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Poetry

As a number of people have already said, the last couple of hundred pages of Infinite Jest tend to be kind of a downhill sprint. I was by no means among the first participating in Infinite Summer to find myself in the 800s and unable to stop myself at the spoiler lines. As hard as it’s sometimes been to avoid spoilers (accidental ones, at least), having read the book a number of times before, it’s especially hard during this last leg of the book. So I keep finding myself false-starting on posts this week and will probably do the same next week. Things I want to say reach too far into the future for me to be able to chisel much out of them just yet.

So for tonight, a diversion. I’ve flirted with poetry for years. For decades, I guess, if you count a thing I wrote in elementary school that rhymed “butterfly” and “flutterfly.” I wrote the usual dark angsty suicidal type stuff in high school and early college, and then I began to think more seriously about poetry midway through college. It became for me less about expression and feelings than about structure and playing with formalism and convention, about hewing something out of the raw material of language. That’s not to say I was any great talent at it, but I did pursue the interest and even got a minor in poetry writing. In the decade-plus since I graduated college, I’ve written only a little bit, and rather poorly. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a sheaf of works in progress, but it’s not a serious pursuit by any stretch of the imagination. Even more rarely, I’ll slingshot something (usually something old and fairly polished) out to a journal, so far with no luck (but with so little invested, it’s hard to feel too bad about it).

Of course I read a lot of poetry throughout school as well, though I’ve forgotten most of it by now. A few years ago, I sold most of my poetry books to clear space on my shelves prior to a move. Gone are my Auden, my Yeats, my Larkin, my Stevens, my Creeley. Gone is even good old accessible Billy Collins. And William Carlos Williams. Lord, I almost forgot him, though he was one of my early and enduring favorites, whose quest for an appropriate but elusive American poetic foot informed my own such ill-fated quest. Ah, and Wordsworth, of whom my early imitations constituted something rather more like battery than flattery. They’re all gone. Remaining are a collection of Wilbur (whom I dislike), another of Pinsky, and a few anthologies, mostly Norton. There’s an Andrew Hudgins book and a couple of Robert Wrigley books. These two gentlemen I won’t do without. I have a slim volume of Donald Hall’s that I used to own in hardback but sold and then bought again in paperback a few years later when I had a change of heart. The collected work of my mentor throughout college, and then a book of a colleague of his. A few other scattered things, like a long one by Derek Walcott that I’ve never yet managed to read, though it sits waiting in my bedside table. Then there are the back issues of Poetry magazine, I don’t know how many years’ worth.

So there I go namedropping, right? Well I don’t really mean to, because the sort of sad thing I’m coming around to is that I don’t often really enjoy reading poetry. It’s the prose and the letters in Poetry that I most enjoy these days, finding typically one or two poems over the course of two or three months that really stand out to me. And part of why I sold my various collected and selected volumes was because I rarely went to them and, when I did, I found so very little that I really enjoyed. The Wilbur and Pinsky I kept because they’re signed and not because the work is especially meaningful to me. Yet something in me still craves poetry. Again and again I go back to it, hoping to find something electrifying. But so much of it just falls flat for me.

I spent some melancholy time this week leafing through my few volumes with the idea of posting an excerpt in memoriam (even my Tennyson I sold back) of a certain author the anniversary of whose death is looming. But I couldn’t find anything I liked, or I couldn’t bear to wade through all the insufferable stuff in order to get to some decent nugget. Occasionally when I’m experiencing this sort of dread of poetry, I try to make a point of reading more carefully, of putting more into the reading in hopes of getting more out. There’s not usually a payoff. And I’m not blaming the poets, mind you — clearly the work is deemed by some body of people to be worth ink and paper. I think I’m just not a good reader. Which invites the pretty bitter supposition that if one isn’t a good reader of poetry, he surely can’t be that good a writer of it, which goes hand in hand with those flurries of rejection slips from various publications when I experience a little spurt of poetic allegiance.

What I’m ultimately sort of coming around to is that I think I’ve been a fairly conscientious reader during Infinite Summer. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I’ve been a great critic or have cut new ground or anything, but I’ve put a lot in, and I’ve gotten a whole lot out. So why the blind spot with poetry, I wonder, when something in me really does want to get a lot out of it?

In the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” Wallace has a character say of poetry that “It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” The person that character is talking to replies, “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.” At the end of the story, the second speaker is talking again about the obvious and borrows from an Ashberry poem (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — another poem I can’t bring myself to read in its entirety) to cut kind of a beautiful figure:

“You asked me once how poems informed me… Remember? Remember the ocean? Our dawn ocean, that we loved? We loved it because it was like us, Faye. That ocean was obvious. We were looking at something obvious, the whole time… Oceans are only oceans when they move… Waves are what keep oceans from just being very big puddles. Oceans are just their waves. And every wave in the ocean is finally going to meet what it moves toward, and break. The whole thing we looked at, the whole time you asked, was obvious. It was obvious and a poem because it was us. See things like that, Faye. Your own face, moving into expression. A wave, breaking on a rock, giving up its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape. See?”

