “meaning” or “interpretation” isn’t the first or the main thing I seek, as either reader or writer. “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have one” (Stevens, “Adagia,” CPP 914). Attend to the senses and sense will often attend to itself.

I respond to urgency, to a sense of felt necessity, to passion. The word passion derives from the Greek for “suffering, experience, emotion.” The word itself summons up the poem as an experience undergone by the writer and the reader alike. Passion is not just a passion for my lover or for botany or for history, but a passion for words, a passionate struggle to try to create verbal experience that would be as real as the rest of the world. “In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (Stevens, “Adagia,” CPP 902). Like any object of love, that also means that the poem will resist its creator, just as the world resists us. The struggle such passion entails is both joyous and painful. “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully” (op. cit., 910). Of course, that presumes both an intelligence to be resisted and an intelligence that resists. The poet, the poem, and the reader must all be as intelligent as possible.

I desire variety in my poems and the poems of others because the expansion of my poetic territories is the expansion of my world. The poem expands the world as I find it, it makes more world available to me. Works of art are (or should be) like people: no person is new, but every person is unique. To encounter a work of art is to enter into a new relationship, with the work and with the world to which it is an addition.

If art really is some kind of compensation or restitution for what we lack in our lives, and I believe that among many other things it is, it can be so only by providing something different from what we already have, not merely by reflecting or reflecting upon those lives and those myriad lacks.

I want to write good poems (and I still believe that there is such a thing, that aesthetic judgment is not merely a mystification), but not the same good poems that I’ve already written. I’d like to do what I haven’t done before. This has proven to be an impediment to my poetic reputation: I don’t have a trademark style that I repeat from book to book, I haven’t commodified myself and my work into a brand. Critic Vernon Shetley describes the contemporary American poetry world “where each poet seems compelled to enhance his or her brand recognition with an easily recognizable gimmick” (“America’s Big Heart,” Metre 10, 79). A reader too often knows exactly what he or she is getting, whether from a “mainstream” poet or an “avant-garde” one. Arthur C. Danto concurs that “There is an overwhelming tendency in America to brand artists, so that the well informed can identify an example of an artist’s work in a single act of instant recognition” (“Surface Appeal,” The Nation, 1/29/07, 33). Not to so brand or trademark one’s work puts one at a distinct disadvantage.

To attempt something new and fail is much more interesting than to attempt something that’s already been done and fail. I don’t want to write something just because I know I can, just to reaffirm what I already know. Of course, to say that I don’t want to do the same thing twice is to assume that I’ve done something in the first place. I not only don’t know what I can do, I don’t know what I’ve done. How could one, not having access to the vantage point of posterity? With every poem I’m trying to do something that I can’t achieve, to get somewhere I’ll never get. If I were able to do it, if I were able to get there, I’d have no reason to continue writing. As Allen Grossman suggests, poetry aims at the end of poetry, which is unattainable (the ends of poetry are the end of poetry). Thus poetry continues, despite the frequent reports of its death.

I would like my poetry to bring into existence something which did not previously exist, including in my mind or my intention. I want to surprise myself, to do something I didn’t plan to do or even that’s not immediately recognizable to me as something I did. (Though Donald Morrill, on a panel we were recently both on about difficulty in poetry, reminded me that not all surprises are good.) For the writer as well as for the reader, poetry should shake one out of one’s habitual ways of seeing and thinking, conceiving and perceiving. As Hemingway said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the writer “should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed.” The goal is to achieve the higher level of “mastery” that permits the medium to do things of its own accord, out of its own internal logic, in which the writer participates but which the writer doesn’t determine.

I think of the poem the way that I think of a painting or a sculpture: a new entity in the world, not just a comment on the world. While meaning is hardly insignificant, it’s not what defines the poem as a poem. I seek out the specificity of the poem as an event in language (“language as the material of poetry, not its mere medium or instrument,” in Stevens’s formulation), and not a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, though of course such events enter into poems. The poem is not hermetically sealed off from the world, but encounters and engages the world as an independent element.

