I’ve never had a good feeling about writing poetry. Unease set in early, when I was about seventeen, and, after two decades, the deed still doesn’t sit quite right. I’m a victim, I tell myself, of the southern Italian distrust of books. For the immigrants who docked in North America midcentury, education was something to be encouraged, but only as a means to a better-paying end (laborers wanted to sire lawyers, not artsy-fartsy layabouts). My parents were more tolerant than most, but there was obvious alarm that all my reading would leave me “mixed up.”
Then there was the language. Like most of the little Fonzies bred in Montreal north, I was raised almost entirely in Italian. This had an interesting effect on my English. In high school, for example, “skinned” was what you said if you came in close contact with something (“that car nearly skinned me”). If you had just stuffed your face, you used “shkoff” (“shkoffed a sangwich”). The weird sentences I spoke ensured that much of my university life would be spent in disguise. Hanging around silver-tongued creative writing students, I watched what I said and how I said it. I worked hard to suppress the accent in my voice, to better play the fit-to-be-in-literary-company part.
Today the verse hook is planted deep. And with it, the wound: that one of the central activities of my life is tinged with the sense of being dissolute, escapist, fey. Even at those rare moments when, fresh off a new poem, I feel the artisanal high of every word fitting flush, the crash comes swiftly: depression and anxiety at having gotten away with something slightly preposterous. I’m in it now for better or worse, but I’m always on the lookout for some clue that can help explain the emergence of the poet who bears my name.
* * *
My first contact with poetry was the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” Yes, they’re prayers, but they’re also packets of linguistic energy. Not enough is made of their epic-accented statements (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”), the wonderfully archaic usages (“forgive us our trespasses”), the tone nibbed with rhapsodic oddities (“blessed is the fruit of thy womb”). At the time—the only literature in my house was the daily tabloid Le Journal de Montréal—this was otherworldly speech. I found lots of other prayers I liked (St. Francis’s “The Canticle of All Creatures” was a favorite) but none that introduced me to such fresh noises and suggestions. Other prayers were loaded with religiosity, but uninterestingly flat. “Hallowed is thy name” filled my mouth with sound (modernization has scrubbed the prayer clean of out-of-date fillips: “Holy is your name” is what kids now recite). Nothing in my life matched that language and I rejoiced in its acoustic plushness. Linguistically speaking, I suppose I saw myself as upwardly mobile. These prayers fixed in place my core criteria for a good poem: memorizable, talismanically glamorous, and endlessly repeated to stave off setbacks, fears, sins.
* * *
It occurs to me that some might interpret that last paragraph to mean that I believe in some equivalency between prayer and poetry. I don’t. The distance between prayer, which Thomas Merton called “a raid on the unspeakable,” and poetry, which T.S. Eliot called a “raid on the inarticulate,” is further apart than many might otherwise think.
Writing poetry is not, in itself, a prayerful activity. That’s because prayer is not a craft; it is the opposite of a craft. It is a focused devotional feelingfulness, a self-aware, non-naming amplification of faith, a mind tuned to the frequency of the unsayable (Simone Weil described it as “paying attention to God.”) Setting this mystical alertness down as poetry—dressing it in stanzas, line lengths, and rhythm—requires the unmystical means of prosody. Poetry can speak about God, it can even speak to God, but poetry is, at bottom, a secular art: its artistry predicated precisely on facing down any threat to its clear-headedness.
In fact, regarded a certain way, poetry might even be said to be a menace to religious belief. This is because poetry, to work, needs to strip religious belief of its theological privilege (poetry, said Valéry, is literature “purged of idols of every sort”). Put into poetic form, that belief therefore becomes something else: a patient, precise, purposeful, adhesively held-together succession of sounds. Unlike prayer, poems live entirely inside their linguistic devices and designs. Indeed, the poet is someone for whom language is so important it gets the whole of his or her attention—for whom language is more important than God.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that one has to be a heretic to write good poetry. (And indeed nothing stops us from enlarging the notion of worship to include poetry’s secularists. Sometimes what seem the most superstition-free acts of description are the stirrings of a deeper devoutness: A.R. Ammons’s nature poetry fits here, maybe even Ted Hughes’s.) My point is that it seems to me impossible to offer up your poem as a kind of worship without recognizing the paradox inherent in the act. The best religious verse—George Herbert comes quickest to mind, Geoffrey Hill too—flirts with faithlessness. There is a Flaubertian attention to style that suggests the poet understands he or she cannot praise God without also, and simultaneously, turning attention away from him and toward language (which doesn’t happen during prayer). The utter devotion to crafting a poem, the selfishness it requires, traps one in competing priorities. A good religious poem, like Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” can lock the two struggles together, but one priority is more important than the other. Delete it, and you get mush.