It’s the last lovely bit about the wave that Wallace borrows pretty much verbatim (with acknowledgment) from Ashberry. And the thing for me is that it’s entirely palatable and meaningful to me when Wallace gives it to me like this, but when it’s buried in the middle of a bunch of stuff that looks like a poem but reads like a stylized inner-monologue, I just can’t grab onto it. I can’t hang on for the ride.

How about you? Do you read poetry? What do you like? Have you found any little poetry references in Infinite Jest? There’s at least a Larkin reference; Auden is fairly promiment in The Broom of the System; and Wallace wrote a prose poem or two. Should Matthew over at Infinite Summer consider adding some poetry to the mix for the ongoing reading program he’s proposed? If so, do you have any recommendations? Can you name a poet (or particular poem) that really takes your face off (and explain why)?

  1. September 9, 2009 at 9:33 am

    My last post, as you saw, was on Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life,” and I did find it pretty cool to read. I was happy to find it was so referential, to Petrarch, Rousseau, etc. But it was damn difficult, it was, and I missed a lot. My blog post, I think, was an utter failure due to selective quoting, even though the parallels between IJ & TL were there.

    But mostly, poetry never really winds me up. I prefer lyrical prose, something like Annie Dillard, for instance.

    But here’s one poet I’ll recommend for non-poetry readers: Michel Houellebecq’s early poetry is published in Urbanomic’s Collapse, Vol. IV. I’m a big Houellebecq fan (are there others out there?), and his poetry achieves some of what his novels do (and I admit that those novels are a complicatedly mixed bag).

  2. September 9, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Thanks for the tip, InfiniteTasks. You know, I read your post with its quotes from Shelley, but when I was blathering on about poetry, it totally slipped my mind. Weird. I think the seed for this post was already there, with my poking around for some kind of memorial piece, but clearly your post kind of prodded me a bit, whether or not I realized it at the time.

    Dunno that I’d call your post a failure; I’m just waiting eagerly for part II.

    I’m not familiar with Houellebecq. A quick scan of a few pages about him suggests he’s something of a lightning rod.

  3. September 9, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Let’s see. Some poetry I like…. Hmmmm.

    I like good old accessible Billy Collins. Perhaps my brain is unsuited for the rarefied stuff, but I like stuff that actually communicates something, as opposed to needlessly obscure and gnomic nonsense.

    I love the poetry of Hafiz, with its joy and exuberance.

    And I liked two poems from The New Yorker enough to find them in the online archives a while back. One was called, I think, “Simile,” and likened death to an alpine jump. It was by Rosanna Warren, and the imagery really stuck with me, and gave me something meaningful and new to think about, at least with regard to my own eventual mortality.

    The other was called “The Birthday Party,” (again, I think) and was about a two-year old named Lily, and her birthday. And I loved it, because it was such a lovely observance of the beauty and innocence of the age.

  4. September 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Dan, I’ve got nothing against Billy Collins. The rarified stuff is what I often have trouble with. I think my issue is that I often find myself between two poles. On the one end, there’s the stuff so obscure that it’s hard to extract much meaning from it. On the other, there’s stuff that seems inconsequential and makes me wonder why somebody bothered to write about it. I think some of Collins’s stuff falls perilously close to this latter pole, though he has lots of neat stuff to say too.

    The things that really stand out to me tend to fall into I think three buckets:

    – the poignant or sorrowful expressed in a novel way (I don’t really do exuberant or joyful; they’re just not emotions I have in my quiver, and so expression of them tends to fall flat for me)
    – description of bizarre things or of ordinary things in ways I wouldn’t have thought of to describe them
    – formal ingenuity (take somebody like Atsuro Riley, who does today something that I think is very much like what G.M. Hopkins was doing in his day; Riley always surprises)

  5. Joan
    September 9, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    I tend to slip in and out of reading poetry, my favorites tend to be the non-rarified variety. A new favorite is Terrance Hayes and there are some audio clips on line of him reading. A couple of long-time favorites that I return to and re-read are Dylan Thomas and Han Shan. Han Shan was an 8th Century Chinese poet and I love his collection “Cold Mountain”. An absolute holiday tradition for me is to listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on Christmas eve. I’m such a sap I cry every time! Sometimes I think poetry is just better read aloud by a sensitve reader, often the best being the author.

  6. September 9, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Pretty much anything by Richard Hugo, particularly “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” and the book “31 Letters and 13 Dreams.”

    Hugo’s stuff is so personal, and for lack of a better term, human, and it’s not too obtuse or difficult in general. “Degrees of Gray…” is at the saddest and truest picture of a dying town I’ve ever read, and I can’t read it without thinking of my own hometown.

  7. Charlie
    September 10, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Oh, I love poems. It’s all I read for almost two years a few years ago. I’d have way too hard a time picking out my favorite, so instead I’ll mention that I really like a little prose poem that Wallace included at the beginning of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men called “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.” It goes:

    When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

    The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

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