I was going to call this ‘the problem with America’ but changed my mind primarily because more or less the same problems beset the rest of the anglophone world. I’d like to say that I’m fully au fait with contemporary American poetry, that I’m aware of the various currents and debates that go on in Boston, Vancouver, Chicago and New York. Unfortunately I can’t make this claim primarily because I’m overwhelmed by the volume of stuff that is produced on the web and am further discouraged by the fact that most of it isn’t very good.
In order to cut through this particular swathe, I rely on Mark Woods who regularly posts links to American journals. This sometimes flags up work by poets that I admire but mostly serves to reinforce my view that the majority of the work that gets published is stunningly mediocre but in a distinctly American way.
Issue 4 of ILK caught my eye in that some of the work is startlingly good and stands in sharp relief to those poems that aren’t. Before we go any further I think I need to describe what kind of mediocrity that seems to me to be distinctively American. The first ingredient is an attempt to be clever without being clever enough, the second is what can only be described as a relentless assumption that the reader will be impressed by whatever the poet has written and the third is a really annoying level of breezy self-indulgence which should be beaten out of all aspiring MFAs. I’m increasingly intrigued as to why these should be primarily the characteristics of male mediocrity but that will have to wait for another day.
James Tadd Adcox’s ‘The Final Logic’ contains ‘And yet it looks and feels like barbarism. At that moment / you’ve marshaled the tropes of pathos / because you have not understood the systems of power.’ This may be an attempt to deliver the tropes / troops quip with the minimum of effort. I suggest this because the rest of the sentence is meaningless. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the rest of the poem wasn’t weighed down by its inflated sense of worth. I concede that there are some good bits struggling to get out (This is not Bolivia, purified of real voices) but the overall tone comes across as smug and nobody should (ever) put ‘humongous’ into a poem.
Molly Brodak’s ‘Full’ and ‘Located’ are both clever and provocative. The conceit of a series of unshown but specified translations is fertile ground and the finished ‘product’ does contain some delights, I’m very fond of ‘Some things you will be surprised by the song. / Jargon, unless you kill him.’ and ‘Hymn of the yawn you. / The thing is that you, as it.’ because of their strangeness and the gesture towards a ‘sense’ that lurks within.
I think it is reasonable to point out that Brodak doesn’t flaunt her cleverness, nor does she adopt a ‘position’ with regard to the poems and leaves the reader to try and trace what might have led to the differences between the ‘finished’ poems.
Bruce Covey’s ‘Sugar is the Anti-Bread’ is dedicated to Anne Boyer who is one of the few American poets that I admire. Covey’s poem is vanishingly bad because it tries to be clever but is actually crass, the use of ‘discourse’ and ‘contradiction’ is a sign of staggering ineptitude on a par with Sean Bonney’s use of ‘conflation’ which has annoyed me for the last three years. Unfinished words need to be good unfinished words, the use of indifferent unfinished words is simply inept. Isn’t it?
Kristina Marie Darling’s ‘Footnotes’ sequence is both startling and clever. I’m startled because the conceit is full of other stuff about the functions of footnotes and the relationship between these and our readerly notions of authority and authenticity- especially with regard to evidence and status. I readily concede that I’m easily impressed by well-executed intelligence and this is an example of the clever at its best but there is greater depth arising from a comparison between the three sets of notes and the way that each of these are phrased. I think what I’m trying to say is that this is cleverness with depth that does reward careful attention
Laressa Dickey’s ‘Good Posture’ nearly works, nearly carries itself off with aplomb but is undermined /diminished by section 5 which tries too hard, attempts to be clever and ends up with clumsiness- the last line is neither defiant enough nor shocking enough which is a pity because the previous sections are more than competent.
Matthew Mahaney’s ‘Dear Elizabeth’ two-part sequence is yet another example of the breezy, self-enamoured complacency that seems to pass for ‘quality’ poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘My appetite is wingspan, is pollen dusted skyline’ is the kind of line that needs a special kind of vacuity to write, let alone publish.
Jenny Sadre-Orafai & Rebecca Cook’s ‘The Place’ is thought-provoking because the reader has a number of choices:
- to read only the text that is immediately visible;
- to read both the visible text and that which is faint;
- to read the faint text whilst omitting the bold.
Without getting too abstract, this does throw up a number of theoretical issues about elision and the apparently secret whilst setting up readerly concerns as to the status of the original text. So, it’s reasonable to suggest that this is conceptual and that the idea takes precedence over content but this turns out not be the case and I’m continuing to try and work out why some words were selected for exposure and others were left hidden. Then again, this could well be the ‘point’.
Finally, the two poems by Hannah Vanderhart are intelligent and elegant and grown up and accomplished but may let themselves down by endings that seem a bit easy which is a pity because I really like the tone and that quiet sense of deliberate and considered focus which is the mark of a major talent.
So, a very mixed bunch with the women doing much better than the men. Some of the material has reinforced my prejudices but other poems have opened my eyes to the fact that North America has a much broader spectrum of talent and that this may be something that we can learn from.