One big intervention modern poetry made was to change our sense of the word “song,” which for aeons was a relatively uncomplicated synonym for “poem.” Surely poets couldn’t simply “sing” in the midst of war, chaos, historical belatedness, mass production, bottomless anxiety—all the bad things that supposedly came into the world after the moment in 1910 when, as Virginia Woolf put it, “human character changed.” It was about that time that the onslaught of anti-songs began: Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Pound’s discordant Cantos, Frost’s “The Oven Bird” who knows “in singing not to sing.” The definitive anti-song of modernism was probably William Carlos Williams’s “A Sort of a Song,” with its battle cry “No ideas/ but in things”:
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
“Compose” is what musical composers do, of course, but its older sense is “to put together,” to build, to construct. The “words” of a poem shouldn’t be chosen to please the ear, but to ambush reality: “slow and quick, sharp/to strike, quiet to wait,/sleepless.” Nearly every writer of the era had a formulation of this kind. For Marianne Moore, the motto was “capacity for fact”; Wallace Stevens implored his muse to sing “accurate songs.” Frost writes, in a letter, of the need for “flat and final words,” words “become deeds, as in ultimatums and battle cries.”
American poets tend to want the benefits of song—its emotionality, its melodiousness—without its costs: its triviality, its obliviousness, its feyness. This conflict drives Michael Ruby’s American Songbook, whose title reminds us that we have no body of popular American poems to match the body of American songs, by the Gershwins and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and many others, whose tunes and lyrics many people know by heart. Ruby’s book presents his own poems, some of them loosely connected with popular songs. What would “Love for Sale,” the Porter tune Ella Fitzgerald made famous, sound like as a difficult postmodern poem? Here is the opening of Ruby’s “Love for Sale,” dedicated by him to Ella Fitzgerald:
The only sound empty street
defeats sight force
pail (of milk
I peacock throne open shop to a small group
moon of gazing down
draughts the lit tunnel
wayward town of
I peacock throne go toys to work on vanishing
This is “composed,” more in William Carlos Williams’s sense than in Porter’s, out of noirish bits of city life, rank with desire. The composition shatters; parentheses don’t close, “shops” are “open” only to a “small group,” nobility, in the form of those “thrones,” is “peacocked” for effect: throne, thrown away.
Ruby’s poems are “American songs” in their transformation of tune into “sound,” noise, traffic, as well as in their loneliness (he calls to mind Edward Hopper and the early Eliot of “Preludes,” with his aromatic “smell of steaks in passageways” at the “burnt-out ends of smoky days”). They are also, in their broken way, up-to-date, streetwise: Ruby has a day job as a news editor at The Wall Street Journal. His take on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” hollers out to potential patrons:
Set me free Simon Superman
Get out my life
Set me free
from the monstrous
That’s Simon Guggenheim, whose foundation has set many a poet temporarily free; “Superman” is both the caped crusader and, I suspect, Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker whose documentary about public schools was called Waiting for “Superman.”
Ruby describes himself as an “experimental poet,” a designation that has come to identify a style—his style, more or less—rather than denoting actual experimentation. The open-endedness, the splayed language, the concrete sense of the page as a surface where words get fastened and pinned. Occasionally the lugubriousness of these once spritely gestures interferes with Ruby’s music. Talismans of the surreal (eyeballs, asylums) crop up in the adorable way they sometimes do when pop stars strike a “literary” note. There’s a little too much blackface for me in poems that, to be fair, are always conscious of the history of white people impersonating black people, for profit, in American music. But we all know the experience of no longer being able to hear a song we once loved and overplayed. Ruby has taken those familiar tunes, improvised his own, weird mental accompaniments, and, at his best, made them audible again. Not as songs, but as sort-of-songs.
The Irish poet Nick Laird’s brilliantly titled new book is Go Giants, his third. Laird has his own anxious relationship to music, which he explores in the untitled poem printed as an envoy before the title page:
Poetry, they’re pretty sure you’re not worth knowing,
fit for nothing, broken; that any mystery in language
perfected by its music’s just a mockery, a joke;…
a series of temples raised to pretexts or a pimped-
out souped-up pussy-magnet; is anyway soaked
as a bandage and see-through; a piece of plastic
crap or encrypted chat, some intimate nightmare,
and they want you put to a phone-in vote…I don’t.
The poem goes on to find poetry “mooching round the back/of the loading dock,” a little like Ginsberg’s Walt Whitman in “A Supermarket in California,” whom Ginsberg found “poking/among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” Laird’s embodied “poetry” is instead “smoking/a rollie and eyeing the maggots writhing below/like disco rice….”
Go Giants is a book about rooting for something, anything, now that the comforts of religious belief are, for Laird as for many of us, nonexistent. If we can’t be pilgrims (Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an important presence throughout this book), we’d better be fans of something, a team, a pop star, an author. The trappings of modern fandom are surveyed in the lines above: groupies (“pussy-magnet”), the “merch” or merchandise found outside the arena, near the concessions (“a piece of plastic crap”), online “chat” and gossip, and the “phone-in votes” that anoint our new reality TV stars. Poets in this day and age enjoy very few such luxuries, needless to say. Poetry is their payday; poetry itself is the “flawed compensation for our having/just the one go,” a compensation paid later, by other poets, once “the one go” is over and we have gone.
Writing poetry, for Laird, is an imperative whose terms are blurry, an urgent but aimless drive. The title poem is made up entirely of these kinds of directives—self-canceling but unyielding:
Go go gadget legs. Go right. Go left.
Go wrong. Go west. Go down to the sea
in ships. Go down to the river and pray.
Go fish. Go first. Go forth and multiply.
Go in now and say goodbye. Go blind.
Go deaf. Go short. Go long. Go to press.
The poem continues on this way for thirty lines, occasionally registering irritation with us or with itself (“Go fuck yourself”). Rooting and writing are combined for a poet who finds in America, his adopted home, that even genocides can be reenacted as sport:
Go Cowboys. Go Redskins. Go naked.
Go to ground. Go ahead. Go abroad.
Go to grass. Go slack. Go all ironic.
Go down in a blaze of. Go Titans.
Go for the sake of. Go Saints.
Go fly a kite. Go against. Go gaga.
The Titans (who were giants, themselves) have to “go” in one sense—overthrown by the Olympians—before we can root for them (thus “go” in the other). The poem is an elegy for everything that hastens offstage: once the “Saints” of Laird’s lapsed Catholicism go, a part of us goes with them.
The inkling of mortality is everywhere in this book; it results both in a high seriousness about living up to the poetries of the past and a high comedy about feeling that you couldn’t possibly. Laird has here a fine example of an emerging genre, the poem that says everything you can’t say to your students in a creative writing class, called “The Workshop.” It is a loose rendering of a poem by Juvenal:
Her turgid sonnets.
I will have my revenge,
and if I can’t explain
precisely why I
do prefer to circumvent
the course our fathers,
those great nurslings,
drove their exhausted
steeds across, believe me,
something is coming.
Nightly I walk the strand
against the wind
and watch for it.
The “course” of writing poems free of institutions has become a “course” whose haggard students turn out only bad sonnets and lifeless villanelles. The fathers were all, once, nurslings; Laird worries he has short-circuited that proud line by spoon-feeding, and being spoon-fed, within the confines of this “workshop.” The “something” coming is death, which even tenure cannot defeat.
The title of Laird’s book cannot but bring to mind the New York Giants (Laird lives much of the time in New York, and teaches at Princeton, some fifty miles from the Giants’ stadium at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey). Trivia buffs will note that this is at least the second appearance of the Giants in a book of poems in the last twenty years, the first occurring in Louise Glück’s Meadowlands. I suspect American football seems odd to Laird, even down to its being called “football”; at any rate, the extreme horizontality of a football field stretching out to the goal, or a country stretching out to the west (another kind of goal) gives Laird his primary imaginative axis.
But the best poem in the book, Laird’s best poem ever, is the long poem at its close. “Progress” is about the privations and delights of the vertical axis, the axis of prayer and wonder. The poem has an epigraph from Pilgrim’s Progress; it is written in Dantean tercets, with little subtitles, lifted from Bunyan’s text, corresponding to the stations of the journey. Here are its first two sections:
(City of Destruction)
One thing I don’t get used to is looking up
and seeing nothing, the heavens as gaunt
as a blanket thrown over a birdcage but
last night, back home, whole galaxies festooned
the sky outside my room, a few fields
and a stream and a deep lane from O’Neill’s
old bawn, and a mile outside the market town
whose industries are matching; manufacturing
cement and processing the animals to meat.
Down in the yard the Jack Russell barked
her co-ordinates out to an atmosphere
flecked like emery paper, the finest grade,
that whets the seriffed aerials and steeples,
sands carriageways and pastures flat. We
were warned not to deal with infinity
face to face: the icy bodies, the fire planets,
the swirling vast accreting gas giants,
all that spinning immaterial matter
like whether in Robert Alter’s fine translation
Do not fling me from your presence
is verse eleven or verse twelve.
These lines are densely beautiful, offering their own linguistic marvels in lieu of prayer and to match “an atmosphere/flecked like emery paper” with stars. That little dog does more or less what we all do, and what, Laird suggests, these poems do: bark out our coordinates in space and time.
“Progress” is partly about a move Laird made at thirty from Ireland, a place of “giant leylandii and four-bar bitumen fences,” and of “porn mags stashed in blackthorn hedges” to Rome:
fairly hopeful, fairly certain I might
begin some sort of self-taught course in
Appreciating Beauty, on how not to view
it solely with incipient suspicion….
The poem moves, brilliantly and satisfyingly, through stories of Galileo and Pope Urban and much else; but it comes to rest in passages of extraordinary beauty, and not the kind one pallidly “appreciates”:
and lie flat out, shaded, lit, assuaged, watching
sky and supple leaf-print, holding and defending
nothing but the unzipped and unstrapped pitch-
perfect one beside you humming something
by the Smiths and tracing lightly cursive
shapes with a finger on your inside wrist.
