Of the many resources I’ve mined in researching James Wright: A Life in Poetry, the most vivid have been recordings of Wright’s readings over the course of two decades, when he was a vital public figure in the world of American poetry. A strong impression of his physical presence survives in his voice, in the stories he tells, and in the poems he says—many of them written by others. Wright did not recite poems, and rarely needed a printed text. The word he used was saying poems; they were part of how he spoke, even how he thought. Wright had an astounding memory, so alert to the patterns of sound and language that some I interviewed described it as a “phonographic” memory. After saying poems in Latin, German, or Spanish, Wright would improvise his own translations. He knew countless poems by heart, as well as entire Shakespeare plays, novels by Dickens, and essays by H. L. Mencken and George Orwell—a seemingly infinite store.
For Wright’s authorized biography, I gathered and transcribed four dozen of his readings, public talks, and interviews. Included here are two poems, from readings twenty-one years apart. “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” comes from the first of Wright’s readings that I’ve found, recorded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 1958. Wright gave his final reading on October 11, 1979, in the Harvard College Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, saying poems from throughout his career, including “A Blessing.”
One of the finest readers of his generation, Wright joined the many itinerant poets who took to the road in the 1960s and ’70s to appear in cities and on college campuses around the country. Along with his wide knowledge of poetry and singular memory, Wright had a richly timbral voice that never lost a touch of Southern Ohioan, a slight Appalachian lilt he carried from his birthplace in Martins Ferry on the Ohio River. He modeled his expressive reading style on his great mentor, Theodore Roethke, with some of the fire and melancholy of Roethke’s friend Dylan Thomas. Thomas created a kind of template for the cross-country reading tour in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and Elizabeth Kray soon began organizing reading circuits of college campuses grouped in close proximity that could then share the cost of hosting poets. When Wright recorded fifteen of his own poems at the request of Randall Jarrell for the Library of Congress in May 1958, he had just arranged, with Kray’s help, his first extensive reading tour across New England for the coming December.
Wright had already won acclaim for his rhymed and metered verse and was publishing widely in journals and magazines when he arrived at the University of Minnesota in September 1957 to take up his first teaching appointment. The Green Wall, his debut collection, had been published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, chosen by W. H. Auden. Saint Judas, Wright’s second book, would be of the same traditional cast. “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” is a prime example of the influence of Edwin Arlington Robinson on Wright’s work: a dramatic monologue, spoken by a twelve-year-old boy to the brother of the town drunk, in five stanzas of interlocking rhyme. But something from the streets of Martins Ferry insinuates itself into Wright’s voice, as it does throughout his poetry; the material he is drawn to here creates a tension with the formal craft of the poem. When the boy utters a brief, sharp curse near the poem’s conclusion, Wright’s voice sparks to life, brushing aside decorum and convention. One realizes how much the boy cares for the poor old drunk—that is, how much the poet cares.
When the boy utters a brief, sharp curse near the poem’s conclusion, Wright’s voice sparks to life, brushing aside decorum and convention.
Wright dedicated what would be his final reading in October 1979 at Harvard College to the memory of Elizabeth Bishop, who had died a week before in Boston at the age of sixty-eight. In her honor, Wright began by saying from memory Yeats’s ars poetica “Adam’s Curse.” “Everybody knows it,” he allows, “but it doesn’t hurt to sing it again.” Of his own work, Wright chose poems from throughout his career, though he worried in his journal the night before, “I wonder what, if anything, the Harvards will make of Ohio, my Ohio.”
Wright had just returned from nine months of travel in Europe, enjoying a remarkable period of sustained writing that would appear in his posthumous volume, This Journey. He did not know at the time of his reading that the sore throat he just couldn’t shake was in fact a cancerous tumor that would take his life five months later. On the recording, Wright seems as if he were troubled by a cold. But the reading is generous and self-assured, with a storyteller’s pacing and sensitivity. Following a bravura recitation of the bitter, scalding work “The Minneapolis Poem,” Wright turned to a poem from his 1963 book The Branch Will Not Break: “A Blessing.” He often insisted that many poems in that collection, including “A Blessing,” were “just descriptions”—clearly observed moments of perception and feeling. At the time he wrote The Branch, the possibility of happiness seemed always a surprise to him. “A Blessing” owes its inspiration, in part, to translations of classical Chinese poetry, a source Wright turned to often. In this final reading of the poem, Wright throws a slight accent on the word “my” in the penultimate line, heightening an awareness of how closely he has been observing the bodies of those horses that “can hardly contain their happiness.”
Wright’s command of free verse is nowhere more evident than in the skillful enjambment of the last two lines of “A Blessing.” Expanding upon this fluency with image-based strategies he found by translating German, Spanish, and Latin American modernists, Wright had a profound influence on his peers and on succeeding generations of American poets. The Branch Will Not Break remains his most celebrated book; together with his 1968 masterwork Shall We Gather at the River, the poems Wright published in the 1960s helped assure that his Collected Poems of 1971 would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
But Wright never turned his back on rhymed and metered poetry. In his Harvard reading he included “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack,” “An Offering for Mr. Bluehart,” and an early sonnet, “My Grandmother’s Ghost”—the poem Wright said most often throughout his career. The concluding poem of his final reading is another formal tour de force, what he called “a cracked ballade” in the manner of François Villon: “A Farewell to the Mayor of Toulouse.” It was one of dozens of new poems Wright had brought back from his last journey in Europe.
Jonathan Blunk is a poet, critic, essayist, and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Nation, Poets & Writers, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He was a coeditor of A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright.
The Library of Congress is the source for Wright’s reading of “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” on May 25, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wright’s final reading at the Harvard College Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 11, 1979, which includes “A Blessing,” is now part of the Woodberry Poetry Room’s audio archive.
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The first eight pages of Michael Robbins’s new book, “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” (Simon & Schuster), make reference to Annie Dillard, Harold Bloom, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Kenneth Burke, Geoffrey Hill, Kenneth Koch, Adam Phillips, Frank O’Hara, Emerson, Boethius, Nietzsche, Freud, and Miley Cyrus. The book is a collection of mostly previously published pieces, some on poetry, some on pop music, some on both, written, as the names suggest, in a critical style that could be called advanced pop.
Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few. Advanced pop is Boethius and Springsteen, Artaud and the Ramones, and it yields sentences like “I assume that what Burke”—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—“says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.” It’s erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside. Another word for the attitude might be “Brooklyn,” which is indeed where, as an author’s bio unnecessarily informs us, Michael Robbins lives.
“Equipment for Living” is funny and smart. It does feel a few bricks shy of a tome. The first and last chapters perform the same work: they unpack, uneasily, the claim stated in the title, which is that poems and songs can make a difference. Most of the chapters are essay-reviews, ranging in length from very brief to brief. Robbins has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and an excellent discussion of rhyme in the work of Paul Muldoon is apparently adapted from his dissertation.
To fill things out, there is a twenty-eight-page “Playlist,” consisting of staff-picks-type encomiums on the author’s favorites, such as:
“Devil Got My Woman” (1931)
Sometimes I think this song defines the limits of what is humanly possible. Sometimes I think it exceeds them.
“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Canto XXV (1937)
A rumpus, a rollick, a roll in the hay . . .
There’s only one full-dress essay in the book, and it’s much more heavy-duty than the rest. The subject is the poetry of Frederick Seidel, and the essay handles a familiar critical problem—the morality of bad taste, the Jeff Koons–Michel Houellebecq–Bret Easton Ellis problem—expertly if not entirely originally. The essay does include observations like “The death drive is figured here as the desire to literalize the trope of the subject’s dispersal.” When I hear the words “literalize the trope,” I reach for my remote.
Hyperbole is an ever-present danger up there on the high-low tightrope. What helps the critic keep his or her balance is the acknowledgment that it is hyperbole, that there is a rhetoric of aesthetic experience—the experience of reading poems or listening to songs we’re strongly attached to—that is always in excess of the actual content. If you’re going to write about Skip James, it doesn’t make sense to strive for a judicious appraisal. You want to record the temperature at its hottest. By now, a lot of writers have done this sort of thing with Skip James and other old bluesmen, a sacred category for serious pop critics ever since those musicians were “discovered” by rock-and-roll (that is, white) audiences, in the nineteen-sixties, but Robbins can do it with seventeenth-century lyrics as well.
