Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Does autobiography make good poetry?
But what if such selves are a bourgeois illusion, an outmoded epiphenomenon, produced by ideas in which we should no longer believe? So much of what seems like personal experience arises from systems far larger (the English language, the global economy) or smaller (a cluster of neurons) than persons can be; so much of what seems like artistic expression may also be traced to systems of convention. Perhaps poets—whose art form, more than others, appears tied to the history of individualism—should find ways to deny, or avoid, the hoary pretense that my words, my emotions, arise from causes within me, uniquely mine.
I have just drawn a simplistic and binary picture, one that philosophers, cognitive scientists, and literary thinkers have for decades tried to improve. Those efforts have inspired, and found analogies in, much of the best poetry of the last 30 years. To the questions, linked arm in arm, “Should we believe that we have genuine, unique, consequential, inward selves? Do you have one? Do your poems express it? Do they participate in the tradition called ‘lyric’?” poets from Ashbery to Armantrout, from Jorie Graham to Juan Felipe Herrera, have given the answer, “it’s complicated.” Young poets still pursue intricately ambivalent answers. But poets can also answer “yes” or “no.” Two of this year’s best books by youngish poets illustrate the powers both answers still have.
• • •
The author of Ideal Cities says “yes.” The collection follows a sometimes cheerful, sometimes frustrated, often volatile first-person speaker—one we may as well call “Erika Meitner.” The speaker has spent time in Brooklyn and in Washington, D.C.; now she teaches at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg (“I no longer live / in a city of any kind”). She addresses her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust and who falls ill and dies in the course of the book; she describes her pregnancy and then her fears and joys as a new mother. We read about films, TV shows, places Meitner has seen; about her commute, about phone calls from her mother, about her memories of summer camp. Ideal Cities presents these topics in more or less self-contained, lyrical forms, some as old as medieval Provence (“North Country Canzone”), others mostly Meitner’s inventions.
Those inventions, their range and their oddity, make Meitner’s second book not just a pleasure to read, a book to recommend (not least to people who usually read novels), but also a sharply effective counterargument to claims that the autobiographical lyric is worn out. Her poems seem uncommonly true to life because they seem uncommonly true to the capacities of her American language: in their emotions and oddball forms, the poems explore and enjoy that language’s internal variety. Meitner can sound exhausted (up all night with a sick baby) or mournful or dismayed, but more often than not she sounds excited—about what she sees, what she remembers—and she cooks up form after form to let us share that excitement.
Most of those forms have no rhyme, no meter, and no replicable formula: they are, instead, kinds of rhythm, sentence, stanza, line. There are the ultra-long lines of that canzone (which turn shockingly short in the envoi) and the curt, clear lines of “Lullaby,” in which time crawls by, the sun rises, the baby won’t sleep: “We are / covered in spit and / sweat and milk.” There are the omnivorous, information-rich couplets of a decidedly grown-up love poem to (I take it) her husband:
Your fragile hand-cages predict the plane-catching dreams,
the packing dreams, the bouquets of foxglove and hydrangea
cropping up on my pillow like the locusts in the newspaper
that plagued a Bangladeshi highway, blinding drivers
until dawn when the swarm returned to its agreeable place.
There are also the dreamlike, almost asyntactic couplets of “Preventing Teen Cough Medicine Abuse,” fit to portray intoxicated desire:
the poem I started with you in a motel
plateaued the poem I started with you
in a motel started spending evenings
at home with a rapid heartbeat we were not
in a motel the poem was in that place
with my hair draped across your chest
and something was wet it was unclear
Ideal Cities can scrounge for gleeful metaphors when the moment requires them, but it can also resort to a literal incident report: “When my son rolled off / his changing table and plunged to the floor, he did not break like the Pyrex, / though his nose was bruised from carpet friction. I checked in on him every hour that night.” Meitner deploys a loose pentameter for candid, comic, sexy figuration: “he was a wind vane, I was a ribbon / thermometer. We were an experiment / with two soda straws.” Later she uses a similar pace and rhythm to wholly different mimetic effect: when she takes her sick toddler to the doctor, her overtaxed mind races and leaps from disinfectants to “stale marshmallow peeps,” while the pediatrician stays “so calm he’s one valium from unconscious, / and aren’t we all addicts to something like the rapture / which will bring both blessing and sorrow?” Such swift transitions in topic, in mood, bolster one another and keep most of Meitner’s poems—though their subjects be ever so familiar—attractively weird. That spate of transitions, that wealth of whimsical figures, also sets Ideal Cities apart from Meitner’s first book, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, whose garrulous verse stuck too close to memoir, to facts.
