Prose from Poetry Magazine

Why Is the Great American Poem So Hard to Write?

One critic's take on Graham, Grossman, McCombs, Hannah.

by Jason Guriel
"Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific," writes Camille Paglia in her recent anthology Break, Blow, Burn, "but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment, and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem." Clive James makes a similar point when, criticizing Charles Olson's viral influence on free verse, he praises Frost's "aspiration to self-containment," to the "choppily well-separated thing," to "writing a poem, not just writing poetry." This shortage of choppily well-separated things is, it seems, pandemic. "We forget that a single poem is an independent work of art, no less than a painting," observes the Canadian poet Robyn Sarah, diagnosing the tendency of poets to fatten their collections with empty carbs, plumping manuscripts up to the forty-eight page minimum that makes them eligible for awards and publishing subsidies.

A poem, not just poetry. That's what our era is lacking, claims a growing chorus of pundits; and what these four reviews are hunting.

Sea Change: Poems, by Jorie Graham. Ecco Press. $23.95.

Never mind the subtitle; there are no poems in Jorie Graham's twelfth collection, at least not in Paglia's, James's, and Sarah's sense of the word. "As always," Graham observed in the March 2008 issue of this magazine, "I feel I am writing a book rather than a collection, so speaking about one poem out of context is hard." A concept album rather than a compilation of singles, Sea Change is unified by apocalyptic worry, or what the dust jacket describes as the "once-unimaginable threshold at which civilization as we know it becomes unsustainable." The ambition to create individually realized poems has been washed away by a tidal form that, according to Graham, alternates between the long lines of Whitman and the shorter lines of Williams. Here's the beginning of "This":

Full moon, & the empty tree's branches—
correction—the tree's
expose and recover it, suddenly, letting it drift and
rise a bit then
swathing it again,
treating it like it was stuff, no treasure up there
growing more
bluish and ablaze

Like waves, the lines surge forward, foam against the middle of the page, and then retreat to the left margin. And like waves, they don't discriminate between bottled messages and old boots; they carry all manner of psychic refuse and fragmented perception ashore for the reader's inspection—both the faulty first impressions ("the empty tree's branches") and the corrected second glances ("the tree's/branches").

And why not? Many theorists now assure us that the self itself is fragmented, confined to the warped pane of its subjective gaze, and burdened with a language that can never fully represent its environment. Favoring process over product, the churning "Sea Change" is, in its own words,

blurring the feeling of
the state of
being. Which did exist just
yesterday, calm and true.

But at what point does the desire to represent the imprecision of perception become an excuse for imprecise writing? Or is our gaze so hopelessly subjective that we can comfortably abandon the struggle for precision, as Graham does when she describes

the bent back ranks of trees
all stippled with these slivers of
light like
breaking grins—infinities of them—wriggling along
the walls

One doesn't stipple with "slivers." One stipples with dots and points of paint. Slender things like door cracks, crescent moons, and, yes, "breaking grins" are slivered. Seurat canvases and Lindsay Lohan are stippled. Is Graham being imprecise to underscore the imperfection of the self's perceptions, or just sloppy? The question cannot be answered because the idea underlying this sort of poetry—language is always already inadequate—inoculates it against charges of obscurity.

However, readers with a gut worth trusting might observe that, when it comes to the business of actually reading Sea Change, "it is as much an effort to attend to the words one by one as to pronounce them one by one." That's Hugh Kenner on the verse of Arthur Symons, but Kenner's words can be applied, just as easily, to Graham's twenty-first-century slush:

Honor exists. Just punishment exists.
The sound of
servants not being
set free. Being told it is postponed again. Hope as it
exists in them
now. Those that were once living how they are not
here in this
moonlight, & how there are things one feels
ashamed about in
it, & also,
looking at it,
the feeling of a mother tongue in the mouth.
—From This

The vague nouns ("it," "things"), the passive voice ("is," "are"), and the awkward, almost undergraduate grammar ("ashamed about in it")—all conspire to a criminal indistinctness. This is a shame since Sea Change wants to address urgent problems like environmental degradation and Guantanamo. But these problems require a clarity that can only be strengthened by the struggle for the right words, not weakened by it.