You also need to concede that the experience cools fairly quickly, and Robbins is alert to that, too. “No one has ever changed his life because of a poem or song,” he says in a chapter on metal, with reference to Blake, Milton, Rilke, William Empson, Peter Sloterdijk, Ozzy Osbourne, and Kant. “Changing your life is for Simone Weil or the Buddha. The rest of us need German poetry and Norwegian black metal because they provide the illusion that we are changing, or have changed, or will change, or even want to change our lives.” I don’t completely agree, but it’s a wise caution.
Another advanced-pop premise is that everything is happening now. Springsteen and Dylan speak to our current condition, and so do Boethius and Sappho. The envelope may be postmarked 600 B.C.E., but when you open it there is a letter inside, and it’s just for you. The responsible scholarly impulse is to historicize: those words were never intended for you, they signified something completely different in 600 B.C.E. than they do today, and so on. That’s all true. But the text still has a sting. It’s the news that stayed news. Robbins is more interested in the inarticulable or barely articulable sting than he is in reconstructing social relations in the Mediterranean gift economy. (I think you can do both, in fact, and that putting the “then” together with the “now” is the point of doing criticism.)
A writer with a playlist of culture heroes must also have a list of the undeserving, the fake, and the fallen, and Robbins does not disappoint us. He writes of the poet James Wright, “It is easy to feel that, if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it would write this poetry.” He suggests that Robert Hass “has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” Of Charles Simic: “If the worst are full of passionate intensity, Simic would seem to be in the clear.”
He calls Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” “wimpy crap.” He says that Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” is “highly acclaimed despite her apparent belief that serious writing is principally a matter of avoiding contractions.” His reaction to Neil Young’s memoir is “It’s depressing to learn that one of your heroes writes like a composition student aiming for the earnest tone of a public service announcement.”
The Jedi master of this mode of criticism—its presiding spirit, really—is Pauline Kael, the subject of an admiring chapter in “Equipment for Living.” Robbins calls her “the first tastemaker I trusted implicitly.” A lot of Kael’s criticism, like Robbins’s, is buildups and takedowns, but that kind of criticism can get interesting when the writer has to figure out why something that should be good is not, or why something that has no right to be good actually might be.
I enjoyed almost all of “Equipment for Living,” but I found Robbins most clever and entertaining when he is trying to make sense of what redeems bands like Journey and Def Leppard, or poets like Dylan Thomas and James Dickey. Those are artists who now seem obviously gassy or fatuous—“Like a mammoth wheel of Monterey Jack left in the sun” is Robbins’s description of Journey’s hit song “Only the Young.” And he often decides that what redeems such works is that they once spoke to him, even if they don’t anymore. “Every song you loved when you were young turns into ‘Tintern Abbey,’ ” as he puts it.
“I cannot paint / What then I was,” Wordsworth wrote in that poem, about revisiting the banks of the Wye as a grownup (only five years later, actually, but it’s a poem). Robbins expresses the sentiment this way: “As I listen to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ’ today, once again, in the arena of my soul, how high the highest Bic lights the dark.” You can’t go back to being fifteen, but you can remember with respect and longing that time of life, a time when, as Georg Lukács once put it, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” Oh, no! Now I’m doing it!
“Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore,” Robbins says. And, in fact, a surprising amount of pop-music criticism is bottled nostalgia, owls that fly at dusk. In preparation for writing about “Equipment for Living,” I got a copy of “Shake It Up” (Library of America), an anthology of fifty years of pop-music criticism, “from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. I figured I would dip into its pages and refresh my recollection of the field of play. Many hours later, I had to force myself to put the thing down.
A few of the essays in “Shake It Up” are advanced-pop criticism (e.g., the literary critic Richard Poirier on “Learning from the Beatles,” in Partisan Review), but most are journalism, and the journalism beats the advanced-pop stuff cold. Partly this is because it was written for fans, so the writers could ignore the English department and other highbrow police. Partly it’s because pop-music journalism arose out of the intersection of early rock-and-roll magazines like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, when they still had an alternative-press aura, and the New Journalism, with its promiscuous use of the first person, and that gave it a confessional tone and a voice that suggested that we’re all on the same side in the struggle, whatever struggle it is.
But rock criticism does appear to be fixated on what has been lost. It’s always beating back against the current. It seems that in the pop-music business the shelf life of authenticity is tragically short. Ellen Willis on Janis Joplin, Lester Bangs on Elvis Presley, Chuck Klosterman on Mötley Crüe, John Jeremiah Sullivan on Axl Rose, Eve Babitz on Jim Morrison, Geoffrey O’Brien on the Beatles: all those pieces are “Tintern Abbey”s, elegies for gifts that were squandered or misapplied or evanescent. O’Brien thinks it all began to go south for the Beatles after “Help!” And I used to think the Beatles were only worth listening to after “Help!”
