Topical Verse: Doing Justice

One of the ironic benefits of a lengthy education in a language’s literature (English in this blog’s two editorial cases) and its attendant scholarship is that you become skeptical of narratives and theories that purport to comprehensively explain any of that literature’s constituent parts, let alone the whole thing. Your bullshit radar gets good at spotting what Kingsley Amis calls “Victorian system building.”

If you ever took an English-lit survey in college, you probably encountered the magisterial Norton anthologies. I don’t use that adjective ironically: those books really are the best undergraduate-level anthologies ever assembled. You can carry a decent chunk of civilization’s accomplishments under your arm. Sorry, Longman, Heath, and other anthologies, but it’s true. (Although the Heath texts did help demonstrate what the supposedly conservative Norton has long since embraced, which is the idea that texts by “minority” writers are often not minor).

Problem is, an anthology has to simplify things a lot, because it is hard to cover all the ins and outs of English in a single volume. For example, according to your author’s much-thumbed and -beloved household Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, American poetry has two founding magicians, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. This is true, to an extent. Nobody in America had written anything that sounded remotely like Leaves of Grass before New York’s original bohemian perv showed up, and there is still nothing like Dickinson’s extraterrestrial hymns.

But things get more complicated from there. Despite the attempts of some critics to map Whitman onto William Carlos Williams (the vernacular, Jacksonian, quotidian voice); or to draw a line from Dickinson to Wallace Stevens (the aristocratic, post-symbolist, bizarro-metaphysical lyric tone); or to demonstrate that Dickinson is to Elizabeth Bishop as Whitman is to Allen Ginsberg, what Philip Larkin says about painters is true. (Grad students planning to write a dissertation which systematizes everything so brilliantly that a school hurls a tenure-track job at you, take note, then quit grad school immediately.) For Larkin, “each painter represents an exhaustion of a particular way of seeing things.” If visual art constitutes “heightened seeing,” he contends in this 1947 letter, then “Poetry = heightened talking.”

This doesn’t mean that the Romantic myth of the genius who has nothing to learn from anyone is true. Only creeps like Percy Shelley and Kanye West believe that. Rather, great artists are singularities, but within patterns, within contexts, within historical communities. They are both radical and traditionalist. Their language of experience is an intensified mutation of some other rather large group’s or groups’ language of experience.

Here I come to one of my favorite poets, Donald Justice. Homie often gets pegged as one of Stevens’s heirs, because his poems frequently read like dream-logic parodies of symbolist puzzles, but his work is also plainspoken. His voice might remind you of Raymond Carver, the Spoon River Anthology, and Whitman. Justice’s best poetry is situationally intelligible: in other words, you can generally tell what the basic set-up is (“OK, guy is looking at some flowers and remembering childhood”), which makes it easier to enjoy yourself. Much love to T.S. Eliot, but it doesn’t always have to be difficult. His heightened talking still sounds like regular talking. His poems could be scenes from novels.

Anyway, here is “The Telephone Number of the Muse” (1973):

Sleepily, the muse to me: “Let us be friends.
Good friends, but only friends. You understand.”
And yawned. And kissed, for the last time, my ear.
Who earlier, weeping at my touch, had whispered:
“I loved you once.” And: “No, I don’t love him.
Not after everything he did.” Later,
Rebuttoning her nightgown with my help:
“Sorry, I just have no desire, it seems.”
Sighing: “For you, I mean.” Long silence. Then:
“You always were so serious.” At which
I smiled, darkly. And that was how I came
To sleep beside, not with her; without dreams.

I call her up sometimes, long distance now.
And she still knows my voice, but I can hear,
Beyond the music of her phonograph,
The laughter of the young men with their keys.

I have the number written down somewhere.


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