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Journal, Day Four
There have been some discussions lately about themed manuscripts of poetry. Some of those discussions have taken place right here in this space. And although I respect the idea that themed manuscripts are more palatable to publishers, to a wider audience of people, I find myself very resistant to the notion of the themed manuscript. Call it a contentious bone in my body. Call it resistance.
I have read a great many poetry collections written over the past two centuries. Rarely is a strictly themed subject encountered throughout the entire book. Of course, there are elements that bind the work together: structure, syntax, music, style, if you will. But rarely are they so singular in subject. This seems to be, more and more, the case with manuscripts today, especially first book manuscripts. What holds many of the poems together is a subject, not necessarily a style. There is a subject and, many times, even a narrative arc. It makes for a poetry collection that is more palatable, a collection that carries a “story.” Well, the last time I checked, the genre of fiction was still alive and kicking. I am reminded of statement made by John Ashbery: “I don’t want to read what is going to slide down easily; there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience.”
Of course there are poets for whom subject and style are so interwoven they are the same. I think of Carl Phillips’ work. His style is instantly recognizable: that syntax, that struggle between the corporeal and the ether, the fixation and magnification not only of the body but of its urges. His collections seem organic in that they seem to represent the obsessive mind of the poet. What binds the work in those collections together is not a story, but the mind of the poet, the poet’s “voice,” for lack of a better word. They do not seem fashioned from the outside but from within.
It would be foolish of me to say I worry about this trend. Worrying about poetry and its trends is like worrying about water moving in a stream. It is pointless. The water moves. It takes its own course. It follows no ordained plan, each drop of water bound by the body of the stream. But I am foolish at times. And I do worry. I carry worry around with me all the time. I worry not about the poets, but about the editors and publishers out there. Will they have the guts to stand up for poetry they believe to be good and not just poetry that is marketable? Will they champion the next Marianne Moore or the next Frank O’Hara? Or will poets like them seem too quirky and stylistic, unmarketable? I have no answers to that.
Recently, I ran across a book from a young poet named Richard Siken. His book, Crush, was selected by Louise Glück as winner of The Yale Younger Poets Award. I was bowled over by it. Here was a book as obsessive and wonderful as anything I had seen in recent years. Like Phillips, the book felt organic, the style and “theme,” if you can call it that, arising from the need of the poet to reevaluate, to make the visible world visible in a different way, over and over again. The diction serves the mania. The violence in the poems serves the hurt and violation the world has to offer, despite the fact we can so easily overlook them. This is a book that does not feel orchestrated, manipulated. Crush is, quite simply, one of the best books published in the last decade. I used to say it was one of the best first books published, but I have revised that. It is simply one of the best. I am grateful for Richard Siken’s book, but I am also terribly grateful to Louise Glück. I can only hope the future will reserve spaces for people like her in the world of publishing, people willing to put their neck out for a poet, for a poetry of style, one that has risen not from calculated steps to incorporate a subject, but from the obsessions that fuel, and continue to fuel, Art.