A connecting principle

When I was younger, the Police popularized the concept of synchronicity, or the belief that an apparently random coincidence carries some sort of deep meaning or significance. Jung was of course beyond me at the time (though I would later take great interest in his theory of the collective unconscious), but synchronicity became a buzzword in every conversation (and a predictable prompt for charades). I also learned later that the song “Synchronicity II” owes a creative debt to Yeats, who held immense influence on my development as a poet. Can that just be a coincidence?

In any case, even if I hadn’t been listening to the Police again lately, I might still have latched on to the concept of synchronicity because in my last two journal publications, I shared space with another poet. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. The writer is Faith Shearin, and the odd confluence prompted me to grab her book, The Owl Question, from my shelf. That was her first book, published shortly before my own (in fact, it’s a safe assumption that I received the book because I also entered the May Swenson competition that year). The judge for the prize was Mark Doty, another poet I’ve always admired.

It was a great choice. Shearin’s poetry, even then, combined an unusual maturity with a youthful exuberance and sense of wonder. Many of the poems in this book look back on childhood events and memories with an eye that is not entirely critical or nostalgic. Rather, they read more like an examination or a documentary in which the poet seeks to explain—to herself, at least—how she came to be the person she is. One of my favorites in this vein is “Frogs,” which recounts a third-grade science exercise dissecting frogs. The poem bounces (leapfrogs?) around a bit, as her poems often do, providing bits of information that gradually form a larger picture. And the language is vivid: the frogs arrive “dead and soaked in formaldehyde / so they looked like wet vegetables dug up on some // other planet.” That fabulous description is another hallmark of Shearin’s work, as is the deft and unexpected turn of phrase. This poem, for example, extrapolates from dissecting the frog to dissecting her own life, with equal rigor but equivocal results: “And because of her I have taken my life apart many times, / to examine it, though I have never understood what it was.”

The first poem in the collection, “Piano Lesson,” ends on a similar crescendo: “I want to be like the girl upstairs who has braced / herself before a grand piano and taught her own blind fingers to sing.” Like many in the book, this poem speaks of both the unknown possibilities of life and the known tragedies—but it’s the optimism that wins out in the end. The view of an indifferent universe that piles life upon death shows up a lot, as in “Flat World,” which literally places a pregnant woman in a cemetery. Although wry social commentary is not a recurring trope, it is certainly on display in the line, “even without bodies, the rich slept better // than the poor.”

Which draws attention to another aspect of Shearin’s work. It is frequently quite personal, and tells of a genteel southern upbringing—but that family history is far from gothic, and the depictions never stray into caricature. In fact, it could be argued that the conventionality of her life became a source of underlying unease and self-doubt. We learn about her engagement and marriage in terms that are ambivalent, to say the least. In “Matrimony,” for example, she tries out the role of “wife” and finds it “like gaining / fifty pounds, all on my ass” (a phrase that is delightfully out of character in the book). Shearin also evokes the complicated mess of emotions that accompany pregnancy and birth in several poems, the most visceral being “Childbirth Revisited,” which conveys the sense of absurdity and helplessness when the one giving birth seems to have the least control over the entire situation.

The title poem puzzled me for a long time, until it finally dawned on me that it’s not a question about owls, it’s the question the owls ask: Who? Who are you really, in this world, which imposes such expectations and assumptions on you? How much of what you do—even falling in love—is the result of your own pure desires, your own pure persona, as opposed to the gestalt, the collective unconscious, you may have accepted without question or examination? “Surely I am pure beneath the layers I’ve grown for love.” Note that sentiment ends with a period, not a question mark—as though punctuation can differentiate between the real and ideal.

The world the Shearin grew up in was vastly different than mine, but I feel a strange affinity for her work. Granted, it is a bit more prosy than my usual fare, but it is carried off with grace and aplomb. Also, I think we can all get behind the desire for the world as “a picnic where the wine is free and sex / turns everyone to swans.”

Things of this world

How come no one told me?

I was flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers when I happened to glance at the “In Memoriam” column—and was somewhat stunned to see Richard Wilbur listed there. How is it that I did not know he died? How could I have missed something like that? (Well, I see that he died on a Saturday, so maybe there’s a lesson here: don’t die on a weekend if you want the public to notice.)