After all, there are elegant ways to express our inability to express ourselves. Memorable lines from "Prufrock"—"'That is not it at all,/That is not what I meant, at all'"—come to mind because that's what memorable things do. And there are crisp, epigrammatic ways to confront our incoherence, too. Recall Mark Strand's "Wherever I am/I am what is missing," or Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" or Iago's "I am not what I am." Faced with such verbal triumphs, how can selves as incoherent as ours ever hope to keep Graham's damper-pedaled lines—"Who is one when one calls oneself/one?"—straight in our minds? No one doubts Graham's intelligence and commitment. She has assembled a body of work that demands respect. But it's becoming easier to assure ourselves that she's an important poet than to remember the specific, well-crafted reasons why.

Decartes' Loneliness, by Allen Grossman. New Directions. $16.95.

Descartes' Loneliness, the title of Allen Grossman's latest collection, is a fitting one for our times. It's lonely, after all, to be a humanist when so many poets are, like Jorie Graham, "blurring the feeling of/the state of/being." Grossman, however, seems unfazed, as demonstrated in this excerpt from the book's afterword, a quaint appendage to find in a collection of poetry:

Poets are persons aware of aloneness and competent to speak in the space of solitude—who, by speaking alone, make possible for themselves and others the being of persons, in which all the value of the human world is found.

This belief in "the being of persons" is so unfashionable it's almost refreshing. But if Graham's speaker is too incoherent, Grossman's is all too coherent, the voice of someone who—having long ago decided that he's a poet—apparently feels no need to revise awful proclamations like this one, from "The Famished Dead":

Now look! That other shadow is Pat, my
old nurse.
She had no body even then. She wore what
nurses wore instead of bodies in those days.
That's why her being dead now makes no difference
to me. What's important is still her body.
"Take it off, Pat.
Instead of breasts to suck, you wore two pins.
Instead of a cunt, God knows what you had there."

There are humanists, and then there are hams. Grossman, here, isn't after the choppily well-separated thing, the self-contained poem. Rather, he's a good example of those contemporary poets who, to borrow Paglia's words, "treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page." Certainly, Grossman's use of exclamation points, italics, and lurid words makes his work ready made for the podium.

Of course, whether Grossman actually reads Descartes' Loneliness at live readings is beside the point; throughout the book, the speaker, frequently referred to as "Allen," booms his voice outward as if the reader's skull was an auditorium. He begins one piece with the proclamation, "O Kid!" Another one starts with "Look!" Here's a megaphone of a stanza, from "The Invention of Night":

Song is extreme work. Help me, river sister!
It's getting dark. Hey, sweet water! Flow fresh
through ocean's salt. Give me some words for him
I love, so he can give words to someone else.
Start love's gift once more:—WORDS FOR
So everybody will have something to give someone.
If not, I'll drown you in oceans of salt tears.
Then you'll be indistinguishable from tears.
This is Arcadia.

Song is only "extreme work" to the wide-eyed person who overvalues his perceptions. Good song, on the other hand, takes hard work, the sort of toil that, over time, rids poems of clichés like "oceans of salt tears." Grossman, however, absolves himself from such toil, and forces the clichés and capital letters to do double-duty, single-handedly raising the ordinary to the oracular. And despite evidence of meter, much of the writing in Descartes' Loneliness sounds like flat, conversational prose, to which Grossman has added various stock props: sun, mind, birds of no specific species, their warbling, and Death personified.

Extreme singing certainly has its patrons. J.D. McClatchy, on the back cover, observes that Grossman's "is the austere inward gaze, and the oracular voice of the prophet and seer." But the blurb ends there, implying that just being a prophet and seer is enough. A poem, though, needs more of its maker than a big mouth.

Dismal Rock, by Davis McCombs. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

Reading Davis McCombs's second collection, Dismal Rock, after Graham's and Grossman's books, is a little like putting on your first pair of corrective glasses: language sharpens and well-defined things—not just minds and birds—suddenly come into focus. Imprecision, after all, is a luxury of late style. Younger poets still making a name for themselves, like McCombs, know that they must be clear and compelling and not take up too much of our time—"for time," as August Kleinzahler smartly reminds us in a recent talk, "has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what's cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I'm talking right now."

McCombs gets this and—in the first section of Dismal Rock, a sequence on tobacco farming—gets down to business, describing a world with the rigor of an anthropologist in the field:

The people are talking about budworms; they are
about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal
there where the spillway foams and simmers,
they are fishing and talking about pounds and
they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.
Old men are whittling sticks with their
and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of
and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking
about setters, plant beds and stripping rooms.

In these lines, from "Lexicon," McCombs's speaker, a good listener, has catalogued his environment's recurring sounds—the "u" in "bluff," "lugs," and "cutters"; the "w" in "white," "whittling," and "whistling"—and organized them into a brief, cohesive sound loop that captures the aural energy of a rural landscape. Dismal Rock reassures us that words, when used well, can work. They can record the world and, at their best, transform it, as McCombs's do when they describe a bat "crossing/the water on the boat of its reflection," or how "a bulb of gnats flickers on/above the damp leaves."

But while words can be made to work, they can also become workmanlike. And while much of the poetry in Dismal Rock is precise, much of it is also unmemorable nature poetry, opting for the obvious over the transformative:

each moment flaring up
like a match, consuming itself.
—From Gnomon

this is the river's
whorled thumbprint, the water's surface dark as
—From The Tobacco Economy

the storm that, far beyond him, was purpling
like a bruise.
—From Hobart

when the storm spread
like a bruise along the coast.
—From Bob Marley

This is the sort of poetry in which things "unspool" (see "Salts Cave Revisited" and "Northtown Well"), in which stuff is compared to "ash" (see "The Tobacco Economy" and "Stripping Room")—poetry, in other words, that's teetering on the cliff of our era's clichés.

McCombs, a Yale Younger Poet, is capable of some fine moments— but then who isn't in an era that valorizes the bite-sized fragment over the fully realized narrative, the poetry over the poem? Instead of working through the implications of a neat idea—that bat "crossing/ the water on the boat of its reflection," for example—McCombs merely moves onto the next idea—"it is squeaking/like a rusted hinge"—which is far less startling. The poems in Dismal Rock, then, are less poems than lists of description that never quite cohere into the self-contained pieces that need every one of their words. Like worms and double albums, they can be sectioned and still survive.

Inflorescence, by Sarah Hannah. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

The author of this next book, a one-time nominee for Yale Younger Poet, committed suicide last year. Its poems are about flowers and mental health; they have titles like "Dried Flowers" and "Night Nurse," and brandish sharp lines like

Don't talk to me of Paris;
I have duties.
Don't talk to me of loss;
I bury pills in applesauce.

Given those facts alone, it would be easy to write off Sarah Hannah through a single, obvious comparison. But the most amazing— and consequently tragic—fact about her second (and last) collection is that its poems (and they are poems, choppily well-separated and varnished with formal finish) are very, very good. Whatever the poet was going through, it didn't hinder the production of small, complete masterpieces like "The Riddle of the Sphinx Moth":

An enormous body kamikaze-dives
At me from behind the eaves of a summer
Shack: a sudden blow between the eyes,

A hybrid whirr—half bird, half bee—she hovers,
Helicopters to the grass, and sparks:
Morse code in creature-speak for Get you gone.

I run inside. What was she? A pair of dragonflies
Combined to mate like biplanes in a blitz
Seem cordial in comparison to this—the eyes,

Two narrows, solid black, or should I say,
Twin Stygian pools of fixedness,
Her torso thick, a pattern throbbing in the fur,

And what was that prodding in front of her?
A stick, a thin proboscis, twice as long as she,
Insinuates itself in jimsonweed—

Sucks out all the juice. Twenty quiet minutes pass
Until I hear a rattle on the glass;
The window's shaken out of frame—she's in!

She fouls the bed—the whole room's a sty.
I should flee. I shudder in my chair instead.
She owns this house, not I.

A buzz and feint, and with a glare
She's out the door. She owns the house,
Not me. I've solved the riddle:

All skirmishes aren't fatal;
All metaphors don't fly.

Like McCombs, Hannah has a knack for images, but unlike McCombs, she's careful not to overload the poem with too many, showcasing only the special ones. She's also careful—as Ariel-era Plath wasn't always—to unify them. The staggering description of a "pair of dragonflies/Combined to mate like biplanes in a blitz" is supported by references to kamikaze planes, helicopters, and Morse code, so that when the reader comes to "a pattern throbbing in the fur," the sphinx moth has already been transformed, in the reader's mind, into furry fuselage, capable of rattling windows. The deft use of rhyme and alliteration further unifies this subtle, anti-war psychodrama, lending an aura of inevitability to words like "throbbing," "prodding," "proboscis," "sucks," "pass," and "glass." The poem can't afford the loss of any of them.

But while Hannah expertly moves the reader, word by word, to the poem's finish, she's careful not to craft too tidy an ending. She solves her riddle with a bit of folk wisdom—"All metaphors don't fly"—but in doing so subverts the very art, metaphor-making, that she has mastered, suggesting the limits of poetry. She completes a final rhyme, but also drops a line from what would have been the final tercet, introducing a note of anxiety that's far more subtle than the self-consciously fragmented work of Graham. Indeed, many of Hannah's poems set up consistent patterns of stanzas only to deviate from them at the last moment. Life, Hannah seems to have recognized, is closer to coherence than chaos, which makes it all the more troubling when it falls just short of gelling.

The pieces in Inflorescence add up to a memoir about Hannah's care for her terminal mother. But the best ones—"Greenbrier," "Common Creeping Thyme," "The Leaded Windows," "Night Nurse," and "Eternity, That Dumbwaiter"—are anthology-bound and easily transcend the collection's overall arc. Hannah has not left a body of work that, through sheer bulk, demands our grudging respect. She has left us poems, each its own testament.
Originally Published: October 23, 2008


On December 17, 2008 at 10:49am Michael Theune wrote:
I agree almost completely with Guriel’s assessment that “what our era is lacking” is a focus on the, in Camille Paglia’s words, “‘production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem.’” Such—dare we call them “great”?—poems, of course, are being written today, but an increased focus on the book, the project, and/or process does tend to override the centrality of the single poem.

That being said, I disagree almost completely with Guriel’s assessment of the poems in Jorie Graham’s Sea Change. Guriel claims “there are no poems,” that is, distinct poems, in Graham’s latest book. Guriel’s reasoning for this claim seems to be, in large part, formal; put off by Graham’s use of a combination of Whitmanesque long lines and Williamsesque short lines, he states that “[t]he ambition to create individually realized poems has been washed away by [this] tidal form….”

To focus so centrally on form in Sea Change, or in any of Graham’s books or poems, is to miss a truly vital aspect of Graham’s poetics: poetic structure, the crafting of turns. In “Something of Moment,” her introduction to the issue of Ploughshares she edited (in Winter 2001-02), Graham argues that “[i]n a poem, one is always given…a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion… ‘takes place,’” thus offering the poem an opportunity to “break.” According to Graham, “All such moments—where we are taken by surprise and asked to react—are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.” In “At the Border,” the poetic statement she published as a part of American Women Poets in the 21st Century (Wesleyan, 2002), Graham speaks of the importance of “the many hinge actions in poems (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae),” and she connects such actions with, among other kinds of poems, “haiku image-clusters.”

Graham refers (in Poetry, March 2008) to the poems in Sea Change as “exploded haikus.” But, however exploded they may be, the poems in Sea Change very often retain their commitment to making vital, dramatic, surprising turns. (A number of references to turns in the poems emphasize this continuing commitment.) Though they do not look like poems by Coleridge, Keats, or Frost, particular poems in Sea Change in fact turn, enacting movements of mind, in ways similar to the descriptive-meditative “Frost at Midnight,” the dialectical “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the ironic “The Most of It.” And their endings clearly attempt to (and sometimes, as in “Futures” and “Undated Lullaby,” perhaps do) achieve the shockingly singular kinds of arrivals one finds in these great poems.

The fault for this oversight is not all Guriel’s. Though the turn is everywhere in poetry (including in Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn, which features a number of sonnets, and in Sarah Hannah’s “The Riddle of the Sphinx Moth,” the only poem Guriel’s review quotes in full), the turn has received very little of the sustained critical attention it so deserves. However, we—poets, critics, and readers—must pay more attention to turns. This way, we might see more clearly what is lacking from so many weak poems, and what is essential in what moves us.

On May 13, 2013 at 9:17am arturo ocampo wrote:
how many sarah hannah do we have?
this is for them.

She nailed the riddle
but failed to sustain its illusion

Young hand playing
mirror mind pumping dry leaves.
The plain is low
when the ground meets the aquifer
And from the fine lines
of the underground a spring wells up
in the blank space between words
the empty stone
the empty dust
the missing moment with nothing in its train
providing oasis.
At the beach
stealing rhythm
smoke machine tackles the cutting edge spin
rising with alpha and the omega.
In going down, you’re worth a verse free.
But at the summit, Banana Jane is crucified
sweeping her heart clean.
Latent, this early
gray and spontaneous,
The original nature before the building of wall.
Bringing no plastic fruit or fish before the queen ritual
the thing matters plainly in one fresh fresh-green
like the block un-carved behind a curtain unveiling.
Heaven lies about us in our first handful of lines.
Career ladder gets behind the wheel intoxicated
cheese girl bigger than folktales
goes uptown on a Saturday
won’t kill a tree
The green is now peeled.
Or when a fish is caught the fish trap is forgotten.
There is only the joy of eating.
No hurried pace for thoughts and after thoughts now.
Annual woodies free loading on the wharf
Lead to clusters have no toy story of classic surf
reality faces itself in many forms within a song:
on the warm shores of Mactan, or in the cold mountains of Bataan
in the wild heat of Tarmac or in a festive Edsa.
It has to face itself in many forms before it settles down
and between the rising sun and its falling,
the midday crisis is a noontime devil

1-hr ennui is

train wreck in euphoria is
reaching out for the cliff is
false eyelashes
buying time
widening rings

thru clouds
thru virtual garden of kids

glass curtain wall
conveys an aura

the boxy grandeur
the standing grain

a glut of stars.
rain floods the green coach

Trains reliving cherish moments
The next fix mustering courage

minimal growing giant tree cherry.
a quiet day in rumorville
tropical drink
the weather in march,
Zoo doesn’t grow grassroots
and molecular structure
turn self into a piano let’s say a playing piano
a playing piano made of forest
on a descending afternoon
maybe a solemn twilight
with a plate of rice
and a cup of mongo beans to sustain its song.
Head surf secured with a tug 12yr-old wine promise
the real piece may not play a lot with dandy time
guard up the museum
but the song remains where the afternoon departs.
Its plate washed of every dust brought about by the rising sun.
The unrefined.
The extremes of the soul, foreign as pain.
It is not the first drops of rain it turns to profit
nor the second only but pure water from the side
latent pure this time after a long bitter cleansing.
The song is also the rock by the sea.
And the ship has to be readied.
Daily bound to predicate,
she navigates the disparate vocabulary and explores
the terms of the discovered now with everything in its train,
facial tics the book sale alligator shoes
distinguish tradition on race horses
soak up some inspiration,
the lookout perch towers the epic Sierra pass.
Strengthen the ship while there is no storm bracing its sides.
Over the brink waterfalls are roaring in high country
see sparks
between sending horses from his golden fields base
for stake race tip off the hat

female grass runners
form rhythm

thrash of shining moment
whispering the gray part

song taking fragile wings
to hear her long absent sea-washed voice
in homemade newsletter and broadsheet
mirror mind startles the dead from their beds
sHe paints the walls with the latest designs giving it new life,
resisting corrosion, a rough cut
taking engines well oiled with its daily provisions.
joy- a thing in itself finds home
in the backside of word
When the sea becomes stormy as no sea is without storms
the ship is now ready.
It is led to calm water behind a tested refuge.
Or is moored
to a mooring dolphin built by the primacy of being.
In ever unresisting
The open now.
Occasional mouth wrapped to further form
the degree of hair turns back the pursuing logic
to its conclusion
the logic of being
and the knowledge that is affirmation of joy
it dwells in original blessing
She lowers the anchors and unloads all dead baggage
and unwanted burdens.
Time is gathered around the center
a sharp edge-circle in muscle toning calorie.
The subject is simple.
It is silence that gives birth to words
and words give birth to wonder.
Wonder gives birth to questions
and questions give birth to problems.
Problem gives birth to divisions
while divisions give birth to stilled guns
and silent subject.
The object is simple, with the mind wholly conscious though,
leaving the family in the comforts of the olden stars.
But in the sea's inner circles you can swing a dead cat
And the kids will hit a survey
or take the highroad to denial of global warming
timber is for bargain.
the moderns tap dancing around reason bargaining green
plays the game of chess outside logic
or he goes back to the other John serving the
latter with her computer conforming to the water of the big river.
But her folk keeps waiting,
testing come ready water
reasoning in patience
giving her, her food in due season:
There is a time for flowers and butterflies.
And a time for kid rabbits and crocodiles.
A time to rush walls and install order.
Or a time for wounds and a time for wine.
A time for the cloud to hide the sun
and a time for the Magdalene to sweep some clouds
that the sun may share some light Martha can afford.
From a dusted and cleared window
in a declining sun at the further shore
with a thousand and one board feet of pole
in golden years or in silver or simply being there with no
because, no why, nor how the party lifting up its eyes
sees the mountain as a mountain and a river as a river.

