Topical Verse: Roethke’s Greenhouse Fraus

For a poet whose work is a major bridge from prewar Modernism to the martinis-and-visiting-professorships circuit of the Fifties and Sixties, Theodore Roethke does not deserve to have faded from view so much. He has fans here and there, squirreling away used paperbacks, but dude definitely doesn’t have the cultural tonnage of William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop (two poets in his extended family), and Dame Plath’s estate probably moves more books in a week than Roethke’s does in a year. Until graduate school I pronounced his name Roth-co, like the painter. He lingers in the Norton anthologies, but in actual conversation I hadn’t met anyone to correct me.

It’s a shame. Roethke isn’t a great, but he’s still pretty great, the poetry equivalent of an awesome singles band.

Coming from a line of gardeners and builders, I’m wired to love the greenhouse lyrics that make up the first section of his best book, The Lost Son (1948). Autobiographical resonance aside, I like how these poems form a DMZ between tendencies that sometimes weaken his writing.

On one side of the field, you’ve got his “confessional” impulse, the need to establish versions of one’s wounded self as the ultimate poetic reality, which can easily tip into self-mythologizing frenzy. As “Open House” (lame pun) has it, “My secrets cry aloud,” and thus often “Rage warps my clearest cry / To witless agony” (AWFUL rhyme). You get the sense he might not be the most fun person to hang out with some days.

On the other side of the field is a much more pervasive flaw, Roethke’s persistent desire to be a visionary like Yeats or Blake, with an attendant mimicry of the song-/chant-like prosody they often use. Even the wonderful “Epidermal Macabre” is like a B-side of Yeats’s “A Coat.” Gorgeous. I carry a handwritten copy in my wallet. But still a B-side. In his massive, intermittently luminous Lives of the Poets (1998), the critic Michael Schmidt calls it “partial ventriloquism.”

You get a lot of crap about vision and transcendence in Roethke, and all the time you also get the sense that he would be happier talking about daily activities and relationships. Google “The Geranium.” It is a fantastic friendship poem written by a frazzled loner. It exemplifies what Roethke was capable of when he wasn’t spinning out oracular stuff like the lines in this rogue’s gallery:

A pearl within the brain, / Secretion of the sense; / Around a central grain / New meaning grows immense. (“Genesis”)

The stones sang, / The little ones did, / And flowers jumped / Like small goats.
(“The Waking”—the other one, not the justly famous villanelle)

All’s known, all, all around: / The shape of things to be; / A green thing loves the green / And loves the living ground. / The deep shade gathers night; / She changed with changing light.
(“Light Listened”)

Oh, and from the “Love Poems” section of his 1953 volume The Waking, here is “The Dream.” This how it ends:

She held her body steady in the wind;
Our shadows met, and slowly swung around;
She turned the field into a glittering sea;
I played in flame and water like a boy [editorial note: !!!]
And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam;
Like a wet log, I sang within a flame.
In that last while, eternity’s confine,
I came to love, I came into my own.

That’s an attempted bang that ends up being a whimper. In all of these you see Roethke elbowing his way toward the numinous through nature and women and his own psychodrama, forcing the stuff of consciousness into Very Significant existential patterns. This in turn produces some painfully simple-minded rhymes.

A cooler Roethke appears in his notebooks, which David Wagoner has edited for the Copper Canyon Press under the name Straw For the Fire (1974, 2006). “We need more barnyard poets,” Roethke declares on page 12, perhaps after several whiskies, “poets who depart from the patio, the penthouse, the palladium.” Modified roughnecks, of the kind Whitman admired. “What was the greenhouse?” asks a later entry, which then answers itself: “It was a jungle, and it was paradise; it was order and disorder: Was it an escape? No, for it was a reality harsher than reality” (page 145). “I wish I could photosynthesize,” he admits on the following page.

The same earthbound mensch shows up in the greenhouse poems from The Lost Son. Here, horticulture serves as a figuration of the poet act, being a partial re-engineering and attempted management of nature’s fecund otherness. The texts are personally rooted but not sutured to a biographical persona; they are self-oriented but not self-contained. Conversational but not slack, intimate without becoming maudlin, they employ free verse that is cut with patterned rhymes and unobtrusive meters in places.