The forms that these things which have not previously existed, these events that have not previously occurred, take are not predetermined. If one is sufficiently lucky and open to possibility, they can be found, they will happen, in the villanelle as well as in the most self-consciously avant-garde poem. Among others, Karen Volkman demonstrates the continuing vitality of the sonnet as a field of exploration and experimentation. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his “Materia Poetica, “All poetry is experimental poetry” (CPP 918). To maintain and expand the formal capacities of the medium is also to conserve and preserve those capacities. As Susan Stewart has written, “the disappearance of any aesthetic form from human memory is a disaster not unlike the extinction of a species, since a realm of possible actions is now precluded and not necessarily provided with a compensatory analogue” (“The State of Cultural Theory and the Future of Literary Form,” Profession 93, edited by Phyllis Franklin).

As many poets have done, I look back, to the High Modernists and to the poets of the English Renaissance, to move forward. Eliot looked back to the English Metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists, Pound looked back to Sappho and Catullus and to the Provençal troubadours, Stevens looked back to what M.H. Abrams calls the major Romantic lyric, and Celan looked back to medieval German mysticism and the Hebrew Bible. Zukofsky’s anti-capitalist A 9 is modeled after Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone “Donna Mi Prega” (a poem highly recommended by Pound in his ABC of Reading).

Thus I prefer words like “distinctive,” “different,” or “unique” to a word like “new,” with all its connotations of novelty and fashion, of doing the not-yet-done for its own sake. Or perhaps, even better, the word “original,” which means both “of the first instance” and “of the origin, of the source.” To be original is at once to produce something which has never before existed and to draw on the beginnings of one’s practice, to move forward by casting back.

I don’t write a poem and ask, “Is this new?” I ask, “Is this individual, distinctive, unique?” Of course, for a poem to be completely unique, for it to have no relationship to anything that’s come before, would be for it not to be a poem at all. As would be the case for the completely new poem.

I’ve written before that forms, styles, modes, genres, do not have intrinsic meanings or values. A self-consciously avant-garde poem can be as rote as the most bland pseudo-autobiographical anecdote, if its writing is not approached in a true spirit of adventuring into possibility. Simply to seek the new for its own sake is a shallow and pointless affair, like chasing after the latest fashions. As Talk Talk sang, mocking such a dedicated follower of fashion “She’ll wear anything you can’t recognize.” And too often, of course, one does recognize it.

One is always setting out in search of the new, as Baudelaire wrote, seeking out what does not yet exist. But I would rather write a good poem than a new poem. And many of the varieties of “the new” now on offer seem rather worn and agèd at this point. Rimbaud wrote that it is necessary to be as modern as possible; as if in reply, Wallace Stevens wrote that “One cannot spend one’s time in being modern when there are so many more important things to be” (“Adagia,” CPP 912).

Of course, Stevens also wrote that “Newness (not novelty) may be the highest individual value in poetry. Even in the meretricious sense of newness a new poem has value” (“Adagia,” CPP 914). Too many poets confuse novelty with genuine newness. “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover” (Stevens, “Materia Poetica,” CPP 919). This is a fault shared by too much of the contemporary American poetic avant-garde: it is filled with entirely too many accordion-playing clams, and the clams rarely play well.


Any artistic medium calls forth into being a self and a world which exist specifically in their relationship to that medium, a self which did not exist prior to that engagement. As Yeats wrote, the self who writes is not the self who sits down to dinner or reads the evening paper. Contrary to Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that the lyric is monologic (as opposed to the novel’s “dialogized heteroglossia”), the lyric problematizes and decenters the univocal speaking subject. The self in the most determinedly confessional poem is still a mask, a construct. Eliot writes that “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes” (“The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, 64). Eliot’s statement needs to be amended to acknowledge that such a perfectly receptive state (for it is receptivity and attention of which he is writing) is always an asymptote, striven for but never achieved, and that the poet’s mundane experience as an ordinary individual is no less chaotic, irregular, and fragmentary than anyone else’s. The difference is what one makes of those fragments, what and what kind of order, however tenuous and contingent, one brings to that chaos.