On June 29, 2014 at 2:31am Courtney Druz wrote:
Coming across this review only now, due to the
announcement of Allen Grossman’s passing, I am
disappointed to find the sole critical response on this
website to Grossman’s work so lacking in any real
understanding of it. Guriel’s tone-deaf analysis totally
misses the subtlety, irony, and humor so essential to
Grossman’s unique voice and vision. He is also
insensitive to the Hebraic and Whitmanesque music of the
lines. Grossman’s writing is deeply interrogational, and
his characteristic employment of a performative mode is
never naively “slammed,” but always self-aware and self-

On July 1, 2014 at 4:15am Robert Klein Engler wrote:

--Robert Klein Engler

During the waning days of the Republic, with so many political scandals
in the news and the advent of a fundamental change in America
advanced by a fabricated president, it may seem trivial to ask, “What is
the role of American poetry in the 21st century?

If we believe Shakespeare in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, one role
poetry has is to give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. In the
case of American poetry, many poetry critics only wish poetry were
simply an airy nothing, rather than what American poetry has become at
the beginning of the 21st century--propaganda for the failing
progressive state.

Just as we learn from history the change that took place in Latin poetry
as Rome moved from Republic to Empire, so we may learn from
American poetry how its poetry has moved from pomp to propaganda,

Where to begin in proving the charge that contemporary American poetry
is progressive propaganda? Contemporary poetry seems so varied and
rich, there are so many American poets, or at least so many claiming to
be poets, that there can hardly be a way of talking about poetry’s
complexity except to admit there is complexity to the subject.

In spite of this complexity, there is an overriding metaphor that
distinguishes American poetry of the last century. That metaphor is the
gran metaphor of civil rights and the use of this metaphor in service of
the liberal and now progressive state.

In his review, “America’s Most Prominent Emerging Poets Respond to the
Obama Administration,” Anis Shivani, a fiction writer, poet and critic
makes the claim that in Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100
Days (University of Iowa Press, 2010), “The first thing to note is the
overwhelming uniformity of the political ideology behind these poems.”

“Among these 100 stars, there is hardly a poet who reveals
himself/herself to adhere to anything other than a strict middle-of-the-
road Democratic politics...There's not a Republican, not a conservative,
not a libertarian, not a radical of any sort here...there isn't...anything
different than what you might expect from a bunch of Democratic party

This complaint about the party function of contemporary American
poetry was echoed in Ron Charles’ Washington Post essay, “Why is
modern Poetry So Bad?”

Not to be undone, Seth Abramson mounts a liberal defense of Charles’
essay. He writes in the Huffington Post that one reason modern poetry is
so good is because, “We elected to office (Obama) a man who writes
poetry, reads poetry, and invites poets to his House to read their work.”

Few Obama supports know that two of Obama’s poems had been
published in the New York Times in 2008. Obama’s poems received
critical attention then, not only from those in academia, but also from
those on the political right.

A critic of Obama’s poems, Dr. Eowyn, claims, “One (poem) is the cringe-
worthy ‘Underground,’ about ‘apes that eat figs.’ The other poem, ‘Pop,’
is much more interesting, biographical, and disturbing.” Eowyn believes
“Pop” is disturbing because it deals with a man-boy relationship.

To discover that contemporary American poetry may be not only about
man-boy relationships, but also blatant propaganda for the failing
progressive state is to raise the question, why is this so? One reason for
poets support of the failing progressive state may be because there has
been an influx of women poets into the literary world who carry the
grudge of feminism.

These women poets temper the metaphor of civil rights and mainly
discuss about three topics: family, home and nature. This tempered use
of metaphor is evident in Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Pastoral.” Beyond
that, the themes of nature, family and home mix with progressive
politics to earn Trethewey a place as the current US poet laureate.