These poems posit a dialectic between vision and the visual, between the fundamental arrogance of a poet’s imagination and the rank solidity of dirt, watering cans, and chlorophyll. A poet’s gotta dream. But then the real, grubby, frustrating, material universe will push back.

So this weekend’s poem is “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze.” Roethe’s dad owned some greenhouses in Michigan; and apparently Roethke senior’s pop was an official forester for Kaiser Wilhelm. Roethke worked in the greenhouses some summers, alongside the older women who maintained the sites year-round.

Refusing visionary leaps can be a feminist act. That is, refusing to twist actual humans from one’s past into a mythology that motivates one’s present is a gesture of respect for actual lives that, in this instance, are women’s lives. The three women in this poem are people, not a transcendentalist conduit or visionary metaphor. They chew tobacco, they sweat when they work. They aren’t pretty maidens, fertile mothers, or geriatric saints.

The poem does not pity the fraus for being childless “nurses of no one else.” It avoids the easy edginess of playing up a weird Freudian sexual angle. It likens the women to birds and witches (one detects a reference to Macbeth in there), but it nonetheless views them as earthbound, fascinating, actual Others, not symbols of Mother Nature or bit players in Roethke’s personal archives. Their flesh is working flesh, the stuff of labor: gardening in this case, the work of “Keeping creation at ease.” These three German ex-pats have a permanently reserved table in the poet’s memory, but they aren’t contractually bound to occupy it every night. After an initial feint at mythology (“three ancient ladies”) the text settles into a respect for their autonomy, their lives as material beings. We know them a little bit, through one remarkable, writing person’s fallible memory. This is it. We should all be so lucky.

Enjoy the read. Happy weekends, y’all.

Gone the three ancient ladies
Who creaked on the greenhouse ladders,
Reaching up white strings
To wind, to wind
The sweet-pea tendrils, the smilax,
Nasturtiums, the climbing
Roses, to straighten
Carnations, red
Chrysanthemums; the stiff
Stems jointed like corn,
They tied and tucked,—
These nurses of nobody else.
Quicker than birds, they dipped
Up and sifted the dirt;
They sprinkled and shook;
They stood astride pipes,
Their skirts billowing out wide into tents,
Their hands twinkling with wet;
Like witches they flew along rows
Keeping creation at ease;
With a tendril for needle
They sewed up the air with a stem;
They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—
All the coils, loops, and whorls.
They trellised the sun; they plotted for more than themselves.

I remember how they picked me up, a spindly kid,
Pinching and poking my thin ribs
Till I lay in their laps, laughing,
Weak as a whiffet;
Now, when I’m alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuff-laden breath blowing lightly over me in my first sleep.

Weekend Poetry: Dana Gioia, Los Angeles, and the Rain

The Los Angeles basin got steady rain all last night, the first we’ve had since early spring. With the morning came further fall weather, a crisp breeze and high skies, this temporary dream architecture of brisk clouds and temps in the low 60s. The city looks like it got a great night’s sleep. As Lord Byron says in a letter, weather accounts for a large part of one’s mood, which is especially true in a region that tends to collect foul air, and which has lately suffered from the grime of long-term drought. Angelenos are in a fine mood, is what I’m saying.

In honor of today’s vigor, allow me to introduce a poem by one of the city’s great writers, Dana Gioia. Published in 1991 (as part of the somewhat preciously titled The Gods of Winter), it derives a little extra weight from the fact that the Nineties were the tail-end of the bad Smog Years, when LA seemed like a city in all sorts of decline, not least environmental. Smog alerts had hounded the populace since World War II, and yet here they were, still choking. But really, Gioia’s meteorological YAWP will touch any city-slicker’s besmirched heart, which, if you want to get theoretical, is where the eyes and the mind and the feet all meet.

It may resonate with anyone who’s ever woken up happy. Take a deep breath. Listen!

Back home again on one of those bright mornings
when the city wakes to find itself reborn.
The smog gone, the thundering storm
blown out to sea, birds
frantic in their joyous cacophony, and the mountains,
so long invisible in haze,
newly risen with the sun.

