Poets have long memories. They recall poets of the past, famous and obscure, read them, imitate them, and keep them from being completely forgotten. It sometimes seems as if every poet who has ever lived is still our contemporary. To a greater or lesser degree, poetry written in any historical period is an amalgam of traditions. This appears to be the case today more than it ever was in the past. After a century of innovation and an immense amount of translation, there’s nothing homogeneous about American poetry—if there ever was. There are still followers of Frost, W.C. Williams, and Stevens around, but they have to compete with East European, Latin American, and Chinese poets. Now even the Greek and Roman classics are revered once again. With all the scavenging among moderns and ancients, it is no longer easy to stick labels on poets. This makes it tough on those who like to know what they are getting and joy for those who don’t mind being surprised now and then.
This chaotic state of American poetry may seem like a recent development, but it isn’t. Already in 1929, summing up a decade of verse in The Bookman, Allen Tate worried that the new poets had not been able to make a single native tradition. “Their performance,” he writes,
is thus more varied, and it lacks the sustaining force of a common idea. It lacks utterly the belief in a united America. The poets of our own time have not been able to organize a school that could advertise itself as representative of the whole country.
Reading Rosanna Warren, August Kleinzahler, and C.K. Williams, I’d have to agree, without shedding any tears. Our poets are less interested than ever in legitimizing their practices from a nationalist standpoint. As Tate says, there are—at the very least—several different Americas out there, not one of which contains all the values of the whole and any one of which, in respect to the whole, may seem incoherent. That makes every poet a heretic of sorts. It accounts for the antithetical ideas of poetry one encounters in these books, all capable in their own way of giving us a memorable poem.
Rosanna Warren was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1953. Departure is her fourth book of poems and her strongest. In addition to her poetry, she has translated Euripides and Max Jacob, and has edited a book on the art of translation. Her poems tend to be set pieces; she picks a subject the way a painter arranges some apples and pears on a plate or has a model pose in a favorite chair. Accordingly, there are poems that come from passages in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, one on Max Beckmann’s triptych Departure, and others on a story by Colette and a painting by Bonnard. The longest poem, the deliciously comic and entertaining “Intimate Letters,” is made up of quotes from the correspondence of the composer Leos Janácek and Kamila Stosslova, a young married woman who became the muse and passion of his later years. One may make a case that what interests Warren the most is the quality of the writing rather than her subject matter. This doesn’t sound like the most promising way to make a poem breathe life, but there is no rule that says it cannot be done. Here’s a poem of hers based on the opening lines of Book XI of Virgil’s Aeneid that, despite some problems, is still a splendid piece of writing:
Dawn had brought, meanwhile—always
the story happens mean-
while, during nights of sorrow and sore muscles, days
on the mountain cutting pine,
ash, cedar, oak—dawn had brought
light: dawn cracked the pitcher and
spilled that white-and-blue-sheen earliness out
over no-man’s land,
over ditches, stumps, tents, middens, and the tiresome
stacked dead, already foul.
Men in sogged light, moving, unmoving, a sum
gradually visible. To haul
one corpse, one foot, one line after another
onto the hacked logs—we
set stiff shoulders to stiffened limbs, pile fodder
onto pyres until we see
the spark catch and stack after stack go up
in black flame. And then the dizzy
circling of each fire, by custom, the tossing in of sword, cup,
helmet, bridle: easy,
repetitive once the flinging starts. Roman epic is painted
in black fire on black ground.
When the rhythm holds, anything burns on those canted
lines: oxen, swine, the stunned
still bleeding human victims, hands tied
behind their backs. The hero’s
head aches, his lungs sear as he stands aside
and greasy smoke billows.
Fire by now has consumed an entire day.
Men wet earth and armor with tears.
Another tedious meanwhile is opening in the story.
Night comes on, distributing smutted stars.
One can see the deliberate way in which the poem has been composed with every alliteration and line break painstakingly in place. There’s much to admire here; still I wish Warren’s diction was a little more varied. I wish there was a bit less decorum in a poem that deals with slaughter. “When the rhythm holds” in an epic poem, horrors beyond belief keep being served to the reader with an air of nonchalance. The ancients already worried about the terrifying power of poets who allotted themselves the right to be the guardians of tribal memory, exalting or debasing the suffering mortals at their pleasure while casually interjecting their “meanwhiles” as they related some heroic deed or some atrocity. The stars at the end of Warren’s poem are not just black and dirty from funeral pyres; they are the shameless, smutty-minded voyeurs of the universal carnage.