I would like each poem of mine to be as close to perfection (an impossible goal) as possible, and I think that good poems are much more rare than some account them to be. I would also like my work to be more than just an accumulation of good poems, as hard as even a single good poem is to achieve. I would like the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Eliot said that this is one test of a major poet (his example was George Herbert): “a major poet is one the whole of whose work we ought to read, in order fully to appreciate any part of it” (“What Is Minor Poetry?,” On Poetry and Poets 44). Each individual part illuminates and is illuminated by both every other part and the corpus as a whole. To produce such a body of work is one of my goals as a writer.


And never to forget beauty, however strange or difficult.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

On Catherine Imbriglio

Catherine Imbriglio is an extravagantly talented poet. Her work has a rare boldness of attack and scope, both conceptual and emotional. Informed by the work of John Ashbery (on whom she wrote her doctoral dissertation at Brown University, where she also received her MA in creative writing), of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Emily Dickinson, and the English Metaphysicals (who, like her, delighted in reuniting the disparate, torn pieces of this world into unexpected wholes), she has forged a unique and unmistakable poetic idiom.

Imbriglio’s poems explore the conjunctions and collisions of science, religion (particularly the Roman Catholic liturgies with which she was raised), personal history, and landscape, specifically the coastal landscapes of New England. For Imbriglio, poetry is not a formal exercise or leisure pastime but a necessity, a means by which to understand the world and the words with which we know it: “The need to tell you, the need to tell anyone,/displaced, handling displacement.” Often crossing the boundaries of verse and prose, her poems combine an interrogation of language, taking discourse apart and reconstructing it in new and dazzling shapes, with an emotional and intellectual passion, a genuine investment of vital energies. In her work there is both a raw directness and a subtle and supple intelligence (Scholastic in the original, Aquinean sense). Each aspect informs and infringes upon the other like charged particles in a cloud chamber, producing energetic reactions. As Eliot wrote of John Donne, for Imbriglio a thought is an experience. To adopt his words, her mode of feeling is directly and freshly altered by her reading and thought; furthermore, her thoughts are all informed by feeling.

Imbriglio has been rather reticent about presenting her work to the world, and so is not as well known as she should be. But her poems have appeared in such journals as American Letters and Commentary, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, New American Writing, and Pleiades. I included a substantial selection of her work in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.

Imbriglio’s first collection, Parts of the Mass, will be published this spring by Keith and Rosmarie Waldop’s estimable Burning Deck Press. The titles and much of the material of the poems in the book are keyed to the Roman Catholic missal, the book containing all of the prayers, important chants, and instructions for the celebration of the daily and Sunday Mass throughout the year. She uses the missal as a springboard, taking off in various directions associative logic leads her. As she says, “I spot a title or a phrase that seems to resonate and I work with that. Some poems are more directly related to the text than others; in some I’m just interested in what happens when you use the Latin title, with all its connotations, as the frame to a poem.” As Bin Ramke writes in a blurb for the book. “there is a bright enthusiasm flashing from the poems as they engage the ossified language of the titles, and a new kind of singing results.”

In Nomine

Say for me.

Say forth, say forthwith, in the name of colors, of real colors, in the name of real colors named, in the initial real color named, say Brunelleschi, say curvature, say Sir Francis Crick. For what we are about to receive, not only show all fragile passengers, red in the initial appearance of a material surface, say this is the place, this is the effort on our part, this is where we’d say, “This is.” To expend our dream hoard that the years ago came from the ancient monotreme lane, enter “the lovely ropemaker,” 1520 - 1566. In memory processing, in egg laying, in “let them alone so they’ll come home,” from to look at, add species hours, add breath toll, add an REM script. To the inquiring name, recognizing it needed room, it needed feet, for somewhat as though, it, you, drew, birdscatterer, through the engine of, the stem of, from up to your body breakable, i.e., “if all the trees were one tree.” It drew through its tongue, its backwater, its layer upon layer, its layer upon layer beneath the larger layer, for when in your shock upon shock, in the name you were named: be monkfish, be milkwort, be mate.


I will go.

I will go then.

