Friday, January 08, 2010

Pink Assholes and Contemporary Poetry

600 posts and I'm still here.

Here's a poem by Langston Hughes I like:

Life Is Fine

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn't,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn't a-been so cold
I might've sunk and died.

But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn't a-been so high
I might've jumped and died.

But it was High up there! It was high!

So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I could've died for love--
But for livin' I was born

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry--
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!

I've been reading contemporary poetry again, having just received the new issues of Ploughshares and Poetry. This issue of Ploughsares was edited by Tony Hoagland and I find it eminently superior to Poetry. Still, the difference between contemporary poetry and this ditty by Hughes is immense.

First, Poetry and Ploughshares would never publish this (unless, of course, they knew it was by Langston Hughes). Here is more typical contemporary fare:

From "Things Are Starting to Look Up Again" by Farrah Field:

"Your beautiful pink asshole breathes when I breathe.

All the words I want to say I want to say later.

Let's cheat on you with you. Is it possible

to completely cover someone's body in semen?

[...]Have you ever tried Greek-style yogurt?

It's normal yogurt strained through cheesecloth."

Incomplete, yes, but enough for a taste. These few lines exemplify some of the trends of contemporary poetry. First the poet insists, because her lines are so powerful, that the whole thing be double-spaced, as it is in Ploughshares. Second, the abrupt juxtapositions abuse the reader by forcing him to construct his own underlying narrative, which in this poem is thankfully clear. Third, the metaphysical associations between pink asshole and semen and Greek yogurt are made without apology; to read millennial verse you really must accustom yourself to strange connections all about you, like cobwebs on the ceiling of your apprehension.

There are two schools: That of simple, straightforward diction (think Kay Ryan) and that of etiolated, expanded diction (think Ashbery). These recapitulate the ancient Dickinson vs. Whitman dichotomy, Eliot vs. Neruda, Williams vs. Wilbur ad nauseaum. This is not new.

To the straightforward narrative style belongs also the working class, everyday experience poetry (think Frank O'Hara) as in "The Madness of King George" by Matthew Dickman:

"It was time for me to go. I drank
a beer and a whiskey and should have been sipping
Italian sodas, should have been home
watching an old movie."

One thing about this style nowadays is a total disrespect for line breaks, as the above is no different in prose:

"It was time for me to go. I drank a beer and a whiskey and should have been sipping Italian sodas, should have been home watching an old movie."

Why do such writers insist on using lines? The most egregious example of this fallacy is certainly Stephen Dobyn's long poem, "Chainsaws."

I don't like prose-poems but I have no idea why Stephen chose to break this into lines; their only commonality is apx. line length.

"When I phone him in Florida, to protest, his wife
tells me: we've got twins, just toddlers and I'm
afraid of bugs."

So disrespect for line breaks is another feature to add to double-spacing, fragmented narrative, and disparate connections between bold images left to the reader to connect.

As for the latter, here's another example from "The Toothache" by Lee Bricetti:

"The toothache drills a hole
to the suitcase-filled with singed clothes

of the woman who died in a crash."

Now a toothache is commonly drilled, but here it drills all the way to a suitcase about which we learn nothing more in the next and final three lines of the poem. It's short poem, so it doesn't ask as much of the reader as some, but it does illustrate what I call "The New Metaphysical Poetry."

Overall, when reading this stuff, it feels as if every poet out there is trying desperately to be original, only to fall back into the general mess of history where all of this has been tried before. It is not hard to write an incomprehensible poem; it is much more difficult to write a lucid one, but this skill has been forgotten by some nowadays. The message is, "It's better to be original than good; it's better to be different than attempt to perfect and encompass the tradition of the past."

Of course, all these splinter schools will become codified by critics and soon belong to a tired category again. But that's beside the point.

