Hard to Get Rid of
(An Occasional Series: Part One)
Poems reviewed in this article:
I asked the American poet Samuel Menashe what he was reading—a simple
enough question, I thought. If you’re familiar with Mr. Menashe’s
concise poems—poems that usually occupy no more than a few lines,
masterful poems that have been, quite literally, honed to within an inch
of their lives—then you already know they’re unlike any other show in
town, and you’ve probably wondered, like me, what the author of such
ascetic, exacting poetry reads for his
pleasure. But Mr. Menashe has little interest in discussing what’s on
his bookshelf. In the past, he would even throw a sheet over that shelf to
discourage visitors from inspecting his books’ spines. He’s certainly
not a voracious consumer of recent volumes of poetry. (That telling word
of mine, “consumer,” would not have occurred to Mr. Menashe.) When I
pressed him on his recent reading, however, he eventually conceded a
“wonderful” poem he’d come across in one of the bigger East Coast
magazines. Thinking I would look up the poem, I asked him if he remembered
a simple point but one worth reaffirming nowadays, when the perfection of
the individual poem has largely been abandoned in pursuit of the
book-length collection. One good poem is often more than enough (even,
oddly enough, when we can’t recall much about the poem itself; but more
on that, below).
new column, “The Hard to Get Rid of,” will appear in the Contemporary
Poetry Review on a semi-regular basis, and will make it a point of
reviewing only poems that have been recently published in magazines,
though not just those of the East Coast—“semi-regular” because, as
Mr. Menashe demonstrates, one shouldn’t feel compelled to talk about
poems if one has nothing to say; and “only poems” because the
individual poem almost never gets the attention that’s reserved for its
larger (and usually more dysfunctional) family, the book-length
collection, an inevitably uneven affair. We turn to poems, not
collections; we clip them, recall them, and, if they prove to be keepers,
inflict them on others. Shouldn’t we also review them, without any
obligation to the duller siblings with which they’ll eventually have to
a decade ago, in the late-1990s, I stumbled upon an anthologized
poem—which I would’ve, at the time, called a keeper—about some
leaves turning in the wind. The thing is, though, the keeper didn’t
keep; for years, I couldn’t recall the poem’s title, author, or even
much about the poem itself (the anthology had fallen into the hands of an
ex, and I couldn’t conjure its title for the life me). Hopeless, to be
sure, I retained just one doozy of a detail but one that nourished me for
a time: a simile which described some leaves “turning all at once / like
a school of fish.” It only recently occurred to me to submit the simile
to one of our better oracles, Google, and of course the search engine spat
back, in all of 0.28 seconds, the poem it had taken me years to forget:
“The Suitor,” by Jane Kenyon. But my memory, it turns out, had been
reliable enough; it had remembered the best bit of Kenyon’s poem while
discarding the rest, which didn’t stand up to a second reading. And
anyway, I’m pretty sure I’d known, on first reading “The Suitor,”
that I would never again encounter a better description of a loose cadre
of leaves, changing its mind. Kenyon had succeeded in taking the image of
turning leaves off the table for good. How could one better that school of
I’m already having trouble remembering the title of Christian
Wiman’s recent poem, “From a Window,” which I’ve been calling
(when recalling it to others) “That Marvellous Christian Wiman Poem that
Was in the Atlantic Last
Summer.” Wiman’s far less awkward title will do, but it gives no clue
as to the keeper it fronts, a poem that gets down on paper a visual event
we’ve all witnessed—gets it down and, more importantly, gets it right:
From a Window
Incurable and unbelieving
In any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
To the pane as I could get
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit
That seemed a single being undefined
Or countless beings of one mind
Haul its strange cohesion
Beyond the limits of my vision
Over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
Exactly as it had and would
(But why should it seem fuller now?)
And though a man’s mind might endow
Even a tree with some excess
Of life to which a man seems witness,
That life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
is made of the poet’s ability to bear a special kind of witness to
history. But much of the work that trades under the fashionable label
“poetry of witness” is little more than second-rate journalism in the
form of free verse. And anyway, it’s easy to play Associated Press and
report a ribbon-cutting, the results of an election, the red-letter.
