Lucidity, difficulty

As a grader of zillions of undergraduate essays, I hate the word “relatable.” I never let “universal” sneak through a poetry class without interrogation. I understand why some critics mock the word “accessible,” as if poems could be built to code with wide ramps and handrails. Relatable to whom? People don’t have equally easy entry to literature’s many universes. Asali Solomon, author of the great new novel Disgruntled, observed to me on Friday that while there’s contemporary poetry she approaches with goodwill yet still doesn’t understand, she gets the experimental work of Harryette Mullen.I’ve had similar experiences, and so have you: one kind of obliquity alienates, while another attracts, intrigues, or even makes deep sense. It’s changeable, too. A book that repels you now might be just what you need in 2025, providing we survive the zombie plague AI-takeover eco-apocalypse.disgruntled

Solomon was part of a panel discussion here Thursday with Helena Maria Viramontes. (Evie Shockley was prevented from coming by what had BETTER be Virginia’s last snowstorm of 2015.) The title of the event was “At the Crossroads of Literature and History” and one question we posed to the visitors was how each thought of audience. Part of what Solomon answered, if I’m remembering right, is that she wants to involve us in the world of her West Philadelphian character Kenya, but not explain that world. That is, some readers may receive the story with delight, seeing their own experiences there, and for others the book will illuminate unfamiliar territory. But the book isn’t necessarily for one kind of reader more than another.

Now that the contract is signed-sealed-delivered, I can publicly announce that my own next book, Radioland, is scheduled for September 2015 publication by Barrow Street Press, the same folks who did a beautiful job with my second poetry collection, Heterotopia. Most of the poetry they publish seems more experimental or difficult than mine, in my own imperfect judgment: I’d say their list has an intellectual character throughout a pretty good range of styles. The editors nudge me gently, respectfully towards intensifying rather than clarifying poems, if that makes sense. I think they’re right, so as I finalize the manuscript I’m paring away a few of the first-person pronouns and other bits of language that are probably implicit. It’s like boiling down stock, only for months or years rather than a few steamy hours.

I like the book better the more time I spend with it, but I am aware that all this sauce-reduction will make the poems more challenging. I ponder the cost/ benefit analysis constantly, because I firmly believe that while playing to poetry insiders is an effective short-term game, it’s short-sighted. “Intense” is good but “off-puttingly obscure” undercuts the ultimate value of one’s own verse AND does a disservice to poetry generally. The more poets aim to please a rarefied audience, the smaller our audiences will deservedly be.

I don’t think there is a universal sweet spot for me or anyone else, as far as judging levels of difficulty. As I started off by saying, accessibility is idiosyncratic. I did just finish reading a poetry collection, though, that I could recommend to anyone. Sometimes I buy or order a very good book and then don’t pick it up for ages; it’s revealing to me that I sank into Jeannine Hall Gailey’s brand-new The Robot Scientist’s Daughter as soon as I had a free hour. Her previous three collections were good reads, sources of pleasure unalloyed by irritable puzzling, complex but not alienating, so I (rightly) trusted this would be too. RSD

Look at a book’s layout and much becomes clear, even if it’s only a given author’s resistance to clarity as a literary value. In this case the cover art in itself is readable; the title and subtitles imply a narrative grounding; there are discursive notes naming research sources at the back. Even more unusually, an introduction by the poet describes her upbringing near the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where her father consulted on nuclear waste clean-up. Gailey situates her poems in several contexts. Her poems tell an urgent story about the long term dangers to the natural world and to human health of nuclear power. They also vividly invoke the beauty of Appalachia even as it is rendered toxic to human and nonhuman residents: I particularly loved all the natural detail about wasp nests, identifying mushrooms, brewing carcinogenic sassafras tea. Her lush green childhood seems idyllic but at so many junctures is nearly fatal. Gailey also teases out resonances between her own life and the conventions of science fiction, too, in a way that’s political and playful, for she’s obviously a fan as well as a canny critic of the genre. But I’m not a critical wizard to see these things: she signals her affiliations and commitments clearly.

I know from Gailey’s blog that it took her a long time to place this book, which strikes me as pretty weird. This collection will interest many kinds of readers, plus she’s a smart self-publicist who will do lots of readings and get the word out. She’s particularly good at drawing in audiences who are not poetry insiders. And she’s a sane and pleasant person—these qualities all seem like the ones I’d look for, if I were a book editor. Did Gailey’s investment in reaching a wide variety of readers actually make her publishing path harder, I wonder?

When I was twentyish, my poems were obscure because I wasn’t doing the work of thinking them through, or wasn’t willing to reveal what I really did think. Teaching undergraduates made me put a premium on clarity, but during the last ten years of building a poetry-publishing career I’ve felt a lot of these little nudges back towards a more elliptical voice. Force sustained through every necessary word in a brief space: I value that. But I never finish a poem now, even a highly condensed and/or formally experimental one, until I know what’s urgent about it and could state some version of the crux in simple declarative sentences. My intentions are embedded in the work. Is that my sweet spot?

I don’t know, but then, the difficulty of figuring out the best way forward is what drew me to poetry in the first place. There is no way to become expert; I will never be sure of myself.

Occasional poems

“Who Wants to Be a Scholar Anyway,” “The Academic Strategic Planning Blues,” “Ballad of the Executive Director of Alumni Affairs”: the titles in my poetry folders suggest that I write a lot of doggerel when I’m all steamed up. Most jobs present occasions for indignation, even when you like the work and feel fortunate to have it. I’m starting my 18th year at this selective liberal arts college, and while the job itself is a great fit for me—the emphasis on teaching and support for scholarship hit the right balance, and I have brilliant, dedicated colleagues—university and local culture still estrange me on a regular basis. Co-education came late, in 1985, and it was painful. The Civil War is still underway: General Lee is buried on campus and the local paper is full of letters, this week, from people who want our town to fly the Confederate flag. Undergraduate rates of sexual assault are too high. I love my students but know that a few of them must be committing those crimes; the dissonance is hard to live with. Things are better than they were, and being a full professor in a strong department insulates me somewhat, but these aren’t great consolations.

So when, in 2005, the planning committee for the 20th anniversary of coeducation asked me to commemorate this milestone poetically, I was electrified and stumped. My standard response to writer’s block (tellingly) is to conduct research. I studied occasional poems by Heaney, Auden, Brooks, and others. I also trudged down to Special Collections, where press coverage of coeducation is archived (we co-educated so late that the national media made a fuss). The latter was pretty horrifying. Some professors, alumni, and administrators argued eloquently for coeducation, but they won because finance aligned with feminism: men’s single sex colleges could no longer attract large numbers of highly qualified applicants, resulting in shrinking student bodies and loss of prestige. Coeducation’s opponents, meanwhile, flaunted obnoxious bumper stickers, and to the press, certain anonymous professors lamented the dilution of a noble enterprise.

I thought, okay, the asbestos gloves of form for dangerous materials, but I need a capacious form that can handle prosey rhythms. I labored over a sestina, toned it down, toned it down some more, and then tested it on friends, who still found it intensely angry. Clearly addressing coeducation head-on was a bad idea since I couldn’t celebrate that fraught occasion. Plan B: a totally different poem in tribute to a series of women students. Them, I could celebrate.

Neither the poem I presented (“Office Hours”) nor the one I kept to myself satisfies me. Maybe the process spelled doom in itself. I write first drafts in an exploratory way, turning off the editor’s voice and my compulsion to be nice; I couldn’t do that here. Ambivalence is my engine and I had to mute it. “Office Hours,” felt honest, at least, drawing on my direct and positive experience of coeducation as a teacher who arrived after the controversy. I’d be totally game to try again, but the whole thing does make me think of a student evaluation I once received: “I learned that writing poems is easy but writing good poems is really, really hard.” Writing good joyous poems is harder than writing good ambivalent ones. Writing good joyous poems for a specific audience on a specific topic might require divine intervention.

NO MARTHAS

A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter.  The education of men is a serious matter.  I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985

The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended.  Serious
banter draped beneath a finial image of the gentleman
whose once-warm original gave necessary sums
and his name to Washington Academy. Tradition

honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Martha. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that immoderate exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious

fears in frivolous words but their frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, and shocking, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
but back in the eighties, of course, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some

fraternity-shaped hay barn. Crass capital, sums
and debits, admitted women, found the Titanic. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed grumbling; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen

with perfume and pink curtains. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody,
or gripe about girls during African famine. The days
of men swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No

school year stumbles by without slurs, although no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?

The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, flounced bravely in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Prevailing like Live Aid, like some MacGyver.

 

OFFICE HOURS

Jeanne placed her backpack
so that the pink triangle
pointed square at me.

The “C” hit Nora
like spume on a cat: green sparks,
salt, then pride and grit.

Meg left her poems and
fled.  The poems themselves, bolder,
stayed and stayed and stayed.

Up North I am a
dogwood May, said Carroll.  Here
I am heat, flood, storm.

In England I felt
like a woman, Lisa said.
Here I just feel black.

Kyle’s illness brightened
her, like snow in the sun.  She
will heal everyone

she meets.  Stanzas can’t
contain them or Rebecca,
Armistead, Sarah,

Denisio, Jenn,
Jessica.  My cramped office,
rough as an eggshell,

cannot confine them.
Washington and Lee holds them
just a little while,

like a rockfall on
the interstate, like the soft
banks of a spring creek,

like a phrase or an
idea you consider while
it considers you.