Wilbur ranks among my favorite poets, and was certainly an influence and inspiration for me (as I’m sure he was for many who followed in the “New Formalist” tradition). When did I first encounter his work? I vaguely recall reading “Praise in Summer” in my high-school textbook, Sound and Sense (back when it had an eye-assaulting neon-fuchsia cover—I may still have it somewhere), but I may be misremembering. In college, though, I started reading him in earnest in the pages of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, which included, among others, “Hamlen Brook.” That poem was a revelation for me. It evinced a mastery of technique that I’ve been striving ever since to achieve, most notably in its vivid descriptive imagery (especially about the natural world) and the use of the unexpected but oddly juste word, the word you wouldn’t have thought to use, but after you see it, you couldn’t imagine using a different one. For example, “I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,” or “A startled inchling trout … Trawling a shadow solider than he.” Dinting?!?! Trawling?!?! Amazing! I remember sharing that poem with my girlfriend, who remarked, “You could’ve written that poem… Well, all except for the last stanza.” Well, yeah… the last stanza makes the poem, and I certainly couldn’t have written it. But it did make me start to understand that vivid description is not enough in itself—it must serve a greater purpose. “How shall I drink all this?” Wilbur writes. That’s the question I would not have though to ask, but the question that takes the poem beyond the beautiful into the sublime.

I have loved so many of his poems, and committed some to memory. “A Late Aubade” comes to mind (“I need not rehearse / the rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse…”). As an interesting sidenote, many of his poems make casual reference to certain touchstones of art and culture—e.g., Schoenberg’s serial technique, or Schliemann staring down on the crowns of Troy. In this way, he shares the genius of Merrill; but with Merrill, such references and nuances always bore a whiff of the patrician, the commonalities you learned by virtue of your station in life, not the hunger of your mind. Wilbur’s poetry, while certainly not plebeian, was more grounded in the things of this world. I could not imagine Wilbur playing around with a Ouija board, much less writing a book-length poem about one.

And who could forget “The Writer?” The richness of metaphor is astounding—even as he undercuts his own “easy figure.” And I suppose, in our electronic world, fewer readers will appreciate the way he likens the sound of a manual typewriter to a “chain hauled over a gunwale.” My keypad makes no such noice, though the typewriter that I learned on certainly did. And his pacing is impeccable: who doesn’t share in his exuberance, or feel his spirits rise, when the trapped bird suddenly clears “the sill of the world?”

Also remarkable about Wilbur, he could write for any audience. My kids encountered his work at an early age in books such as Opposites and The Disappearing Alphabet (Oh, do not let / anything happen to the alphabet!). It is a far journey indeed from that to Molière.

I learned in Wilbur’s obituary that he grew up not far from where I did, so perhaps that’s why a poem such as “Hamlen Brook” or “The Death of a Toad” or “A Grasshopper” speaks to me so directly. I can place myself completely in the scene; but I suspect I’d be able to, even if I didn’t have that sort of referent.

I will miss him. He was most surely called to praise, called by love to the things of this world: fountains, and insects, and train stations, and birds, and art, and sound, and legends. It was always a matter of life or death. The forsaken will not understand. Mr. Wilbur, I do not place much faith in a hereafter, but wherever you are, I wish you a lucky passage.

Democratizing poetry

Journal publication is dictated by a huge element of chance: who happened to read your submission, and what frame of mind were they in at the time. I don’t know how many people are involved in the decision to accept or reject a submission, but probably not too many. I’ve always suspected that name recognition plays a role—and why not? If you’re tasked with churning through a teetering slush pile, you’re bound to look for shortcuts (though as for that, I suspect that many of the poems that appear in journals were not submitted but solicited). That’s why I’ve always preferred venues with blind reading processes.

I was recently intrigued to find a new (to me, at least) journal that opens up the selection process. It’s called SixFold, and it essentially democratizes the whole thing. Participants pay a minimal fee to enter, and then read a selection of poems by other participants. The readers rank the submissions, and top ranked submissions advance to the next stage. This happens two more times, with the dwindling number of submissions being read by a growing number of reviewers. The top three receive awards, and the other finalists receive publication. I suppose this is the poetic equivalent of March Madness (OK, I don’t actually know what March Madness is—but I’m probably not far wrong).

