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Why Is the Great American Poem So Hard to Write?

One critic's take on Graham, Grossman, McCombs, Hannah.
"A poem, not just poetry. That’s what our era is lacking, claims a growing chorus of pundits. . . ."

"Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific," writes Camille Paglia in her recent anthology Break, Blow, Burn, "but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment, and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem." Clive James makes a similar point when, criticizing Charles Olson's viral influence on free verse, he praises Frost's "aspiration to self-containment," to the "choppily well-separated thing," to "writing a poem, not just writing poetry." This shortage of choppily well-separated things is, it seems, pandemic. "We forget that a single poem is an independent work of art, no less than a painting," observes the Canadian poet Robyn Sarah, diagnosing the tendency of poets to fatten their collections with empty carbs, plumping manuscripts up to the forty-eight page minimum that makes them eligible for awards and publishing subsidies.

A poem, not just poetry. That's what our era is lacking, claims a growing chorus of pundits; and what these four reviews are hunting.

Sea Change: Poems, by Jorie Graham. Ecco Press. $23.95.

Never mind the subtitle; there are no poems in Jorie Graham's twelfth collection, at least not in Paglia's, James's, and Sarah's sense of the word. "As always," Graham observed in the March 2008 issue of this magazine, "I feel I am writing a book rather than a collection, so speaking about one poem out of context is hard." A concept album rather than a compilation of singles, Sea Change is unified by apocalyptic worry, or what the dust jacket describes as the "once-unimaginable threshold at which civilization as we know it becomes unsustainable." The ambition to create individually realized poems has been washed away by a tidal form that, according to Graham, alternates between the long lines of Whitman and the shorter lines of Williams. Here's the beginning of "This":

Full moon, & the empty tree's branches—
correction—the tree's
expose and recover it, suddenly, letting it drift and
rise a bit then
swathing it again,
treating it like it was stuff, no treasure up there
growing more
bluish and ablaze

Like waves, the lines surge forward, foam against the middle of the page, and then retreat to the left margin. And like waves, they don't discriminate between bottled messages and old boots; they carry all manner of psychic refuse and fragmented perception ashore for the reader's inspection—both the faulty first impressions ("the empty tree's branches") and the corrected second glances ("the tree's/branches").

And why not? Many theorists now assure us that the self itself is fragmented, confined to the warped pane of its subjective gaze, and burdened with a language that can never fully represent its environment. Favoring process over product, the churning "Sea Change" is, in its own words,

blurring the feeling of
the state of
being. Which did exist just
yesterday, calm and true.

But at what point does the desire to represent the imprecision of perception become an excuse for imprecise writing? Or is our gaze so hopelessly subjective that we can comfortably abandon the struggle for precision, as Graham does when she describes

the bent back ranks of trees
all stippled with these slivers of
light like
breaking grins—infinities of them—wriggling along
the walls

One doesn't stipple with "slivers." One stipples with dots and points of paint. Slender things like door cracks, crescent moons, and, yes, "breaking grins" are slivered. Seurat canvases and Lindsay Lohan are stippled. Is Graham being imprecise to underscore the imperfection of the self's perceptions, or just sloppy? The question cannot be answered because the idea underlying this sort of poetry—language is always already inadequate—inoculates it against charges of obscurity.

However, readers with a gut worth trusting might observe that, when it comes to the business of actually reading Sea Change, "it is as much an effort to attend to the words one by one as to pronounce them one by one." That's Hugh Kenner on the verse of Arthur Symons, but Kenner's words can be applied, just as easily, to Graham's twenty-first-century slush:

Honor exists. Just punishment exists.
The sound of
servants not being
set free. Being told it is postponed again. Hope as it
exists in them
now. Those that were once living how they are not
here in this
moonlight, & how there are things one feels
ashamed about in
it, & also,
looking at it,
the feeling of a mother tongue in the mouth.
—From This

The vague nouns ("it," "things"), the passive voice ("is," "are"), and the awkward, almost undergraduate grammar ("ashamed about in it")—all conspire to a criminal indistinctness. This is a shame since Sea Change wants to address urgent problems like environmental degradation and Guantanamo. But these problems require a clarity that can only be strengthened by the struggle for the right words, not weakened by it.

After all, there are elegant ways to express our inability to express ourselves. Memorable lines from "Prufrock"—"'That is not it at all,/That is not what I meant, at all'"—come to mind because that's what memorable things do. And there are crisp, epigrammatic ways to confront our incoherence, too. Recall Mark Strand's "Wherever I am/I am what is missing," or Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" or Iago's "I am not what I am." Faced with such verbal triumphs, how can selves as incoherent as ours ever hope to keep Graham's damper-pedaled lines—"Who is one when one calls oneself/one?"—straight in our minds? No one doubts Graham's intelligence and commitment. She has assembled a body of work that demands respect. But it's becoming easier to assure ourselves that she's an important poet than to remember the specific, well-crafted reasons why.