But how are poems and pop songs “equipment for life”? Here the balance pole begins to wobble. “There is no limit to what a poem can’t do,” Robbins writes on one page; “poetry makes all sorts of things happen,” he says on the next. Which is it? He doesn’t want to give in to the fantasy that poems taught to and songs bought by millions of people are also subversive of the established order. But his own politics are Occupy-era politics, and he naturally wants to put his views together with his tastes. The teen-ager’s enthusiasm for Def Leppard must in some way belong with the mature man’s concerns about income inequality.
He has a couple of ideas about how this might work. One is that the very excess of the aesthetic experience, the fact that it evaporates so fast upon contact with daily life, is a reminder of how impoverished daily life is. It seems that capitalism is to blame here. When capitalism is dead, Robbins suggests, we might not need poetry anymore.
O.K., that’s one idea. His other idea is that the key to the real-world effectiveness of poems and songs is “form.” The invocation of form is awkward, for the same reason that advanced-pop criticism itself is inherently awkward, which is that most popular music, and especially popular music categorized as rock, is magnificently and unambiguously hostile to everything associated with the word “school.” And form is a very academic concept. It’s the shell in the game teachers play to hide content.
The phrase “equipment for living” is taken from Kenneth Burke, who also wrote that form is “a public matter that symbolically enrolls us with allies who will share the burdens with us.” Robbins likes this. I think it means that the experience of poems and songs is shared with other people, even if often implicitly, and so it can be a means of achieving solidarity. Form “grounds us in a community,” Robbins says.
This might be a little wishful. Reading poems is normally a solitary pastime, and so is a lot of music listening, except at concerts, where the emotions aren’t really your own. In any case, form cuts no political ice. The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” once an anthem of antiwar protesters, is played at Trump rallies. I assume it instills feelings of solidarity among his supporters.
With aesthetic experience in general, after a certain age, the effects are probably as much a product of what you bring to it as what you get from it. “Records are useful equipment for living, provided you don’t expect more from them than they contain,” Robbins says. This is an echo of Dylan—“Songs are songs,” Dylan once said; “I don’t believe in expecting too much out of any one thing”—and it seems about right.
But what, in the end, do we get from poems and songs? “Aesthetic life is a sphere of self-directed activity whose external ramifications, despite periodic utopian exuberances, are minimal at best,” Robbins concludes (somewhat contradicting his “community” theory). Is this so? Are we past the days when people wrote poetry and read it for encouragement and guidance, the days when poetry was not merely a “self-directed activity” but was writing about something?
It certainly was once. On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. On August 5th, the first war poem appeared in the London Times—“The Vigil,” by Henry Newbolt. By the end of the year, at least two anthologies of war poetry were out, “Poems of the Great War” and “Songs and Sonnets for England in War Time.” Many would follow. Around the time the fighting ended, four years later, more than two thousand British and Irish writers had written poems about the war.
We might assume that the First World War inspired a lot of poems because that’s how people expressed themselves in the age of print, and that people express themselves differently today because the media are different. But we would assume wrong. Donald Trump was elected President on November 8, 2016. A poem about his election, “You’re Dead, America,” by Danez Smith, appeared on BuzzFeed on November 9th.
A few days later, hundreds showed up in Washington Square Park for a pop-up poetry reading sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and the Web site Brain Pickings. Three days after the Inauguration, the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announced a Donald Trump Poetry Contest. He got about two thousand submissions. Several anthologies with anti-Trump poems have already come out, including, in May, “Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now” (Knopf), edited by Amit Majmudar, who was one of the winners in Kristof’s contest.
Every crisis is an opportunity for poetry, even in the twenty-first century. There are anthologies of 9/11 poems and anthologies of Iraq War poems. There are climate-change poems, income-inequality poems, and Black Lives Matter poems. Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a book-length poem about race, identity, and the imagination, has sold almost two hundred thousand copies since it was published, in 2014. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, hundreds of thousands read “It is not Paris we should pray for,” posted on social media by the Indian poet Karuna Ezara Parikh. When the going gets stressful, the stressed want poems.