Once consolidated are said. Once safely departed are said. During once which I would never roll my eyes. She was 15 at the time. She was 15 at a garden party. And refused an introduction, and refused the closest the mind comes to, as introduction. As long as we do, we do. The figures how do you do indomitably passed. Other stubbornly irreducible Mabels and of in at 15, their higher mentals functioning. On the ventricle side, holes she said are said, the ventricles in fact, in fact at the rest stop we indomitably. Are one up on the so where and how not welcome at the center of which she thought ventricles without actually detecting anybody. Who are at least one up on who he she thought centered in the cerebrospinal, fine. Restored to a proper body, when in the midbrain geese have long lives. Ventricles are which in fact said. At proof in the invisible accompaniment, once in safely departed, fine. Thought first of objects could have been traced on a windowpane even in. Not to mention a frank possible connection to Descartes’ cell. It seems to me, but also the. To be freed of the. To speak of so long and sincere in its willful in its like-minded point of kind. No longer the sweet and beautiful thing it once was. She meant to say, but. Separated from its more thick its more coagulated find.



Each now dropped

Lay your hands upon me, you in the black bent grass, the body in motion that stays in motion, so too in your drifting to or from me, in the pictures of the body that provoke the body, judica me, you in the blackpoll warbler, judica me, you in the black-tailed godwit. It wasn’t on purpose was it, in the way you get it down or keep it down, my texture to your texture, in the body as motion that stays as motion, judica me, which one of us, like spit. One of us should try breathing in the mirror, each mirror holding yet another mirror, it was something like communication wasn’t it, how many persons to a copper or silver goblet, how many persons from holding out their bowls. So too you in this drifting to or from me, in the pictures of the body that provoke the body, let me not from the circulation of impediments, let me not from accommodation to the pose.


No internally fixed order of stages stop. Under incremental light conditions stop. I look out and see under the lilacs stop. From woodbine to woodbine stop. Day unto day one tree frog two duckboards three goat moths stop. Made you look made you look made you look you stop. Were word of godetia real word stop. If without if without finding stop. What impudicity what who me stop. There is stop no speech no language where the voice from the wilderness stop. When it comes a’courtin’ and we all go stop. Yours to then yours to wend watch stop. Day unto day while we take its sweet time stop all rise.


Spiny wings that, suppose that

Break their teeth with your lips, break the teeth of the dumb flowers, open wide the calyx, for when you do what you do, I who you your honor, broke out in teeth, the alleged teeth, for at just that time, admit, for open wide, admit, were you or were you not, selah, down beside me among the cow wheats, the bull thistles. Go for the throat. Now we see it, now we, in sun mouth, in ripened seed head, casual, seriatim, party of the first part wreak party of the second. Rattle the big pharmaceuticals. Reign in with limit list. Rattle for rattle, rattle of rattle, constrained by, gag ordered, most wanted, grift. So moved. Hoop ash, basket ash, a set of promises, a mimicry. And then, an if then, a nothing to me. I lost my place. Partings of the first part beneath a parting of the second. So moved. Ballast love, when a rain coursing through me. Here. Hearsay. In here you’d say.

Vere Dignum et Justum Est


The sought after, the always three degrees away from bloom.

The mean position of the body in proportion to that alignment, that scene.

The world, as it follows them along, following simply, following some do-as-you’re-told.

Their attachment, the manner of their attachment, the means.

Meanwhile, the milkweed pods, with their faces pushed in.

Meanwhile, the milkweed pods like dry grey birds which sow each seed with their feathers spread.

Dividing the weight of each body by its acceleration.

In which case the body of the lord.


Their attachment to the world is odd, the devices they throw at the world, odd, the voices thrown, the astragali thrown, the o come all ye metacarpus and menhaden, thrown, then when it came to them, the white heron whose neck fit a question or a hook, then when her neck on his shoulder so that it built, according to mass by a percentage in ionic form, in the beginning was spirit gum, in the beginning then was he the most exposed.


I.e., this is my body, this is my body, this is yours,


Pressed in the hairs they lost,

As in, instrument or means used.


Now something in the world dividing on or off.

Now something in the world on or off then dividing him.

Now something in the world in him then dividing then dividing in.

