Don't Wax the Poem
Maybe all poets are nerds or they wouldn’t be poets. But not all poets write nerdy. Some are suave, which can be a good thing. Some are elegant in an elegant way. Nerds can be elegant in a backwards way, by retaining their bumps and inelegances, bumptious idiosyncrasies, a being-in-life at least as much as in-literature.
There’s plenty to say for the suaves, but this is in praise of the nerds. I’m not saying it’s necessarily better to be a nerd, but the nerds are often the ones I’m drawn to when looking for help making my own poems. Nerdiness is flashing a full frontal when you haven’t waxed and aren’t really an exhibitionist.
Is there a nerdier poem by the ultranerdy D.H. Lawrence than the delightful “Bats” with its haunted enthusiasm, series of tried-on metaphors and excessive fuss.
Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one's scalp
As the bats swoop overhead!
Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.
Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;
Wings like bits of umbrella.
So embarrassing to read (calm down, D.H.!)—and so pleasing.
Dickinson and Whitman were our greatest nerds. Nerdiness means not smoothing out the clunks, means exposing one’s enthusiasms for all to see, means not playing it cool. William Carlos Williams was definitely a nerd: “If I admire my arms, my face,/ my shoulders, flanks, buttocks /against the yellow drawn shades,-- //Who shall say I am not/ the happy genius of my household?”
Oh eek! and hooray.
Pound: not a nerd. Eliot: as far from nerd-dom as they come, except for that one odd lump of a fascinating simile, which refuses to become boring no matter how many times it’s repeated: “like a patient etherized upon a table.” Freakishly nerdy, enough to get through Eliot’s seamless repressions. Marianne Moore, nerdy! Elizabeth Bishop, not nerdy. (Lovely, certainly.) Alan Dugan, consistent nerd. Sylvia Plath was only nerdy twice, at her looniest, in “Lady Lazarus” and in “Daddy.” Frederick Seidel is a nerd despite his sexist sex and custommade motorcycles. Lowell was basically not a nerd; Berryman was hard to tell about—his best work, Dream Songs, is so ostentatiously a performance of nerd truth. Roethke was a nerd. “What a congress of stinks!”—from “Root Cellar.” Or “I Knew a Woman” which seems wonderfully nerdy and wonderfully suave. It’s more nerdy to be suave about it
With a nerd: the squirm.
I’m not sure the New York School geniuses were really nerds at all, which should bring home that I don’t mean nerdiness is the only way to be great. Still, exclaiming “Kruschev is coming on the right day!” to begin a poem in 1959 is boilerplate nerdy.
Whitman, WC Williams: New Jersey seems to be a good place for nerds, though I’m not sure Ginsberg was one. In “America,” yes. “America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies”? Nerd to the bone. Elsewhere he tries so hard to be a nerd, it comes across as a failed performance. Nerddom requires underlying earnestness, embarrassing to admit to, and a dose of good old ironic complexity. CK Williams is an essential nerd (and his new book Wait is a spring must-read). Alicia Ostriker is splendidly nerdy in her various registers.
If Charles Bernstein were less of a showman he’d be more of a nerd, though there’s something deeply nerdy in his commitment to hammy jokes. Ron Silliman is definitely a nerd—besides all the puns: “I walk through the office supplies store the way teens haunt a music shop, the deep browse.” (From Under) Contagious nerdery.
Brits have a hard time being nerds—mostly they write too musically (too well?). Still, it’s hard to credit anyone besides Christopher Smart and William Blake with inventing poetic nerdiness. I mean, “spraggle upon waggle”? I mean “Then am I/A happy fly”? And is there anything nerdier than Dame Edith Sitwell’s “Façade,” especially “Tango-Pasodoble”—with its squeaks, pauses and babbles?
Thylias Moss: most defiant nerd. See her brilliant two page poem about sexual desire for a Smurf in Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler)? Ange Mlinko’s defining note of nerdiness is one of the things that raises her above many of her languagey contemporaries. Shao Wei can be thrillingly nerdy, in a way that sometimes reminds me of Lawrence:
The apple meat stayed in my mouth for a while
then rushed into my throat
did not desire long intimate battles with my teeth.
I normally avoid making New Year’s Resolutions but perhaps a poetry resolution for the kickoff of National Poetry Month?
Wax bedamned. I will be more hairily nerdy.
- Frederick Seidel
- William Blake
- Allen Ginsberg
- Ange Mlinko
- Ron Silliman
- New York School
- William Carlos Williams
- D.H. Lawrence
- Emily Dickinson
- Walt Whitman
- Ezra Pound
- Marianne Moore
- Elizabeth Bishop
- Alan Dugan
- Robert Lowell
- John Berryman
- Theodore Roethke
- Frank O'Hara
- Alicia Ostriker
- Charles Bernstein
- Christopher Smart
- Edith Sitwell
- Thylias Moss
- Shao Wei
- Sylvia Plath
- C.K. Williams
- T.S. Eliot
Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).