The word “greatness” is thrown around too casually in contemporary literary circles, and I won’t use it here. Not because I think W.S. Di Piero’s work can’t bear the strain, but because I’m not sure the word in its weakened state can say much about the hyper-alert and lonely singularity of Di Piero’s poetry. There is a sense in which the very nature of Di Piero’s language—its “rage of wakefulness,” its “alarming manic frequency,” to quote two of his own poems—actively repels any attention that will not rise to its level. I suspect this accounts, in part, for the fact that Di Piero has long existed at the margins of the contemporary poetry world. There’s an abrasiveness, a sense of a voice “snarling out of its vinegary corner,” as he says of himself, a refusal to conform to the art’s illusions about itself, which are the country’s illusions about itself: that all is healthy and happy, that nature is still a place where we can have our little moments of uplift and private epiphanies, that the terrible disparities in income and social circumstances aren’t poisoning the whole well. You can’t say the senator’s wife screws dogs, as a poet in another empire once said, and expect him to appreciate your style.
But that’s only part of the reason for the neglect. Aesthetic ruptures usually are ruptures and not little fissures in the foundation. T.S. Eliot may have been controversial, but he was easy to spot: you could feel something in the entire edifice of English literature shaking. The same is true of Milton, Wordsworth, even the subtler but still seismic detonations of James Schuyler or Elizabeth Bishop (both of whom, incidentally, like Di Piero, were very specialized tastes until late in their lives). A whole new landscape is enlivened and laid claim to.
Di Piero is different. “My instinct,” he tells us in one of the prose quotes we’ve scattered throughout this portfolio,
is the still childish one of taking what’s given in language and breaking it up into phonetic pieces, syllable amulets, each loaded with some nuance of actual or desired feeling and the pied, scattered clues of sense.
And that’s just it: Di Piero’s poems don’t make large-scale formal effects. They aren’t “symphonic,” and they don’t suddenly clear away a large swathe in the literary landscape to make their existence known. No, Di Piero’s poems are skittery, anxious, improvisational, and the bits of language that are truly new—those fissures in literature’s foundation—occur in sudden, contained spaces: “rumdumb,” he writes of a local homeless person; “bone wooled with slights/of flesh” (italics mine) he says of his dying, disappearing mother; an aunt who was said to have telekinetic abilities—clearly an analogue for the poet, any poet—sits in “iridescent readiness.” It’s hard to recognize revolution when it happens in atom-sized instants, but of course we all know just how conspicuous that kind of blast can eventually be.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It’s true that Di Piero’s poems can be flinty, coruscating, uningratiating. It’s true that they don’t make you feel that little molten moment, that inner ahh that our culture, and much of our poetry, mistakes for genuine spiritual experience. They do, however, make you think that the word “spirit” just might have some reality and vitality left in it, so long as one never averts one’s gaze from the earth. They leave you with an enlarged sense of, and feeling for, life—in all its tender and terrible particulars.
At the end of this portfolio Di Piero, who has also had a lifelong career as an art critic, writes of an image’s “crude blending of idiotic irrational joy and fevered fear of living in a world of harm.” He could be describing his own poems. That he happens to be describing his own face just goes to show you how deeply the artist’s gaze is turned back on him, how the eye with which we see reality, to paraphrase Meister Eckhart, is the eye with which reality sees us. We’ve tracked this image down and reproduced it for you on the last page of this portfolio. But wait, if you can. Try to let all these “fluty sounds ribboned to sad, screechy tunes,” all these “foxy ticklish fondlings,” work their way into your bloodstream first.