* * *
Can critical faculties show signs of wear and tear? Eliot thought so. “As one gets older,” he said in his 1959 Paris Review interview, when he was seventy-one, “one is not quite confident in one’s own ability to distinguish new genius among younger men. You’re always afraid that you are going as you have seen your elders go.” Helen Vendler admitted as much in her 2006 New York Times profile. Then seventy-three, Vendler said she avoided poets under fifty, citing new “frames of reference” that baffled her. “They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up. And that’s fine. It’s as good a resource of imagery as orchards,” she said. “Only I’ve seen orchards and I didn’t watch these cartoons . . . So I don’t feel I’m the best reader for most of the young ones.”
I’m nearly forty, and, while I don’t think I’m altogether out of it, I already feel younger Canadian poets are writing poetry that is faster, more sophisticated, and smarter than what my generation grew up writing—poetry whose margins of success I struggle to measure, engendering flashes of hostility. Feeling myself touch the edge of philistinism puts me on notice. “I shouldn’t like to feel that I was resisting,” said Eliot in the same interview, “as my work was resisted when it was new, by people who thought that it was imposture of some kind or other.” Joseph Epstein, at seventy-two, is still a very nimble essayist, but now enjoys nothing more than digging in his heels and watching history sweep past him; not “getting it” has become a matter of pride. Although fifty-eight, fogeyism has begun to catch up to William Logan, who continues to blow the whistle on rapidly rising poets (Cathy Park Hong, Kevin Young), but no longer brokers good new voices (he was one of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s earliest and best defenders). Logan also shows other late-style aspects of the badly aging critic: the one note. Staying on message is a vital part of what makes firebrand critics effective, but they then become so adept at capturing a certain kind of tone—toughened, ornery—they allow themselves no space for surprise. There is something automatic about their relentless disappointment in contemporary poetry, a pre-prepped regret too quickly acceded to.
For a sense of fair play, or an honest attempt at it, you’d have to turn to someone like Stephen Burt or David Orr, two youngish poets (both are under forty) who are performing exceptionally good quality control. Both believe in the merit of their own taste, but their verdicts also exemplify what Richard Blackmur called “a mind full of provisional faiths.” They never forget that, when it comes to poetry, what we hold as intrinsic is merely one of many persuasive speculations (“It appears,” wrote Howard Nemerov, “that poems are held together by people’s opinions of what holds poems together.”)
In contrast to these critic-explorers, Adam Kirsch might be said to lead the critic-conquerors: fixed upon victory, such critics swarm their subject, seeking to subdue it. But in his excellent online Contemporary Poetry Review series “Young Poets Calling” (where he’s introduced readers to the work of David Yezzi, Joe Osterhaus, Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, Thom Satterlee, and Rachel Wetzsteon) even Kirsch seems eager to play his part in welcoming the sea changes Tom Paulin describes in his essay collection Writing to the Moment: “So old styles sink away or are put reverently in museum cabinets, while new contemporary dangerous styles walk the streets and begin to be recognized.”
* * *
I finish a poem, and immediately forget how I was able to do it. Of course, I know very well how I did it: the hard way. Twenty drafts to realize number nine was actually the way in (and then backtracking and lighting out again in full knowledge I’ve probably ducked down another blind alley). Or thirty drafts—endless late-night stitching and unstitching—to figure out “no, this is stupid, give it up.” Except I don’t. I stick with it, frantically trying to keep things alive until something, anything, catches fire and the language takes over, surging ahead of me. Knock on wood, I hope I never lose the knack for inviting such dumb luck into my life. Yet there is nothing remotely nurturing or dopamine-inducing about the creative process. Unlike W.S. Graham, I don’t “feel most alive” when flailing about blindly for the right word, and Ashbery’s uncontrollable productivity—where his own writerly difficulties and doubts are swept away in graphomaniacal deluges—leaves me in scandalized awe. Faced with a blank page, my mind is a house divided: deeply at odds with itself, paralyzed and dysfunctional, unwilling to undertake any effort that threatens the privileges of idleness, and, like some evil twin, laying down false trails. It’s so easy to lose heart.
Still, there is a great deal of method in it. The multiplication of bottlenecks, always pushing things close to chaos and failure, create an extraordinary number of points where pressure builds and—just when all hope is abandoned—triggers that release Yeats described as the “blood, imagination, intellect all running together.” This can also be more plainly described as a good run of words. By what right do I take credit? Stephen Burt has a wonderful line about how poets “accept on purpose what they have created by accident,” and you have to wonder how many of the “perfect” poems we use as touchstones of excellence—poems white-coated academics take apart, analyze, diagram, and reassemble—were shotgunned into existence.