I can't tell you how many times I've been rejected by Poetry and Ploughshares, but I think I know why--my poetry is too traditional. I aim for immediate comprehension on first read with more nuanced comprehension on subsequent reads. I like to surprise my readers with connections they also can make, and in my poems there is depth to be discovered but it is not foisted upon the reader violently without excuse. This is what I most resent about contemporary verse: the hubris of the authors throwing everything they can at us as if we were deaf, as if the audience would not listen unless someone fucks a rubber chicken onstage.

Below, an example of a poem recently rejected by Ploughshares. I fear my career as a poet is a lost anachronism. I cannot break the glass ceiling as I am, but fear I am too old to change. But on I go; I have not given up.


What if the fat man
were just a man, not fat,
and the shapeless woman
not the absence of curve
but the presence of her?
What if we were
instead of seemed,
without prejudice,
conscious and pure?

That is beyond me.
I want to control
the distance between us,
have my inner critic hack
any intimate overgrowth
away, plow a fire break
in the chaparral.

We all enjoy a little blood
spilled now and then
provided it's not ours.
Pity and contempt are sticks
we use to poke the drunk
to see if he's dead,
though unconsciously we rub
the same spot on ourselves
where he was bruised.
This gesture confirms
that anything less
than loving another as an equal
is not compassion.

Next time I am discharged
from the hospital for the smug,
I vow to wear
the blue plastic wristband
until it falls off. So long
will I remember
the poor and the stranger.

Though rejected by Ploughshares, this was published in Mannequin Envy and later named "Best Poem of the Week on the Net."

Still, not good enough to break the academic glass ceiling. Bitter? No. The joy of perfecting art through poetry outmuscles all attempts to have it justified only by recognition. Still every writer longs for recognition.

The black dog has been threatening me of late. Two weeping spells, the second purely chemical. My meds have been adjusted, but I fear melancholy, as those familiar with this blog know.

At 2 Kilorats,



  1. Anonymous9:36 AM PST

    Hi Craig:

    I'm sorry to read of two kilorats. Hopefully they are same-sexed to avoid litters. My thought? You must make a legitimate and comprehensive peace with your own assertion: "The joy of perfecting art through poetry outmuscles all attempts to have it justified only by recognition."

    Sometimes it seems your desire for recognition would like nothing better than to outmuscle your art. And why would you even think to bemoan your advanced years and the impossibilty of conforming to the current vogue?


  2. Ah, Norm,

    You know me well, buddy. And beside this central conflict I also struggle with the term "disabled."

    As a hard-working white Protestant, the last thing I ever expected, esp. after thirty years of preparatory education, was not to work--or better put, not to work for a paycheck.

    But for me work is defined as a paycheck, no matter how much I try to persuade myself of some other standard. No matter how much I labor as a writer, I don't support myself by it, ergo no tit for tat: "No tickie, no washy."

    I had a poem accepted recently, though provisionally, for $40. Never enough.

    The currency of art, for better or worse, is first contemporary recognition, second the judgment of history.

    If you have not achieved the former the latter is extremely unlikely. To break the glass ceiling means to get into the best journals. I have not. But I believe I deserve to. My work is of such a quality and maturity that I think it matches up well against the work in the high falutin' journals. Either luck or an anachronistic style are against me--else I overestimate my worth.

    As for freelance writers in general, I read a good article in the LA times about their fate in the internet age: more and more are being put out of business; not enough gigs to support them.

    This is the tragedy of Twitter and outsourciing to ESL countries for technical writing.

    How do I feel? Useless, like tits on a boar. This affects my judgment. Yet when I commit myself to paper, as above, my opinion of my art has not changed. Good enough or nearly. Few regrets. Many pieces I think stand the test of atime. Here's a link to some of them:

    Famous? Ha! How many Google hits qualify? Right now I waver between 20 and 25 K, before duplicates are eliminated. Strange currency to quantify fame, ain't it?

    I wish you all the luck in the world in your ongoing personal difficulty with real estate and real people.

    Thanks for stopping by,

    Craig Erick


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