If you’ve read any of my criticism on this site, you may recall that profuse obscurity in a poem bugs me. If I read a text multiple times and still can’t grasp, or even begin to intuitively sense, what human instance of thinking or action is going on, I lose my appetite. This is a critical attitude I slowly learned in graduate school, by figuring out that when I couldn’t comprehend some piece of post-structural literary theory, that didn’t mean I was dense–it meant the writer sucked. Inscrutability is not complexity. It’s poor, thin-spirited writing, indulging the author at the expense of a reader’s desire for some discernible meaning. In freshman comp classes at my university we call it egocentric writing, and I don’t see why we should not also disparage it in grown-up professional poetry written by people who win awards and get visiting fellowships. (*cough, Jorie Graham and fellow travelers, cough*)
But if you’ve read any of my criticism on this site, you also might remember that I ride for Wallace Stevens, James Tate, Marianne Moore, and other modern weirdos whose poems resist easy explication. (Tate’s “Fuck the Astronauts” may be an exception, but even that blast is characteristically surreal in a homegrown mid-century American way.) So what is the distinction between an obscurantist charlatan and a poet whose work is pleasantly strange and challenging?
The poet I come here to praise (not bury), Major Jackson, is instructive. Jackson’s best and most recent collection, Holding Company (2010), comprises eighty poems that each consist of ten lines, these lines mostly being ten to fifteen syllables long. The book demonstrates some forms of structural control and discursive guidance that prevent its lyrics from becoming unintelligible blobs.
At the highest architectural level, the eighty poems are organized into four groups of twenty; with its 800 lines held to a tight range of lengths, the book is evenly weighted. Now look at a single poem, “New Sphere of Influence”:
This is the year I’ll contemplate the fire-fangled sky
over the isle of Pag, authored by my lover’s eyes.
A crimson rambler uncurls its petals, and I am whistling
a dusty concerto, “Hope with Roadside Flowers.”
I want to unfurl in the sodden fields of her daydreams.
Who wants immortality if she must die?
Once I thought stars were everlasting, only dying
behind a cerulean curtain, cloudy rains at dawn.
My lover’s lips are twin geniuses. I’ve trashed the movie stubs
of my past. I’ve front row seats to her mumbling sleep.
Thematically speaking, this is pretty obviously a love poem, one that cross-breeds the modern (e.g., the closing metaphor of movie theaters) with the Elizabethan. Even if “Who wants immortality if she must die?” did not end with emphatic iambs, the organizing trope of a mistress’ eventual decline and death (and the poet’s self-conscious awareness of this) is a structural principle in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sonnets, which in turn frequently situate poetry as a partial defeat of death, an uneasy preservation of experience.
Note also the pervasive lyricism, something often missing from Difficult, prose-fingered contemporary poems. “New Sphere of Influence” isn’t lyrical just because it is short; it is lyrical because it is musically textured. Jackson doesn’t use a strict pattern of feet, but in places the text momentarily adopts a metrical rhythm (“authored by my lover’s eyes”). The lines are about the length of a full breath. Inhale, exhale, line break. There are no true end rhymes, but Jackson includes some partial rhymes, like sky/eyes, and the poem’s innards employ assonance (“seats to her mumbling sleep”) and alliteration, as in “My lover’s lips.” There are also some resonances between the middles of lines, as with three and five: “rambler uncurls” gets picked up by “I want to unfurl.” The poem quivers with sounds.
The images, meanwhile, are dreamlike and associative–one suspects the speaker is on the border of sleep–yet they also deliver intelligible scenes of human love. I’m sure the sky over Pag, a real Croatian isle where no doubt many lovers vacation, is sometimes “fire-fangled,” even if that is a Stevens-esque neologism; “sodden fields of her daydreams” is a visually lucid metaphor; and the “twin geniuses” of the beloved’s lips are likewise easily pictured.
This is a mind running with the body abed. The poem is not a facile lesson or narrative scenario–not straightforward, it is strange, like the mind–but it does record (or create) a genuine experience that most readers will recognize. Lyric poetry is especially good at this, and Major Jackson is especially good at lyric poetry.