Sunday, September 7, 2008

Temporary American Poetry?

We read different poets for different reasons. There are some I turn to (they tend to be old guys like Justice, Larkin, Auden) when I want a sense of solid ground, of comfort in high winds and waves. There are others I read when I have poetry block; for some reason, I can write fiction almost any time, but I have to be in a certain mental space to write anything resembling a decent poem. Reading Jorie Graham or August Kleinzahler often helps break me out of a prosaic tone that regularly threatens to creep in; the drive toward narrative is a tick on my belly every time I try to write a good lyric poem.

I read Campbell McGrath for pleasure, but also as part of an ongoing argument with myself about what cultural stuff belongs in poems. For some reason, poems that are filled with modern implements—the things we’re surrounded by right now—often turn me off. A poem that mentions Britney Spears, text-messaging, or Seinfeld may intrigue or amuse me, but I have yet to find such a piece that makes me want to go back and re-read it. All of these things are themselves, but in poems they’re often metaphors as well, and how long can they last as metaphors for anything but transience itself?

In college I had a used textbook called Contemporary American Poetry in which, on the title page, some wit had crossed out the first three letters of Contemporary. When I read poems that have such modern cultural minutia in them, that’s how they often feel to me: temporary. While we were in grad school, my then-boyfriend wrote me a gorgeous poem—delicate, restrained, yet passionate—but it mentioned the playing of a CD, and that word almost ruined it for me (he was kind enough later to change it to “album,” which helped—and now, sure enough, CDs are almost a dead reference point.)

I want to get the references in what I read. I know he’s a favorite of many, but John Ashbery’s a poet I’ve never been particularly fond of; many of his poems bar me right from the start with allusions to art or films I’ve never seen and have no charge or investment in. Yet Campbell McGrath uses the same baggage; his poems overflow with names and places and stuff. His book Pax Atomica, for example, contains a long poem called “Guns N’ Roses.” Yes, it’s about the band (or at least uses the band as a central image) and I really like it. It’s probably because recognize McGrath’s cultural baggage and have lived in it, where Ashbery’s seems like another planet.

I want to read (and write) something lasting, and it’s often hard to tell how much of right now will last. Yet what seems classic to us now was once tentative: Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is full of contemporary references. But it has lasted and is quoted regularly, in spite of the fact that few contemporary readers know “what occurred at Linz,” what Nijinsky wrote about Diaghilev, or even who Nijinsky or Diaghilev were. And on some level, I think my desire not to see cell phones or iPods or Donald Rumsfeld in poems is a ridiculous and maybe even harmful bias. Poets are regularly bemoaning how few people read poetry, but how many poets write poems that live in the world most people live in? Many poems I read seem a million miles from contemporary concerns and cultural touchstones. How can you tell trivia from culture, especially when much culture is trivia and there’s less and less of a difference between high art and pop? The line becomes more porous by the day; it’s almost become an irrelevant fiction.

Besides, who says something has to last forever to be good? Why do I have a bias insisting art has to be like Michaelangelo’s David—still standing centuries from now? Not only is it a standard most art will fail to reach, it fails to acknowledge that something ephemeral can have it’s own particular merit and bring, in the moment it’s viewed or read, all the pleasures of more lasting art. Given that everything is fragmented now, why try to build cathedrals? No one goes to cathedrals anymore. People go to the movies, the drive-thru, the grocery store. People go to Subway.

And on that note, here’s one of my favorites from McGrath’s Pax Atomica: funny, gross, utterly now (and on some level, I think, about the tension between high and low culture). You have to love a poem that includes both sandwiches and Wittgenstein. And while the sandwich chain may go out of business at some point (potential headline: “Subway Announces It Will Close 300 Stores; Jared Swells to 300 Pounds”), I would wager more Americans have interacted with Subway this year than they have with Wittgenstein. What’s lasting? And to whom?


Consider the human capacity for suffering,
our insatiable appetite for woe.
I do not say this lightly
but the sandwiches at Subway
suck. Foaming lettuce,
mayo like rancid bear grease,
meat the color of a dead dog’s tongue.
Yet they are consumed
by the millions
and by the tens of millions.
So much for the food. The rest
I must pass over in silence.