“Translucency,” Laird writes, is something he “experienced a lot on Zoloft and Vodka”:
or Zispin and whiskey
and in certain passages of Ammons
or Edmund Burke or Wallace Stevens.
My own version of these lines would add another name to the list, Nick Laird.
Mary Jo Salter is one of American poetry’s most accomplished formalists, a title that suggests a far less ferocious poet than she is. Emerson was right when he called for “meter-making arguments” over meter for its own sake; but in Salter’s hands, meter makes the meter-making argument, clinching, checkmating, twisting the knife in that much deeper. Nothing by Design is Salter’s seventh book. Its accomplishments of prosody are, by turns, vengeful, saddened, and funny. This is elegance as a form of rout or blowout. A marriage has fallen apart, a spouse’s infidelities have been aired; friends have died; in “Morning Mirror” the new life looks at her through her cottage window in the form of an ambivalent doe:
A witness at the window: somehow a deer
has sidled up, and is staring at me drinking
my coffee. I set it down, chastised. The same
plaintive and yet neutral gaze, as if
she knew once and is trying to recall my name.
Later in the poem, Salter asks a pointed question:
(Why is it for a week
all the deer have been either does or fawns?
Somebody knows the answer.)
We all know the answer, in fact; but that “somebody” captures the tone of insinuation, the saying-but-not-saying that Salter has mastered in these poems.
“Morning Mirror” is a revision by subtraction of Frost’s poem “Two Look at Two,” the two “twos” being, in that poem, a married couple and the pair of deer—doe and buck—they encounter on a walk. Salter’s book is full of numbers, almost literally keeping score in the aftermath of betrayal and loss. The husband’s childhood bedroom was decorated, as Salter imagines it, not with “glue-on,/glow-in-the-dark stars, the view/some guys make do with” but with a chessboard on the ceiling:
…he has eight
squares by eight: a constellation
of white on black, a sixty-four-
tile universe, a dizzy dance floor
on which his moves, some combination
he thought of, might not have been seen
once in the game’s unending annals.
He is a strategist, not a dreamer; the vastness contemplated is not the Universe but his own anticipated achievement.
Chess is a form of collaboration expressed as competition, a contest that two parties agree to stage. In this it resembles a marriage, but if one of the parties is happy to play by himself, the game is doomed. Nothing by Design contains some of the most affecting recent American poems about the course of a marriage: the enlivening frisson of its daily negotiations; its tendernesses revealed, after the fact, as features of a big con job; its abrupt end; the orphaned objects of its aftermath:
I climb to the top of the hill
and unlatch the creaky gate in the fence
that frames the swimming pool.
I don’t see it, but there’s a crust
of ice beneath the canvas cover.
Plus algae, a few dead frogs and bugs,
however things stood last August.
Eons ago. Before I knew.
The terse sadness of the poem is a little like the icicles it describes, warming and then, in a sudden blast, freezing:
But it’s December. And the dripping now
is the sound of melting icicles
sharpening into knives.
This is beauty apprehended as a threat—the icicles “sharpening into knives”—and it stands in for the sometimes frightful sharpness of Salter’s forms. Here is her vigilante rewriting of Yeats’s “No Second Troy,” “No Second Try”:
Why should I blame him that he filled his days
With mistresses, or that he came home late
To meet most ignorant trust with smiling ways,
Such thoughtful gifts, and claims that I looked great—
Whatever that meant, though clearly not desire?
What help if I’d been wiser, with a mind
Simply to hurl his laundry in the fire
Rather than buy his tall tales with a kind
Solicitude and a deluded kiss,
Having cleaned his house from stem to stern?
Why, who else could he use, a guy like this?
Was there another wife for him to spurn?
This is almost light verse, the form happily driving the expression, the expression malleable enough to let the prosody have its way; and yet it’s about as chilling a sonnet as you are likely to find. Salter calls poems like this one “Lightweights” (the title of the section of the book in which it appears); in another, “Our Ping-Pong Table,” a forlorn relic reminds her of a resolution “to have more family fun/than whatever we’d been having”:
All-weather? So far it’s stood
as a tottering monument
to the bumblers we remain;
it’s stood there in the rain
and, through the kitchen window
in winter, as an efficient
means to measure snow.
I’ve liked that. That’s been good.
In the moving elegies in this book for Joseph Brodsky and Amy Clampitt, as in these divorce poems, the challenge is to find a second use in poetry—another “means to measure snow”—for everything outdated and discarded. The finest poem in the book, and one of the best lyrics Salter has ever written, is “Bed of Letters”:
Propped like a capital
letter at the head
of what was once our bed,
or like a letterhead—
as if your old address
were printed on my face—
I’m writing you this note
folded in sheets you lay
on then, but sleeplessly
night after night, a man
whose life became about
the fear of being found out.
There is no reconciliation in this or any of these poems, only a keen appreciation for the ironies of circumstance:
And yet it’s true that long
ago, two lovers dozed
naked and enclosed
one history between covers.
We woke and, shy and proud,
read our new poems aloud.