Now something in the world the most exposed in on or off the divided him.

Now something in the world if then the weight of each window now accelerating.

Now something in the world him weight the window now divided now divided now divided in.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

On Allen Grossman

Allen Grossman occupies a peculiar position in contemporary American poetry. His poetry is very well regarded, and has built up a growing reputation over the years since the publication of his first book, A Harlot’s Hire, in 1961. Yet, although a book has been devoted to his work (Poetry’s Poet: Essays on the Poetry, Pedagogy, and Poetics of Allen Grossman, edited by Daniel Morris and published by the National Poetry Foundation in 2004), and though he has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship, he remains distinctly under-read. His work is not represented in any of the major anthologies of modern or contemporary American poetry, inclusion in which is one of the primary means of literary canonization.

Grossman is also the author of several books of literary criticism. These books are characterized by a more philosophical approach than that of contemporary practical criticism and a more humanistic approach than that of contemporary literary theory. Grossman’s most important critical work is The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers, which includes the Summa Lyrica, an ambitious work which lays out Grossman’s ideas of the fundamental nature of poetic structure, investigating the poem as both an object of thought and a means by which thinking occurs. This “primer of the commonplaces of speculative poetics” is one of the major works of modern poetic theory.

Grossman’s poetry derives directly and unembarrassedly from the High Modernist poetry of William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane, and through them from the English Romantic poets. He has consistently sought the elevated, vatic mode, in opposition to his contemporaries’ adoption of more vernacular and domestic modes. Grossman shares the Romantic and High Modernist exalted idea of the poet’s vocation and of the power of poetry to engage and encompass the world on equal terms. In Roger Gilbert’s words, Grossman’s “insistence on the visionary, prophetic dimension of poetic speech, and the intense rhetoric that accompanies it, may have led some readers and critics to dismiss him as an anachronism. But Grossman does not simply repeat Romantic modernism; he also corrects it, particularly in the sphere of morality” (The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English, ed. Ian Hamilton, 201). Though his poetry is not devoid of irony or even humor, Grossman is never embarrassed or ironic about the greatness he believes poetry to be capable of making apparent, nor about his own ambitions to approach such greatness, although in his view its attainment is impossible: to write the perfect poem would be to reach the end of poetry.

One reason that Grossman is unafraid to use the High Modernist grand style, and has been able to use it successfully, is that he does not claim to have achieved it: it remains an ambition. As Alan Williamson writes in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, “He is freed from constraint because he in no way claims the grand style as his personal property, as appropriate to his experience. On the contrary, the grand style becomes the type, like Stevens’ ‘central man’, of that adequacy—emotional, sexual, expressive, cognitive—to experience which his own individual life fails to attain.” I would add that no individual life attains to such adequacy; this is one of the wounds to which poetry attends.

Grossman’s poetry and prose both work toward what the title of what his first critical book, a study of Yeats’s early poetry, calls “poetic knowledge,” a phrase referring to the shared origins of poetry and of our lives as social beings. As Grossman writes on his web site, “Insofar as love wills the existence of what it loves, the principle of poetry is a collective and perpetually renewed act of love that brings the world to mind, and mind to mind, as the speech of a person—at the moment of the vanishing of world and persons, which is every moment of conscious life.” Love and knowledge and the relationship of the two—love as the highest form of knowledge, knowledge as love’s way of touching the face of the world—are his major themes. In keeping with this, Grossman often meditates on materials from Judaism and the history of the Jews—the Holocaust, the sacred law, the Kabbalah—though often in idiosyncratic or irreverent ways.

Like Yeats and other Modernist poets, Grossman makes a distinction between the “person” represented and representable in poetry and the “self” of everyday life, which resists but also demands representation. However, many elements from his life narrative, most notably mother and father, may be found in his work. His poems are at once personal and philosophical, and often have settings that are both actual places and mythical locales: the Midwest, especially the Minnesota of his childhood, often functions as this sort of paysage moralisé.