It is a morning snatched from Paradise,
a vision of the desert brought to flower—
of Eve standing in her nakedness,
immortal Adam drunk with all
the gaudy colors of the world,
and each taste and touch, each
astounding pleasure still waiting to be named.

The city stirs and stretches
like a young man waking after love.
Sunlight stroking the skin and the
promiscuous wind whispering
“Seize the moment. Surrender to the air’s
irrefutable embrace. Trust me that today
even seduction leads to love.”

Too many voices overhead. Too many scents
commingle in the stark perfume
of green winter freshened by the rain.
This is no morning for decisions.
A day to ditch responsibility, look up
old friends, and dream
of quiet love, impossible resolutions.

Copyright © 1991 by Dana Gioia

Late-Week Poetry: Gary Snyder’s “Above Pate Valley”

It’s not the weekend, but it is the week’s end. We have some poetry for you!

I don’t know if American teenagers still read the Beats, but when I was a teenager in America, I loved them so much that for a high-school class I co-wrote/-assembled something called The Book of Jack (Kerouac) for English class. Sized for a giant’s coffee table, this cardboard-bound collage of pictures, quotations, inspired drawings, and scholarly citations now rests in my parents’ basement, probably where it belongs. In the late 1990s I was a Kerouac man and, to a lesser degree, an Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs man. I didn’t know that “the Beats” is a clunky historical term that many Beat writers disliked immediately, or that scholars have since partially dismantled it, and I would not have cared if I had known.

My literary spider sense tells me that most readers outgrow the Beats. That is, while they do not usually come to dislike that bundle of mid-century coastal bohemians, the Beats do start to feel immature, or at least limited, as one acquires more education and gets older. The same impulses and attitudes which made them radical in the 1950s also keep them right in the teen wheelhouse: emotion, iconoclasm, expressivity, the new, the raw, existential peaks and valleys, all those urges toward various modes of ecstatic alienation (1). In the long run their thematic and formal register also led me to Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud, and other poets Ginsberg and company admired.

For what it’s worth, the Beats grew out of the Beats, too. Kerouac became a pudgy conservative who hung out with William F. Buckley in the Sixties; the poet Gary Snyder spent most of the peak-Beat era in Japan; Ginsburg and Burroughs both lived well beyond their demographically median life expectancies and became comfortable old Literary Figures (2).

Much of their canonized work has not aged well, at least for me. Ginsberg’s best stuff (such as “A Supermarket in California,” his comically poignant vision of a Walt Whitman dumped in mid-century America) is very, very good, but it’s almost entirely from the 1950s and 1960s; and unfortunately this period constitutes only part of his hefty Collected Poems. Burroughs’s reptilian prose only sounds good when someone with a gravel-munching voice like William S. Burroughs reads it aloud. Junky and Naked Lunch haven’t kept their bloom: the former is impressive until you encounter something like De Quincey’s Confessions or David Lynch, while Lunch (which David Cronenberg turned into a film) is shocking for maybe 30 pages the first time you read it, after which it becomes a boring round of grotesqueries. I remember nothing Gregory Corso wrote. I do recall reading Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind on the bus while traveling to high-school soccer games.

The homie Kerouac wrote too much too fast, and a lot of his fiction belies a surly, misogynistic beef with the world. Try to read Big Sur or The Subterraneans without cringing, then perhaps sobbing—even in high school I realized that the bibulous self-pity of many of his male narrators was gross. Imagine Woody Allen as a Catholic drunk. I’ve never gotten through Dharma Bums even though I’m generally neurotic about finishing books I start.

I’ll ride for On the Road, though, even in adulthood. Despite its sentimental racism, juvenile grasp of women’s lives, and occasionally questionable ethics (it venerates Neal Cassady, or “Dean Moriarty” in the book, a boring, obsessive, half-literate speed freak who seems to not so much interact with women as inhale them), the novel stands up to re-reading. It isn’t merely a young person’s book, a white teenager’s book, or a classier version of Bukowski. It’s a narrative about America. Kerouac’s lyric intensity turns purple in places, but as a whole the novel is poetic in a way  few American books are: we’re talking the empyrean, we’re talking up there with Faulkner and parts of Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin. More importantly, because great prose does not excuse imaginative thinness, Sal Paradise’s wounded longing, his conviction that a more authentic American life exists somewhere, resonates with a deep tradition of New World dreaminess and a distinctly American pessimism, of the Death of a Salesman variety. In fact, it points back to European romanticism and, if you really want to stretch the point, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Jane Eyre. It is Kerouac’s Illmatic.

