Weekend Verse: Major Jackson’s “New Sphere of Influence”

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.

Saturday Links

Ayo, readers. Here are some weekend texts to keep you cozy during each November day’s 26 hours of darkness. (Or, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, to give you something to read on your phone so you don’t have to interact with other people.)

  • From The Economist, a brief piece on America’s repulsive penchant for mandatory minimums and life-without-parole for nonviolent offenders. Being TE, the bosom publication of neoliberal trans-Atlantic “moderates,” they have to screw it up by pasting “none too bright” onto “typically poor” when describing inmate demographics, and by pivoting (in fewer than ten words) from acknowledging that the best available estimates indicate that two-thirds of nonviolent lifers are black (ninety-one percent in Louisiana!) to assuring readers that “the problem with the system is not racial bias; applying such draconian, hope-crushing sentences to non-violent offenders of any race is cruel and pointless.” This is like saying that the problem with Stalin wasn’t so much that he butchered and enslaved millions of Soviet subjects, but that killing/enslaving anyone is evil. The fact that the second part is true doesn’t somehow invalidate the first, dear editors of major publication.
  • The branch of the UAW that represents UC graduate students recently released a report titled “Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education.” Read ‘er here. It points out plenty of things this blog has underscored in its own little way: that holding impersonal classes in decaying buildings is bad for the UC; that not investing in teachers and researchers (especially younger ones) is bad for the UC; that going whole-hog for privatized online classes which are demonstrably expensive and shitty is bad for the UC; that reducing the amount of intellectual and material support for low-income students is bad for the UC (and the US); that well-compensated administrators, like UC Irvine’s chief medical officer, do not need quiet little (massive) bonuses, like said CMO’s $73,000 moving-expenses stipend. (Was dude moving to Argentina?) No doubt this report will do nothing to change the situation that inspired it. But hey, the President gave a speech.
  • Labor conditions got you down? Lucky for us, many episodes of The Muppet Show (1976-1981) are on YouTube. Here is the episode where Johnny Cash was the guest. Fair warning, though, if you don’t have a sense of humor or grasp of irony: At one point JC performs with a Confederate flag in the background while Gonzo rides a bronco in the fore.
  • This early half-gem of David Foster Wallace’s is being sold at Urban Outfitters now. Seems like an odd marketing move, considering that among the 200 or so undergraduates whom I have forced to read essays of his, precisely threeas a DFW fanboy I remember the numberhad even heard of the man, let alone read anything he wrote. I am actually hoping that UO knows their target demo and is onto something wonderful. Like, maybe copies of Infinite Jest will be piled next to deep-Vs and cheap boat shoes. Could happen.
  • Now in the Grantland stable, Wesley Morris is my favorite film critic. Like DFW, Morris wields a sophisticated, erudite critical vocabulary when talking about American culture, including some of its trashier prongs, without being self-conscious about the performance. Read some stuff here (at his first home, the Boston Globe), here, or here. A sample sentence, from a review of Spring Breakers: “What [director Harmony] Korine does with the beer-soaked skin, face-devouring makeouts, and piles and piles of barely dressed people is intensify the college-party atmosphere in a way that feels simultaneously orgasmic and repulsive.” He hyphenated the phrasal adjectives! Even though I’m straight, I’m swooning.
  • I live in California, and these short days will only shorten for the next few months. Winter’s coming. So here is Karl Shapiro’s “California Winter,” a wonderful elongated lyric. Don’t worry if you don’t live in California, unless you believe that only English people should read Dickens.

Good Reviews: More like “Back to DERP”

Esquire is gross. We’ve covered that. Not many texts are more ephemeral than book reviews in Esquire, except maybe reviews in Esquire of recent books by Tom Wolfe; the neo-Social Realist ones. And yet although nothing Tom Wolfe, Esquire, or the General Reader does matters, Benjamin Alsup’s compact but weirdly patient, vicious disposal of Wolfe’s Back to Blood (yeesh, the title) is worth your bytes and clicks. A fundamental thrust:

[. . .] There are no characters in Back to Blood, only caricatures, cartoonish stereotypes that are little more than reflections of their sociocultural contexts. The Cuban cop who loves his pastelitos. The preppy reporter with all the right credentials. The Hialeah honey with a heart of gold and a pussy like a papaya. In Back to Blood, Wolfe comes across as a white guy explaining brown people to a room full of white guys. Sure, he burns pages giving his readers access to these characters’ interiors, but once he’s given you the sociological stats (age, gender, race, occupation) there’s really no need for it. Anything Wolfe tells you about what his characters are thinking are things you could’ve guessed from the jump.

We want your weekend to prosper. We don’t want you wasting time with shitty art. So believe us when we say this, y’all: If it ever comes down to white urban writers, you are better off (you are fantastically well-off) with David Simon or Richard Price (or Tom Wolfe from before 1980).

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.