In his self-consciously theatrical poem “The Poland of Death” (from The Ether Dome: New and Selected Poems 1979-1991), Grossman seeks to raise his parents Louise and Beatrice to the level of myth or archetype. The two are named in the poem—proper names are a crucial means of preserving the person in Grossman’s work, as we see in such poems as “Mary Snorak the Cook, Skermo the Gardener, and Jack the Parts Man Provide Dinner for a Wandering Stranger,” also from The Ether Dome, or “Pat’s Poem,” from The Woman on the Bridge Over the Chicago River (1979). This transformation serves both as an attempt to ransom his parents from the insult and injustice of death and to turn the particular story of one life into a more generally significant narrative. Grossman also engages in such a metamorphosis of his parents in the title poem of his collection Of the Great House (1982) and in “Bow Spirit” (also from Of the Great House), engaging in what the second section of “Of the Great House” calls the dream of rescue. “Poetry, in his view, is one of the primary ways in which human beings ‘affirm one another,’ preserving their voices and images ‘against our vanishing’” (Gilbert, ibid.). Poems make persons present to one another. This attempt to rescue personhood from the ravages of a world which seeks to erase personhood (and has developed the means and perhaps even the will to destroy all persons, a capacity of which the Holocaust serves as a gruesome example) is central to Grossman’s poetry.

Many of Grossman’s best and most characteristic poems are too long for me to reproduce here, but I present a selection of poems, from the whole span of his career, of which I’m very fond.

Tales of Odysseus

The hallucination of good weather
Can deceive only the young. Others
It maddens, when hair becomes
A crop of crocuses and terrible forsythia
Forks from fragile fingers. To be dead
Is easy and passes into habit,
But to live
Surpasses understanding. The outraged
Senses mourn when flesh unfolds
Like an unreachable conception
Suddenly achieved.

Wrapped in a stinking skin I lay all night
Rehearsing lies, until at dawn he crawled out
Blinking the bright windows of his eyes,
Foul, impotent, sinewy, and old.
I gripped him savagely, and he became
Bright water flowing to the sea:
Then a cold serpent, then a flowering tree.
At last he was a glorious woman. With a knife
I came upon the order of my life.

Conceive a coast shuddering and sublime,
And then a ship utterly cast away,
Its people poured like pollen on the waters—
Think then of rocks gigantic
And the unwatered deserts of the deep they guard,
And marvel how I came ashore
(Being neither wholly god nor wholly man)
My knotted beard wrapped around me like the veil
That Ino gave to one who could not love Calypso
Wholly beautiful. And know from this
That in the infinite patience of Poseidon
All our impatient imaginings
Are sealed at least,
As by an unimagined consummation.

Sentinel Yellowwoods

(Yellowwood—Cladrastis lutea)

Sweet sweet sentinel yellowwoods lutea lutea
Guarding my track morning and evening, and gracing the air
With odors and blossoms to the left on the side-hill
And the right near the wall. Sweet the one and the other.
Seven years not seeing them, seven seeing them but not
Knowing a name for them, and seven years naming them too.
Sweet sweet sentinels lutea lutea Cladrastis lutea
Odorous silent adorning lutes.

Now and then, how full
The world is. Look at the yellowwoods! Look at them
Lion-like watching the way, in the morning to work and
At evening to this kind of singing

Lion-like waiting all the more patiently now I have
Named them, come into the strength I can render account
Of the beautiful way I am not always sad.

Sweet sweet
The shadow of yellowwoods, even in autumn, even at
Evening. I am going to die soon, and their shadow foretells it
Enlarging the world.

I can see it without me.

Under the
Yellowwoods, the one and her brother, lion and lioness
Together without me, bereave me, bereave
Me as leaf-like my body.


If I do not look up as I pass, then they call to me
Sweet, and I stop and turn round and go back and stand still,
Breathing the fragrance. What was I thinking of? Lutea
, thinking my thinking I did not look up, and often
They called to the air, to the children, and nobody heard the
Sweet sweet—

like a sleeper who

sleeps on into the sunlight
In a bed closed by curtains a family of women skillful
And comely sitting in sunlight embroider with birds that no one
Has seen, but only the women the widows and daughters neat
Fingers of sunlight with loving attention,

imagining glorious
Birds and the flowers Arabian, and blazing with gladdening metals
Mysterious flies

sleeps on into the sunlight, in the dark
Of his dream. And he does not see the wind billows the fustian.


Do the yellowwoods suffer, the sentinel yellowwoods, in autumn
In winter do they starve on the shore of the sky?

At the gateway
Of evening, of lion-blood autumn, leonine death-gold of autumn
Adorning, the answer does come, in splendor of lutesong
Arising within me:

the soul is alone

—like the flowers of
Yellowwoods, lutea lutea, white pendant clusters sucked by the bees,
White fragrant gusts of milky spring rain.

I call to them, calling
Their call, the two lions, the call that they raise in me
Morning and evening, my words of their teaching: the soul is alone.
—Sweet sweet sentinels lutea lutea Cladrastis lutea!
Seven years not seeing them, seven seeing them but not
Knowing a name for them, and seven years naming them too—
The fragrance of flowers arising within me, sweet sweet
Breast-perfume seized by the mind.

Now it is winter, and the fustian
Of the leaves, that fine work of the sun, the winter wind draws
Back to the earth. But the sleeper is awake, and gone down
Singing his lutesong
This crooked path into the world and out.

Lament Fragment

Go down

(Forsaking the lagoons of bridged Atlantis)

To the mid-Atlantic ridge

where are the crazed
Magnetic fields and roped sheets, and stains
(The disordered fabric of the volcanic
Bed chamber) and the gigantic vermicular

and stare upon the great
Principle of the solid world—the original
Torment trace.

Go down, for down is the way,
And grapple one stone syllable
Of all that frozen love’s discourse
Onto an iron dredge

and on it rise
(Borne on the enormous weight of its desire
For light and the air)

until it explodes
Upon the deck amid the astonished crew.

Then empty out the nets disposed about
Your person, and fill them with the pieces
Of that one vast syllable

and carry them
To Cahokia in East Saint Louis, where
My father was born who is dying now
(He was an honest man—mute as stone)

Place them on the top of Monk’s Mound

(Go you. I am his son. I have no words.)

and let
Them off like a siren.

The Piano Player Explains Himself

When the corpse revived at the funeral,
The outraged mourners killed it; and the soul
Of the revenant passed into the body
Of the poet because it had more to say.
He sat down at the piano no one could play
Called Messiah, or The Regulator of the World,
Which had stood for fifty years, to my knowledge,
Beneath a painting of a red-haired woman
In a loose gown with one bared breast, and played
A posthumous work of the composer S—
About the impotence of God (I believe)
Who has no power not to create everything.
It was the Autumn of the year and wet,
When the music started. The musician was
Skilful but the Messiah was out of tune
And bent the time and the tone. For a long hour
The poet played The Regulator of the World
As the spirit prompted, and entered upon
The pathways of His power—while the mourners
Stood with slow blood on their hands
Astonished by the weird processional
And the undertaker figured his bill.
—We have in mind an unplayed instrument
Which stands apart in a memorial air
Where the room darkens toward its inmost wall
And a lady hangs in her autumnal hair
At evening of the November rains; and winds
Sublime out of the North, and North by West,
Are sowing from the death-sack of the seed
The burden of her cloudy hip. Behold,
I send the demon I know to relieve your need,
An imperfect player at the perfect instrument
Who takes in hand The Regulator of the World
To keep the splendor from destroying us.
Lady! The last virtuoso of the composer S—
Darkens your parlor with the music of the Law.
When I was green and blossomed in the Spring
I was mute wood. Now I am dead I sing.

I have been unable to reproduce the indentations in “Sentinel Yellowwoods” and “Lament Fragment.”

“Tales of Odysseus,” an early poem, is from Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man Old and New 1953-2001, a book in which Grossman’s younger and older poetic selves engage in a dialogue across the gap of time poetry spans. “Sentinel Yellowwoods,” “Lament Fragment,” and “The Piano Player Explains Himself” are from The Ether Dome: New and Selected Poems 1979-1991.

I'd like to thank Lawrence L. White for his invaluable input.