But if On the Road is the Beat generation’s greatest single text, Gary Snyder has had the most consistent career. My favorite poems of his are mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but he never fell off the way Ginsberg did, or tumbled into mopey narcissism like Kerouac. Although his experience is often the basis for what the speakers of his poems see, the texts are nonetheless more interested in the outside world, especially intersections between human life and the more-than-human environment. (Snyder’s 1992 volume No Nature: New and Selected Poems pointedly rejects the term “nature” as a European construct. DEBATABLE. Anyway.)

The poem we have here is “Above Pate Valley,” from Snyder’s debut Riprap (1957). As a young man he spent summers laying trails in the Sierras, and this labor (“riprap” is rubble used for paving and walls) figures in his writing. Note how the poem tinkers with syntax and elides certain expected words like the articles “the” or “an,” producing a notebook of observations with an almost physical sense of cognitive movement; note its ethic of paying attention to the world, to the world’s physicality as well as the human histories present in this material flux; note how the text flows from a believably human narrator but doesn’t privilege him, remaining humble before the world. Note all kinds of lyric greatness, y’all. Enjoy a marvel of American English.

We finished clearing the last
Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek
Reached the pass, went on
Beyond the white pine groves,
Granite shoulders, to a small
Green meadow watered by the snow,
Edged with Aspen—sun
Straight high and blazing
But the air was cool.
Ate a cold fried trout in the
Trembling shadows. I spied
A glitter, and found a flake
Black volcanic glass—obsidian—
By a flower. Hands and knees
Pushing the Bear grass, thousands
Of arrowhead leavings over a
Hundred yards. Not one good
Head, just razor flakes
On a hill snowed all but summer,
A land of fat summer deer,
They came to camp. On their
Own trails. I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousand years.

NOTES
1) When Howl was published in 1957 the Partisan Review retorted with a comically snobby, pissy, quite funny John Hollander review which is excerpted here.
2) And Burroughs was a heroin addict and chain smoker for decades. 

Everybody’s Readin’ for the Weekend: Some General Links

The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)

  • Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here)  it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
  • Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.

  • Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.

BeerStreet - William Hogarth

Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.

GinLane -William Hogarth

  • Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
  • The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.

Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.

More (on) Country

Every year when the Grammy Awards show is on, I find myself wondering who its audience is. No one ever seems happy with the nominees, let alone who wins, and most people are generally unmoved by the really contrived “live” (lip-synced) performances. This past year, Kendrick Lamar (who’s a talented MC, but not the next coming of Nas, as some have claimed) not only lost a statue to these guys, but also had to perform with these guys:

 

Watching “country singer” Taylor Swift awkwardly dance to this crap is pretty funny, but it also underscores something important: the Grammy spectacle isn’t about music at all. It’s TMZ, a reality show singing competition, a couple soap operas, and a weird Judge [Insert Name Here] show all rolled into one. It’s an advertising delivery mechanism meant to titillate Two-and-Half Men viewers, even as they express moral outrage at all the flesh, flash, and crudity on display. It’s maybe the most Hollywood thing on television in that it’s not even trashy enough to be interesting.

If you’re someone who reads this blog and inexplicably finds yourself watching the Grammys, we advise that you go take a leak or pass out during the ten minutes when they announce the country awards or have some generic, horrifically bedazzled Nashviller perform. Ryan’s ably documented the godawful state of contemporary country, with its pop chanteuses, bros of all varieties, and faux outlaws raging against nothing. I would say that we deserve a better class of country musician, but we really don’t. We deserve the crap we’re willing to pay for, and Carrie Underwood concerts alway sell out.

