Poetry Chronicle

By Harris, Peter | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Poetry Chronicle


Harris, Peter, The Virginia Quarterly Review


DIFFICULT AND OTHERWISE: NEW WORK BY RUEFLE, YOUNG, AND ALESHIRE

BY PETER HARRIS

I wanted to write a poem that you would understand For what good is it to me if you can't understand it? But you got to try hard

-William Carlos Williams

Even before T. S. Eliot said that for poetry to be adequate to the dislocations of modernity it must be difficult, most people had already decided it was too difficult, too intimidating, too strange for them. And 80 years later, the fact is that, except for a tiny percentage of Americans, poetry survives only as Kiplingesque, inspirational verse in the occasional Ann Landers column and, of course, in manipulative greeting cards, pop songs, and advertisements. In other words, poetry as it is known and privileged in this quarterly review barely appears on the American radar screen, Bill Moyers' PBS specials notwithstanding. With few exceptions-the works of Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver spring first to mind-poetry is just too inaccessible, too damned difficult.

Does it have to be this way? Does poetry have to be so resolutely bent on "wringing lilies from the acorn," in Pound's phrase, that it leaves behind, for example, that group of people, many millions strong, who were trained in the liberal arts in colleges and who might well pay attention to poetry if they had a reasonable hope that it would speak directly to them, offer them a pleasing freshness and intensity of language, and move them emotionally even as it jujitsued them into insights they could "get"?

Many contemporary poets, and most contemporary theorists, would respond that if one's idea is to "get it" then one is not "getting it." Poetry should elude closure, embrace discontinuity, celebrate polyvalence. For them, the idea of catering to the illusive ideal of a "common reader" who has a need to "get it" is just another capitulation to the capitalist desire to own everything, high culture included. It is to escape this grasp that a large and increasing percentage of poets have embraced marginalization and are writing what Charles Bernstein, a prominent Language poet, has recently referred to as "local" poetry. For Bernstein, "local" means not "regional," as in "Buffalo, New York" but poetry that is written for those persons (and he is reconciled to the fact that there are not many) who know how to break a particular code. Shareholders of Bernstein's code are avant-garde literary theorists and politically radical literati. Bernstein writes amusing, challenging, disruptive poetry. Visit his famous web site and you will see that he employs a skyscraperean intellectual apparatus to contextualize his discontinuous verbal play. Bernstein's "Buffalo" poetry, and in a different and less radically stochastic way, the work of Jorie Graham and her followers at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, appeal to young, intellectually hip poets who accept "the death of the author" as a truism, and who applaud the demise of the hegemonic bourgeois mythology of self. They even write poetry that seems to prove such deaths and such demises. Paul Hoover's omnibus Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology is a good place to begin a survey of the field.

One prominent figure in that field is Leslie Scalapino. Among other things, her work explores how our culture leaves us metaphysically shorn, subjectively fragmented, isolated, loveless. It evokes our sunderedness by fractured narrative and unconventional syntax. Here's a not-unrepresentative passage, which appeared recently in American Poetry Review, from her forthcoming New Time:

people don't listen

a pair

(the corpse on the pair)

(to one) *

Distraction on the horizontal plain

but he doesn't want to listen

but not listening to it.

the adamant social being

is inner

reestablishing its separation

don't reestablish its separation, to listen Although we cannot tell from this passage or the surrounding text who "the pair" and "the corpse" are, this is not entirely incomprehensible. …

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