On Jim Daniels and Writing

Jim Daniels’s poetry was recommended to me about a decade ago, but I’ve only just now gotten around to reading it. This is one of the nasty side effects of getting an advanced degree in literature; you become not only one kind of writer, but one kind of reader. Or, rather, you become a reader reading to write academic criticism, not to produce (or really even enjoy) art. You’re told you must present at conferences and roundtables (some of the least useful exercises known to man) simply because you must. You’re also encouraged to publish tortured and genuflective articles no one will read in outlets no one has heard of. And be very, very careful about who you tell that you’d rather write poetry than play video games. Trust me.

But now I’m done with all of that, and I’m once again, to borrow a phrase from a future colleague, Mike Bunn, “reading like a writer.” Jim Daniels’s Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2003) is the kind of book of poetry that 21-year-old me would have gone nuts over, and I can see why the person who recommended it then did so. Like a lot of creative writing students at a certain extremely crunchy Northern California university, I was obsessed with the working class narratives of Raymond Carver, Philip Levine, and Richard Hugo. The poems I was turning out under their influence weren’t metrical, didn’t rhyme, and told vague stories about love lost (I was in a happy relationship), hard work (I had worked shitty jobs, but not in factories), and bars (these I knew). The stuff I read was awesome, the stuff I wrote wasn’t. Jim Daniels’s work is in the tradition of the poets I admired then and continue to admire today, but reading his poetry ten years later makes me realize that the things that attract us to good writing at various stages in our lives (particularly in youth) aren’t necessarily what actually makes the writing good.

If you would have asked me then why Carver, Levine, and Hugo appealed to me, I probably would have said something about narrative and mood. And indeed, these are important elements of all poems I tend to enjoy. Poetry that lacks any sort of narrative arc bores the shit out of me, but then again I think that William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a dripping with narrative (the word “red” is the denouement). So, like a lot of things then, what constitutes a narrative is subjective. What reading Jim Daniels now reveals is that I was and am drawn to poetry that uses narrative in a distinct way: to work through but never resolve the frustration that comes from knowing that our interpretations of and reactions to joy and sorrow are both unique to the point of being painfully inexpressible (something Joan Didion calls “the burden of ‘home’”) and also really, really generic.

In one of the many portraits in Show and Tell, Daniels writes of “Crazy Eddy,” a “drunk/garbage man with a bad temper,”:

We didn’t know then
he picked up trash for a living
and drank twelve beers a night.
Maybe all he wanted was a green lawn
and a peaceful drunk.

The simplicity of both the phrasing and the sentiment here makes the critique all the more potent: we don’t know much about what others desire, what motivates them, and the assumptions we make usually lead us further from understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to express this idea in verse only to miss it, usually by a lot. Or take these couplets from “Shedding the Vestments”:

I was inside her for the first time
when her parents pulled up the driveway.

Her father’s brain was the size of a small stone
dug up by an idiot pig. He greeted me cordially.

This is one way to react to this event, and one particularly common to young men: smugness. However, there’s another reaction that’s equally plausible: pants-shitting panic. By giving us one possibility in such a dense couplet, the poem almost forces us to imagine its inverse as well, thus making the quality of the speaker’s youthful hubris even more stunning. As you might be able to imagine, this doesn’t bode well for the speaker, and when it all falls apart and the girl gets impregnated by someone else, the final line of the poem (“go to hell”) leaves us understanding how smugness and terror can both lead us to loneliness.

There are other great poems in Daniels’s collection, including “Time, Temperature,” which is about how the racial animus of a community can infect even people who consciously try to place themselves above it. Fittingly, this poem is dedicated to James Baldwin, and it is easily the most ambitious and cinematic in the collection. As with any book of poetry though, there are some duds in here. I am not a huge fan of the “[Insert Color] Jesus” poems, or the meandering “Niagra Falls,” as these start to veer into the realm of bad impressionistic art—all impressions, no firm connections or boundaries to give them even a loose shape. But duds aside, Show and Tell is well worth your time. Personally, I am happy to have more of that to devote to reading like a writer again.

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