“O! I DO LOVE THEE, meek Simplicity!” So says the simpleton voice in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s satirical ode to plainspoken rhetoric, “To Simplicity.” Simpleton is guilty of a lot — his idea of chiasmus is “So sad I am… O! I am very sad!” — but what makes him simplistic rather than simple is that simplicity characterizes how he perceives the world rather than how he presents it. He’s thrilled by the simplicity of things: “But whether sad or fierce, 'tis simple all, / All very simple, meek Simplicity.” This is the risk of a style whose aim is to present its material without interference. A pane of clear glass becomes a light gray swatch.
Coleridge’s satire stuck in my anxious head when I read Home Burial, Michael McGriff’s second book, and a sparer, more direct work than his first. My hopes were high. Dismantling the Hills was a masterpiece of American lyricism, clear and varied, rich and strange, every shift in syntax a window into both McGriff’s world and his sense of it. They were the poems Robert Hass would have written in his first book if Field Guide had walked us through the deep hills and abandoned sawmills of the Oregon Coast. So why had McGriff changed his way of writing? Had he honed his style or blunted it?
The best of McGriff’s work has a complex emotional counterpoint between natural flourishing and industrial decay. He treats them evenly in “Coos Bay,” a list poem named for his hometown, from Hills:
great blue herons whispering
through the hollow reeds, the cat piss smell
of a charred meth lab between the VFW hall
and pioneer newspaper museum,
the rusted scrapyard and tank farm.
The drawbridge spans forgotten coal bunkers,
buried fingerprints of Chinese laborers,
rope-riders and mule bones.
Then there’s the rain that never sleeps…
The whispers in the reeds are archetypal poetic inspiration, and here the winds of inspiration smell like cat urine. The lyric poet, whose work is as historically blue-collar as dressage, grew up the son of a father who seems to have held every working-class job the region could offer — millworker, cabdriver, Amway salesman, soldier. Accordingly, McGriff invented a lyricism that shows in the lives of people like his father the beauty Wordsworth saw in rainbows and daffodils. This is not especially common in American poetry: unsentimental working-class lyricism.
McGriff writes traditional lyrics. This is unlike much modern American poetry concerned with the working class, poetry that tends to reject conventions of lyricism or form for the self-conscious difficulty of language poetry or the anti-formalism of a Ginsberg or the anti-lyricism of a Reznikoff. But McGriff avoids many of lyricism’s pitfalls. He writes without irony about beauty and the spirit (the usual stuff of Romanticism), but doesn’t look for beauty or spiritual richness elsewhere, in a world unsullied by modernity or industry or the collapse of industry. This collapse is mourned by a great deal of regionalist poetry and folk music, as if a region’s lost glory would return with its lost means of production. Such poetry depends on...read more