* * *
Complaints that poetry has lost the ordinary reader stick in my craw. No question, our market share is at an all-time low (a historical situation James Wood recently blamed on “the big fat greedy monster of the novel, which sucks all the vital nutrition away for itself”). And no doubt, more can be done to persuade intellectually curious folks to take an interest. But the news that poetry’s “diminished stature,” to borrow Dana Gioia’s term, betrays some crackup in poetry itself is now so overpromoted as to become viciously self-harming. It’s all well and good to be upset with our @##% condition, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense to do what a lot of us are unable to stop doing: blaming the poets.
Everything would be different if our stuff wasn’t so difficult, or obscure, or highbrow, or introverted, or solipsistic, or autobiographical, or experimental, or academic, or postmodern. Some of these charges may be justified, but as far as the public is concerned, we’re wasting our breath. There is no once-popular style and subject that, if brought back, will stop poetry’s sliding poll numbers. There is no traditional link between poetry and the public that, if repaired, will turn things around. That’s because reestablishing the public’s trust in poetry would be like reestablishing the public’s trust in Latin. Is it crazy to believe that Latin—once the lingua franca of government, church, and cultural circles—has a chance in the age of English? Of course it is. Most people would be gobsmacked to learn the language is spoken at all. Similarly, I’d bet many general readers have absolutely no idea that 1) poetry writing still goes on; 2) since the turn of the twentieth century, the public has been tangled up in a lover’s spat with the art form, playing the long-suffering Judy to the poet’s self-absorbed Punch; and 3) after a series of good-faith attempts at reconciliation, Modernism was the last straw: cold-shouldered, readers moved on for good.
This is the perfect example of a story that’s kidding itself. The high-stakes drama is all in our heads, though you can see why such a delusion—with poets cringing guiltily—would take hold. As long as we’re responsible for our predicament, we’re in control of our destiny. But solving one’s escalating irrelevancy is hard enough without being reminded of all the more interesting things winning the reader’s attention: “roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls).” So said E.E. Cummings in 1917.
If grown-ups don’t read poetry, it’s not because they have a bone to pick with poets. The truth is even more intolerable: they prefer not to. How often do we need to get Bartlebyed before we finally admit to ourselves that those Clancy-thumbing dentists and Grisham-toting lawyers aren’t confused or afraid of commitment? They’re just not that into us.
* * *
Lately it seems no book of Canadian poetry can be put to bed without an epigraph to tuck it in, whether by Susan Sontag or Günter Grass or Nietzsche or Freud or Jeanette Winterson or Homer. It’s hard to know what to blame for this. Until Eliot and Pound, epigraphs were rarely associated with poetry. One of its earliest Canadian appearances, as far as I can tell, was in Ralph Gustafson’s 1960 Rivers Among Rocks (“Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?” from the Book of Job). Two of our major poets—Al Purdy and Irving Layton—used them sparingly. Michael Ondaatje, in contrast, has shown himself to be a quirky epigraphophile: the epigraph for Rat Jelly is pulled from a wine description in a magazine.
Whatever the reason for its popularity, the epigraph’s spell has never been stronger. Poets use them to seed sub rosa themes, to create theoretical contexts, or to nudge readers toward moods around which their collection has been structured. As an editor, I’ve seen poets drive themselves crazy in their search for the “perfect” epigraph. The device is regarded as the nub of the matter, the absolute condensation of a book’s intellectual and emotional intent.
The truth, as is often the case, is a little less dramatic. Epigraphs are the poetry world’s emoticons: quick-fix inflections. Poets overestimate their necessity and significance. What they think is a tiny profundity engine is nothing more than a curio, a found object charged with private associations. This is why so many epigraphs appear undigested and attention-begging. (“Names are only the guests of reality.” This thought, lifted from Hsü Yu, would seem to channel some shaman spirit into Don Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged. To me, it sits right on the edge of flimflam.)
Epigraphs emphasize poetry-making as a thing of touchstones. They solve our anxiety of influence by flattering it. But poets are getting carried away, like Borgesian scribes compiling an infinite commonplace book. Not to say gems aren’t being unearthed (Pascal: “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room”). But these are exceptions. As a rule, our collective well-readness is withering away into name-dropping.
I’m not calling for an outright ban, just a little more judiciousness. Like any choice quote, a good epigraph whets a reader’s appetite by sharpening their curiosity. Simple and unpreening, it brandishes a let’s-cut-through-the-cant suavity. Toronto’s Kevin Connolly understands this. He opens his recent collection Revolver (2008) with these lines by Bill Knott: “I wish to be misunderstood; / that is, / to be understood from your perspective.” Snap!
* * *
I’m a soft sell for the unlucky in fame. Send word of someone overlooked, underappreciated, on the margin, and, like Pavlov’s dog, my mouth waters. I treasure not only first-tier loners (John Clare, Edward Thomas), but second-tier (Charlotte Mew, Louise Bogan) and third (Rosemary Tonks, Bernard Spencer). I see myself, deep down, as “the designated mourner,” from the title of the Wallace Shawn play, that person “assigned to grieve, to wail, and light the public ritual fire” when the last of the tribe passes away. It’s a job, I’m happy to say, that keeps me quite busy in Canada. Charles Bruce, A.G. Bailey, and Kenneth Leslie are three of more than a dozen exceptional poets who, during their lifetime, never needed to adjust their psychology to a world in which what they wrote was seen as a valuable asset. There was nothing ingratiating about their attitude and they never truckled for attention. Their reputations were like stalled start-ups untouched by any speculative mania. It would be easy to think of Canadian poetry without, say, R.G. Everson, Dorothy Roberts, Anne Wilkinson. The nuances of their style—the precision, the intense musicality, the canny line-making—would never be sensed as missing elements. Regarded as minor, they have been rendered stodgy and inoffensive. All of which means they appear too dull to deserve a second look, much less close scrutiny. They are, to use John Freeman’s term, “the less received” of our poetic past. But to me these figures represent nothing less than the future of poetry: a future sympathetic to singularity and strangeness and the free-range quirks of the individual imagination.
* * *
Poetic revolutions are revolutions in diction. That’s why the troublemakers responsible for such linguistic shake-ups—Wordsworth, Whitman, Lowell—base them on a return to ordinary speech. In every case, however, renewing contact with the “real language of men” didn’t stop poets from composing poems that spoke over the heads of those men. Getting back to basics, in other words, had nothing to do with making poems accessible. It was an intervention: an idiom battling a decadence addiction was rescued before it was too late. The “breakthrough into life” that produced Life Studies, after all, was a solution to a technical problem (“I felt my old poems hid what they were really about,” Lowell explained in a letter).
The point here is that aesthetic change is an elite activity, done out of professional boredom. Poets who say different, who claim to heed the wishes of the common reader out of populist duty, are lazy bastards. Lazy bastardism kowtows to the convenience of see-Jane-run simple-mindedness because, by gosh, that’s what most people want from their poetry. Lazy bastardism is the only way to explain the existence of phrases like “the roaring juggernaut of time” or “the once gurgling fountain of creativity” (both plucked from Billy Collins’s The Trouble with Poetry). Lazy bastardism will never come clean and tell you that poetry is an acquired taste, that the pleasure of reading it is assembled over years from smaller, slow-to-learn skills. Lazy bastardism will never insist that you should read a lot of poems, old and new, and try to keep them in your head to help train and trust your ear. And lazy bastardism will certainly never stress that you need to love poetry’s artificial and formal aspects.
It is, of course, trivial to think that “amateurs” don’t have the taste for this. Those who protect the common reader from difficult poetry—promoting plain-speaking and conversational directness as having greater relation to real things and real problems—have an odd idea of who this reader is. Accessibility is far more complex, and readers far wiser, than our current theories are willing to accept. The audience-wisdom that helped establish the worth of certain key poets in our tradition—Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost—did so precisely because of the loveliness of their writing, and not just its meaning. But readers can be lazy bastards as well. Faced with a poet who has taken the pains, some would rather not take the trouble. They don’t have to, of course. And as far as I’m concerned, better they don’t. But let’s not let the many who don’t sell short the few who do.