Decartes' Loneliness, by Allen Grossman. New Directions. $16.95.

Descartes' Loneliness, the title of Allen Grossman's latest collection, is a fitting one for our times. It's lonely, after all, to be a humanist when so many poets are, like Jorie Graham, "blurring the feeling of/the state of/being." Grossman, however, seems unfazed, as demonstrated in this excerpt from the book's afterword, a quaint appendage to find in a collection of poetry:

Poets are persons aware of aloneness and competent to speak in the space of solitude—who, by speaking alone, make possible for themselves and others the being of persons, in which all the value of the human world is found.

This belief in "the being of persons" is so unfashionable it's almost refreshing. But if Graham's speaker is too incoherent, Grossman's is all too coherent, the voice of someone who—having long ago decided that he's a poet—apparently feels no need to revise awful proclamations like this one, from "The Famished Dead":

Now look! That other shadow is Pat, my
old nurse.
She had no body even then. She wore what
nurses wore instead of bodies in those days.
That's why her being dead now makes no difference
to me. What's important is still her body.
"Take it off, Pat.
Instead of breasts to suck, you wore two pins.
Instead of a cunt, God knows what you had there."

There are humanists, and then there are hams. Grossman, here, isn't after the choppily well-separated thing, the self-contained poem. Rather, he's a good example of those contemporary poets who, to borrow Paglia's words, "treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page." Certainly, Grossman's use of exclamation points, italics, and lurid words makes his work ready made for the podium.

Of course, whether Grossman actually reads Descartes' Loneliness at live readings is beside the point; throughout the book, the speaker, frequently referred to as "Allen," booms his voice outward as if the reader's skull was an auditorium. He begins one piece with the proclamation, "O Kid!" Another one starts with "Look!" Here's a megaphone of a stanza, from "The Invention of Night":

Song is extreme work. Help me, river sister!
It's getting dark. Hey, sweet water! Flow fresh
through ocean's salt. Give me some words for him
I love, so he can give words to someone else.
Start love's gift once more:—WORDS FOR
So everybody will have something to give someone.
If not, I'll drown you in oceans of salt tears.
Then you'll be indistinguishable from tears.
This is Arcadia.

Song is only "extreme work" to the wide-eyed person who overvalues his perceptions. Good song, on the other hand, takes hard work, the sort of toil that, over time, rids poems of clichés like "oceans of salt tears." Grossman, however, absolves himself from such toil, and forces the clichés and capital letters to do double-duty, single-handedly raising the ordinary to the oracular. And despite evidence of meter, much of the writing in Descartes' Loneliness sounds like flat, conversational prose, to which Grossman has added various stock props: sun, mind, birds of no specific species, their warbling, and Death personified.

Extreme singing certainly has its patrons. J.D. McClatchy, on the back cover, observes that Grossman's "is the austere inward gaze, and the oracular voice of the prophet and seer." But the blurb ends there, implying that just being a prophet and seer is enough. A poem, though, needs more of its maker than a big mouth.

Dismal Rock, by Davis McCombs. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

Reading Davis McCombs's second collection, Dismal Rock, after Graham's and Grossman's books, is a little like putting on your first pair of corrective glasses: language sharpens and well-defined things—not just minds and birds—suddenly come into focus. Imprecision, after all, is a luxury of late style. Younger poets still making a name for themselves, like McCombs, know that they must be clear and compelling and not take up too much of our time—"for time," as August Kleinzahler smartly reminds us in a recent talk, "has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what's cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I'm talking right now."

McCombs gets this and—in the first section of Dismal Rock, a sequence on tobacco farming—gets down to business, describing a world with the rigor of an anthropologist in the field:

The people are talking about budworms; they are
about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal
there where the spillway foams and simmers,
they are fishing and talking about pounds and
they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.
Old men are whittling sticks with their
and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of
and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking
about setters, plant beds and stripping rooms.

In these lines, from "Lexicon," McCombs's speaker, a good listener, has catalogued his environment's recurring sounds—the "u" in "bluff," "lugs," and "cutters"; the "w" in "white," "whittling," and "whistling"—and organized them into a brief, cohesive sound loop that captures the aural energy of a rural landscape. Dismal Rock reassures us that words, when used well, can work. They can record the world and, at their best, transform it, as McCombs's do when they describe a bat "crossing/the water on the boat of its reflection," or how "a bulb of gnats flickers on/above the damp leaves."

But while words can be made to work, they can also become workmanlike. And while much of the poetry in Dismal Rock is precise, much of it is also unmemorable nature poetry, opting for the obvious over the transformative:

each moment flaring up
like a match, consuming itself.
—From Gnomon

this is the river's
whorled thumbprint, the water's surface dark as
—From The Tobacco Economy

the storm that, far beyond him, was purpling
like a bruise.
—From Hobart

when the storm spread
like a bruise along the coast.
—From Bob Marley

This is the sort of poetry in which things "unspool" (see "Salts Cave Revisited" and "Northtown Well"), in which stuff is compared to "ash" (see "The Tobacco Economy" and "Stripping Room")—poetry, in other words, that's teetering on the cliff of our era's clichés.

McCombs, a Yale Younger Poet, is capable of some fine moments— but then who isn't in an era that valorizes the bite-sized fragment over the fully realized narrative, the poetry over the poem? Instead of working through the implications of a neat idea—that bat "crossing/ the water on the boat of its reflection," for example—McCombs merely moves onto the next idea—"it is squeaking/like a rusted hinge"—which is far less startling. The poems in Dismal Rock, then, are less poems than lists of description that never quite cohere into the self-contained pieces that need every one of their words. Like worms and double albums, they can be sectioned and still survive.

Inflorescence, by Sarah Hannah. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

The author of this next book, a one-time nominee for Yale Younger Poet, committed suicide last year. Its poems are about flowers and mental health; they have titles like "Dried Flowers" and "Night Nurse," and brandish sharp lines like

Don't talk to me of Paris;
I have duties.
Don't talk to me of loss;
I bury pills in applesauce.

Given those facts alone, it would be easy to write off Sarah Hannah through a single, obvious comparison. But the most amazing— and consequently tragic—fact about her second (and last) collection is that its poems (and they are poems, choppily well-separated and varnished with formal finish) are very, very good. Whatever the poet was going through, it didn't hinder the production of small, complete masterpieces like "The Riddle of the Sphinx Moth":

An enormous body kamikaze-dives
At me from behind the eaves of a summer
Shack: a sudden blow between the eyes,

A hybrid whirr—half bird, half bee—she hovers,
Helicopters to the grass, and sparks:
Morse code in creature-speak for Get you gone.

I run inside. What was she? A pair of dragonflies
Combined to mate like biplanes in a blitz
Seem cordial in comparison to this—the eyes,

Two narrows, solid black, or should I say,
Twin Stygian pools of fixedness,
Her torso thick, a pattern throbbing in the fur,

And what was that prodding in front of her?
A stick, a thin proboscis, twice as long as she,
Insinuates itself in jimsonweed—

Sucks out all the juice. Twenty quiet minutes pass
Until I hear a rattle on the glass;
The window's shaken out of frame—she's in!

She fouls the bed—the whole room's a sty.
I should flee. I shudder in my chair instead.
She owns this house, not I.

A buzz and feint, and with a glare
She's out the door. She owns the house,
Not me. I've solved the riddle:

All skirmishes aren't fatal;
All metaphors don't fly.

Like McCombs, Hannah has a knack for images, but unlike McCombs, she's careful not to overload the poem with too many, showcasing only the special ones. She's also careful—as Ariel-era Plath wasn't always—to unify them. The staggering description of a "pair of dragonflies/Combined to mate like biplanes in a blitz" is supported by references to kamikaze planes, helicopters, and Morse code, so that when the reader comes to "a pattern throbbing in the fur," the sphinx moth has already been transformed, in the reader's mind, into furry fuselage, capable of rattling windows. The deft use of rhyme and alliteration further unifies this subtle, anti-war psychodrama, lending an aura of inevitability to words like "throbbing," "prodding," "proboscis," "sucks," "pass," and "glass." The poem can't afford the loss of any of them.

But while Hannah expertly moves the reader, word by word, to the poem's finish, she's careful not to craft too tidy an ending. She solves her riddle with a bit of folk wisdom—"All metaphors don't fly"—but in doing so subverts the very art, metaphor-making, that she has mastered, suggesting the limits of poetry. She completes a final rhyme, but also drops a line from what would have been the final tercet, introducing a note of anxiety that's far more subtle than the self-consciously fragmented work of Graham. Indeed, many of Hannah's poems set up consistent patterns of stanzas only to deviate from them at the last moment. Life, Hannah seems to have recognized, is closer to coherence than chaos, which makes it all the more troubling when it falls just short of gelling.

The pieces in Inflorescence add up to a memoir about Hannah's care for her terminal mother. But the best ones—"Greenbrier," "Common Creeping Thyme," "The Leaded Windows," "Night Nurse," and "Eternity, That Dumbwaiter"—are anthology-bound and easily transcend the collection's overall arc. Hannah has not left a body of work that, through sheer bulk, demands our grudging respect. She has left us poems, each its own testament.
  • Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Why Is the Great American Poem So Hard to Write?

One critic's take on Graham, Grossman, McCombs, Hannah.
  • Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

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