It’s not so easy to identify, as Wiman has, an everyday event we’ve all witnessed and yet taken for granted, an event for which we’ve
never found words—an event for which we’ve never thought to find words. Birds leaving a tree’s limbs en masse, for
example, and maintaining a tracing of the tree for a few moments. Anyone
can witness the obviously extraordinary—a shoe lobbed at a president,
say. Anyone can fit it with some prose, upload it to some satellite, file
it. Poets are those people who think enough of the seemingly mundane to
find for it a language that, like a live current, will jolt it (and us) to
painstaking poet, Wiman satisfies a rhyme scheme, a loose iambic
tetrameter, and some alliteration, but it’s his counterintuitive
I saw a tree inside a tree
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
should be remembered long after the title of the poem, or even Wiman’s
handle, is forgotten. This is the original poetry of witness, and if you
want more of it, Wiman’s are the sort of lean, respectful collections
that ensure the company their individual poems keep is up to snuff.
Wiman’s poem may even, to borrow Frost’s words, lodge itself where it
will be hard to get rid of. It may even lodge itself in memories as faulty
as mine. After all, unlike “The Suitor,” “From a Window” is, line
by line, fully realized. At the very least, a model poet has taken an
image—birds taking flight—off the table for the foreseeable future.
How could one better it?
Robyn Sarah also presents an exemplary model for the painstaking poet.
Like Wiman, Sarah publishes little but what she does publish tends to be
fully realized (which means you get the feeling, reading her words, that
she can account for the choice that led to every one of them) and
necessary (her poems stopper a gap, a need). In retrospect, it was
necessary for Wiman to draw our attention to that flock of birds, wasn’t
it?, and in “Gesundheit,” published in Maisonneuve,
last summer, Sarah draws our attention to the banal business of sneezing,
perhaps as no other poet has:
Orgasm of the nose
builds to hairtrigger pitch
and sweet release.
Echoes itself, betimes.
. . . aaaatchoo! (it rhymes),
or comes in multiple,
whole strings of sneeze.
Sneeze ladylike, in a hanky.
Sneeze workmanlike, in a grab
of the grubby shirt.
Or (caught unawares)
sneeze a grand unprotected sneeze
in open air.
Some with a toothpick or a twist
of tissue, tease a sneeze,
a private trick to clear the sinuses.
A sneeze rattles the face.
Loosens the mucus.
Paves the way for the trumpeting
honk and blow—
A pepper sneeze, a pollen sneeze,
a feather sneeze, all alike
pledge to untickle in a rush,
give leave to raise
a just-a-minute finger
before succumbing to the flush—
a microsecond’s uncontrol,
a dispensation to go blotto
going where it takes us,
making the noisy noise
it makes us make.
A sneeze bobs the head.
Single or double bob,
or strings of pigeon bob,
brings blessings down on it.
“grab / of the grubby shirt” is a delight as is the extraordinary,
sonically intricate last verse paragraph, whose repetitions and internal
rhymes bear the reader irresistibly along as if she, too, were committed
to a sneeze from which she couldn’t pull out, a launch sequence that’s
“brakeless, / making the noisy noise / it makes us make.” Unlike
Wiman’s poem, though, which carefully rolls out an argument, Sarah’s
poem is all perception, choosing to approach its subject from multiple
angles. In the process, “Gesundheit” catalogues more sneezes than we
knew existed, like an ambitious, unblinking anthropologist let loose among
previously undocumented behaviors. The result is a showy, shameless, but,
finally, wonderful splurging of real talent.