Maggie May said...

great blog, i like that poem. it may not make a huge emotional impact but the tone is great.

Anonymous said...

i think the only thing to do is write about things that resonate with you. if a writer feels some vital connection to cellphones, they he/she should go with that. there may have been a lot of poems about linz that didn't last, but auden found the transcendent in the immediate. partly because he cared and partly because he is brilliant. i like the way mcgrath uses Subway in this poem. its meaning would be clear to a martian. ... there is very little outside my garden that resonates with me and this is a problem.
-- moose

Anonymous said...

carrie: please allow me an additional thought about cultural references. a writer is lucky if she lives in an interesting time and place. george eliot in 1990s cleveland might not be the equal of george eliot in 1880s london. frank o'hara's 1950s new york poetry, bursting with contemporary references, retains the boppish verve of that time and place. i think his poetry sags when he crosses into the '60s.
so unless a writer travels to vital spot of the day (shanghai, nairobi in 2008?), she is somewhat at the mercy of forces other than pure talent -- fate, luck? had shakespeare lived in bangkok in the late 1700s, would he have written anything memorable?
-- twice a moose

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Tagged for a meme.

molly said...

i was on a plane yesterday and amidst all the crap that our present culture entails (not just security but also having 5 minutes to find some food in the airport and then having to wolf down a whopper between boarding the plane and take-off) and the no leg room and crying babies, etc, i actually saw two of the most beautiful landscapes i've ever seen (and i've seen a few): a green mountain range in early morning with clouds precisely following the valleys, and then the salt lake and salt flats with the whites and burgundies and mauves blending together... i don't know if the contrast of the airplane culture actually made it more beautiful for me but i certainly would never have been able to experience those views without having gotten on the plane in the first place.

M. C. Allan said...

molly: you managed to capture the exact kind of poetry I want to write: one that incorporates no legroom on airplanes and Whoppers and misty mountain landscapes, and acknowledges how they relate to each other, and the gradual eating of the latter by the former :)

Angela said...

This is such a great topic. I agree with Moose. It seems like what is memorable and lasting in literature is what resonates with us emotionally. Paul said he heard in a writing class once that he should get started by writing "one true thing." I love that. If the destruction of one's soul through Blackberry-use is one true thing, it's probably worth writing about. I've often wanted to write about corporate life in a fictional way. In the past, I thought of corporate life as untouchable in terms of art or literature, but given it's a good 85 percent of my living, breathing space, I question that assumption and wonder if I could render it in a memorable, meaningful way.

M. C. Allan said...

I think there are a lot of people who've managed to render corporate life meaningfully in fiction ("Then We Came to The End" is a great recent example of that -- Ang, you would dig that book!).

For some reason, it seems harder to do in poetry? The closest thing I've seen to poetry that captures modern "corporate" life (as opposed to "blue collar" work which somehow seems laden with physical objects and scenes that make it rich for mining in a way that cubicles do not) is a book called "A Working Girl Can't Win," by Deborah Garrison. Much of it is very good, recognizable, but a lot of it left me cold for reasons I can't entirely explain or justify, given that it was SO recognizable.

My weird biases about not wanting to read about cell phones and Blackberries doesn't follow me all the way to fiction; if a book is good, those things just heighten the sense of reality. I don't know why that is, exactly! The tricky thing about writing about corporate life -- or one of them, anyway -- seems to be writing ABOUT something dull and often soul-sucking without creating a piece that feels dull and soul-sucking! :)

Angela said...

So true! Good point about poetry vs. fiction. I hope to produce a short novel one day portraying corporate America that steers clear of dull and soul-sucking. The thing about it is that there are so many amazing stories within the confines of the cubicle and the carpet. The arch of the dull life can be incredibly heartbreaking and uplifting. Rabbit Run!

Lewis said...

Don't reference culture unless it helps. if it doesn't help, it's just damn nauseating. usually you can get your point across with ten times the emotional clarity by using something that doesn't specifically reference modern "culture," and after all, who would want to bring into poetry that which continually permeates television, much less movies, magazines, and popular tripe? unless you think those things constitute your reality. but i don't think you do. keep your shit pure. you will be thanked in the long run.