I can see advantages and disadvantages to this approach. For example, many journals reflect the tastes of a single chief editor (or a small editorial staff), and attract an audience based on that editor’s style and reputation. There are many journals that I simply don’t submit to, because I know they would have no interest in my type of poetry. With SixFold, there really can be no overriding vision or stylistic emphasis, because the poems are selected by the collective pool of readers—and that pool is liable to change with each issue (though it may ultimately prove to be a self-selecting set). In theory, this will generate a journal that does not target a specific readership and demographic, but will appeal to the widest range of readers. It also means that a submission is less subject to the whims of a single reader—and if it’s any good, it has better odds of being recognized.

On the other hand, I’m well aware that the collective will of the people gave us our current president. So the system is not entirely foolproof.

But SixFold has another wonderful benefit: all of those readers have a chance to comment on the work. And my recent experience shows that many people take that very seriously. Usually, editorial comments on a submission amount to “we enjoyed your work, please try us again.” With SixFold, I had access to dozens of comments—often quite extensive—about my work. I found it extremely interesting to see what sort of reactions my work would engender, and a bit amusing to see the vastly different readings a poem might permit.

For example, a poem that was “tight, meaningful and very strong” to one reader was “a sentimental exercise fit for a Hallmark card” to another. About another poem, one reader wrote, “I wept when I read your poem,” while another remarked, “I know this is about something deeply personal and important to you, but it doesn’t engage the outside reader.” Another poem prompted some readers to comment, “The last line… stops you in your tracks” and “I love the ending of this one”; and yet another reader commented, “You might not need the last two lines.”

I think my favorite comment was this: “[the poem] shows you can work with rhyme without embarrassing yourself.” Well, I do set a very high bar.

The range of responses serves to illustrate my initial point: if any one of those readers had been exclusively responsible for accepting or rejecting the submission, there’s really no telling how the decision might’ve gone. With the democratized process, the general consensus tends to cancel out any fringe opinions.

SixFold was founded by Garrett Doherty, who, as editor of Crazyhorse, declined several of my poems in the past. The fact the he is now, essentially, publishing my work is itself a vindication of the process, and underscores the possibilities of a diffuse selection process. It’s not perfect —I like the idea of making a personal connection with an editor—but I suspect I submit to SixFold again in the future.

Open and Shut

A few years back, I moved to a new house. All of my books were packed up in boxes—where they remain even now, stacked up in the garage, waiting for me to find or build some shelf space for them. I miss having them in the house. I miss walking past them and randomly scanning the spines to find one I haven’t looked at in while. It was a bit like being in a used-book store with the sort of poetry section that you’d never find in real life but always fantasized about. I miss book stores, too—used and new. They still exist here and there, like stubborn tree stumps on the parkway waiting for the city to come and grind them down—something that could happen any day or maybe never.

Of course, the problem of being a compulsive buyer of poetry books means that when I do find myself in a book store with a book in hand, I often can’t remember whether I already own it.

One book that I purchased twice, unwittingly but without regret, is Open Shutters by Mary Jo Salter. Her last name does not start with a silent “P,” but that would be appropriate. Salter is a formalist and traditionalist, and her poems evince a distinct musicality and classical sensibility. Not surprisingly, she was a devotee of James Merrill, and one of the more whimsical poems in this collection, “Tanker,” stems from a sudden insight into a Merrill pun. In a sense, she finally got the joke, long after the joker had died. The joke, here, is the play between “tanker” and “tanka,” a poetic form related to the haiku (a form that appears in actuality or in essence several times in this book).

Salter loves a nice wry pun, too, and a dose of dry wit. In “Tromp L’Oeil,” for example, a painting on a wall shows “shirttails flapping on a frieze.” You hear an echo of “flapping in the breeze,” so the phrase is at once familiar and foreign. On a grander scale, that’s one of the hallmarks of great poetry: it makes us “re-see” things that we’ve always taken for granted. And of course, who could not fall in love with the title of the book, which truly provides a window (with balcony) into the poems that follow.

