The latest salvo in contemporary poetrys internecine war of complaintor should we call it a war of care?is a charmingly casual manifesto called Poetry Is Not a Project, by the poet Dorothea Lasky.
The problem with contemporary poetry, Lasky writes, is that poets over-intellectualize and professionalize what should be an organic, even mystical, affair. Lasky has seen too many poets sketch an impressive sounding projectoften guided by a procedural apparatus or some compelling description of theoretical concernsthat ultimately overshadows and deranges the poetry it describes. Lasky worries that the relationship between the strength of a project and the flimsiness of the resulting poetry is not just correlative, but causalthe project isnt just a cover for bad poetry, its a recipe for it. Premeditation prevents the accident and dramathe feelingthat conspire to make a poem meaningful and alive.
I admire Laskys pluck in sniffing out and exposing pretense, and I laud her interest in fixing attention on the poem rather than on the discourse surrounding it. But I take issue with the assumption underlying her thesis, namely that the less mediated and less designed a poem, the more authentically poetic the result. True poems, Lasky writes, are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain. According to Lasky, a great poet doesnt design a poem, she intuits it.
Laskys own poetry, which ably conveys unpredictability and emotional openness, shows the rewards of such an approach. Yet even when the raw is promoted over the cooked, the effect conveyed is still an artificial one. No poet emerges from the womb speaking verse; spontaneity and emotion are nearly always supported by learned patterns of rhythm, diction, and some sort of formal arrangement, however messy. As Yeats, no stranger to program or passion, writes in Adams Curse, A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moments thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Yeats may be a distant and unlikely model for contemporary poets, but two recent books, Ben Lerners Mean Free Path and Lisa Robertsons Rs Boat, extend Yeatss position (and thus implicitly challenge Laskys) in their use of formal design both to express feeling and to define a broader social engagement. Which is to say that neither Lerner nor Robertson writes collections of what could be easily described as lyric poems, in part because each is skeptical of the ways that traditional lyric often reflects the entitlement of the poet as a person whose feelings are somehow more exemplary than the average subjects.
Formalism and all that term impliesthe bounding of meter; the rear-garde politics of mainstream verse, with its roots in the academic poetry of the 1950sis generally disdained by the schools from which Lerner and Robertson emerge. Still, writers who engage in what Robertson calls avant-garde experiment are necessarily engaged in form as well, not just at the level of the project or the poem, but at the level of the word. Using radical disjunction and exploiting languages material properties (its sonic and visual characteristics), avant-gardists work to overcome the wear of a language that has become commercialized and militarized by advertising, government, and the media.
The phrase quoted above comes not from the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, where many of these anti-lyrical sentiments were first expressed, but from the back cover of Mean Free Path, reflecting at once the poets debt to his predecessors and the continuing relevance of their preoccupations. Writing almost two generations after the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E authors, Lerner is mindful of the oppositional lessons of his elders. He is also interested, however, in reinvesting poetry with some of the appeal of traditional lyric: as a vehicle for beauty, eloquence, and play. In his first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, Lerner writes, We had thought that by arranging words at random / we could avoid ideology. Syntactic disjunction is a technique that Lerner both ironizeshow charming are the failed utopian gestures of previous generationsand deploys for more typically lyric ends. His announced project in Mean Free Path is to confront the difficult possibility of writing a love poem in a language corrupted by use:
All pleads for an astounding irrelevance
Structured like a language, but I
I like the old music, the audible kind
We made love to in the crawl space
Without our knowledge. Robert is dead
Take my voice. I dont need it. Take my face
I have others. Pathos whistles through the typos
Parentheses slam shut. Im writing this one
With my eyes closed, listening to the absence of
The nine-line stanzas that Lerner employs throughout Mean Free Path function as prisms, refracting love, sorrow, humor, triviality, and outrage into patterns of oscillating attention and arrested response, aptly capturing the phenomenology of a distracted now. If there is a love object in this book (presumably Ariana, whose name appears in the dedication poem), there is also loss (two of the sequences are termed Doppler Elegies). Lerner seems to have engineered a form that enacts a balance between the recuperative and the mournful, a kind of hobbling of thought and sentiment whereby he invites a phrase into the poem only to have enjambment cut off the engagement before it is fully expressed. Often the phrase will reverberate in later lines and stanzas, a kind of poetic afterlife or Doppler effect.
Robertsons I is dispersed and multiple, partly to elude systems that would constrain a selfs possible forms of being.
