P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.33 - February 2019
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2019 February No. 33
I’m Nobody! And So Are You!
I’m Nobody! And So Are You!
In last month’s column I spoke up for both poets and poems considered minor, despite being quite wonderful, and lamented the fact that this sort of either/or thinking inevitably means that many fine poems and poets are too seldom represented in anthologies, textbooks, and classrooms, and thus too soon forgotten.
Most of us will be forgotten, some sooner than others, if we’re even lucky enough to be noticed at all. But at least for my time on earth I wish to read as many good poems as possible, and to the extent that the major/minor dichotomy interferes with that, I say the hell with it.
I could be accused of special pleading here, since I am nothing if not a minor poet myself, even within the overstuffed world of arguably minor contemporary American poets. I’ve been publishing poems for over forty years without attracting the notice of the Pulitzer Prize committee, the MacArthur Foundation, or those dullards at the Nobel Prize headquarters. My face has not appeared on the cover of American Poetry Review, nor have I been interviewed on NPR or invited to read at The Dodge Poetry Festival. I don’t have an agent or go on book tours. In my teaching career I was not on the faculty at The Iowa Writers Workshop but instead at an excellent but tiny college in Wisconsin that most of you have not heard of, and where I taught a lot more freshman composition than creative writing courses. I’ve not yet appeared in a Best American Poetry anthology. While it was not my dream as an eighteen year old baby poet to live out my literary life in such obscurity, I have long since come to terms with the facts of my case. And the fact remains that I’ve enjoyed a very lucky career, publishing widely and often, which has put me in touch with many fine folks and enriched my life in a thousand ways. Robert Frost I am not, but I have no complaints.
So it seems especially odd that even in my obscurity I have had my own taste of one phenomenon I was lamenting last month: anthologists who tend to reprint poems that they’ve seen before, rather than lesser known or newer work. About ten years ago I was invited to submit poems for an upcoming anthology from a major university press, and I was of course glad to oblige. I sent off a batch lickety-split. To my further delight an acceptance note arrived. When my excitement faded enough for me to re-read the note I got confused, for the poem accepted did not appear to be one of the poems I had sent. Was I having a Senior Moment? Was my record keeping that shoddy? I wrote the editors to inquire, and was told that, yes, they had read and enjoyed what I had sent, but had decided instead to publish an un-submitted poem, “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings.”
As it happens I’m rather proud of this poem, enough so to share it with you right now:
The Dogs In Dutch Paintings
How shall I not love them, snoozing
right through the Annunciation? They inhabit
the outskirts of every importance, sprawl
dead center in each oblivious household.
They're digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,
dozing with noble abandon while a boy
bells their tails. Often they present their rumps
in the foreground of some martyrdom.
What Christ could lean so unconcernedly
against a table leg, the feast above continuing?
Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace
as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?
No scholar at his huge book will capture
my eye so well as the skinny haunches,
the frazzled tails and serene optimism
of the least of these mutts, curled
in the corners of the world's dazzlement.
If this turns out to be the single poem of mine that anyone remembers, I would have little cause to lament. For one thing, I’m lucky that any editor thought enough of it to publish. That’s a real gift, always. For another thing, I like it, even now, twenty years after its first appearance in a literary journal. Since then it has been reprinted multiple times—in a number of anthologies, websites, blogs, and so forth. It was even translated into Spanish for a journal in Chile—my one and only experience of such a thing.
But is it my very best poem? Well, that’s not for me to say, but since you asked (didn’t you?) I’ll say okay, it could be. It’s certainly one of my best. But I balk at declaring it better than dozens of others I’ve published. The truth is that I was lucky with it, more so than with any other poem. It appeared initially in a journal with a high enough profile that it caught the eye of an anthology editor. Also Poetry Daily picked it up. And another editor, who, lucky for me, happened to be Billy Collins, must have seen either Poetry Daily or the first anthology, and chose “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” for an anthology that was soon in most every bookstore in the land. And so forth—a cascade of good fortune. Last I checked, it had been reprinted about ten times, including that anthology which chose it over the poems I actually had submitted.
So maybe I have a small idea how someone like Charles Simic must feel— one of my poems, at least, is out making its way in the world without my assistance. But I also might have a tiny inkling of how someone like Gwendolyn Brooks may have felt, seeing “We Real Cool” appearing, once again, as her most representative poem. Surely she must have wanted some of her many other excellent poems to have a bit more time in the sun.
