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.