So thank god for YouTube, where you can not only listen to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, but also watch this performance from the 1991 Grammys:

Jiminy Crickets, where to start? You’ve got Gary Shandling, whose Larry Sanders managed to combine the poofy hair of Jerry Seinfeld with the appalling suits of Frasier and Niles Crane. Folks, there was a time when media execs wanted Gary Shandling to host the Grammys. Then there’s Garth Brooks’ shirt. I think we once had some outdoor furniture cushions in that pattern, but I gotta admit, it looks great with a cowboy hat. Then there’s the premise of the vignette that just follows the lyrics of the song:

Grammy Writer: “It’s like a high-society party scene out of Designing Women where Garth is looked down on by snooty types, and then *poof* we’re magically transported to a “dive bar” peopled by Juliard graduates that make him feel right at home!”

Hollywood Suit: “You’re destined for greatness, kid!”

Someone could do a humdinger of a terrible grad seminar paper on this video. Please cite me if you do. From the dinner-theater acting, to Kathy Mattea’s camera face, this marvelous turd is more interesting than anything the Grammys will ever produce again because it’s not even trying to be cool (see the above), a grail quest that has ruined just about everything in our culture. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the song, which didn’t win a Grammy (because Vince Gill won this category *7* times in the 90s), is a classic in genre that seems determined never to churn out another one.

Los Angeles Country: Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs”

Country music has a split heritage: rural Protestantism on the one hand, hillbilly hedonism on the other. All those mean little nondenominational churches in the South can’t change the fact that music is great, partying is fun, and getting drunk is restorative and beneficial until it becomes terrible. Sin and forbearance and all that—it’s how you get George Jones’s music and George Jones’s life. And in its purest form, the genre is workers’ music, poor man’s music, jams out of coal hollers and county highways, every song shadowed by poverty and boring, ordinary disappointment.

Like many cultural phenomena, country flourished when it spread beyond its geographical roots, like how the Brits invented the Anglophone novel but Americans perfected it (1). When the Dust Bowl and then World War II drew poor whites (primarily Appalachians and the Okies) out west, country music got California all over it. Despite its financial capital and production heft, Nashville doesn’t have shit on Bakersfield. In turn, Bakersfield needed Los Angeles, the urban hub just over the mountains through which country’s best tendencies were distributed. When the genius who is the subject of today’s post went to Nashville at the dawn of the Reagan era, saw a bunch of New South rhinestone schlock, said “Fuck it,” and moved out west, he was copying dudes like Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, pursuing his own version of the n’er-do-well proto-punk aesthetic that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (two artists who never really fit in the South even though they were Southern boys, as JC emphasized by stomping out the floor lights at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965) had articulated.

Dwight Yoakam settled in LA in the 1980s, developing his style in shitty punk clubs and similar dives, and dropping his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., toward the dismal end of the Reagan years (1986). One of the best country debuts ever? Survey says YES. It’s the creation of an Appalachian transplant who liked tight jeans as much as he dug Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Creedence, AOR pop singles, and the Carter Family. Country music? Grimy at heart. (See above.) Los Angeles? Grimy at heart and in all the other ways.

But he wasn’t some subaltern master that America didn’t ever appreciate: Yoakam was huge in the late 1980s and 1990s, selling out stadiums and hogging the airwaves. Indeed, he was a Boyd family staple in our blue Ford Ranger. His videos dominated the limited space MTV gave to country artists, and while I wouldn’t call them cool (some of them are downright terrible), compared to what Garth Brooks and his headset were subjecting America to, Yoakam’s grunge-hunk look is tight enough to redeem all but the worst media rollouts (2). In general, these pleasant visual adjuncts underscore his ability to write fantastic pop songs (3), much like his physical doppelganger and stylistic cousin Tom Petty.

His first five albums did serious Billboard-chart damage, and they are all great, but the one I keep bumpin’ in my jalopy is Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. My own dear favorite track is “South of Cincinnati,” but the title-ish song “Guitars, Cadillacs” offers a better idea of what makes Yoakam’s best work so fascinating and inventive. The song is fun with a sad edge. In other words, it is like the better parties you’ve been to lately. Have a weekend, LA and beyond.