I hope it’s clear I am not arguing that I should be considered a major poet, or that “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” is a masterpiece. No false modesty, either: if nothing else, its reception convinces me of what I already suspected upon finishing it, that it’s pretty damn good. What I am suggesting is that the major/minor way of thinking, which governs all sorts of things beyond anthologies, can stand in the way of our enjoyment as poetry readers. It can certainly limit our access to poems and poets who, for various reasons, fall by the wayside. The either/or habit influences what books get reviewed; which poetry is taught in schools; what poets tend to win big prizes, often repeatedly; who gets invited to give readings or teach at writers’ conferences; and more. Inevitably, good poets are neglected, frequently for no good reason. It’s inevitable and nothing new in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Nor does it mean we need to passively accept this state of affairs. This is one reason I’ve made it a sort of hobby to find and recommend poets I think should be better known, and why I love sharing poems I admire, especially when my audience hasn’t heard them before. That’s why I’ve written columns in this space on poet Alden Nowlan, famous in Canada but not well known in the U.S. (/2018/August/david-grahams-poetic-license-2018-august-no27.html ) as well as American master Abbie Huston Evan, a fine lyricist whose work has long been out of print (/2018/October/david-grahams-poetic-license-2018-october-no29.html ).
So I’ll conclude here with a poem you may well have not seen before. The poet does not appear, for example, in the most recent edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, an 1865-page monster that you would think has to contain every notable poet from Whitman through poets who are my age. Nor does she appear in a U.S.-only anthology from Oxford (Anthology of Modern American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson, 2000). This behemoth features a contrasting aesthetic and clocks in at 1247 pages. Its editor prides himself on featuring poets that competing anthologies do not include.
Nor is our poet to be found in Rita Dove’s more recent (2011) 656-page Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, which generated a lot of controversy for its omission of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath (mostly for economic reasons). In fairness, her book also generated praise for including many neglected voices, especially among female poets. But not our poet.
Happily, our poet does appear (along with Abbie Huston Evans) in the quite wonderfulAmerican Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume Two: E. E. Cummings to May Swenson, from the Library of America. That’s the best anthology of the period that I know, but it’s in two volumes, and costly to own. Check your local library. But the poem I have in mind is not one of its selections, unfortunately.
My point, of course, is that such big anthologies, standard fare for library collections as well as introductory courses in poetry, simply cannot cover anything like the full range of what’s out there. The ocean is wide and deep. However, with a modest amount of curiosity and effort—especially with the aid of the internet—it’s possible any day to discover good poems that aren’t well known, if you so desire.
I have teased you long enough. Our mystery poet is Jean Garrigue. Heard of her? Born in 1912, she was contemporary with poets such as Robert Hayden, Dylan Thomas, and Elizabeth Bishop. In her day (she died in 1972) she was quite well published and often honored, and last I checked there was still an edition of her selected poems in print (paperback $40 on Amazon). She has also attracted some interest in scholarly circles (Lee Upton published Jean Garrigue: A Poetics of Plenitude in 1991, for instance). But she’s hardly famous, and it seems a shame that more readers don’t know of her very lively, intriguing poems.
Here’s one I was lucky enough to hear the late William Matthews present at a poetry conference in about 1980. Otherwise I probably never would have known her work. The poem appeared in Garrigue’s first collection, Thirty-Six Poems and a Few Songs, in 1944.
There is the star bloom of the moss
And the hairy chunks of light between the conifers;
There are alleys of light where the green leads to a funeral
Down the false floor of needles.
There are rocks and boulders that jut, saw-toothed and urine-yellow.
Other stones in a field look in the distance like sheep grazing,
Grey trunk and trunklike legs and lowered head.
There are short-stemmed forests so close to the ground
You would pity a dog lost there in the spore-budding
Blackness where the sun has never struck down.
There are dying ferns that glow like a gold mine
And weeds and sumac extend the Sodom of color.
Among the divisions of stone and the fissures of branch
Lurk the abashed resentments of the ego.
Do not say this is pleasurable!
Bats, skittering on wires over the lake,
And the bug on the water, bristling in light as he measures forward his leaps,
The hills holding back the sun by their notched edges
(What volcanoes lie on the other side
Of heat, light, burning up even the angels)
And the mirror of forests and hills drawing nearer
Till the lake is all forests and hills made double,
Do not say this is kindly, convenient,
Warms the hands, crosses the senses with promise,
Harries our fear.
Uneasy, we bellow back at the tree frogs
And, night approaching like the entrance of a tunnel,
We would turn back and cannot, we
Surprise our natures; the woods lock us up
In the secret crimes of our intent.
I won’t say a great deal about this poem, but I hope you agree with me that it’s well worth reading: full of inventive language, well observed details (how about those “hairy chunks of light between the conifers”?), and memorable turns of phrase. In touches like “the secret crimes of our intent,” “the abashed resentments of the ego,” and “rocks and boulders that jut, saw-toothed and urine-yellow,” I know I am in the presence of a poet in full command of her effects. The poem is jazzy, surprising, and original. Poems such as this one are the best argument I can think of against settling for the usual assumptions behind the labeling and categorizing impulses that give us concepts like “major” and “minor” poetry.
©2019 David Graham
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