Dispatches is a series on our blog in which our writers-in-residence, Joan Leegant and Kary Wayson, discuss topics that come up often during their office hours. Want to make an appointment with Kary? Simply email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Poetry, More or Less
by Kary Wayson
I came to poetry like most of us, in my adolescence—when my huge feelings were more enormous than I could bear. As a writer, I’ve always wanted to devastate; and as a reader, be devastated—then as now. I’ve always wanted poems (the ones I read and the ones I write) to be born out of a vaulting ambition toward greatness—the success or failure of the poem is another story—but anything less than a try for greatness just seems like, well, less. This is what I tell my students and mentees in meetings and in class: as a poet, your ambition must be grand—the urge toward poems comes out of crisis—the thing that can’t be said must be said. As Allen Grossman puts it, “Poetry is the language of last resort.” And I have always championed that characterization wholeheartedly.
However, lately I’ve been experiencing great pleasure in another kind of poetry—i.e. contemporary poetry of the sort that I’m going to call Post-Epiphanic. What I mean by that is this: If, for instance, Rilke’s Ur-poem, the capital-G-Great Torso of Apollo, brings me (the reader) to the verge of divinity (it does) and then demands that I change my life (I must), then this other, super-contemporary (I mean hot off the presses) poetry we’ve been seeing lately seems to concern itself with what happens after the epiphany, when nothing really changes and we continue on in our ways through our days.
As an example, I’m going to use Rachel Zucker’s most recent publication, The Pedestrians. Two weeks ago, I read it from cover to cover in one sitting. As a life-long reader of poems, that’s an experience relatively new to me—though I’ve experienced it more and more often in the past six months—most notably (and pleasurably) with Ed Hirsch’s Gabriel, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Ariana Reines’s Coeur de Leon. That I’ve been able to easily sit and focus, to spend a couple hours at a time raptly reading page after page of these poets’ work, is certainly not due to any increased quality or ability of attention on my part. (If anything, I feel I’m a reader and a writer whose attention span is actually, daily damaged by the internet.) No, it’s the easy-to-read, by which I mean easy-to-follow, almost prose-like quality of these poems that seems to enable me to read a collection cover to cover. Here’s a little Zucker, from a poem called “i do not like your job,” an excerpt that characterizes well the tone and the content of the work in her book:
… I like the way this poet writes
about his wife I like a man hot for his wife I like
a man w/ a guitar on stage that’s someone’s job
but ‘hot for his wife’ isn’t a profession not yours
anyway that’s why I hate your job
I love this little end-bit of a longer poem, the whole of which I admire as well. It’s easy to read, conversational in tone, broken smartly, and does express well one aspect of the difficulty of marriage. But while the poem does come out of a kind of crisis, it’s a bearable crisis, a quotidian crisis—the book is called The Pedestrians, after all. This work doesn’t deploy the speech of last resort. It does not aspire to call out to the heavens, ask a question that can’t be answered, change a life, or crack the planet in two. And yet of course it’s poetry, good poetry, successful poetry—the book holds up well after a second and third reading too.
Like Zucker, I have no bomb nor the desire to detonate one here. I can say honestly that I have neither the authority for nor the interest in coming to a qualitative conclusion about contemporary poetic styles—maybe I hope I never do. My point here is not just that there are different modes of poetry, or that we respond to each mode differently, but that I’m surprised to so admire a poetry that doesn’t seek to alter me in any grand way. As an adult, I live more and more out from under the overhang of emotional crisis, though I do still crave it in some essential way. But is it poetry’s job now to bring me to crisis (by which I mean joy as well as grief)? As a reader and a writer I think I’m in the process of outgrowing that urge, or at least I’ve stepped to the side of it for the time being. Poetry’s one way to experience the world, so much of which resides in the mundane.