I just finished Rosemary Tonk’s posthumous collection of poems, Bedouin of the London Evening. I wanted to read Tonks ever since I saw this quote: “The main duty of the poet is to excite – to send the senses reeling.” I quite agree. Sadly, I disliked the book. The poems have some flashes of brilliance, but Tonks’s work is a bit callow and ultimately dispensable. The experience left me bummed. I’d been looking forward to these poems for quite some time, had searched for them in bookshops in Chicago and San Francisco, only to be very disappointed.
But here’s the thing: I don’t regret the money I spent on the book ($26.00 plus tax). I’ll likely not read any of the poems anytime soon, but the day I spent laboring over lines like “My gutter—how you gleamed! Like dungeon floors which / Cobras have lubricated” and “Those evenings you were mutinous / Against the tyranny of kitchen tables where / The flat iron cools its mirror of blue ore” was not wasted. I take a lot of chances on poetry, and most of the time they don’t pay off. Poems should, indeed, blow the top of your head off, but often they are dull, affected, over-wrought or, worse, dashed off and trite. Yet I still search through them looking for the one poem—hell, the one line—that will remind me that the effort is worthwhile.
Writers often speak of the struggle to produce one goddamn line that is close to good. Hours spent in front of the computer, booze within reach and eyes near tears, all in vain when nothing much comes. But when it clicks—oh, what magic! What a thrill. There’s nothing like it. I know full well what writers mean when they rhapsodize about their specific form of self-abuse. But the same can be said of reading poems, which requires a level of focus rare in today’s tech-obsessed culture. I’m often left feeling empty and unengaged by the poems I read, but when I do stumble on that rare wonderful creation, the search is more than validated.
I liken this process to what Dostoevsky seemed to be up to in many of his works: the struggle to understand what it even means to be a soul in search of god. Reading poetry is a spiritual quest, a meditation of the unnamable entity that fortifies us against the collection of absolute crap accumulating just outside the door. How to sustain sanity against it all? Some look to god. Others look to poetry.
This is not to say that I find comfort and meaning in Yeats on par with what the average Christian gets from the New Testament. But I do see something beautiful and mysterious in his best work that does suggest a force greater than my understanding. I am probably not anywhere close to explaining it here, but I am often invigorated by a poem to the extent that I can face whatever hell awaits the moment I set foot out of the apartment.
But again, this is rare. Most poems are bad or dull or good in a sense, sure, but nothing that really stays with me. My tastes are fairly specific. I am all for ambition and experimentation, but the trend today seems to be toward coded poems that rely so much on their playfulness that they fail to convey anything worthwhile and, thus, seem hallow. Keeping in mind that the primary audience for poetry in the USA is other poets and academics, I understand why so much poetry written today is full of turgid, dense language. (Though I’m aware every generation has produced good and bad poems. Surely there was a lousy, pompous tale being told by the campfire alongside Beowulf.) This is why I’ve been gravitating to Yeats and Kavanagh and a score of more contemporary Irish poets who value the felicity of language but rarely at the expense of a worthwhile subject. Content is as important as language in a Seamus Heaney poem. Ciaran Carson never sacrifices either. The balance is impressive; the effects astonishing. I’ll take that over whatever John Ashbery is up to.
If one is going to write a poem that is more concerned with language than content, fine. Sometimes these are the poems that are so intriguing they border on the rhapsodic. But they are few compared to the majority of obfuscated, image heavy curiosities. Sifting through them requires patience and faith. The search is worthwhile, even if it’s never ending. Maybe in death we will understand the secret of poetry. Maybe the afterlife waiting for us is built on rhyming couplets.
Who can write challenging, obscure poems that are simultaneously engaging? It’s a tie between Medbh McGuckian and Cesar Vallejo, though they can come from E. E. Cummings, Joyce Mansour, Mina Loy, William Blake, Guillaume Apollinaire, Vicente Huidobro, and Coral Bracho as well. All of these writers have penned at least a few visionary, bizarre, compelling poems that have consumed a good amount of my days. I spent most of a plan ride from Washington DC to Chicago trying to get my head around Paul Muldoon’s “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants”; much of June 2012 saw me puzzling over Huidobro’s book length poem Altazor. Still, I usually return to Philip Larkin when I wish to be reminded of the daily truth on which poetry can, and should, focus.
Today, I read a poem that awed me: “Aubade” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. I read it once, then paused at the end, unsure of what I’d just encountered, then reread it and saw the simplicity of it leading to a conclusion that floored me. Go look for it—it’s really grand, as is much of her work. This is why I pore over poems, in the hope of finding one that takes me to a place I couldn’t have imagined before. Ironically, poems like “Aubade” do it best, poems lacking testing, obvious ornaments.
Vincent Francone is a writer from Chicago whose memoir, Like a Dog, was published in the fall of 2015. He won first place in the 2009 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition (Gwendolyn Brooks Award) and is at work on a collection of poems and stories. Visitwww.vincentfrancone.com to read his work or say hi.
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