NOTES
1) Unfortunately it also works the other way around, as when white people grow dreadlocks.
2) For a demonstration of how standards of taste and style are historically contingent, watch the video for Yoakam’s enormous (and still awesome) hit “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Most of it is perfectly adequate cable-TV fare, but there’s a shot around 1:40 that is titanically, hilariously awful; I need someone to make me a GIF of it. The lady’s hair-toss!
3) The most beautiful musicians can make accessible music, even pop music, if they want to. Examples: Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Chopin’s piano bits, Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Brian Wilson, Jay Z. Something is missing if an artist’s work is always difficult, just like if it were constantly enjoyable only on an unreflective, immediate level. High art isn’t continually highbrow. Jane Eyre exemplifies this, as do the deft, sad lyrics below, which arrive near the end of “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” one of DY’s singles from If There Was a Way [sic]:

If a tear should fall,
If I should whisper her name
To some stranger I’m holding
While we’re dancin to an old Buck Owens song,
I know she won’t mind
She won’t even know–
She’ll be dancing with a memory, crying teardrops of her own.

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

Topical Weekday Verse: Thom Gunn, “Nasturtium”

When he started publishing, Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was quickly grouped with other young British poets who were poised to follow W.H. Auden’s lead, rejecting what they saw as the gratuitous, reader-alienating Difficulty of modernists like Pound, T.S. Eliot, Stein, and Stevens. In other words, they disliked how hard it was to decipher, let alone enjoy, many canonical modernist poems—the Cantos, anyone? (Most of them also detested Dylan Thomas’s lush neo-romanticism.) Starting in the mid-1950s, journalists hoisted the label “the Movement” onto Gunn, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and others; then New Lines, an influential 1956 anthology that Conquest edited, presented them as cohesive, not just contemporaneous.

Like all narratives this one simplifies a lot, which is why most of the so-called Movement poets refused the term (1). Yet there are discernible patterns in the work of these individual writers, who sought a poetics that was aesthetically pleasurable (it rhymed and scanned in meters that English poets had been using for centuries) and less thematically opaque: none of The Waste Land‘s maddening footnotes. More accessible, more public, in other words. Larkin turned out to be Auden’s greatest heir, but Gunn has also staked a place in the anthologies. (Amis wrote fine poems, too, but he is known more as a brilliant comic novelist.) Larkin, whose letters sometimes have a nasty provincial streak disguised as half-ironic Tory wit, claimed to detest Gunn’s work—”What a genius that man has for making an ass of himself”—but then again he also preferred Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell. Even geniuses have moments of shaky taste (2).

No doubt Gunn’s lifestyle, or stories about it, also bugged Larkin, who saw himself as a conservative. By the time he was being touted as a new voice in British poetry, Gunn had moved to San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life there. An openly (by the late 1970s) gay man who rode motorcycles, dropped lots of acid, hung out with lovers in leather, taught at Berkeley, and generally appeared just fine with hippies, queens, bikers, and other Bay Area species, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Royal Army veteran educated at Cambridge.

His life in the Bay supplies a lot of his subject matter; as such he might seem fully Americanized. However, in terms of its formal structures, Gunn’s strongest poetry derives from an English lyric tradition which prizes conceptual lucidity, metrical cohesion, pleasing rhymes, and a frequently ironic (not to say cynical) view of human life. He may write about surfers and sometimes mess around with free verse and syllabics (like a damn Frenchman!) but ultimately he’s a traditionalist who leans toward patterned meters.

As far as Anglophone poetry goes, there are two main species in this metrical genus. Accentual-syllabic verse, where you look at the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables within lines that have the same total number of syllables, is the most common. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is probably the best-known example, but accentual-syllabic forms have been the foundation of English lyric since the 1500s, and you can draw a line from Marlowe to Ben Jonson to Marvell to Pope to the nineteenth-century British giants (e.g., Keats, Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Housman) to modern poets like Auden and Larkin. You could also throw in certain Americans, like Robert Frost, the Fugitives, and Yvor Winters, the aesthetic arch-conservative whom Gunn studied with at Stanford (3). Straight-up accentual verse, where you only count the number of accents (not the syllables), regardless of where they fall in a particular line, is also a Gunn mode. Gerard Manley Hopkins is the king of this one, which ultimately goes back to Old English texts like Beowulf, but Coleridge and Milton also experimented with it.