Does it happen by chance that when the United States has a so-called
mixed-race president, the country also has a mixed-race poet laureate?
“As the child of an illegal mixed-race marriage in (Gulf Port) Mississippi,
born on Confederate Memorial Day, Natasha Trethewey grew up in the
shadow of Jim Crow, in what she called ‘the most Southern place on

Beside the emotional attachment to the metaphor of civil rights at work
in the poet’s mind, there is the psychology of creativity itself. Poets live
often in an imaginary world. Many poets forget that their imaginary
world cannot be brought over to the real world. Poetic dreams may have
local habitation and a name on a page, but it is still airy nothing. Just so,
reality forces us to ask, “A bird may love a fish, but where would they

In his essay, “The Literature of Politics, the poet T. S. Eliot asks, “But
how, in the end, does a mere writer affect political life?” Today, the mere
poets who never read Eliot anymore, can be said not to affect politics,
but to reflect it. Perhaps the poet W. H. Auden had it spot on when he
wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” except perhaps in the mind of
the poet and the reader.

So, we can say of the progressive poet enthralled by the metaphor of civil
rights what T. S. Eliot said of J. B. Shaw, “ is compelled to
admire...such verbal agilities not only to conceal from his readers and
audiences the shallowness of his own thought, but to persuade them
that in admiring his work they were giving evidence of their own
intelligence as well.”

No matter how much poets wish their poetry would bring about
fundamental change, all that contemporary poetry does is offer
confirmation that the poet is a member of the same political tribe. When
politicians and poets do mix, they do so only at progressive cocktail

The politics of poetry is not aways left leaning. Ted Kooser was chosen
as the US Poet Laureate in 2004. That’s when George W. Bush was
President of the United States. “And Kooser is from the Midwest. (Billy)
Collins suggests that Kooser's appointment is ‘an intentional pick.’ He
says, ‘The middle section of the country needed greater poetic

Now that the middle section of the country got its due, it’s time to get
back to the real purpose of poetry. For many years, the airy nothing of
contemporary poetry has served well as propaganda for the now failing
liberal and progressive state. This is no different from the function of
official poetry in the old Soviet Union or the poetic arts practiced in
Communist China, today.

The final irony of clinging to the metaphor of civil rights when aspiring
to be a poet is that it is not in the interest of white males to do so.
Nevertheless, many white males wear the wool of civil rights in an
attempt to be accepted by the flock, never realizing that where the dead
metaphor of civil rights prevails, conservative, white males are no longer
wanted. In time the same will be said for progressives, who are notorious
for eating their children, especially those dressed in wool.

Beyond the similarities of US poets to poets who live in repressive
societies, many US poets, lost in a world held up by the walls of socialist
propaganda, will care little about the politics that will bring about the fall
of the Republic. They will never tire of bowing to the demigod of civil
rights while tag the same time beginning their poems with the pronoun,

Perhaps it will be a 100 years or more before a scholar will record the
decline of American poetry as he compares 20th century writing to what
is popular in his own time. By then, the great metaphor of civil rights
that dominated the 20th century will be dead. It had been killed by
progressive politicians who no longer needed such poetry to advance
their politics of chaos, victimhood and revenge.

Will a poetry more Southern take the place of what the North wore out?
Who knows the future planned in academia? Before a metaphor is buried
it may be propped up like the poor, dead Mozell* and used in a belated
swan song.

The Library of Congress named the new US Poet Laureate in June. Did
they pick a Republican in politics, a Roman Catholic in religion and a
Classicist in taste? Will the poets who voted for John McCain please raise
their hands.

*The Dead Mozell Cafe, once on Iberville near Dauphine, in New Orleans,
is now closed, yet the story of the girl who bares the cafe's name is an
example of haunting and helplessness. Little Mozell was twelve when she
became sick with what was probably typhoid. She grew weak and her
arm swelled. There was no doctor in the area to consult, so the family
relied on the advice of a veterinarian. He recommended amputation of
the arm. After that operation, Mozell acquired an infection and died.
Prior to Mozell's sickness, her parents had contracted with a
photographer to take a picture of Mozell and their two other daughters.
It had taken the photographer about a month to leave his shop and
travel to the farm where the picture was to be shot. He knew nothing of
Mozell's illness. By the time he arrived on the farm, Mozell had already
died. What were the parents to do? They very much wanted a picture of
their three daughters together. They took Mozell's corpse, dressed it in
white, propped it up on a board and had a sister stand on each side. The
photographer fulfilled his contract and a picture was taken. A copy of
this photograph, showing two live sisters and one dead one, used to
hang by a little altar in the Dead Mozell Cafe.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2008


Authors Discussion Guides
 Jason  Guriel


Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. He won Poetry's Editors Prize for Book Reviewing in . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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