OCTOBER 28, 2016
ENGAGING WITH SECOND BOOKS of poetry by R. T. Smith and Mark Wagenaar during these past two months in the run-up to the presidential election got me thinking about Randall Jarrell’s collection of essays Poetry and the Age (1953). There is much to say about the perspicacious and provocative Jarrell — topic for another essay — but for this review, I reread his prescient, eristic essay “The Obscurity of the Poet.”
Much in Jarrell’s piece, which first appeared in The Partisan Review in January 1951, feels newly minted and utterly relevant. Anyone interested in perceptions of the difficulty and neglect of poetry, of the ways in which various technologies are taking us increasingly away from the kinds of “sharp intelligence and […] willing emotional sympathy” exercised by deep reading — anyone bothered by a “want of imagination” in the polis at large and especially among our leaders, and by the replacement of the culture of the scientist or artist by a cult of celebrity — should read “The Obscurity of the Poet.”
This go-round, the chief takeaway from Jarrell’s essay was this:
Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through works of art alone […] One of the oldest, deepest, and most nearly conclusive attractions of democracy is manifested in our feeling that through it not only material but also spiritual goods can be shared: that in a democracy bread and justice, education and art, will be accessible to everybody. If a democracy should offer its citizens a show of education, a sham of art, a literacy more dangerous than their old illiteracy, then we should have to say that it is not a democracy at all. […] The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love. But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing so, we help to destroy it and ourselves.
Excellence. Derived from the Latin excellere (from ex- “out, beyond” + celsus “lofty”), it has, like many important adjectives, lost some of its power through overuse (consider its ubiquity in bro-speak, for example). And with this election campaign offering up, at best (to riff on Jarrell), “a show of intelligence, a sham of credibility, a new illiteracy more dangerous than the old illiteracy,” it is depressingly tempting to give up believing that “such a thing as Excellence can exist” at all anymore.
With such dismal, possibly dire, forces vying for our regard, why take time to pay attention to second books of poems — or to poetry in general, for that matter? Why concern ourselves with the things to which poets pay attention, and with the ways in which they articulate that paid attention? Even most poets agree with Auden that poetry makes nothing happen; I once heard the poet Kyle Dargan, in an interview with Bill Moyers, say something like, “I don’t know why people expect so much from poetry; if the leaders in Washington can’t fix anything, why should we blame poetry for its inability to change the world?” And yet, perhaps there is something to Jarrell’s belief that an inimitable “truth” can be conveyed “through works of art and through works of art alone”? Perhaps attending to that truth can keep us from destroying our belief in excellence — from destroying ourselves.
R. T. Smith — the author of over 15 collections of poetry and fiction, writer-in-residence at Washington and Lee University, editor of the prestigious journal Shenandoah, and winner of numerous national awards for his poetry — brings to all of his literary endeavors (creative, editorial, and critical) a vernacular excellence that, in its forthrightness, intelligence, generosity, and depth of scrutiny, begs comparison with Jarrell’s. His work possesses the engaging authenticity of what, in Smith’s own words, might be called his “outlaw style,” and a keen, wide-ranging interest in just about everything from dulcimers to vultures (see his Shenandoah editor’s blog, Snopes).
His first full-length collection, From the High Dive, appeared in 1983, but what’s remarkable in his second, The Cardinal Heart (1991), is not so much the range of obsessions — music, the natural world, history, humor, native American culture, mythology, and the “South,” Ireland, and other rich and troubled territories, literal and interior — that continue to stalk his work 10-plus books later, but rather a consistency of voice and piercing attentiveness. In an interview conducted when his In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems was published by Texas Review Press in 2014, Smith dismissed much of his early work, saying, “I started off writing how a lot of young poets did then and are still doing today, kind of narcissistically — ‘I went out today, and I did this, and it was meaningful, and aren’t I sensitive and clever with language?’” Smith goes on to say that when he was able to place his personal perceptions into cultural and historical contexts, his work deepened.
Though Smith is, of course, spot-on about many artists’ first steps, his self-critique is not borne out by the poems in The Cardinal Heart. One need only to glance at “Susan Gilbert Dickinson,” or “What Black Elk Said,” or “Brieves from The Book of Kells” to see that, in addition to his sensitive and evocatively presented “local” details — weather, flora, fauna, and especially birds — Smith has always reached beyond himself, communing with Wordsworth’s “noble living and the noble dead,” including Herrick, Melville, Dickinson, Dickey, as well as a host of neighbors, family members, musicians, and historical figures. But perhaps what has always impressed me most about Smith’s work is that, for all of its regional texture, its historicity, its backdoor erudition, the poems have a timelessly colloquial feel about them, as though they are both hewn from the past and sent to us from the future. His poems carry in their blood, as he puts it in “Revenant,” a “lyric season.” “Scribe,” for instance, is at once rooted in its time and place, and strikingly pertinent in our moment:
At the writing table
my sinews tighten.
There is a cricket in the sugarbush
imitating the easeful uncoil
of spring, and there is mourning
in the way he bows his shins together, as if
he were sawing at once
a cradle and a coffin,
and if he fell silent tonight
and went simply rigid
and the soil settled
above him and green debris later
rotted to form a seam of coal, according
to some formula I know about but do not know,
his angles could be pressed indelibly
into what might resemble a stone,
and someone centuries from now
if anyone is left
might unearth and split a dark lump cloistering
and might see in its insect outline
a symbol and say,
This is a letter
deep in the alphabet of some ancient
civilization going where?
