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,
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,