Should we believe that we have genuine, unique, consequential, inward selves? Do poems express them?
Meitner seems to agree with her naïve “student / who plays the ukulele and is no longer my student” that poetry is a means for self-expression, a way to depict the heart. But Meitner differs from that student—who “sent me a broken-heart poem after his girlfriend / dumped him which used broken things as similes / for his heart”—in that she can depict her life, her heart, with more wit, fresher metaphors, and more self-knowledge than he can bring to his own. Compare the student’s broken poem to the sentences that begin Meitner’s book:
My heart is an Alaskan fishing village during whaling season,
which is to say that everyone is down by the thawing sea.
The huts on stilts are empty, and my heart is a harpoon,
a homemade velveteen parka, hood lined with wolverine.
Alienated—though charming nevertheless—in her wholly notional Alaska, Meitner more often uses, and uses well, the aspects and the prospects of the cities and exurbs she has really seen. Her poetry includes the virtues of skilled landscape painting, of portrait painting, of field recording, and of feature journalism, even as (and because) it includes her own life. For example, in Blacksburg the Shenandoah
mountains cup the houses the way
a boy might half-moon his hands together
to catch water from a hose that arcs
and splats on cement—skin of water, skin
of pavement. We spend all night outside
staining the deck.
Why are “we” outside all night? Because Meitner’s grandmother has just died: that death, and her reaction to it, lie behind her comparison of the mountains’ “cup” to a boy who cups water in hands, water he can no more bring back from the pavement than Meitner can bring back her grandmother’s life.
Uncommonly autobiographical for a gifted poet of her generation, Meitner also comes across as uncommonly extroverted: wanting, and finding, new forms, new people, new places, new phrases, Meitner does not need to find new ideas about what poems, in general, do. If her goals seem traditionally serious, her sometimes-mercurial attitudes seem up to date. So do her titles, which could fit fine indie rock songs—“Slinky Dirt with Development Hat,” “Christmas Towns,” “We Need to Make Mute Things.” That sense of invention can fail her in Big Last Lines (“You can’t go into the dark alone”); her best work ends, instead, on understatement. “The Upstairs Notebook” takes place on a day when she and her infant son can’t make it out of their apartment. It concludes:
In Southeast D.C., a few blocks from us,
there are enormous elephants eating fruit
in the rain, and one day I will tell him
how we almost went to see them.
Not all her poems are so wry, or so much fun. The pages about her ailing grandmother are, in general, more predictable, less startling, than those whose characters are all more or less of her generation or younger. But without the gravity of the grandmother’s words, Ideal Cities would be a lesser book. If you need poems that raise new philosophical quandaries, poems that reflect critically on what poetry is, Meitner will not give you what you need. If you want poems that can make you, too, more alert to the resources of our language, and to the shallows and depths of one adult life, Ideal Cities wants you.
• • •
To become acquainted with Meitner’s gifts—not least because they are figurative, technical, never confined to a literal story—is to become interested in Meitner’s life. But what of the poets who do not want to describe their lives, their hearts? What of new poets whose hearts seem, to them, like illusions?
These writers believe (or so their work implies) that short stand-alone poems about one’s own documented life cannot now sustain invention and hold our interest. They may regard the personal lyric much as Cato the Elder regarded Carthage: something to be destroyed at all costs. If you want to see one such poet have fun with this process of destruction, if you want to see him explore impersonal, anti-humanist, self-consuming and even self-contradictory models for newly impersonal poems that still sound like poems (rather than like, say, conceptual art), you will not do much better than John Beer’s first book, The Waste Land and Other Poems.
Anti-individualist, anti-lyrical goals for modern poetry come in two flavors: the first makes the poet superhuman, capable of exploring or channeling forces (be they political, visceral, or thaumaturgical) more important than one life can be. The second makes the poet disappear, revealing (through comedy, parody, collage, critique) his and our imbrication in powerful systems (literary, economic, linguistic, and so on) that seem unaffected by our acts and beliefs.
