Academic journal article The Hudson Review

You Must Be Suffering from Poetry

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

You Must Be Suffering from Poetry

Article excerpt

You Must Be Suffering from Poetry

Poets grow old like everyone else, and often their ideas about poetry grow old too. They come to seem shabby or quaint, old fashioned or even antiquated. Occasionally shabby, quaint, and antiquated approaches to poetry, like Formalism, come back and get rebaptized with a Neo or a New and pass for a while as the opposite of what they are, the old masquerading as something fresh. Yet sometimes truly fresh ideas are promulgated through poems too; they may seem weird, unpoetic, ghastly, even illiterate. Pound's "Papyrus" surely sounded illiterate in its time. Olson's "The Kingfishers" must have seemed like a cypher, or at least a poem impossible to scry with the normal tools of the day, post-literate in a way though "postmodern" was the word its composer came up with. And today, as usual, there are young poets writing poems that seem to have little in common with what the established poets of all ages identify as poetry. Allen Ginsberg, and Mina Loy, and T. E. Hulme, and Blake, and Christopher Smart, and many others before him and them did the same. Cicero thought that Catullus was a semiliterate upstart crow.

Patricia Lockwood does not write poems that sound like anyone else, and her second collection, with its odd and neologistic title, will strike many readers as just too weird for words.1 Lockwood became famous for a prose poem entitled "Rape Joke" (collected in this book) and for a silly Tweet that pulled The Paris Reviews tail-a tail well worth pulling- to which the editors eventually responded with good humor. (It had to do with why The Paris Review had never reviewed Paris, the city. So they did.) In one of her poems, Lockwood refers to "language on my shoulder like / claws of a parrot," and that admission lies, I think, at the heart of her weirdness and her sometime success. Language gets ahold of her and makes her hurt, so she talks to abate her discomfort, usually about bizarre imaginings, including (and I want to stress that I am not making these up) so-called "tit-pics" of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, pornographic movies made by deer, and so on. She often ignores normal grammar although unexpectedly her lines can fall into discernible metrical patterns, sometimes for long enough that one begins to sense an unanticipated controlling voice behind the surreal and grody thematic material, a voice that seems most of the time to unspool like an improvisation. Here is a passage from the early portion of a poem entitled "Natural Dialogue Grows in the Woods":

The fresh and slangy

crows, who end every last word with the letter

A. Rats, say the mice in the woods, and What's

the fuckin difference, Dad? My PawPaw

always says, says the voice inside the fruit tree.

Good ears and great ears and even uncanny

are trembling here in the woods, perked everywhere

are ears for speech as it is spoke. Stiffies

of dialogue circle the trees and look for holes

in the conversation, and wait to get Red Riding

Hood as soon as she leaves the wild.

That first observation is rather nice: crows do end every sentence with an "A," but who ever noticed it in a poem until Lockwood did? Much of what follows, however, seems associative rather than necessary (from rats to mice, from Dad to Paw to fruit tree, etc.). The metaphor around "stiffies of dialogue" strikes me as unconvincing if not a bit silly. The poem goes on to end in a moment more emotional than linguistically goofy, when a couple, after making love in the forest, find their mouths "full / of the air of natural dialogue," and the question posed ("Can we stay here forever[?]") is a moving if perennial one. So this poem, like most of the poems in the collection, unnerves one with emotion and annoys one with a kind of post-adolescent logorrhea.

"Rape Joke," a long prose poem, garnered hundreds of comments when it was first published in the online magazine The Awl Readers, women largely, found it devastating, shattering, and powerful, and so it is. …

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