* * *
“Everything I am writing at present bores me and leaves me indifferent,” wrote Chekhov, “but everything that is still only in my head interests me, moves me, and excites me.” I would go even further, and say that boredom is the highest state of creativity. It is the mind at its best: unable to accept compromises with intention, and unable to lie about it. Hopkins’s famous cri de coeur—“Do you know, a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson”—also reminds us that sudden indifference to any special pleading on behalf of the “originality” of a celebrated career is, ultimately, what keeps our art honest and goads us to speak in new-fangled, untypical ways. We find that we have built up a tolerance to the stimulant of our own idiosyncrasies, or that tedium has inoculated us against the virulent contagiousness of the already-done-well. This can be taken too far: the contemporary avant-garde has merchandised its boredom into life cycles of rapid self-obsolescence (Brodsky called this the “need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix”). But what else is tradition if not a story of poets running hot and cold on each other? This is why I’ve never fantasized about having what Auden called a “dream reader” or put much stock in the idea of someone giving themselves over to my poems. I want those who come to my poetry to be both listeners and interrogators, participants in a sincere, half-skeptical conversation. I know the psychoaesthetic tug-of-war I have with poems I encounter, even those I already admire—the withholding and surrender of my affections, the hardening and melting of my tolerances. Why should my work be treated any differently? Indeed, coming on strong while gripped by fear a stranger may not (or worse, may no longer) buy what I’m selling is, for me, the delicious tension of publishing a poem, the dare of it. Forget dream readers, give me real readers: readers who criticize what they once cherished, cherish what they once criticized, and sometimes would rather watch grass grow.
* * *
Not the money (at $100,000 Canadian, it’s one of the world’s richest literary award purses), or the mandate (to divvy up the dough between two English-language poets, one from Canada and one from away), or the motive (to reverse how “poetry has slipped from the mainstream of our cultural lives,” in the words of its sponsor): instead, looking back across the last eight years, the most emblematic detail of the Griffin Poetry Prize remains Toronto comedian Scott Thompson’s performance at the inaugural gala in 2001.
Acting as emcee, Thompson launched into an outrageous, dildo-waving routine that got him promptly yanked from the stage. The awards gala—which has since become an annual fixture on Toronto’s social scene—was a piece of carefully planned theatre: three hundred guests sitting in a vast room of banner-festooned walls, triumphal arches, and red-carpet entranceways. Such a moment called for gaiety, not grotesquery. After all, it’s not every day that a private citizen decides to singlehandedly reintroduce poetry to the “public imagination.” Founded and aggressively funded by auto parts millionaire Scott Griffin, the award was touted as a rising tide that would lift all bardic boats. But it’s hard not to see Thompson’s sex toy blunder as a warning. It not only reminded us of the unpleasant surprises that even the best intentions can bring, but was itself an apt metaphor for the limits of Griffin’s optimism: when it comes to prizes, somebody always gets, um, screwed.
On the surface, bad news is hard to find. The Griffin trust has by now handed out a total of $600,000 to fourteen lucky ducks; deserved reputations have been minted (Karen Solie), fine poets honored (Margaret Avison), and oddities given comfort (Christian Bök). Moreover, the prize’s international aspect has helped raise the profile of exciting talents (Durs Grünbein, Les Murray, Charles Simic, and Michael Longley) in a poetry culture that has often been too isolationist to notice outside currents. That those outside currents have overlooked us as well is a plight that Griffin, to great expense, has also tried to redress. Every year his outfit runs lavish attention-getting ads in the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, and flies the growing family of Griffin beneficiaries—shortlisted and winners—to celebrity appearances at major international festivals. The annual expenditure for administration, promotion, and publicity likely exceeds the value of the prize several times over.
Then again, bigness is the Griffin Prize in a nutshell. To get the public to pay attention, Griffin sought a sum “of sufficient size to make a statement,” as he said in a speech at the launch of the prize. Judging by the national hoo-ha around the event, the investment has paid off handsomely. More than a good deed, the prize is designed to grapple with something large: the place of poetry in the world. And according to Griffin, the best way to cue the world about poetry’s value is to repackage it as something people can’t dismiss as negligible. The problem, however, is that the payday becomes the point. You can bet that when the 2010 victors are announced the press will do little to explain how their poetry, in Griffin’s words, “speaks to the soul of a nation and its people.”
The Griffin Prize has been credited with vast health-giving powers. It establishes literary standards, lauds laudable work, and enlarges the art’s audience by bringing it to wider public notice. In truth, the prize merely feeds the belief that a poet who bags $50,000 is better than one who doesn’t. It may be one of poetry’s ultimate windfalls, but the Griffin is a vision of meritocracy based on publicity. Which is also the reason no one turns one down. To be a winner, after all, is to be a cut above the rest. Better yet, it is to be cut out from the rest. Which immediately leads us to one of the most nagging ironies of the Griffin Prize. Namely, that an award meant to rescue poetry from anonymity has led to the creation of a compelling new villain around whom poets can construct another narrative of neglect. Unless, of course, we win. And the lure of such honor-mongering is why we are always so slow to realize the catch in the ideal. Scott Griffin is surely a rare good heart in a noble fight, yet nothing proves the neglect of our art as much as the fact that we need prizes to help maintain the myth that we matter. But then, it’s beside the point, and bad sport, to protest—might as well wag a rubber donger at it.