I’ve been reading some very good online and print journals of late, and I am seriously entertaining giving up poetry as a genre for my talents (except for the occasional toss-off). In fact, whatever else I see when I read the best journals, I see that my verse would stick out like a sore thumb if ever published in the middle of so many elegant, painstakingly crafted pieces.
I’m not saying this in irony, nor do I say it to be contradicted by the reader’s encouragement. It is not a plea for someone to say, “Stay the course, CE,” no; it is a considered result of reason and observation, something I’ve been slouching toward for some time.
Truly, I am not good enough for current poetic standards. In retrospect, had I not married young and become a doctor, I ought to have studied under masters, perhaps gotten an MFA, attended all the seminars from all the name poets I could. Instead (given whatever opportunity I have had)—perhaps for fear of failure, perhaps for lacking the humility for instruction, perhaps out of protectiveness against having my art altered by any external, well-meaning hand, I bull-headedly pursued my own lights and muse into whatever my verse has become today. And as it is, it is inferior to the good poetry I find myself reading, with its original diction, premise, construction, scene-painting, tantalizing incompletions and often insuperable puzzles. Since it appears that this is what good editors now prize, I am, well, sunk—at least for this time and this age, the only period an artist can rationally count upon. Therefore I think I should embrace prose wholeheartedly and be done with my dream of being a poet, saver for the occasional piece, as I said above.
Now it’s true that contemporary poetry is a very large tent and has room for both the blunt and the refined, and for the most part I belong to the former category, still the best journals seem to prefer a certain refinement beyond my skill. The Journal, published by Ohio State University, has many examples of this in their new issue. Here’s the first and second stanzas of a poem by Molly Brodak, “Like Your Jesus, Only Mine”:
Wait up, bitch!” begs back the pale bus stop boy.
O molester moustache, O fake hobble—
they group up—legs of toddler proportion, whatever glamour wants,
and papery shirts, long as dresses
hung with tangles of gold—
the kind that rubs off, once finger-loved.
The poem concerns a brief dispute between wannabe white gang-bangers, or “wiggers” (= “white niggers”), as one can see from the description of the clothing (although some of the principals may actually be black; we can’t know). The only action in the poem I am sure occurs, besides the boy at the bus stop begging the other to wait, is when the other boy bangs him in the chest with a cell phone. Then the scene segues abruptly to a restaurant, and at the poem’s end the other boy (not the pale bus stop boy) gets a call from his dad on the same cell phone. All of this is very cryptically done in brief and powerful images that evoke a story line of their own—even if you have no idea where that story line leads.
Now not all the poems in this journal are quite as difficult as this, still it appears to be the prevailing style. As I said to Kathleen last night, “I want to connect the dots. They want to disconnect them.” Or better put, many of the more successful current poets want to disconnect and reconnect the dots again in a somewhat disconnected way, forcing the reader to put the pieces back together Humpty-Dumpty like, never sure the egg shell edges really fit. Or if these poets deconstruct to construct, what they construct is often more difficult to understand than their process of deconstruction.
Despite all this, with sufficient ambition and steadfastness, one can usually piece a narrative of some kind together from a poem of this type. Here’s another one from the issue in its entirety, “Cure” by Kristin Abraham. As I read it over and over, with sufficient time between my readings, I felt that I finally “got it.” Perhaps I was not versed enough in this kind of poetry to decode its substance sooner; perhaps I deceive myself into thinking there’s something to get; but my gloss makes sense to me at the least. Here’s the poem, double-spaced as in the issue:
(She was the foot of the bed / chart
marked with asterisks and daggers,
the story looking over its shoulder.)
Then the next she
was born, they
called her Ridiculous.
shh, I can hear them, as
little door in my mind
(the not-so-pleasant fairytale.)
Now the family can’t
in her walls, unraveling
the hem of her name.
Now she tosses crusts
to the birds, now the birds
Bear with me here. I think this poem is about discovery of sexuality in childhood and its association with the primal scene, so that the child eventually discovers where she actually comes from (as in “unraveling / the hem of her name”), and how this ultimately unsettles the family dynamic as she comes to terms with her growing adult sexuality, a revelation that can’t be undone, hence the birds won’t leave. The “Cure” is in effect, the end of childhood, the cure for childish misconceptions. Once you understand you are the result of your parents having sex you can’t go back. Perhaps the birds symbolize the lost innocence of childhood, perhaps they symbolize the persistent reminder of adulthood. Regardless, things have changed, and not necessarily for the better.
Now I’m not saying that Ms. Abraham would admit that her poem is “about” anything, but I am fairly sure a determined, intelligent reader would likely unearth some of the same substance as I have.
Why poets and readers of poetry want to work this hard, I don’t know. Susan Sontag wrote that irony had been exhausted in the late 20th century. It seems as if poetry had been exhausted, too, so that the best poets dancing on the edge of the art have had to go to great lengths to put an original stamp on the art. It is not enough to tell the truth wryly as Frost did; one must provide an almost out-of-body experience for the reader. Again, not all the poems chosen by the editors in this volume are this abstruse, and I would say a word about David Moolten, an excellent poet/physician from Philadelphia, whose work I remember from long ago—I think, if I am not wrong, from some online workshop. He has matured into a fine poet whom I can still understand without banging my head against his poems. One of his three poems in the volume, “Tolerance,” is a masterpiece. In fact, to the editors’ credit, he is the only poet with three poems in the issue.
Anyone more interested in these sorts of debates can refer to my Logopoetry essays, written almost ten years ago, which now strike me as horribly outdated, since the examples I used for difficulty of substance—Dylan Thomas, for instance—now seem, in comparison to current fare, fairly easy to understand (if “understanding” in the usual sense can even be a goal of the poetry most admired today). Having said all this, here’s a piece I wrote this morning about my feelings of inferiority towards the poetry which garners more recognition in this age among the cognoscenti:
It’s not easy to be
almost good enough
playing the chitlin circuit
on a minor label
in a middling journal
tuxedo an Armani rip-off
a few millimeters
two freckles from pretty,
an eyebrow from beautiful.
It’s not easy
to open the violin case
for the first fiddle,
to straighten the conductor’s
music sheets, to rehearse
lines with the lead.
For a while you think
there may be a chance
but when the lead gets sick
they import someone,
pass you over—
you are the ultimate insurance,
you are the just in case
never shooting, always
Since I know most readers of this blog are not poetry aficionados, indeed some have told me that the only poetry they read is found here, no doubt many will prefer my simple complaint to the complex reverberations of “Cure.” If this is true, don’t pick up a literary journal. You may be disappointed.