As is true of even some of the best poets, Warren’s collections are more memorable for their individual poems than as books. This is true of Departure, which has some very fine poems. I would include among them a moving poem about her mother, “Island in the Charles,” the one about a Colette story, “L’Oiseau de nuit,” others called “Nightshade,” “March Snow,” “August Walk,” “For Trakl,” “Piazza Pilo,” and “Portrait: Marriage.” The weakest group are her “translations” of a French poet, Anne Verveine, who, according to a biographical note, lived obscurely in Paris, worked as a designer for a small publisher, and disappeared while hitchhiking in Uzbekistan. She is completely imaginary. Other poets have played at literary imposture in order to try on other identities and get away from their habitual way of writing. The most famous case is that of the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa, in the last century, who had four poetic personas, each with his own name and distinctive style. Warren squanders the opportunity. Anne Verveine is neither a credible character nor does she make her a sufficiently interesting poet.
Warren is most persuasive in poems that are least calculated. When she simply describes a view from her window, a walk in the country, or, as in this poem, a brief but revealing moment between a woman and a man, its nuances are so accurately rendered that one regrets there are no more poems with this kind of wit and bite in her book:
When you turned to me—you in bed, still sleepwarm, against
I across the room, skirt zipped, stockings on—
And you asked, so quietly,
“Was that a truthful answer?”
and outside our narrow third-storey window
the Norway maple was poking odd thumbs into the sky
and a skim milk early morning light leaked down the street,
down front porch steps, around grimed collars of snowbanks,
and the oval Victorian mirror of my dresser
reflected all that, with odd angles of rooflines, gutters, chimneys
jutting into its peripheral vision,
your question cut
like a knife so sharpened it
slices clean and the surprised flesh doesn’t know for a moment
how to bleed,
and I answered, after a pause
in which the strangeness felt like a form of love,
It is my impression that August Kleinzahler is not as well known in this country as he deserves to be. The Strange Hours Travelers Keep is his ninth collection of poetry. He was born in Jersey City in 1949 and went to high school in New York City and to college in Wisconsin and at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where he studied with the English poet Basil Bunting. He has worked as a cab driver, a lumberjack, and a locksmith in Alaska, Montreal, and San Francisco, where he now makes his home. Even in his poems he is always on the move. Erudite, restless, intellectually curious, alert to what goes on around him from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning, he brings to mind Frank O’Hara. What they have in common is the belief that modern poetry partakes of the same sensibility as modern art, music, movies, and the anarchy of the cities. In such poetry, fun and play are as important as ideas are.
“The American reality is material, mental, visual, and above all verbal,” Octavio Paz observed in an essay on W.C. Williams. Other poets begin with an idea or something they’ve seen. Kleinzahler begins with something he has heard. For him, poetry is primarily made in the mouth, and so is reality. He learned his craft from Pound, W.C. Williams, Bunting, and Lorine Neidecker, who all taught him the art of compression and how to get the most out of colloquial language. This poem of his from an earlier book, Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, shows how that works:
The old people are dying,
they’re falling apart piece by piece
like vintage Studebakers,
but the docs keep pumping diuretics and Prednisone
into them, doing valve jobs,
so it’s slow, terribly slow.
They’re talking tumor,
they are talking colon and biopsy
over biscuit tortoni and tea.
are butchers, and as for the kids—
selfish insensitive little shits.
Look at Sinatra and Reagan,
dewlaps trembling in the wee small hours,
glued to I Love Lucy reruns
as the Secret Service men doze.
They own cliffs and enormous stretches
of desert, those two—
shopping centers, distilleries.
Lucy is dead, boys, give it up:
Desi, the Duke and Ava,
even little Sammy’s
All the great ones, the class acts,
taking their bows
It takes a sense of humor to hear properly how people talk. In a literature such as ours where self-absorption is overvalued, Kleinzahler, uncharacteristically, is more interested in others than in himself. “How oddly content, these dogs of the homeless, asleep at their feet,” he starts a poem. Satire is his preferred mode of discourse and yet he has a compassionate eye. Humanity is a comic role for him as it was for Novalis. Besides, he has too much imagination to be comfortable with a single viewpoint. His poems come in many styles. The wonderful mixture of serious and comic tone, of literary rhetoric and street talk in the new book, shows he has been reading Catullus, Juvenal, and Propertius. Here, for instance, is Catullus burning with love for a girl in 100 BC or thereabouts in Robert Mezey’s brilliant translation:
Ipsithilla, my pet, my favorite dish,
Plump, wanton little rabbit, how I wish
You’d bid me join you for the noonday nap
And let me spend this scorcher in your lap.
How does that sound? Make sure no man nor mouse
Opens your little gate. Don’t leave the house…
What is it about these old Romans that makes them so modern? Is it that they were the first city poets? Or is it subject matter, the heartening discovery that in matters of love and sex their troubles were no different from ours? Yes and no. There’s something else that comes across, a tone of voice, a spirit of irreverence, a weariness with literary clichés, and the new-found understanding that when it comes to poetry my beloved’s rosy toes count for more than all of Caesar’s military campaigns. This is the manner Kleinzahler’s after in a poem called “Epistle VIII”:
It’s simply untrue, Maecenas, that I do not care for nature.
A vile canard: I do, but not unadorned. I need architecture, streets,
and, not least, the human form, to frame, contrast and ornament.
A birch among a sea of birches does not enchant.
Rather, give me a birch, say, over there in the moonlight,
to the left of the belvedere, by itself or part of a small stand,
with ample space around to show off its charms to advantage.
Hey, now, spare me the decadent and jaded bit, old dear.
You like your little Claudia’s tits and ass all the better
when they’re showcased and partially hid by those ribbons of silk.
This lengthy poem makes fun of rustic enthusiasm and rhapsodies to nature that rich men and American poets both affect. It is also an ars poetica, Kleinzahler’s defense of urban poetry. Birdsong is marvelous stuff, he says, especially when it serves as an overture to cocktails. In fact, it is as good as the music of Bartók and Thelonious Monk. A cold front coming over any old hill is no big deal. There’s more poetry and excitement in storm clouds over a skyscraper than in being driven mad dodging blackflies and rattlers on some country road. Unlike many satirists, Kleinzahler is not a moralist. He doesn’t believe that if our attention is drawn to some foolish behavior, we may be shamed into mending our ways.
There are poems in the book about high school bands in football season, the tunnel of love, the Hereafter (which he compares to a union hall in South Milwaukee), a Chinese restaurant, and the history of the Tartars. One amusing group is called “A History of Western Music.” Kleinzahler used to write a column for the San Diego Weekly Reader on every kind of music from country to opera and it shows. Gustav Mahler and Liberace are here and so are scores of other performers, composers, and eccentrics. Finally, here’s a poem about a feminist writer who made a bundle telling the whole world how badly her parents and her husband mistreated her:
LAVINIA, SI PLACET
Enough, enough then, Lavinia, stop.
They were nearly children themselves at your start,
neither rich, attractive nor terribly smart.
Now, what small fame and money you’ve got
has been purchased at the expense of those very same two
who nursed, kept and soothed you, dandled
and sang to you, and now keep your latest volume
and press clippings close by to show friends
what their own little Lavinia has come to.
Sure, it all went bad fast after you hit 12
but, truth is, you were never a bargain.
It only follows you’re a hideous adult.
Your incessant whining about Mommy’s hard heart
and Daddy’s vile…
God, I can’t bear to trot it all out—
has fetched you prize after prize, sinecures
on charming old campuses with trellises and shrubs.
But worse, worse still, you’ve gone and turned on Mark,
just like the parents you exhausted once,
then, as a subject, exhausted again.
Yes, Mark, who kissed and indulged you, opened his heart,
only to have you pick up your pen to write
about his belligerent penis…
Lavinia, I beseech you, when will it all stop?
Your renown at this metastasizes unchecked
as you devour everyone, anyone, near to you,
nourishing yourself then passing the rest.
C.K. Williams, who won the National Book Award this fall for The Singing, is another New Jersey poet. He was born in Newark in 1936 and has lived in Philadelphia, Paris, and Princeton, where he teaches. In addition to fourteen books of his own poetry, he has translated The Bacchae of Euripides, Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (with Gregory Dickerson), and the poetry of Francis Ponge (with John Montague and Margaret Guiton) and Adam Zagajewski (with Renata Gorczynski and Benjamin Ivry). His Selected Poems, published in 1994, in my view, is one of the strongest and most original books of poems of the last few decades.
Like many of his contemporaries, Williams was influenced by European and South American modernist poets when he started out. There’s a fair amount of surrealism in his early collections, Lies (1969) and I Am the Bitter Name (1972), but it comes with hard- nosed realism and a social conscience. In his early books, Williams is a poet of rundown neighborhoods, greasy spoons, gas stations, semi-abandoned children, Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs, miserable women married to unhappy men.
There are poets who strive to distance poetry from prose as much as possible with often disastrous results. Not Williams. Early on, he started using a line in his poems that is so long it runs past the margin of the page. Whitman and Ginsberg both have long lines, but one can still hear a ghost of traditional prosody now and then. Williams’s line is closer to prose. It challenges the axiom that conciseness is the soul of poetry. In its place, he devises a line that allows for a great amount of descriptive detail and relies on alliteration, repetition, and line breaks to create its own cadence. This is what that looks like and sounds like in the first four stanzas of a poem, “Dominion: Depression,” from his book The Vigil, published in 1997. He is describing locusts mating:
I don’t know what day or year of their secret cycle this blazing golden afternoon might be,
but out in the field in a shrub hundreds of pairs of locusts are locked in a slow sexual seizure.
Hardly more animate than the few leaves they haven’t devoured, they seethe like a single being,
Limbs, antennas, and wings all tangled together as intricately as a layer of neurons.
Always the neat, tight, gazeless helmet, the exoskeleton burnished like half-hardened glue;
Always the abdomen twitched deftly under or aside, the skilled rider, the skillfully ridden.
One male, though, has somehow severed a leg, it sways on the spike of a twig like a harp:
he lunges after his female, tilts, falls; the mass horribly shudders, shifts, realigns….
The psychology of everyday experience is Williams’s subject. Poetry for him is a branch of phenomenology, a search for truth. He has a passion for accuracy. In poem after poem he describes meticulously, but he is just as interested in the mind doing the describing. “It is my observation,” he writes in an essay,
that one of the major activities of the mind is the constant, incessant and terrifically rapid production of image. I mean by image those mental pictures that exist aside from, or rather along with, but as it were behind, the images received by sense.
It is the makeup of the inner life, the structure of consciousness, the act of perception, and the act of imagining that are his recurring concern. All of these, of course, are interlinked, as in this poem from one of his best books, Flesh and Blood (1987):
A much-beaten-upon-looking, bedraggled blackbird, not a starling, with a mangled or tumorous claw,
an extra-evil air, comically malignant, like something from a folktale meant to frighten you,
gimps his way over the picnic table to a cube of moist white cheese into which he drives his beak.
Then a glister of licentious leering, a conspiratorial gleam, the cocked brow of common avarice:
he works his yellow scissors deeper in, daring doubt, a politician with his finger in the till,
a weapon maker’s finger in the politician, the slobber and the licking and the champ and click.
It is a lovely day, it always is; the innocent daylight fades into its dying, it always does.
The bird looks up, death-face beside the curded white, its foot, its fist of dying, daintily raised.
The new collection, The Singing, and the previous one, Repair (1999), which won the Pulitzer Prize, both contain wonderful poems. They are now written in both long and short lines. There’s something else too. Williams has become more and more didactic. This tendency was always present in his work, but not to the degree that it has become recently. Warren and Kleinzahler trust the reader to find the meaning of their poem; Williams wants to make sure the reader has not missed any of the implications of what he just said. To accomplish this, he sets the poetry aside, as it were, and speaks to the reader directly. For example, the poem “Leaves” starts by describing in the first stanza a pair of leaves spinning on one another in wild erratic patterns over a frozen field so that it’s hard to tell one from another and whether, if they happened to be creatures, they’d be in combat or courting or just exalting. Unfortunately, he doesn’t leave that already telling image alone. “Humans can be like that,” he continues in the second stanza,
not often enough in exalting, but courting, yes,
and combat; so often in combat, in rancor, in rage,
we rarely even remember what error or lie
set off this phase of our seeming to have to slaughter.
Williams is a smart man, so most of his opinions are valid enough, but he sabotages his poems by insisting that they work both as lyrics and as editorials. Even with these reservations, there are masterful poems in the book. I like “The Singing,” “Scale: I,” “Scale: II,” “Sully: Sixteen Months,” “War,” “Night,” and parts of “Of Childhood the Dark.” Williams’s ability to describe continues to be extraordinary and so is his gift for telling a story. In an essay written some years back in which he complains about the contemporary novel’s lack of vision, he inadvertently conveys the effect some of his best poems have. What he means by vision, he says, is a kind of radiance in life, a radiance that posits the ability to exist at least for some moments in a state of beauty. It’s an experience of amplitude that asks for nothing beyond itself and has no need of metaphysical underpinnings although it may partake of the religious emotion. Here then is part one of a poem in five parts, “Lessons,” that seems to me to do just that by saying what needs to be said and leaving the rest unsaid, so that the poem may continue to live in the imagination of a reader until all its obvious and not-so-obvious meanings reveal themselves:
When I offered to help her and took the arm
of the young blind woman standing
seemingly bewildered on my corner,
she thanked me, disengaged my hand
and tucked one of hers under my elbow
with a forthright, somehow heartening firmness;
we walked a few blocks to the subway
and rode awhile in the same direction;
she studied history, she told me, then here
was my stop, that’s all there was time for.
March 11, 2004