by Christine Gosnay, Guest Blogger
People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. -Abraham Lincoln
Watch my back in a minute when I start talking about people pursuing MFAs and PhDs in poetry and creative writing; please, don’t let them sneak up and stab me with a rolled-up thesis draft they’ve whittled into a shiv.
Genevieve Kaplan’s book In the ice house was the winner of the 2009 A Room of her Own To The Lighthouse Publication Prize (say that three times fast) and was published this year by Red Hen Press. The award is given to a full-length book of poetry by a previously-unpublished woman.
Now, once upon a time, I had the occasion to speak about an unrelated topic at some length with one of the editors at Red Hen, who divulged quite cheerily to me that she read for the prize and in doing so tried to “just choose pieces that look like something you would see in the New Yorker” to pass on to the next editor. So. Some things to get into there.
Have you been reading the poetry of the young women and men of the MFA universe? Why not? They’re all reading each other’s poetry, so why aren’t you reading it? Oh. You don’t like it? Because it’s boring and it’s only on sale in university bookstores? You should tell them that. You did? What did they say? They told you they’d put it on Amazon, and that they were interested in the parallels their poetry drew between a 21st century re-imagining of Nicanor Parra as curated by Jorie Graham’s mother? Oh girl, don’t even tell me they said their books had a conceit. About what? An ironic manuscript written as language poetry interpreted by the ghost of Ezra Pound?
I heard one of them was excommunicated from the Skull & Bones club for rhyming. And they don’t talk about Joseph anymore. Joseph expressed himself in narrative imagery. Last I heard he’s working at a co-op farm in Oregon. He sells homemade dishwasher magnets on Ebay.
All bombastic nattering and generalization aside, I urge you to read Bart Baxter’s “Does Poetry Matter?” on the subject of poetry’s deep slide into navel- and mirror-gazing decrepitude. From the talk – given in the nineties! – which cites Dan Gioia,
Poetry has lost the larger audience of educated intellectuals, the doctors, lawyers, clergymen, accountants and business people, the literary intelligentsia made up of non-specialists who once took poetry seriously; who are the market for jazz, foreign films, theater, opera, the symphony and dance; the broad audience who reads quality fiction and biographies and who listen to public radio.
It goes on,
Poetry now belongs to a sub-culture of academicians, funded by public subsidy through a complex network of federal, state and local agencies.
a. There are over 200 graduate creative-writing programs.
b. There are several thousand college-level jobs teaching poetry.
c. This decades long public funding has created a large professional class for the production and reception of poetry.
d. The contemporary poet makes a living not by publishing literary work, but by educating, usually at a large institution, most likely state-run, such as a school district, a college or university, or even (these days) at a hospital or a prison, i.e., teaching other people how to write poetry, or at the highest levels teaching other people how to teach other people how to write poetry.
Before anyone misunderstands, funding for poetry is a good thing. Having gobs and gobs of poets is super. The ability to teach poetry and to make a living from it is an interesting phenomenon to consider as an entity in itself in a time of excess in a country in which academic resources are as abundant as the wild and misguided expectations we have of sending every child to college. Make no mistake about it – Occupy Wall Street, the recession and cash-strapped universities aside – this is a time of academic excess. Compared to one hundred years ago, we are swimming in college students, crawling with teachers and there are poets bristling around every corner. Look out your window if you don’t believe me. See that guy standing perfectly still behind your dogwood tree? He wants you to workshop his latest cento.
The problem is not the number of poets, but that only poets read the vast majority of the content being produced by many of these university rats because it is, as I mentioned, boring. In the last year, I have attended reading after reading at which only poets were in attendance. Not a listener to be found, just more poets, waiting for their turn to share. Your typical reading anywhere, not just on college campuses or at the nearby bookstores and libraries, typifies the spirit of a network of writers who write for themselves, for other writers, and for the ability to say “I did it. Someone who writes poetry liked my poem.”
Your average first book by an MFA or PhD candidate is missing the important heartbeat and freedom a poem needs to be good: its voice. That is not to say its voice as in first-person, detached, or the device employed by the poet to get it from the top of the page to the bottom. I’m talking about the thing that makes it beautiful, haunting, sad or meaningful and would compel a lay person to read it. A certain je ne sais quoi, perhaps. It’s called universal appeal, and you don’t produce it by writing clever, fresh, impressive, or intentionally confusing bits that can fit on the back of a postcard. You don’t produce it by writing to assignment. You produce it by writing because you can’t stop writing and you’re good at it.
I don’t have the alchemical secret to producing this product; if I did, I would be operating a factory in China’s Zhejiang province.