Salter is a deft formalist, and this book contains an assortment of villanelles, quatrains, sonnets, blank verse, haiku, and various invented rhyme schemes—even a ghazal (which, even in Salter’s accomplished hands, does nothing to endear me to the form). One of my favorites, “Another Session,” is a long sonnet sequence composed upon hearing about the death of her former therapist, which paints an intimate portrait both of the writer and the therapist (at least, as much as the writer could discern through the professional distance). Other favorites deal with more familiar, familial issues. The poems about Salter’s daughters are particularly poignant. In “Snowed-On Snowman,” when her daughter suggests making a snowman, Salter considers it “her last such invitation,/ maybe: she’s thirteen.” How often have I made that same calculation! She goes on to describe the photo she took of her daughter with the snowman: “a snapshot side by side—/ each soon to disappear,/ him shrinking as she grows.” In a similar vein, “For Emily at Fifteen” describes a poem that arrives in a letter from her daughter. The central figure (both the poem and meta-poem) is a mermaid, a ready-made metaphor for straddling (well, maybe that’s not the right word) two worlds. Her daughter embodies the “Half-human and half-fish/ of adolescence.” The metaphor extends to the chimerical juxtaposition of the serious near-adult who writes a poem with deep connotations and the ordinary child who writes a letter that is mostly superficial.

As it turns out, that child, Emily Leithauser, is now a poet of some renown in her own right. And as is evident from the name, Salter was married to Brad Leithauser, another of my favorite poets. I cannot think of many such legacies—Franz Wright and Frieda Hughes are the only ones that come immediately to mind.

Salter’s strength, I believe, is in the half-rhyme: for example, “shutters” and “shatters” in “Tromp L’Oeil,” or “shutter” and “scripture” (in another poem about her daughter, “Advent”). The half-rhyme is, for poetry, what the blue note is for jazz—unique, and hard to replicate or predict, a fall from perfection into an in-between state that defines its own perfection.

Open Shutters, too, defines and achieves its own perfection.

Whatever it is

Freshman year, English 201, seminar, first class. Professor R.—a rather intimidating and authoritative figure—explains that if we really want to develop an appreciation for poetry, we should be grabbing the New Yorker each week to see what’s being written right now. To illustrate, she gives us all a copy of a page from the most recent edition. We read:

Not liking what life has in it,
“It’s probably dead, whatever it is,”
you said.…

That was my first introduction to John Ashbery, and perhaps my first introduction to real poetry by a real poet (as opposed to my fellow students) that just left me scratching my head. In the countless years since then, that line has stuck with me. It’s offhand, it’s ridiculous, it’s non sequitur. I’m sure that’s what many people love about Ashbery’s poetry, but it’s certainly what I like least—about anybody’s poetry. It’s disjointed, it’s solipsistic, it’s random, it’s simply words on a page. What does it tell us about the human condition at this particular point in time? What does it tell us about anything? A generous reading might suggest that the enormity of history, the calamity of humanity, has left us with nothing to say, but being human, we have to say something—even if it is meaningless outside a context that is so specific it excludes all but the smallest social circle. A less generous reading just says, don’t quit your day job—unless your day job is “poet.” There’s no denying that Ashbery exerted considerable influence on a generation (or two or three) of young poets, who apparently learned that obscurity and insularity were qualities to admire. I personally believe that poetry is not meant to be deciphered, any more than music or architecture is. A poem is not a puzzle—life is the puzzle. Even the title of the poem, “Wet are the Boards,” is an exercise in abstruseness. What is being emphasized by the inverse construction? Why do we even need “are the” in this case? How does it relate, if at all, to what comes next?

When people say, “I don’t get poetry,” I think a large share of the blame falls on Ashbery and his imitators. From a young age, we’re taught that poetry is special. So when we encounter a poem that does not reach out to us the way poems are supposed to, we’re less likely to think, “this poem is stupid because it makes no sense,” and more likely to think, “I am stupid because I can not make sense of this poem.” And who wants to feel like that?

Ashbery died this week; his legacy will no doubt endure, though we may hope that his influence will not.

Westward ho!

