The Essay You’re Probably Reading Right Now Instead of Reading This, or: On the Poetry of Margaret Ross
Jul 5, 2013
4 Min read time
Gosh I wish I wanted to shell out—How much is it? I think it’s $6.75? $6.95?—$6.something5 for the new issue of Harper’s so I could complain about the essay you’re probably reading right now instead of reading this. You know the one—“Poetry Was Good Once but It’s Bad Now.” I think Horace wrote it? Which is ironic because Horace is actually a really good poet! But $6.something5 is a lot of money for a poet, even a bad one (especially a bad one?), to spend on a magazine that isn’t mostly poems, and anyway I’ve had a look at the essay and I think it’s cowardly.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think Horace is a coward. I just think, you know, he’s written a cowardly thing. Poetry is an easy target. Horace can say whatever he wants about poetry without putting himself at risk, plus by publishing the essay in a magazine aimed at people who presumably have some sense of their own cultural discernment, he has a built-in crowd of readers just waiting for the opportunity to safely tsk about an art in decline. I mean, who doesn’t love to fret about a thing s/he doesn’t really care about? Basically, it’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or whatever in essay form. Just look at those poets! Will they ever get their act together? How can they be so rich and yet so cruddy? You know what? I feel better about myself now. Thanks, Khloé!
So, yeah—I’m not going to talk about that essay. Because also Horace is wrong—such essays always reveal that their authors don’t read enough. And besides, Stephen Burt has already talked about it on this very blog better than I could. Instead, I’m going to talk about a poet I really like. I’m going to talk about Margaret Ross.
As I never tire of saying, I first met Margaret back when she was a wee bairn. ’Twas in a workshop taught by Jorie Graham, whom I love personally. Margaret was an undergraduate and I was in law school. I had taken the same workshop the previous year, and knew a lot of folks in it, but Margaret I had never seen before. And the first time I read one of her poems I was, yes, blown away. You knew that expression was coming, right? Well, but it was an actual, physical sensation—the poem was so strong and so complete, and I felt it hit me. I was amazed and intimidated by her then, and I am amazed and intimidated by her now.
I mean, holy crap, check out these lines from “Little Prairie,” just published in the new issue of jubilat (which, by the way, is a magazine you should buy):
I lay and listened to you
sleep. It was a small hour. Nothing
strange in what I saw, I thought
at the time, just
very bright. The foot or so
of sheet between us suddenly
flickered on. It moved in color.
Your dark room otherwise
the same. I lay still. What I thought
at first was water was a little
prairie. Tall grass rustling up
shade that broke, that rippled
all the way to the edge
of the field where I could
just make out the small dark shape
I took to be a man approaching.
I know, right? And the thing is, as great as those lines are, the poem as a whole is so much better.
Margaret’s poems are often longish—“Little Prairie,” for example, is a little over three pages long—and inhabit a mode I don’t think has a name, exactly. Do you remember how, a few paragraphs back, I said I love Jorie Graham personally? I also love her work—I think, in fact, it is utterly unique, as strange and irreplaceable in its own way as Hopkins’s—and Margaret’s work resembles it, but only insofar as it is also strange and irreplaceable, and only insofar as it is neither lyric nor narrative, but melds the two into a mode I would call, if I wanted to give a stupid name to a smart thing, ruminative. But Jorie’s work chiefly explodes the present moment, whereas Margaret’s reassembles a Wordsworthian present-past. Ok, sure, but these lines, from Margaret’s poem, “A Timeshare,” from Margaret’s first and only so far chapbook, Decay Constant, demonstrate what I mean by that:
Five o’clock again in the rented living
room. Nothing wrong. Heliotrope continuing
to fade into upholstery. Buttons pressing back
against the back of the couch make the surface
cave, just decorative, faint garden stamped
on a cotton throw. And that the world. Yes no. Yes though
if there’s such a thing as time at all I never saw it
move and if that’s so then what am I
A Wordsworthian present-past is a “rented living,” a Wordsworthian present-past is a “faint garden stamped / on a cotton throw,” flush with music. And the thing is, as great as those lines are, the chapbook as a whole is so much better.
Decay Constant was published just last year by The Catenary Press—a press, coincidentally, run in part by another of my poetry heroes who also happens to be a former school chum, Rob Schlegel. And you know what? It’s sold out. But I think Prairie Lights might have a few copies left? Well, maybe not. Just trust me on this: Find a copy of Decay Constant if you can. Hunt it down. What else are you going to do with your time? read Horace’s prose? Nah, the poetry is where it’s at.
Photo: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Flickr (cc)
July 05, 2013
4 Min read time