Once more, before further misunderstanding occurs, the onus is not on the poet to ensure that the reader understands. Bad poetry holds the reader’s hand, worse poetry throws flowers at him, and doggerel sprays Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds in his face. John Ashbery (whose poetry I do not particularly like, but who nevertheless has repeatedly managed to capture the imagination of many people – lay and learned – with his broad ability to describe and his masterful command of language) said it well in his acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters he received at the recent National Book Awards ceremony:
“As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be. I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”
Indeed, although again, work that tends to the obscure and self-indulgent and deliberately cross and grumpy will reach few readers. The balance is struck with poetry that is both difficult and revelatory. For instance, I have just this week been reading some poems by Tranströmer, one of which is called “After a Death.” It’s the sort of poem you think you have in the bag, until you realize you’ve no idea what’s going on. The difference between a Nobel prize winner and an academic poet? I was in Tranströmer’s poem, and didn’t climb out until I had rolled around in it for a few hours and thoroughly given up, feeling the afterglow of the attempt to understand, and the movement of the poem’s slope to its finish. If I went into the kind of academic poetry I’m alluding to, I’d freeze to death before I managed to pull myself out by its wide margins.
Which brings me to Kaplan’s In the ice house. Here we have the hushed work of a poet who is scared to death to show her hand. When I was a little girl, I was terrified, no, horrified, no, scared shitless of the things that would “go on my permanent record.” I got the idea of a permanent record into my head from who knows where, but once it arrived, I spent years erasing things and throwing notebooks away, and when I was compelled to pour out my heart, it went into the darkest corner of a three-ring binder that I hid under newspaper clippings and was sure someone – probably a neighbor, police officer or the cutest guy at my middle school – would discover it if I left it unguarded while I was in the shower. What if someone knew my deepest thoughts? What if I said the wrong thing? What if I was a bad writer?!? If I was, I was, but I could never let anyone else find out.
Ms. Kaplan, please. Put something on your permanent record. You spend 85 pages looking over your shoulder, writing upside down and backwards with cramped hand and clenched jaws about something – what? Domestic life, home, ice storms. Birds? Decidedly birds. I never knew how boring birds could be until bang. More birds! More ice storms, more kitchens. Hey. Listen, if you have something to say about kitchens, birds and ice storms, say it as often as you want. But “Float and lie and weave and have // no other contact than the wind” (65) is not a poem. (That’s the whole poem.) “With the breath of swift again. // Along the limbs of all trees.” ( 34) No – I refuse to pretend that this is the kind of poem that needs and deserves to be written and published. Lift your arm and expose your vulnerability. Yes, you can get hurt doing this, but you can also get the poem out.
There are nine poems in this book called “The Birds,” thirteen poems called “The Ice Storm,” and about sixteen thousand called “The Landscape.”
I tried to accept this; I did. But I am the reader, this is a book, and it is absurd. Running all along the undercurrent of In the ice house are footfalls, paces that quicken, walkways, the birds; there are empty rooms, the wind of a person walking out. There is much. But there is no voice. There is nobody. Most of the poems are between 2 and 8 lines long. Poetry can be this short. But taking as an example pages 28 to 31, there are four poems that are shorter than 8 lines each, and even taken all together they do not make up a single poem. Care to finish these? This is a great, risky liberty to take with a reader’s time and patience. Make me turn pages for you while you work through your personal issues, or make me work to figure out why I am still reading your writing in the first place, and you have done each of us a disservice. All of these birds and landscapes are just interesting rocks picked up along the way, rolling in a tumbler until they look smooth enough. Careful, though, not to leave them tumbling too long, because what’s unfortunately happened is they’ve been diminished to single grains of sand. You can’t prune and clip and finish so much. Leave it wild and overgrown at the edges. That’s what resonates with people.
In places, such as “In the Lack of My Voice,” there is a dodgy, hinting approach to giving an audience, then a retreat. In the previous poem “Begin By Counting Sheep, White Buds on the Plant as they Appear,” there are moments of trouble and excitement: “The upholstery comes up easily // In my hands, there is so much to replace,” and ends with “It all comes in a run and I remember everything.” (25). Problem is, I have no empathy for or understanding of the place from which this was written, for the speaker, for the ideas expressed: nothing. There is no appeal past the end of the page.
There is one good poem that I actually enjoyed: “An Unpeaceful Symbol.” In it is what I think the entire book tried to be.
Even the curtains are restless.
The whole house awake
at such a time,
the doorknob graying.
An objective established– let the nonessential go. Let the flowery things die. Try to be nice but
The dirt piles
as each shrug becomes a comment, sigh an inquisition– the state is fine, the day is
bland, don’t forget
your keys. (32-33)
The problem with the rest of the book is solved here (though it unravels quite quickly again and goes back to haunting the backs of buildings and peeking around corners): a living, worried, honest being emerged out of the neatly-piled stacks of words. The dirt pile shifted.
Keep writing. Keep writing, all you thousands of well-groomed messes who rightly call yourselves poets, but stop being so afraid of yourselves.
Kaplan, G. 2011, In the ice house, Red Hen Press, California.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher.
* All opinions expressed by Guest Bloggers are solely those of the Guest Bloggers. Any opinions stated by Guest Bloggers do not represent the beliefs or views of The Editors of Straight Forward.*