This poem is both a private and public affair. At its runic heart is “life itself,” from summer to autumn, cradle to coffin, with cricket and poet exchanging their secrets. The poem is both ars poetica and an environmental/cultural bellwether. In its warning and its consolation — in its reach for truth, its excellence — the poem would make a fitting read at a presidential inauguration. Or anywhere, in any decade.
In a characteristically scintillating, funny, and illuminating essay, “And Not Releasing the Genie” (in From the Valley of Making: Essays on the Craft of Poetry, 2015), David Wojahn distinguishes between “The Poetry of Stuff” — hip, pop-culturally savvy but not particularly probing poems that jump with some chops and snark through the infinite shallows of Google surf-dom — and “The Poetry of Knowledge”: “A poem that, to echo the concern of Socrates, does not simply appear wise, but aspires to something like genuine wisdom. Wise and not wise-ass.”
Mark Wagenaar is a poet who has clearly and astutely been taking his Vitamin W (that would stand for, among other notable influences, Walt Whitman, Charles Wright, and Wojahn himself). In his first book, Voodoo Inverso, which won the 2012 Felix Pollak Prize, and his second, the Juniper Poetry Prize–winning The Body Distances (A Hundred Blackbirds Rising), Wagenaar’s capacious imagination ranges with empathy through the limitless catalog of the world’s wonders, from the agonizing to the miraculous. Formally, his poems — longish, with lengthy, elegant, amply charged lines that often trellis over pages — feel almost Biblical in their self-acknowledged prodigality, their desire to address “the dark that calls / us back to each other, times when the body is nothing but a trembling // bridge composed of the distance to another body” — as he writes in “The Body Distances II (Still Life with Everything in the World).”
In some ways, the symphonic poems in The Body Distances (Gustav Mahler’s four-part, unfinished 10th symphony provides the thematic armature for the book) are “stuff poems.” Mahler once announced, “Die Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt. Sie muss alles umfassen” (“The symphony must be a world. It must embrace everything”). Wagenaar possesses a large-scale, sonic imagination equal to Mahler’s challenge, and it feels that almost all of life is on offer here, in a stirring range of tonal and formal registers — from Adele to de Chirico, Mountain Dew to the Cloud of Unknowing, Midwestern pickup-truck meth labs to Pagliacci, elegiac sonnets to polka troubadours, baseball stats to the ecstatic ledger of the Book of Little Miracles.
But these are also poems in search of deep gnosis. In fact, the titles of the poems alone signal Wagenaar’s great geographical, spiritual, and moral reach: from “A Brief Report on Cosmology, Fate & Human Frailty” to “For Whom the Resurrection Is the Full Moon Rising.” So while any one poem — “Small Graces,” for instance — might include a sick brother, wild donkeys, Hebrew school, an old Hyundai, Humphrey Bogart, the presidential bid of Newt Gingrich, Job, and the Mexican cartel, each also adheres to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s belief that “what you look hard at, looks hard at you.” That, in the case of “Small Graces,” adds up to questionings of the highest order:
If immanent, God’s the marrow
& distances in our bones, even the doubt-lines on our faces.
If omnipresent, an unknowable alphabet on the air, each shadow
between us, every lost language. What would Job say?
Thank Him even in your need, praise Him in your sorrow.
Wise and not wise-ass, as Wojahn would say. Presciently, perhaps, The Body Distances contains a poem called “That the Unified Field Theory Must Somehow Include Donald Trump’s Hair.” (The very title is evidence of a gracious agility.) An elegy for a friend who has died in Iraq, the poem roves through the “Force-like web of all things” — which calls to mind the new physics and the internet — seeking meaning:
Add the video of the dog playing the accordion
to the List of Things that Remind Me of Seville,
… You could also add the dog to the List of Things I’d Watch
Instead of “The Apprentice,” which is a list that would reach
La Giralda from here. I’m not sure hair can be that bad,
whether it’s real or some sort of Trump l’oieil, but I’m sure
it falls somewhere in the Unified Field Theory, which includes
the zebrafish’ new eyes & the ghostly hair of nebulae —
the theory another way to count it all up, to name the world
around us …
And then, later:
… thank you Big Theory, for holding the present, the all of it,
each changeling particle, thank you for the six hidden dimensions
or the clouds of invisible dark matter, thank you for all of it
but it’s done nothing to make sense of all this, to explain the past
or the ‘President Trump’ ad that pops up when Findagrave.com finds
Ryan’s stone, I couldn’t make this up.
Wojahn writes that the Poem of Knowledge “derives from a desire to synthesize — or alchemize — one’s learning and command of craft into a new reality, a new reckoning […] no easy task during a time when both literature and facts themselves are debased.” This relates, I think, not only to the travesty of the current political climate, but also to what Jarrell says about excellence. It is our aspiration to distinguish useless, deceptive, or even outright stupid information from authentic understanding that may, ultimately, save us from ourselves. And that makes the discerning poetic undertakings of R. T. Smith and Mark Wagenaar more necessary than ever.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, will be published in 2017.