Hardy’s “The Oxen” might just be the archetypal Christmas poem, for me, at least, with it’s hints of awe and wonder, it’s willingness to set aside doubt and agnosticism to entertain the possibility of something mystical. Of course, that doubt and pessimism is never fully vanquished, and ultimately underscores the futility, the silliness, of adherence to any established religious doctrine. To the holiday canon, I’d like to add another piece, from a modern poet with philosophical ties to Hardy. That poem is “Xmas Tree Lot Tribeca 2001,” from the collection Driving West on the Pulaski Skyway, by John Bargowski. Like Hardy’s poem, Bargowski’s juxtaposes a child’s view of the season (through the lens of an imagined pop-up book) with reality as comprehended by an adult mind. The desire to rekindle an experience of innocence, naiveté, and magic is undermined by a sense that all the glitter is just a tawdry facade, in terms of the physical ornamentation and the emotional underpinnings. I love how he describes the bargain trees with “their bottoms nailed / to little wooden crosses,” succinctly compressing the religious and commercial intersection of the holiday. Even his decision to use the word “Xmas” rather than “Christmas” in the title is significant for an Italian Catholic from New Jersey.

I mentioned Bargowski’s philosophical ties to Hardy, and by that, I mean his pessimism, his sardonic outlook, his overriding sense of defeat. Hardy, who never really recovered from the untimely death of his first wife, wrote poems such as “Hap,” which looks with a resigned sense of helplessness at the overwhelming power of sheer randomness. Bargowski also suffered an unimaginable loss, of a daughter. The details are never specified, but the enormity of the event figures enormously in this book, both in the individual poems that address the loss (and what comes after) and in the world-weary tone of the work overall. The poems that deal with the daughter’s death and memory are among the most wrenching in this collection. I’m thinking particularly of “The Purple Bike,” which describes how he and his wife would try to avoid being the first home at night, that is, avoid coming home to an empty house. There’s also “After the Monument Salesman’s Pitch,” which describes a visit from the man selling tombstones, “smiling / as if he’s selling roses or / trips to the Caribbean.” And “Dust and Sleep,” which describes making plans for the daughter’s birthday—not cakes and presents, but a visit to the cemetery. I’m not sure whether “On Three Legs” describes the funeral of his daughter or someone else, but it’s certainly in the same mold, with its emotionally deadened attention to detail, the sense of devastation in an uncaring world, as evidenced in lines such as “When we returned home the florist / bill was in the mail.” And of course, the most memorable in this mode must be “Cleaning Out the Closet,” which captures a scene in which his wife is trying on old clothes to see if they still fit:

We both see it when you lift the next hangar
off the bar, through the little window in the plastic 

—the dress you wore to our daughter’s funeral,
the cloth already faded to the color of dried roses

If any poem can be described as “heartbreaking,” this is it, especially in its subtle portrayal of how tragedies never end, its depiction of how loss defines us, and its revelation of how the self can feel oddly shamed and betrayed by its own ability to continue no matter how completely the world falls apart.

While the daughter’s death figures prominently in this collection, a similar sense of loss and grief punctuate the poems of memory and reflection. Bargowski reminds me in some ways of another Jersey poet, John Hennessy (about whom I’ve written before). But while Hennessy looks back on his Jersey heritage with a sense of nostalgia and humor, Bargowski looks back with a sense of despair and pity. When we encounter his parents and grandparents, they are for the most part near to death; they seem to have been absent from this childhood. And in fact, poems of childhood also suggest the Catholic school equivalent of a juvenile delinquent. Any joy, if it appears at all, arrives too late, as in the flowers that bloom after the one who planted them has died. Or its found in the flight of pigeons, back in the day when rooftop coops were not uncommon—though even those pigeons, ultimately unable to escape their surroundings despite their wings, become oddly mournful. The title of the book will hold special significance for locals: if you are driving west on the Pulaski, you are leaving Jersey City, with your back to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Driving West on the Pulaski Skyway won the Bordighera prize for poetry, and as such, each poem appears with an Italian translation on the facing page. This leads to some amusing misconnections, as when Bargowski cites an Italian adage and then gives its English translation; the Italian version just repeats the adage twice (i.e., Hello, reader! Which loosely translated means, Hello reader!”) Another translates the bouncing ball that appears above old song lyrics (is that the origin of modern karaoke?) as an actual rubber ball. In the original, a dog in a car would “scare the shit out of” anyone passing by, while in Italian, he would only scare them to death. Well, as I’ve said before, translating poetry is an endeavor predestined to fail—my hats off to those who try. And Bargowski’s poetry can be pretty grim—I’ll take my humor where I can find it.