Now, like any skilled formalist poet, Gunn rarely sticks with a totally regularized beat. A lyric’s meter serves as a baseline, not a straitjacket, because the poem will get boring and shitty if it bounces along the same track the whole way. Even when working with, for example, rhyming couplets—the ultimate in neoclassical regularity, favored by eighteenth-century wig bros like Alexander Pope—Gunn will shift accent-placement and line-length, or occasionally swap in a slant rhyme where the pattern would seem to call for a full one. Indeed, you often get texts that seem to hover between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse; hey, most literary classifications are somewhat imprecise.

So what’s the poem for this edition of Topical Verse? It’s “Nasturtium,” from Gunn’s 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats. More lit-crit talk below.

Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.

Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
And undernourishment
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.

Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.

This is a love poem, devoted to the community where Gunn found a home and to the nasturtium itself, a common flower of resplendently strange appearance. (This is what a nasturtium looks like up close, and this is what they look like in tumbling, spilling floods of color.) The flower is a metaphor but it’s a flower too.

Nasturtiums, which have shallow roots and reproduce via seeds that look like tiny shriveled craniums, are rapacious spreaders and excellent climbers. Perfections up close, they are even better en masse; repetitive and profligate, they lend themselves to filigree, and illustrators, designers, and other artists have long prized them (3). Gunn uses a weedy, light meter—generally three accents distributed over a six-syllable line, though some lines can be read with four accents, all of it arranged into three stanzas of equal length—that mimics that plant’s organic form. Nasturtiums do well in poor soil, loving a “sour waste lot,” and will in fact produce fewer blooms if you water or fertilize them too much.

Iambic pentameter is the workhorse of English poetry because lines with ten-ish syllabus and five-ish beats are long enough to do complicated stuff with, in terms of sound and image, but not so long that they run out to the page’s edge, which would tax the reader. (Poems that care about musicality usually need the propulsion that comes from line breaks and new starts after that drop.) But even with relatively scrawny lines, Gunn does some cool stuff. For example, although the meter and the rhyme scheme used in the first two stanzas persist into the third, in that final unit the punctuation partially abandons the syntactical conventions of standard English. In its closing exuberance, the stanza’s punctuation serves mainly to organize sensuous impressions.

Read metaphorically, the nasturtium represents survivors, in particular the gay men who made it to the big free city (free compared to the places many came from, at least) and settled in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Castro after “poverty and prison / And undernourishment.” Seen in terms of the “golden runaway,” Young-Man-Escaped narrative, the lyric is hopeful.

However, its surroundings are grim: The Man With Night Sweats is largely a meditation on the first terrible decade of AIDS, the plague years that tore through urban gay communities. Gunn lost a lot of friends. A few pages after “Nasturtium” the book’s last section begins, opening with the titular poem. The noun “prodigal” has a dark slant, and Gunn builds cold irony into the dream of nonchalance, pure subjective freedom, and endless “spending” (a verb poets have used for centuries as a half-comic euphemism for ejaculation). There is no “all day.” Life is always preparing forms of suffering.

At the end of Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), a man named Stefan Pashov, who drives machines in Antarctica, says something beautiful:

Suffering reproduces aggressively, as do viruses (bad) and nasturtiums (good). Poems are diffusive too, hauled out of the languages we’ve devised and passed from writer to reader. Texts are partially biological. You see this vividly when the same poem demonstrates both the human compulsion to make metaphors—plundering nature for tropes to help us describe our lives—and our urge (still flickering in 2014) to admit the otherness of living things.

NOTES
1) In the second appendix of Kingsley Amis’s mammoth Selected Letters (seriously, it could stop a bullet) you’ll find some superb parodies of Movement poets that Amis mailed to Larkin (one of his best friends) in 1956. Titled “All Aboard the Gravy Train: Or, Movements Among the Younger Poets” and written by one “Ron Cain,” it pokes fun at the tics and tendencies of Gunn, Robert Conquest (another one of Amis’s bros), Larkin, D.J. Enright, Amis himself, and others frequently deemed Movement types.
2) Letter to Robert Conquest, 20 February 1962, reprinted in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 341.
3) Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are also handy with traditional forms, though both were perfectly comfortable writing lots of free verse.
4) Plus the blooms are edible. Very tasty in fact, a spry pepper. Makes you look cool if you put them in the salad you bring to a picnic.