those more topical public events need their witnesses, too, and on
November 4, 2008, the New York Times
Op-Ed editors asked five poets—John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler, Joshua
Mehigan, Mary Jo Bang, and J.D. McClatchy—to consider what might be left
to say about this year’s election. With pundits as thoughtful as CNN’s
David Gergen (a good reason to have tuned in to Anderson Cooper this past
fall) and as downright bulldoggish as James Carville a click away, I
wondered what poets, even the big ones like Ashbery, could hope to add to
an already crisp and lively national discussion about the future of US
policy and politics. Nevertheless, I clicked on the link to Ashbery’s
opinion, only to be directed to, of all things, a poem. This was kind of
annoying. One who is navigating the New
York Times Online is not necessarily in the mood to read a poem
(especially a poem with the predictably cynical title “Infomercial
2”). Further, one doesn’t ask Charles Barclay to articulate an opinion
in the form of dribbling, or Brad Pitt to discuss his charity work in
dramatic monologue. Why can’t a poet weigh in on current events without
having to versify?
course, I read the poem, which, if you’re familiar with Ashbery’s
playfully indeterminate voice, sounds a lot like Ashbery’s playfully
indeterminate voice if it was asked by Op-Ed editors to comment on the
electoral process. Which means you get some meandering, followed by a
vague allusion to a horse being stolen. (You’re online, Google it.)
Kleinzahler’s piece, “When the Fog,” also offers little more than
the fog burnt off this morning
old warrior’s frozen grin,
outside the streets were empty.
the Fog” presents the prepackaged perceptions of an otherwise great poet
on autopilot. It buzzes the sort of urban, pixellated landscape
Kleinzahler’s poetry often buzzes—a landscape scored by trucks, a
racket of jays, and a sobering, post-election day silence. (By the end, I
was half expecting some jazz musician, a mainstay in Kleinzahler’s work,
to step in and scribble a solo over the scene.) But surely the cynical
allusion to “the golden one, the adored, in silhouette, / Drinking it in
behind bulletproof glass” would have been a bummer to read on a day as
historic as 11/4/08, whether you voted for the winner or not.
Joshua Mehigan seemed to take the Op-Ed assignment seriously enough to
file some fun, durable lines worth passing the time with:
place as four years ago. The people arrive
flag is lit, and the sculpture of who knows who.
inside, a floor-wax smell. Shy people come after.
could be Bingo. It could be a twelve-step meeting.
bathroom is closed to all but volunteers.
take-out cancels the floor-wax smell.
the will of the people was as heavy
on that scale the will of the person counts
if that’s correct my will is not very strong.
bathroom is closed to all but the volunteers.
my will is the weight of a grain of salt.
Polling Place” might not be a classic – look, few poems are – but
it’s pretty good, hinging on a fine turn, a reminder that the most
effective topical poems rely on a slightly light verse, meaning they have
designs on us, on reaching and entertaining an actual readership.
more solemn—and less enjoyable—poetry appeared in the Times
Online, the next day, and will likely continue to appear for some
time, I suspect, in the sort of anthologies that observe, like, a theme.
You’ve probably already read Derek Walcott’s Obama poem, but if you
haven’t it, it goes like this:
Forty Acres: a poem for Barack Obama from Nobel winner Derek
Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving—
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has
parting for their president: a field of
forty acres wide, of crows with
that the young ploughman ignores for his
cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on
one branch is
court of bespectacled owls and, on the
a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with
rage at him.
The small plough continues on this lined
beyond the moaning ground, the lynching
tree, the tornado’s
and the young ploughman feels the change
in his veins,
heart, muscles, tendons,
till the land lies open like a flag as
light streaks the field and furrows wait
for the sower.
subtitle says it all. There will be many poems written about Obama, but
“Forty Acres” comes canon-ready, even if it is a little sickly, a
victim of Stockholm Syndrome (see below). There’s something telling,
too, about that label “Nobel winner,” an unintentional reminder that
your average Joe the Plumber—or even Times
reader—needs a nudge if he’s to remember that Walcott is, in fact, one
of our most acclaimed living poets. Which is not to judge our Joe the
Plumbers so much as the newspaper editors who seem to think Joe ought to
read something good for him. As Frank O’Hara reminds us, “Nobody
should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need
poetry bully for them.” And as Kleinzahler himself insists, “Poetry
not only isn’t good for you, bad
poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas and, in extreme instances,
pancreatic cancer, in laboratory experiments.”
Nevertheless, Walcott’s bad poetry, “Forty Acres,” will be
printed (or clipped) by many who will have felt they’ve done something
good for themselves. But that image “dawn’s sure / light” is
a touch sentimental, if not cliché, and “furrows,” in this sort of
poetry, are always being inseminated by some “sower,” aren’t they?
There certainly ought to be a statute against poets, especially Nobel
winners, likening ploughs and other farming implements to pens working
their page. (How come no one ever compares an open field to a Word
document? You can do far more with a single Word.doc than an entire ream
of the real stuff.) Also, Walcott’s zany supporting cast—the “court
of bespectacled owls” and the “gesticulating scarecrow”—belong in
Oz, not the Times. And one hopes it was the Times’
Web editor, and not Walcott, who mangled this poem, resulting in an odd,
sic-able lineation. Either way, the questionable formatting suggests that
the poem was an afterthought, barely worth a copy edit on the Times’ part or a revision on Walcott’s. “Forty Acres” means
to be important, durable, but is, finally, occasional. It should be
visited in scrapbooks or those sections at the back of a poet’s
collected, to which the minor poems are relegated.
Walcott’s poem proves, poets need a little distance from the world they
witness, and in “Selected Monsters”—published in the July 3rd
London Review of Books—Steven
Heighton, one of Canada’s best working poets, fits fresh words to some
for Barbara Gowdy
Florence, circa 1460, Cosimo de’ Medici enclosed a mixed group of
animals in a pen and invited Pope Pius II to attend the spectacle, which
was meant to determine which beast was the most ferocious: the lion, the
fighting bull, the bloodhound, the gorilla, or perhaps the giraffe—an animal then known in Europe as a Camelopard.
with these monsters in close quarters
sure to have a brawl.” But the new Caesars
some Roman secret—razors
the stable straw, or a bonus
of starvation, glass goads in the anus
a goon squad of trainers
knew how to crack a good whip.
this static, comic crčche—this flop—
Peaceable Kingdom with cud-chewing bull, ape
wanking, lion asleep, bloodhound’s
twitching in some wet dream of a hind’s
fetlocks, and the giraffe, free of wounds,
by the fence, its trembling yellow ass
enough to coax an assault. Pius
his throat. “The Florence heat, I suppose,”
yawned. “I’ve seen sportier feats
a Synod. When’s supper?” Trailing hoots
loutcalls, the mob drained out at the exits,
boxseats emptied, the media crews
elsewhere, till finally Cosimo’s
was a high-shelved archive of human refuse—
tickets, peanut shells, all set to motion
a new wind, as if performing for that pen
blinking inmates, who remained there . . . still remain
the blinding empirical lens of the sun
uranium rainfall, centuries on.
exotic cuts. And excellent wine.”
one considers the bold claims made for poetry, it’s easy to forget that
the stuff should be at least a little entertaining. “Selected
Monsters” is wicked fun, as “useless,” from a social standpoint, as
the very entertainment it describes—but far more humorous and humane.
Clearly, the mind arranging these tercets’
half-rhymes—“Caesars/razors”, “ass/Pius”—is having a grand
time. (Perhaps the axiom ought to be “No grand time for the writer, no
grand time for the reader?”) The alliteration, too—“bonus” with
“bout,” “glass” with “goads”—is as wonderfully over the top
as the bit of big top bloodshed which de’ Medici and Heighton have
cooked up. Like Sarah’s poem, “Gesundheit,” “Selected Monsters”
reminds us that great poetry is greedy. It grasps for ever more resources
to use and use up. I love how the word “assault” conceals, and is
provoked by, the preceding “ass,” how the “mob drained out at the
exits”—a superb, subtle metaphor for the sort of sports mobs Williams
warned us about—and how the makeshift arena resembles a “high-shelved
archive of human refuse— // handbills, tickets, peanut shells, all set
to motion / by a new wind, as if performing for that pen.” Of course,
the title, “Selected Monsters,” implies that each monster is a kind of
poetic creation. But Heighton’s poem is not listless, not “hunched”
or “trembling” like that poor giraffe. It surges forward, a full-bore
and very forward-able affair. Which means it’s merely what a poem ought