National Poetry Month is a Good Time to Ask Questions

Thoughts for National Poetry Month

Let’s have dangerous, troublemaking, side-sinister, cantankerous, mean poetry. Let’s have pure-damn evil poetry.

Looking out my kitchen window, having watched a red-tailed hawk stoop and carry off a baby rabbit, I thought of safe, anecdotal glop moved around with a spatula into something resembling a poetics and I thought, We have to talk about the bloody carcass that little bunny has become. And, yes, the magnificence of the hawk’s swoop and implacability of his yellow eye.

But then I put such thoughts aside, studied the daffodils poking through the dirty snow, hoped my sides would stop aching from the exertions of shoveling snow, and forgot the horror of the window incident and my surfeit of harmless and inoffensive poetry.

Until my favorite literary gazette, The Times Literary Supplement, arrived with NB’s back-of-the-book reminder that the language poet and critic Charles Bernstein had once declared that “April is the cruelest month for poetry,” referring to the American National Poetry Month.

In spite of its dalliances with the doxies Smug, Arch and Snide, I revere the TLS and rely on it to challenge my mind. Sometimes I even smile along with the occasional adolescent meanness of some of its reviewers. So I read the NB lead piece with growing amusement. It tweaks the popularizing O, The Oprah Magazine, for having joined Garrison Keillor in his campaign to bring us “accessible” poetry. This, of course, implies that he and the O editors get to define what is inaccessible for us.

I’m 76 and used to this sort of thing. When I was at Columbia I had instructors who disparaged Hart Crane for his inaccessibility. Today, reading his work, I mutter, What the hell were they talking about? But they sure did put on a good show of knowing. As do all critics and professors, to our detriment, I think. Crane was taking up where Walt Whitman had left off, singing of tunnels, bridges and dead Iroquois warriors. He was singing our song, telling us about ourselves, and those who didn’t trouble to hear it painted him into a critical corner and called him opaque and difficult. Who was being difficult, after all? Crane or the lazy minds that refused to be challenged his nobly rhymed and also his blank verse?

It was the 50s when I attended college. We were to be called the Silent Generation. I suppose we were rather buttoned down and complacent. We trusted a government run by Smiling Ike. I was hugely enamored of Grayson Kirk’s having told our class, When you graduate four years hence I hope you will have some small idea of how much you don’t know. I was enthralled by all I didn’t know, more enthralled, I think, than so many Americans are today with what they think they know. My ignorance seemed astrophysical and grand.

So perhaps it was only natural I would miss the Beat Era. It drove by me as unassuming as a freight train, even though it was anything but unassuming. I regarded Ginsberg’s Howl, when compared to Crane’s The Bridge, as pretentious and whiny. I regarded the Beats as creepy. They were drunk on wonderful substances, some of which remain categorized today. I was drunk on Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. If I regarded the Beats as an exhibitionistic lot I regarded Rimbaud as truly dangerous, a subversive of the first order. I loved him. He should have been on Joe McCarthy’s list, but imagination wasn’t Senator Sleaze’s suit. And Rimbaud, of course, was French, among many more interesting things.

Baudelaire’s idea of truth in decadence had me in his thrall, and New York City in the 50s was a very good place to ply that thrall. I saw flowers of evil everywhere, and I adored them all. How could the Beats, with their beefs about America, which sounded much as the Coffee Party does today, compare with Rimbaud and Baudelaire and their kind of subversion, which was more like blood poisoning than polemic?

Charles Bernstein would be the one to grump about the bland celebration of poetry, because language poetry is inherently subversive, which is why it’s so exciting. It aims to blow language up and remake it. And it isn’t always what it seems to be, because once we think we know what it is we find its influences in poets like the Frenchwoman Valerie Rouzeau, who isn’t strictly speaking a language poet but certainly exhibits its most inspiring influences.

It might be useful to ask ourselves when we overuse the word accessible do we really mean acceptable? That is aside from the larger question, of course, of what we mean by accessible. Do we mean dumbed-down? Do we mean poetry that conforms to ideas introduced by William Carlos Williams, the Imagists and the New Critics, or has our original use of such terms degenerated to mean poetry that we get in a flash and can thereafter delete, disposable poetry? Not all the poetry I love and return to seduced me with easy entry, and much of what I thought was readily accessible [that dicey term again] proved later to be elusive. I think, particularly of Yeats’s marvelous last three lines in “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!

I don’t want to purge the least feel-good poem. I’m delighted that poets should write about the old homestead and the pleasures of parenthood and gardening. Why not? But their ilk should not rule. No one should. I want to hear from the poet-terrorist, the assassin of complacency, the bomber of smugness. I want handbooks on blowing things up, blowing up ideologies, religions, the givens, the received ideas, the nostrums, the lunacies. I’d like to hear about the swindling car mechanics, doctors, investment counselors, rapists, child abusers, usurers, elected liars, the reigning, savagely right-handed booboisie.

It’s what the Beats thought they were doing. It’s what we thought they were doing. But back then, child that I was, I thought they were posturing. I looked to Rimbaud for real revolt. I thought we would have had to invent the Beats if they hadn’t obliged us, because the unrelieved gray of my generation and the assumptions of the previous and wondrously heroic generation were holding out to us just the sort of bland corporate kleptocracy that has overtaken us. The Gilded Age redux.

The Beats stood up to it, and I’d like more of us to stand up to it, and much more dangerously, which will mean a poetry of reckless thinking, paranoid intent, and madly twirling bullshit detectors.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother’s art:

His aunt’s art: