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The Mulch Shoveler
Walter Earl, age 76, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, shoveling mulch.
This is supposed to be the post in which I sign off, pack up my bags and leave as gracefully as possible.
Unfortunately I’ve been distracted from that task by a recent article in the Boston Review by Stephen Burt called “The New Thing”, an attempt at typology, so typical in American letters, especially in the so-called post-post phase, when what critics are left are scrambling to make sense out of an ever expanding bevy of institutionally educated poets. Burt reminds me of Zhivago, the poet-doctor, arriving at a field hospital overflowing with the casualties of war and having to perform the healer’s art under deplorable circumstances. Burt has to do something, so he names this ward of the riven “The New Thing”. The New Thing is of course derived from an old thing, namely the objectivists and Williams (no ideas but in things – one of the most self-limiting utterances ever made by a great poet, with which even Dr. Williams himself soon lost patience). I found the article fascinating, as I find most of Burt’s articles, but I didn’t believe a word of it. In fact it seemed like total fabrication, a parody of poetic “school” formation. Evidently though, Burt is serious, as serious as Yuri Andreievich, who, after throwing his hands up in desperation, gets down to the task at hand.
Here is what he has to say:
“The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading.”
“The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. Woodward’s Rain, with its five-word lines and five-line elegiac stanzas, makes a good example:
of rainwater converts each thing’s
outside to an image of
inside the only object without
a soul is the sun
“So says one stanza; six pages on, another reads:
the tar they use to
fill the cracks shines orange
from the orange streetlights but
is blacker than the asphalt
which doesn’t shine
Burt goes on, by way of justification: “We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.”
My response after reading these stanzas, was to blink twice and go back to Burt’s explanation. I’m not quite sure which I find more inane, the explanation or the poetry itself. I even wondered whether or not I was being toyed with. Surely, if you are going to create a new school of poetry, or describe one, you’ve got to do better than that. “The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.” What is Burt trying to say here? The poem quoted not only “eschews” sarcasm and irony, it eschews poetry. There is absolutely nothing there that would make me want to read, as Burt recommends I do, this 5 X 5 bit of puddle exploration more than once.
What could Mr. Burt be thinking? Or is there something I’ve missed simply by having lived for a quarter of a century outside of America?
At the moment I am actually, for the first time in two years, in the United States, looking out at the sea as I write, and struggling with several competing interests: a huge translation project (a book length ethnographic study on the history of nationalism in Galicia and Northern Portugal), a very ill father, a tired mother and, alas, trying to say good-by to Harriet, whom I have come to love. As a stay, I suppose, against disorientation, a shoring up of my ruins, I have found myself, since arriving, writing my personal diary in Portuguese, the language I speak with my wife (who is not with me on this trip). This – writing my diary in Portuguese – happened spontaneously and has surprised even me who thought himself beyond surprise, beyond the need for acclimatization. I think it lends credence, were any needed, to the fact that I am no longer gracefully adjusting.
Burt’s article has only fueled that impression.
I would not even be here (I would have preferred the Baltic to the Atlantic this year) were it not for my parents, both of them trying heroically to live as one lives in the grip of crisis, to get on with it despite my father’s Parkinson’s. Four years ago, in an even worse phase of the disease (after my father had broken his hip and his neck chasing my mother’s car down the driveway because he wanted to go to the dump with her), I spent quite a bit of time here. I was needed physically for things like transference, lifting, rolling, swabbing, etc. Since then, my mother has been coping alone and my father, thanks to a very talented physiotherapist and no little will of his own, has regained his agility. He is no longer allowed to sit in his favorite wheelchair, and he moves about the house and the garden unassisted by anything other than his walker, of which he has four models placed in strategic locations. The blue anodized one with the seat and the disc brakes he calls his Corvette. My father is a boy from Detroit who did exactly what he wanted to do in life. He made money in the automobile business and passed his time around cars. If there is a silver lining to his disease (and their usually is a silver lining to all misfortune) it is that he became too ill to continue working and sold his business right before the whole industry went bust. All of his automobile cronies, some of them now bankrupt, persist in remarking on this bit of serendipity. Walter Earl, even though he had no choice in the matter, knew when to get out. I think there is true poetry in that convergence of necessity and intelligence.
Being with my parents, especially now, is more important to me than poetry (which doesn’t mean I have stopped writing it). T.S. Eliot said that poets should write as little as possible. I don’t quite agree, but I think some restraint should be practiced. Besides provocation, which Eliot raised to both an art and an embarrassment, what he meant was that poets should write out of necessity and not out of mere reflex. There is, frankly, in America too much of what people call poetry written out of reflex. Supply has outstripped demand. I think it behooves us, especially in these times of economic meltdown, to look more closely at the economy of poetry, to not continue printing it recklessly and to recover, if it is possible, if it is not too late, something of poetry’s gold standard. Otherwise it is just so much worthless paper money.
Burt’s exercise seems a perfect example of how American critics and poet-critics and just plain poets (or not) attempt to confect silly sounding schools out of wan spats with the self and then tell us that if you didn’t get it the first time it’s because you didn’t fill in your own meaning, or understand the “the grief that guides the whole book.” What’s wrong with you?
The problem is that grief is not a guide. It has no legs. It cannot walk. It is a weight, a coagulation, an inert mass of meaninglessness sitting on top of you and suffocating you. It is poetry that must guide grief and not the other way around.
My impression is that what is left of poetry in America is not, except for a few cases, getting talked about by the dwindling supply of critics competent enough to talk (Burt certainly being one of them), or adequately published via the committee-based, consensus-driven selection employed by poetry presses who award prizes instead of making books that will be read beyond that ephemeral fifteen minutes of publishing fame. Poetry like science is non-consensual. Burt’s New Thing is a consensus-forming gimmick whose soul purpose is to legitimize fluff and perpetuate awful, anemic, limping, bedpan poetry.
Poetry in America is in crisis. It is irrelevant because it has lost its capacity to put a name to what is wrong, to blame squarely the perpetrators, to witness what is real, to not shy away from what is tragic, what is ruined, what is bereft of value and spiritually corrosive. It has lost its talent for trafficking in facts and it has misread the relationship between the fact and the aesthetic possibilities locked within the fact. Indeed, in its very flight from the aesthetic, it has lost access to the fact, to the work of transformation, of redemption, of truth telling. Prominent movements in the 1980s and 1990s with their insistence of conceptual strategies, with their misreading of Nietzsche and their uncritical reception of the philosophies of the unmoored referent left American poetry neutered, blinded, gelded and hysterectimized.
An event as unspeakable as September 11 was simply beyond the purview of American poets. Poetry in its reduced state was wholly incapable of measuring up to the dimension of such horror. American poetry spoke to the horror in the voice of the politician, it became fickle and evasive like politicians, it became forgetful like politicians. It retreated quickly down the university rat-holes and hooked itself back up to the drip drip of sinecure, privilege and pretension.
I leave Harriet in even more despair than I was in when I arrived. I am more profoundly impressed with my father’s newfound ability to shovel mulch than I am with American poetry.
And yet, ever the businessman, the guy with his eye on the books, my father says to me after dinner, slumped sideways in his chair, talking about one of my friends, “but he has a book out and you don’t.” Those are his exact words.
So, Stephen and Jon, you still have one up on me, according to the mulch shoveler.