Jack Spicer (1925–65)—whose collected poetry, newly edited and annotated, appeared in 2008—has now become such a popular model in part because he seemed to pursue both sets of goals, seeking, for example, in one book of poems and letters “intimate communion with the ghost of García Lorca,” then deciding that his quest was “a game made out of summer and freedom and a need for a poetry that would be more than the expression of my hatreds and desires.” If autobiographical lyric reflects the poet’s inner life, poetry after Spicer must come from “outside” (Spicer said his poems came in radio signals from Mars). And if autobiographical lyric comes in single, separable, individual poems, poetry after Spicer comes in “projects,” books as self-referential series, flaunting their dependence on one another as well as on prior texts.
For John Beer, poetry, being a system descended from other closed systems, has no profound secrets about individuals.
Beer never sounds like Spicer—Beer is colder, more conventional, and more conventionally masterful, in cadence, in closure, in how the words look on the page. Yet his book could not exist without Spicer’s examples. “There really is no single poem,” Spicer declared, and Beer listened. He cannot stop announcing that his book of poems is a book of poems, dependent on what it has borrowed from earlier books. But he has much more to say after he has done so. His long, five-part poem “The Waste Land” riffs, parodies, torques, inverts, and updates, section by section, Eliot’s five-part opus. Beginning with a dedication to Spicer, “the fabber craftsman,” Beer adds to Eliot’s il miglior fabbro the resonance of “fab,” “fabulous”—poetry as impersonation, as camp, as dress-up game. With help from copious quotations and allusions, some of Beer’s “Waste Land” announces that poetry cannot communicate genuine feelings because they do not exist, and if they did, we could not share them: “What is this thing called love? It is nothing / reliable, not like this silk cravat.” Eliot “did the police in different voices,” but Beer’s police have no voice, only a flurry of never entirely legible texts:
This morning the police came for me.
They brought a letter covered with signs
I could not decipher. They demanded
I register my address properly,
because they are sorely tested by the time’s demands
and cannot function as my delivery service.
Emotions are not important in themselves, Beer implies, and poems should not have to “deliver” them: all poetry that is not a transmission from the Beyond (and how could you prove that it is?) might be nothing more than position-taking, a series of moves in a series of games about taste. Eliot’s Sanskrit, Greek, and Provençal are just kinds of moves in those games, no better and no worse than Beer’s dependence on “the early Pixies,” his time “in the discount bin / of the Princeton Record Exchange,” or the habits of his acquaintance Sam, who “always buys his coffee / from locally owned establishments, and he shoplifts / all those books of poetry from Barnes and Noble.” Sam may be a cliché, a composite, but so are we all, since we too are made up of prior art, from Eliot’s debased Thames-maidens to the Pixies’ “Debaser” to Journey’s “Faithfully”:
‘Loving a music man ain’t always
what it’s supposed to be,’ she thought
as the fang pierced her heel and she sank.
This is the song of love and the law,
of what is enduring and what disappears.
High culture is a system, bigger than we are and present before our birth, but so is the discography of Journey; so is the map of the streets of Chicago, a city just as good as Eliot’s “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London”: “After North and Clybourn comes Division, / and after the Division, the final law, whose lord / sits anxiously beside his stolen bride.” We cannot even know, given such authoritative cadences, that we are reading a parody: maybe, as with Spicer’s San Francisco, the map of Chicago has hermetic meaning too.
You may have heard about the death of the author (he has been dying since the late 1960s): Beer is that author, and he participates, with Spicer and with Emily Dickinson, in the tradition of poems from beyond the grave. “Mary, Color Scientist” animates a familiar thought-experiment in which Mary (like a literary reader) knows nothing directly, but only by instruments (by reading): “Talk all you like,” that poem says, “you’re already dead.” “J. Beer 1969–1969” begins, “It was when they determined that I had been born dead / That my life became easier to understand” and continues, “This is not, for example, a political poem, / Because the dead have no politics.” Yet Beer also writes obviously political poems: in “Bob Hope Is Not a Plan,” an inherited “set of golden steak knives” might stand for American military power, so blithely and routinely misapplied.