Lerners formal model in Mean Free Path might be Lyn Hejinians prose masterpiece My Life (first published in 1980 and substantially revised in 1987), in which Hejinian uses the new sentence to make each statement limn a possible world rather than build logically on the previous one. Lerners formal innovation in Mean Free Path is to incorporate and adapt that practice into a more traditional lineated verse form. In Lerners hands the new sentence becomes something like the new phrase, with the line break providing suspense as to whether the thought will continue over the enjambment or cease at the turn of the line:
Her breathing was
a rustling of tenses, underground
Movements have become
citable in all their moments
With my nondominant hand
I want to give
in a minor key
the broadest sense
Although Lerners second book, the National Book Award nominee Angle of Yaw, may have been a more immediately impressive and accessible effort, in some ways Mean Free Path returns greater dividends. Rather than dominate with cleverness, Mean Free Path offers a melancholic, minor music, with a spacious design that the reader can more easily inhabit. The four interrelated sequences of the book undoubtedly refract details from Lerners life and observations, but they equally describe the experience of reading the collection. Despite the titles suggestion of strong affect (it is actually a phrase from particle physics), Mean Free Path is in no sense a bossy imposition of the writers feelings onto the reader.
Canadian poet Lisa Robertsons work is more openly polemical and intellectualless playfully ironicthan Lerners. And many of her books have been consciously positioned as intellectual projects, particularly her outstanding second book, XEclogue, a feminist rewriting of the pastoral tradition, which includes a discursive preface of the sort that Lasky deprecates. But Robertsons gift is to infuse the discursive with a swooning and at times openly erotic lyricism; the prologue of XEclogue is as imagined and felt as the poetry that follows:
Lets pretend you had a land. Then you lost it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence. The garden gate shuts firmly. Yet Liberty must remain throned in her posh gazebo. What can the poor Lady do?
The poetic eclogues that follow the prologue are realized with even more stunning imagination and disorienting shifts in diction. With its fantastical cast of personae, including Nancy, Lady M, and the Roaring Boys, XEclogue often reads like a slash-fiction S&M version of A Midsummer Nights Dream, or Gender Trouble redone as pastoral masque (Between black pines we strap it on and dip our pink prosthesis in the pool). From both her poetry and prose, one gets the sense that Robertson is most intensely alive when she is hard at thought, inventing new conceptual categories through intense lyric precision. While Robertson is certainly not the first poet to suckle at theory, she lets on that sharpening ones sword on the philosophers stone, losing oneself in heady thoughtthe erotic feeling of non-identity, as she describes it in her recently released ninth book, Rs Boatmay be the biggest turn-on.
As with Wallace Stevens, whose neo-Romantic tendencies she would probably quarrel with, Robertsons brilliantly fanciful, even baroque, early workwords compacted, idiolects jangling in proximityis succeeded by a more reduced and aphoristic poetics. In Rs Boat:
I have nothing to say, I burn, I blurt, I am sure to forget.
I preserved solitude as if it were a style.
I am ignorant, but I know.
I raised my voice to say No!
I was almost the absolute master.
I saw amazing systems that immediately buckled.
I enjoyed that pleasure I now inhabit.
I slept like these soft trees.
Im wondering about the others, the dead I love.
The lines of italic and roman text at first appear to be two voices in dialogue. But statements migrate from one voice to the other, as if to say: no utterance is original, all language is recitation. Like Lerners, Robertsons I is dispersed and multiple, partly to elude systems that would constrain a selfs possible forms of being. If I reason, I am not the states body, Robertson writes later in Rs Boat.
Robertson rethinks the limitations of system by adopting a propositional style and ordinary language suggestive of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously observed, the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. The six long poems of Rs Boat do not so much advance an argument as circle back on themselves in a kind of intensifying feedback loop. Robertson writes, I want to hold belief and dissonance in a cumulative structure that moves to no closure. With Rs Boat, Robertson evolves a new form and idiom so as to short-circuit familiar representations of self and, perhaps, to imagine new and utopian social relations, as described in the books coda-poem:
And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to believe
I transcribe a substitution
Like the accidental folds of a scarf.
From these folds I make persons
Perfect marriage of accident and need.
And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to need
I transcribe a substitution
To lose the unattainable.
Like the negligent fall of a scarf
Now I occupy the design.
Refusing the easy seductions of self-expression, Robertson courts confusion and opacity (even to herself). Yet it is in the abstractions of design where Robertson locates the potential to remake the self as less selfish, as capacious and plural: From these folds I make persons. Through the shared, potentially universalizing structure of form, Robertson achieves a fusion of accident and need in which the self of a poet totally is subsumed . . . by the universal. Those last words are Laskys, and I bring her back into the conversation because poetries with radically differing attitudes toward technique, form, and the lyric self can nevertheless pursueand perhaps even achievesimilar aims.
On the penultimate page of Rs Boat, Robertson writes, To make a mould is a formal gesture of love / There are two ways in which it speaks. Those two waysone speaking inward toward the poets self, one outward toward a utopian community of readersdiffer from the more divisive formalisms of earlier avant-garde writing as well as the romanticism of a purely expressive poetry. In Lerners and Robertsons work, form is not an escape from ideology, nor is it distinct from feeling. Rather, form is a vessel to share what ore remains when the fires of affect and ideology are exhausted.