So why are people who write about poetry so defensive? Robbins gives the appearance of a man straining to come up with a rationale for bothering to read and write poems at all. And he’s an optimist. In “The Hatred of Poetry” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), published last year, Ben Lerner argues that poems simply can’t do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate “a measure of value beyond money.” All they can do is expose the impossibility of achieving any of these things by writing a poem. Of course people who don’t read poetry hate it, he says; it’s not doing what they mistakenly believe it’s supposed to do. But poets hate it, too. Poetry is a paradigm example of human inadequacy.
In “Why Poetry?” (Ecco), out this summer, Matthew Zapruder defines a poet as a writer who is prepared “to reject all other purposes, in favor of the possibilities of language freed from utility.” Where people who are puzzled by poetry go wrong, he thinks, is in expecting poems to say something straightforward about life, to be useful. Poems are really about language—ultimately, about the impossibility of fixed meanings.
Lerner and Zapruder are successful mid-career poets. (So is Robbins, who has brought out two collections with Penguin.) Lerner is also well known for his novels, “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04.” Zapruder has published four collections of poetry and was the editor of the Times Magazine poetry page. We can add to their books David Orr’s “Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry,” which came out in 2011. The title states the problem. “I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems, or to write them,” Orr concludes. “I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful.” Not the most robust commendation—and Orr is the poetry critic of the Times Book Review.
How can it be the case that poems are ineffectual and self-absorbed ephemera when the Presidential election produced a Trump bump in the poetry world, when hundreds of people submit poems to a newspaper contest, when dozens of poetry anthologies are in print, and when a book-length poem sells two hundred thousand copies, a number reached by very few works of prose? What would count for writers like Lerner and Zapruder as a meaningful poem, or a poem that made a difference? It is almost as though a poem that actually communicated something to someone could not be a real poem. There seems to be a disconnect between the practice and the theory. Where did that come from?
Probably it’s as old as writing. What has long been presumed to be the earliest writing, the Sumerian tablets, comprises administrative records. But if people could write down factual stuff they could also write down made-up stuff, and there must have soon developed an account of the difference. That account would have explained how made-up stuff needs to be read differently from factual stuff, why made-up stuff has effects on us that factual stuff does not, and what sort of practical work, if any, fiction might be doing in our lives.
This distinction between fiction and nonfiction, whenever it dates from, but certainly, in the West, since Plato, has produced a heap of abstractions, and those abstractions are what I think these writers are getting hung up on. “Fiction” and “nonfiction” are made to operate as oppositely charged magnets attracting incompatible values. Nonfiction is logical; fiction is associative. Nonfiction is literal and truthful, fiction figurative and imaginary. Nonfiction is objective and communicates, but fiction is subjective and expresses. Fiction is supposed to represent not literal truth but a mysterious entity called “emotional truth.” Indeterminacy and obscurity are out of place in nonfiction but acceptable in fiction.
In this opposition, poetry sits at the extreme end, the mode of writing least like nonfiction. The consequence is a kind of inside-out justification for poems in which poetry beats nonfiction at its own game by refusing to play it. “He nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth,” Sir Philip Sidney famously wrote of the poet in “The Defense of Poesie,” and his is the model formulation. (“I have more just cause to make a pitiful defense of poor Poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning, is fallen to be the laughing stock of children,” Sidney began the “Defense.” It was posthumously published in 1595, around the time Shakespeare wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the year before Edmund Spenser published a large portion of “The Faerie Queene.” That was a pretty big disconnect.)
So Lerner offers conundrums like poetry’s “usefulness depends on its lack of practical utility,” and Zapruder describes a poem as “making meaning by failing to fully make meaning.” With poems, Zapruder says, “we get to a truth that is beyond our ability to articulate when we are attempting to ‘use’ language to convey our ideas or stories.” Poetry isn’t true, in the ordinary sense, but apparently that makes it truthier.
Do readers really need these distinctions? Ancient-world readers of Homer must have known how much of the Odyssey was fanciful and how much of it was true, and in what sense. Their notion of what mattered was undoubtedly different from ours, but we, too, can read the Odyssey for what it tells us—about social relations in the Mediterranean gift economy, for example.
The distinction between the fictional and the nonfictional is much blurrier in practice than it is in theory. Lerner says that we expect too much from poetry. That’s right, and we expect too much from nonfiction, too. Virtually all writing is parts literal and parts figural, parts “critical” and parts “creative.” And its ability to effect change in people’s personal or political lives has nothing to do with its degree of “fictionality.”
One of Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls “nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.” He says that this kind of poetry never existed. To which there is a one-word response: Dante. The Divine Comedy is a first-person poem about a man who suffers a crisis (“I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost”), which he resolves by undertaking an imaginary journey that he pretends has been made possible by the soul of a dead woman he loved. That poem, written in the vernacular in the fourteenth century, is still at the heart of national identity in Italy. As the Iliad and the Odyssey were for ancient Greece, and as the Aeneid was for Rome.
Lerner, to be fair, is mainly concerned with lyric poetry (another unstable category: is “The Waste Land” a lyric?). He argues that “there are no good examples of ‘superb lyric poems’ that at once ‘have something to say’ utterly specific to a poet’s ‘experience’ and can speak for all.” “Utterly” and “all” make for a narrow window—nothing is utterly one kind of thing, and no one speaks for all—but, even leaving aside the many lyric poets who, because of their bodies of work, became representative figures for a people or a nation, from Bashō to Yeats and Neruda, and even leaving aside the many lyric poets who were persecuted as threats to the regime, from Ovid to Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, there are plenty of lyric poems that are “utterly” personal and yet speak for many. One of the founding documents of African and Caribbean anticolonialism, Aimé Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” is a lyric poem. So is Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck,” an inspirational text for the women’s movement. It’s weird to think that these works don’t count.
All the poems in the anti-Trump collection “Resistance, Rebellion, Life” are lyrics, and many begin with a story that is utterly personal. Sharon Olds’s “Immigration Anthem” starts with her hip operation and ends on Ellis Island before the golden door:
entering through it was a promise to leave it
open behind us.
Zapruder is more hospitable to poems with political ambitions, and he discusses several, including one of the most controversial poems of the twenty-first century, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” on the attacks of September 11th. Zapruder calls the poem “glorious” and “problematic.” But he thinks that what makes it a poem are the questions it raises and cannot answer, rather than any points it might seek to make. “We find genuine questions everywhere in poetry because they direct the language away from certainty and stasis,” Zapruder explains. “In the best poems, often the poet does not know the answer.” The less confident Baraka is about what he thinks, in other words, the more poetic his poem.
“Unlike other forms of writing, poetry takes as its primary task to insist and depend upon and celebrate the troubled relation of the word to what it represents,” Zapruder claims. Some version of this notion—that, whatever the ostensible subject matter, poems are “about” language—has been current in English departments since the days of the New Criticism. Language is a profoundly mysterious technology, so constitutive of the human mind that we can only get glimpses, from inside the fishbowl of consciousness, of how it works. And the study of literary technique is a great way to explore the nature of language.
But here is the opening stanza of Frederick Seidel’s poem in “Resistance, Rebellion, Life,” called “Now”:
And you could say we’ve been living in clover
From Walt Whitman to Barack Obama.
Now a dictatorship of vicious spineless slimes
We the people voted in has taken over.
Once we’d abolished slavery, we lived in clover,
From sea to shining sea, even in terrible times.
“The troubled relation of the word to what it represents” is not what jumps out at me here.
The funny thing about the resistance all these writers put up to the idea that poems can change people’s lives is that every one of them had his life changed by a poem. I did, too. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I found a copy of “Immortal Poems of the English Language” in a book closet in my school. It was a mass-market paperback, and the editor, Oscar Williams, had judged several of his own poems sufficiently deathless to merit inclusion. But he was an excellent anthologist, and I wore that book out. It changed my life. It made me want to become a writer.
Robbins, Lerner, and Zapruder all tell pretty much the identical story about themselves. One day, almost inadvertently, they read a poem, and suddenly they knew that they had to become writers. They did, and it changed their lives. Later, they all wrote books about poetry. I read those books, and it changed my life. You read this piece about those books. Maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.
I started out as a poet, too, but I eventually realized that whatever my poems were expressing, it wasn’t me. They were too obsessed with looking like poems, I think—and sometimes they did, just poems that somebody else had written. I switched to nonfiction prose, and found, to my astonishment, that I could express myself much better by writing about things I had nothing to do with. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.)
But I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose that I did out of writing poetry—the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say. ♦