The poet and Cambridge professor Angela Leighton argues in an important academic book, On Form, that the history of aestheticism, of focus on form for the sake of form, belongs amid the history of nihilism, of artists’ (and not only artists’) belief that they have nothing in which to believe. Leighton cannot have read Beer’s “Sonnets to Morpheus” (the title a joke against Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”) prior to writing her study, but Beer can sound as if he has read Leighton, telling himself to “keep in mind / the void where things begin.” Out “to prove I’m more than the sum of my mirrors,” the “I” in these sonnets can do no such thing: “In Bangkok, I’m trying to say, / I looked in a mirror and nothing looked back.” The last sonnet opens “‘This line is tapped, so I must be brief,’” a joke against John Stuart Mill’s idea that the “lines” of poetry (i.e., personal lyric) are not heard but overheard. For Beer, poetry, being a system descended from other closed systems, has no profound secrets about individuals for us to overhear, only a possibly doomed effort toward the Beyond:
Can you really
breathe yourself into existence, touch the world,
and still leave behind a path for another to see?
Nobody told you to come here. There’s nobody here.
Beer stitches moments of mystery and bits of disgusted quotation, of satire—akin to the Flarf school, which makes poems from Googled scraps—into his shorter poems. Those poems seem designed—in the absence of one heart, one “you”—to combine, or to use up, as many components, as many systems, as they can: “‘I have heard that you combine the pride of lions / with a certain aversion to laundry,’ the lead man said.” The lesser efforts just duplicate tactics from Flarf, as in the pantoun “Total Information Awareness.” Beer’s best work pursues more varied diets. One page brings in 9/11 along with hipsters’ Williamsburg and Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”:
The world I speak for can never exist,
But Shelley already took care of that,
Yeah, Shelley and Charles Bernstein and whoever,
And no one saw the fires on the towers, vWhat towers? It was good to see you.
Bernstein, with his travesties, his collage, his self-consuming claims for theory, might stand behind some of Beer’s projects: elsewhere, “Your mother argues with Charles Bernstein, framed by shark jaws.” Yet Beer offers aural closure, consistent syntax, the illusion of sense, as Bernstein until recently has not, and if the parodic wins out over the Orphic in Beer, the contest is always close. Beer is like Bernstein in that he pursues the depthless surfaces of the contemporary, but he is like Eliot in that he often sounds sad about that pursuit: “Poetry, unwished for, flourishes, / A disease of language, while meanwhile / I left my papers on the airplane.”
You can accuse Beer of showy inconsistency: somebody wrote the poems published under his name. But he does not imply that there are no poets, no poems; rather, he implies that if we expect to learn deep truths about the inner life of a unique person by reading a modern poem, we have decided to fool ourselves. Beer’s poems (intent and deadpan as they are) show how we might think, we might write, if we cease to be fooled. Indeed, they come from the third or fourth generation of American poets who try to write as if they were not fooled: his jokes and puzzles say that we have not progressed much since the deep ends of Eliot’s modernism, that we have yet to get past Eliot’s own bitter critique of our illusions, dated as that critique now seems. “The part / about mythology is finally over. / What replaced it nobody could say,” Beer writes, in “The Life of Lee Harvey Eliot,” a poem that also promises “a series of abstract paintings / called ‘Abstract Series.’”
Beer’s forms are not quite new, but there is nothing quite like them: in their integration of parody with serious homage (to Eliot, Spicer, Rilke, Frank O’Hara, Karl Marx), of ambition with self-cancellation, they are the most careful and some of the best of the project-oriented, anti-lyrical work young poets now do. What saves them from monotony, from flat boredom, from repeating the same big jokes? First, the intricacy of their patterns, including acoustic and syntactic form. Second, the real emotions you can, if you go looking, find—exhaustion, disgust, bafflement, uncertainty as to whether there is anything “outside” an art compelled to chase its own tail. Third and most important, the author’s insistence (backed, I think, by Spicer) that these poems might after all include not only systems of literature, not only parody or pastiche, but systems of dictation, messages after all from the Orphic Outside: “Orpheus awoke in the poem of disguises, the poem once called ‘The Waste Land.’ Friends, listen up.”
To reject personal lyric, sincere individuals, is not to embrace a world of nothing but parodies. It is instead—in Beer’s implicit cosmology—to make oneself ready for the true, unpredictable, archaic sources of art, if one can ever be ready, if they are real: “I was not, readers, Orpheus, and I did not descend into the depths, and I have only these words to defend me, and the shadows, the shadows howl for my blood.” Whoever wrote that—call him “John Beer”—wasn’t kidding, and neither am I.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.