Things fall apart

My kids have been obsessed with the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and the soundtrack seems to be on perpetual loop in the house. So it’s perhaps not surprising that I woke up on Wednesday with the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” in my head. When I was a kid, I learned in school that the British piped that tune (the ballad, not the Broadway ditty) during the surrender at Yorktown. Modern historians are skeptical of that claim, but it certainly has an air of truthiness about it. And I’m sure many people on Wednesday felt much like the British did all those years ago—stunned and chagrined. What should have been an easy victory turned into a dirty and protracted campaign. The Continental army had no idea what it was doing, was breaking all the rules and seemed to be learning as it went along. No one seriously though they could win. And yet, they shocked everyone—including themselves, I’d guess.

But the lyrics from Hamilton were soon supplanted by a few lines from Yeats, written about 100 years ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines from “The Second Coming” have shown their relevance time and again throughout the years, and they seem even more ominous this week. The future is uncertain, but one thing seems clear: it will not be pretty. Centrist policies based on fact and reason cannot hold against the anarchy of ignorance, fear, and disaffection. What puzzles me, though, is that many if not most Trump supporters were of an older demographic. I always thought anarchy was a young man’s game. In fact, I recall showing up on my first day of college wearing my circle-A tee shirt, bought at Zipperhead in Philly. I didn’t really want a devolution into chaos, but I did feel that the authoritarian institutions and traditional expectations were standing in the way of individual freedom and self-actualization (kind of a hippy-libertarian stance, now that I look back at it). And the punk in me can still see the allure of tearing everything down, just to wipe the smug grin off the face of the establishment. But the rationalist (and cynic) in me does not believe in a progress narrative anyway, and assumes that any institutions torn down will just be replaced with something equally ignominious. I’m also perplexed by how easily people swallowed the massive lies and hypocrisy. I guess even a lie can be told with passionate intensity. But we’re still dealing with the havoc wrought by an administration that used propaganda and outright lies to sell it’s self-serving and paranoid vision of the world. And getting back to Yeats, part of me wonders whether all those evangelicals who turned out in force were consciously voting for someone who, they thought, would bring about the second coming, the war of Revelations, the rapture. It’s more likely they’ll get the zombie apocalypse.

On the bright side, tumultuous times often lead to the most enduring works of art, as Yeats’ poem demonstrates. Perhaps the new administration will unwittingly foster a renaissance in American art and literature, even as it dismantles the NEA and moves to stifle all dissent.

No bells

Bob Dylan, Yes: Dylan Thomas, No.

I don’t get it. Bob Dylan getting the Nobel prize for literature? Some commenters have no problem with that. I’m mildly flummoxed. If he were awarded the prize for economics, for example, how would that go over? Would people say, “Yes, that makes perfect sense—he often writes about the rural working-class poor.” Or would they say, “No, that’s just stupid—he’s not trying to be an economist.” To put it another way, how would people react if Robert Pinsky were awarded a grammy for his poetry?

It seems that the Nobel committee is purposefully sticking a finger in the eye of every living American writer. There are many who have worked arduously, perhaps in obscurity, in the service of literature. To give the award to someone with no aspirations toward creating enduring works of literature is nothing short of preposterous. And insulting.

Literature springs from a dialog among writers. Thomas fostered such a dialog, influencing his contemporaries and those who would come after. Many embraced his style; others (eg, the Movement) openly rejected it. In either case, his work directly affected the style, tone, and tenor of generations of writers, and shaped what we think of as literature. I doubt many writers would credit Dylan as a core influence on their work.

I am occasionally asked by folks who don’t read poetry if I can name any musicians who might qualify as poets. I begin by explaining that music and poetry strive for different ends, and have different tools and methods for achieving those ends. I generally find that setting poetry to music destroys it—in the same way that reading a song on the printed page destroys it, too. Music and literature are animated by different geniuses—and while they may share a common ancestor, they occupy different and distinct branches on the phylogenetic tree of human expression. Still, in terms of poetic musicians, I might start with Bruce Springsteen (and not just because of my Jersey roots). Many of his lyrics stand alone in their grittiness and angst, and their occasional delight in wordplay (cf, “Blinded by the Light”). Even better, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has written many lines that I wish I had written myself; that’s high praise from a poet. I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about Dylan.

Oddly, Dylan has so far maintained an intriguing silence with regard to the award. Perhaps he is simply too bemused to comment? Perhaps he, too, finds it bizarre, and is waiting for the prize committee to say, “Just kidding!” In any case, I am hoping that he’ll decline the prize. It probably means nothing to him, anyway, and it would send a message to the committee. Intentional mixing of genres can result in wondrous works of art; but mixing up your genres just makes you look ignorant, arrogant, and dismissive.

Perspective

When people say, “I’ve told you fifty times,”
They mean to scold, and very often do.
When poets say, “I’ve written fifty rhymes,”
They make you dread that they’ll recite them, too.

Boxed in

Prose poem: contradiction in terms, right? I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the prose poem. One gripe I have with many contemporary poems is that they seem to be prose chopped up to look like a poem, with no rhyme or reason (pun intended) as to what constitutes a line. The prose poem, of course, doesn’t even try to look like a poem, at least not in the typical sense. And yet, on the other hand, they do have an odd visual appeal, appearing as a self-contained brick-like edifice on the page (assuming they don’t go on for more than a page). Sometimes, I wonder whether the poem would achieve the same effect if it had some sort of line break. And sometimes, I decide that the answer is no. At its best, the prose poem achieves a certain urgency, an immediacy, which comes from stripping away all pretense and ornament, all the traditional trappings of poetry. Yet even this can be deceiving, for the prose poet, like the concrete poet, must be attuned to mechanical process of putting words on page, on typesetting and font styling.

I bring this up in the context of Jehanne Dubrow’s latest book, The Arranged Marriage, which is a collection of prose poems. Maybe “collection” isn’t the right term, because this book is a cohesive project, with all the poems sharply focused on family history (and more specifically, her matrilineal history). In this regard, the individual poems function like chapters in a novel—a postmodern novel, where the narrative does not necessarily progress in a chronological manner. Does the prose poem lend itself to this structure more than, say, a book-length sonnet sequence? In this case, I’d say it does. The tone is often plainspoken, anecdotal. More ornament would detract from the immediacy of the message. Many of the details hint at violence (OK, some do more than simply hint), and an elevated diction or focus on form might blunt the inherent brutality. The tension comes not from breaking phrases but by stringing them together. Several poems refer to some sort of sexual assault, perhaps even a hostage-like confinement, at the hands of someone who is not a complete stranger. Others present the more psychological confinement of married life in a tropical environment far from home. And there are knives—lots of knives, and shards of broken things. The sense of confinement and sexual assault becomes a recurring metaphor for marriage, with the women both looking for a means of violent escape and experiencing a strange connection to their oppressors. From Dubrow’s perspective, marriage is the ultimate Stockholm syndrome.

The typography is intriguing, too. The titles are rendered in a font that imitates the old ribbon-style typewriters (for those of us who remember them), complete with minuscule ink spatters. This situates the stories within a specific historical context. Back then, typing was considered women’s work, and one could argue that the typeface imparts a feminine aspect from the start. It also makes it possible to view each poem as a letter (in the prehistory of email), or even as a document in a dossier. And if viewed as a letter, it’s easy to go a step further and imagine that the letter, composed in prison or confinement, might have to pass through the censors, and so would have to encode its message, which might ultimately be a call for help.

Still, in regard to the prose poem as a genre, I’m not altogether onboard. I still find myself mentally pausing at the end of each line, which tends to blunt the driving momentum. I also tend to scan the righthand side, wondering whether the poet specifically chose to end on those words, or whether the end words were dictated by the margins. I admire randomness for its own sake—not as a poetic device. Still, this is an intriguing book—disturbing, even—and one that will reward repeated close reading.