Dispatches | November 25, 2010

Poets, choose your insult:  would you rather be associated with the “skittery poem of our moment” (Tony Hoagland’s withering phrase), or with the “the school of quietude” (Ron Silliman’s)?

Ephemeral and hip or stuffy and lame?

Such a debate—based on this convenient, though, of course, false, dichotomy—ensued, briefly, in the comments of a blog post a friend directed me to the other day (forgive me, this is all a year old): http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2009/05/david-wojahn-on-younger-poets.html.  In the actual post, poet John Gallaher probes some of David Wojahn’s comments from his interview with Anna Journey for Gulf Coast (http://www.gulfcoastmag.org/index.php?n=2&s=934).

Mostly it was agreed upon by various commenting parties that they’d rather be “skittery” than “school of quietude.”  Shocker.

In his interview, Wojahn wields Hoagland’s phrase in order to complain about what young poets are doing (in their poems, being “slippery”; in their reading, theory), and about what they’re not doing (in their poems, representing the/a self; in their reading, the mid-century big guns – Lowell, Jarrell, Rukeyser, Oppen, Bishop, Berryman, etc.).

Considering Wojahn’s poems, this complaint should not take anyone by surprise.  He’s been writing accessible, fairly conventional/traditional poems—anything but “skittery” or “slippery”—for thirty years.  What got Gallaher excited were some of Wojahn’s comments, which seemed, at first, to lean in the other direction.

Not that there’s only two directions:  order vs. chaos, old vs. new, conservative vs. progressive, Apollo vs. Dionysius.  But as the comments on Gallaher’s blog show, we easily slip into this type of thinking.

Indeed, some of Wojahn’s comments might themselves be described as “slippery.”  He hits on this idea of “juxtaposition” as a kind of necessary mode in (his) poetry these days.  What does he actually mean, who knows, but it might remind some (like Gallaher) of the leaping and/or fragmentary idiom of “our moment.”  After all, juxtaposition could be called a leaping between subjects, which isn’t too far from jumping, from “skittery.”  “Juxtaposition” fits our modern times, and brains, Wojahn implies.  It better “replicates” life.

Is he implying that poetry (art) should replicate life?

“Bringing order out of chaos is all well and good, but sometimes it’s a worthier goal to simply make the chaos interesting,” he continues.

Is he throwing off the chains of tradition and going avant-garde?

“Oddly enough,” this influences Wojahn’s use of form.  Received forms—he mentions the sonnet in particular—help him “bottle the lightning…fuse chaos with something that is very vigorously controlled.”

Hold on. Who said anything about “vigorous control”?  I thought he wasn’t interested in ordering the chaos.  Ok, so he says, “make the chaos interesting.”  Make.  Interesting.  Chaos.  Fuse the chaos.  With something…

An attractive figure, bottled lightning.  One thing’s for certain, it implies a feat.

What poet doesn’t want this?  It makes me think of Dickinson, or Hopkins, or Berryman (who comes up a few times in the interview, though Wojahn relegates him to the margin of “sheer nihilistic anarchism”).  But that raw power crackling in the confines of form…not exactly how I see Wojahn’s poems – sonnets or otherwise.  Though make no mistake, I’m a big fan.

Wojahn goes on to position his bottle, so to speak, between the neo-narrative movement of the eighties (an extreme of “quietude”?) and the “skittery poem of our moment.”  The former he writes off, as a former practitioner, as boring, the latter as problematically “slippery.”  Whence commences the condemning of young poets.

Any pronouncement about poetry – what real poetry is or does, what young/old poets do/should do, who’s being read by whom and how much – falls in on itself.  Still, most of us do it, if only as a kind of rudder to navigate today’s heteroglossic ocean.  And maybe for these same reasons, we cling to every “by-the-way” statement from established poets like Wojahn.  Like the Bowie song, we want “Someone to lead us, someone to follow, / Someone to fool us, some brave Apollo, / Someone to save us, someone like you.”

Wojahn knows what he’s doing, of course.  I think he’s shooting for some kind of middle ground, courting yet disappointing both extremes, those false schools.  And behold, it’s got us talking.

But what does this “juxtaposition,” this “bottled lightning” look like on the page?  In two sonnets in the new poems of Interrogation Palace, his selected poems discussed in the interview, I see one main instance of juxtaposition in each poem, right where the convention calls for it: between the octave and sestet.  In “Epithalamium,” it’s the shift from the chopper to the wedding where the missiles are headed.  In “Exam Room Six,” from his sick son in the ER to the “Bush campaign ad” on tv.  I wouldn’t call these drastic shifts.  Perspective changes, but not the scene, and time (narrative) is sovereign.

The sonnets are themselves juxtaposed in a series called “Dthyramb and Lamentation,” whose sections take a variety of forms and perspectives all dealing in some way with politics, elegy, war.  No doubt, the whole series deserves and would reward a careful study in order to fully elucidate his subtle motifs and themes, not to mention his rhythms and rhymes.  Each section stands alone and is, like the whole, thoroughly accessible, teachable even.  Not overly quiet or safe or tame, I think.  But not chaotic either.  The artifice, and tradition, are plain.  Chaos it’s not.  Is it like real life?  What’s that?

Especially for a hip, student-run journal like Gulf Coast, Wojahn plays to the zeitgeist.  It’s better to come off (at first, anyway) as skittery rather than school of quietude.  But in a way, he ends up separating the “skittery poem of our moment” from the idea of narrative, even though narrative is part of Hoagland’s original phrase: “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.”

Distancing himself from narrative—“neo-narrative” at least—Wojahn couches his criticism of young poets in terms of a fear of “self-representation”—something he, like his mid-century predecessors, have worked so hard to achieve, and complicate.  He calls this work “militantly self-confronting, sometimes self-lacerating, sometimes self-humbling.”

Yet what he complains about specifically, the symptom he sees in workshops, is a lack of clarity, which he treats as intentional obfuscation.  A fear of the being “confessional.”  But this is also a fear of narrative.

I wonder if sometimes the lack of clarity isn’t unintentional.  Oftentimes, in my experience, young poets think they’re clearly relating the struggles and “circumnavigation” of the self, whether through interior, fragmented voice-play or through an attempt at straightforward narrative.  And it is clear.  To them.

Perhaps it’s passé to consider audience, but it’s key to how I, anyway, think of the strengths of narrative (whether you show every step to the elevator or cut between scenes).  Boring as it might be to say, a consideration of audience—in other words, being a good story-teller—is a more remarkable feature of Wojahn’s poems than “juxtaposition.”

Take the first lines of “Epithalamium”:  “The what what what of a helicopter gunship / frozen mid-air, 20 feet above the desert…”  This is great lyric poetry, yes.  It’s wonderfully mimetic, an arresting image, an appropriately abrupt sentence fragment.  But what he’s doing that so few other poets can—as easy as it looks, as out of fashion as it is to announce—is, with perfect economy, bringing a scene to life through vivid description, relating it, making it immediate.  And yes, he takes on politics, rock-and-roll, and a variety of other high and low brow subjects in the series.  But look at those rhymes!

Interestingly, Wojahn’s main complaint about neo-narrative, aside from the great bore of it, is the compulsion to make everything connect.  I suppose the logic here is that juxtaposition, as a kind of antidote, allows a freedom from this constraint—more of an anything goes ethos.  The other side to this, of course, is that anything does not go.  Otherwise, any random sequence could count as poetry.

In a sequence like D and L, his sections free him from having to make tight, concise connections, yes, but so long as he’s grouping, there’s still the assumption, and the burden, of connection.  Such is the task (to introduce another false dichotomy) of what one friend calls “casserole poems” (vs. “jolly rancher” poems).  And maybe it’s because I’m more of a jolly rancher poet, but I see a huge burden of connection in wide-ranging casseroles.  But maybe my very problem is that I’m being too logical.

Take a poem like “Scrabble with Matthews,” my favorite of the new poems in IP.  Two pages of wonderful, wandering-rhymed couplets.  Narrative situation: younger poet Wojahn snowbound in a Vermont airport playing scrabble with intimidating older poet William Matthews.  The competition, the impossibility, the waiting, the chaos of letters, the order of words, the blank of the board—a perfect jolly rancher gem, self-contained, whose controlling metaphor (and narrative) captures the anxieties, the antagonisms of making poems, of trying to connect, against the great white blank-out backdrop of snow, and the threat of “wind,” which “shook the panes.”

Austin Segrest is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri.