Literary Arts

Falling Asleep to Chopsticks and Waking to Chopin: The Chance to Hear and Read Three Poets in January

The titles of some artworks add meaning. Others are just for identification. But in poetry, a title can be part of the work. Reading “Sit-ups with Mr. Johnny Keats,” I thought the title a witty metaphor for struggle. It was only midway through 2009’s Utah Book Award for Poetry winner Lance Larsen’s account of his family’s visit to a cottage in England, where the great Romantic actually wrote some of his most-loved verses, that I realized, among “school teachers / from Des Moines brushing past us to intone / Beauty or Truth? before a faded copy of a copy / of the poet,” that Larsen meant it literally. Who, after all, hasn’t watched an oblivious child, full of a newly acquired skill that matters because it is hers, indulge herself in it with a fascination that ignores the circumstances? “Hold my ankles, okay?” his daughter asks, and does a set right there, on the cottage floor, the only one in how many years as alive to herself as Keats was when he lived there. It’s the kind of moment Billie Collins would build a poem around, but different in that Larsen’s preferred subjects are his wife, children, and the everyday work of being a family in surroundings familiar to us all.

As noted elsewhere in this issue, someone is always announcing the death of an art: the novel, painting, serious music. Those “slim volumes of verse” continue to appear in surprisingly healthy numbers, constituting one of the more vigorous branches of old-style, not-for-profit publishing. Since few poets make a living at it, anthologies that collect the many diverse modern approaches to poetry also name all sorts of day jobs. Many poets come with agendas: issues that structure their work like a skeleton does a body. And since poetry is like law, excellent preparation for many vocations, one might scratch a teacher, an art critic, or a singer-songwriter and expect to find a poet underneath.

One sign of the vitality of American poetry will be readily—if metaphorically—familiar to followers of the visual arts. It wasn’t just painting that split into warring camps with the advent of Modernism. Just as there are painters who still see their art as an extension of centuries of tradition, in which today’s talent stands on the shoulders of previous generations, so there are poets who write long, structurally organized verses that are song-like, introspective, and respectful of individual awareness. Robert Frost is a recognizable example even today, almost half a century after his death. Asked to characterize him in one word, many readers would say “realistic.” But as mainstream painting repudiated realism in favor of abstraction—and a series of idiosyncratic movements that have yet to coalesce into a universally accepted historical progression—so poets split into many experimental movements. One widely accepted way of looking at the major alternatives, the traditional realistic and the urban experimental, is to trace the former from English Romanticism and the latter from French avant-garde. Another sees the choice as whether to focus on experiencing what the poem talks about—its content—or on the material it’s made of—words and forms. Robert Lowell liked to characterize these as “the cooked and the uncooked.”

Where poetry sets itself apart is the way these two inclinations have done what other arts have only attempted: surrendered their antagonism and allowed individual poets to experiment freely, including the liberty to use traditional structures and approaches where it profits them to do so. All three of this month’s visiting poets experiment with verse forms in search of new ways to do what poetry has always done. To take one example, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon was an early proponent of “the bop,” a form similar to the sonnet or the villanelle that Dylan Thomas revived in “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” It’s exciting to stand today in the relation to these forms that Shakespeare stood to the sonnet while he was setting the standard four centuries ago.

A self-described African-American woman poet, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (her name is pronounced lie–ray) has published two books of poetry, Black Swan and Open Interval, and received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2001. She teaches English at Cornell University. Her poems begin in her experiences as a black person and a woman, but if they ended there she would only be reacting to how she is seen by others. Instead, she approaches each moment with the courage to transcend immediate danger or reward. Who among us has not been forced to negotiate with the limited present when we’d rather respond with the far greater possibilities we feel are within us? To borrow some words in desperate need of renewal (something poets do every day), when life gives Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon lemons, instead of lemonade she makes sunflowers.

Jill McDonough, author of Habeus Corpus, recently took a break from teaching incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for a stint as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Much of her writing reflects her interest in the sorts of persons who end up being imprisoned, or worse, in our society, drawing on her own experience and the eye-witness testimony remaining from four centuries of legal executions. Her work advances a belief that even without advocacy, an accurate, detailed presentation of what happens—what is done in our name and to whom—is the least we should have, should insist on. There are no lectures in her poetry, but there are textures that draw the reader or listener into stories that turn out to be far less alien than expected. It’s not necessary to have a position on the issues raised to appreciate the skill of her word use, the vivid experience she conjures, or the connections she makes between what initially seems a marginal part of life, like conflict, and things we take to be its core, like romance.

In Animal Brilliance, his collaborative exhibit with painter wife Jacqui, Lance Larsen’s brief, caption-like lines cannot do what he is capable of. “Savanna zebras, zebras in zoos, / some of us so fleshed in our stripes / we have forgotten why we are hiding” is good, but his true strength is the anecdotal narrative of twenty, thirty, or forty lines in which he argues with himself before finally accepting the wisdom of his circumstances. Yet these epigrams give good reasons to seek his poetry in that longer form, where three “slim volumes” trace the voyage of strangers, one who writes and one who paints, who become a couple and then a family that includes a painter and a poet.

What makes Lance Larsen important might be his ability to remain open to the content he discovers in his subject matter, without infringing his Utah-bred values or forcing either to fit inside the other. But what makes all three of the writers discussed here poets is their shared ability to capture human experience in mid-trajectory, at the moment where the downward fall into mortality precisely doubles the upward flight into transcendence, neither wrenching the desirable from the contingent nor the vision from the fact.

Categories: Literary Arts

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