A Luxury of Logophiliatry
Heather McHugh is editor of The Best American Poetry 2007 (New York: Scribner, 2007, 169 pp, $30 hardbound, $16 paper), with David Lehman as series editor for the twentieth year. McHugh in her introduction holds theme and instrument inseparable: “the oddity and opportunity of verbal life” have seemed to her “not just a poem’s object but its fundamental subject.” The introduction itself is very like a poem: “A logophiliacal hunger craves amazement. And words can blaze!—most brightly where (like fires) their logs are interlaid with airs.” The dance of those long a’s, the logs in logo-, the syntactic synapses—all invite the reader to play, to become, indeed, logophiliac. Yet language as subject need not be solipsistic. Verbal hijinks, with the delight and laughter they provoke, can transcend and transform “the means of the meaning business.”
As a self-described “logic-and-structure addict,” McHugh has enjoyed in assembling this “bestov, schmestov” convocation the verbal coincidences between poems as they line up by their poets’ abecedarian order. Jeannette Allée’s wicked “Crimble of Staines” leads to Rae Armantrout’s “Scumble.” Robert Creeley’s “Valentine for You,” with its anaphoric structure of Where- words, leads across the page to Linh Dinh’s parade of lines beginning with Like. The reader will enjoy discovering other pairings, perhaps suspecting as McHugh hints that some poems might have made the cut because they irresistibly resonated with an alphabetical neighbor. Other poems she has chosen for the collection use the alphabet as structural principle: Mike Dockins’s comic harangue “Dead Critics Society” doubles the abecedarian odds, beginning “Zooks! What have I done with my anthologies? I’ll need a” and ending “awaiting death—the only theme suitable for a poetry buzz.” Matthea Harvey’s pair from her series “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” draws on words she found in the dictionary between future and terror, playing through initial and internal alliteration and assonance, modulating from one letter to the next—first in alphabetical order then inverting the order in the sibling section. Employing a related strategy, Natasha Sajé begins all but the tricky last line of “F” (on the obvious subject) with that letter.
Not only do such generative procedures affect content, they may appear to effect evaporation of content. Kary Wayson implies that the title of her “Flu Song in Spanish” is a joke; she was writing with a fever in a language she does not know. Two lines became the “mechanism of the engine” that generated a poem “built more out of sound and rhythm than out of an intention toward particular meaning”—establishing the “texture of the text” that McHugh admires. Here’s how it opens:
God of the bees, god of gold keys, god of all in-
famous noses, I folded our total
in two today—I drove alone
and I walked away (as if each mile up your hill
were a letter in a word I’m inventing).
Yet, beneath the buzzing, an implacable subtext emerges:
My Father (that bitch!) he hides
at the head
of his third wife’s table.
. . . . So I stick my head in a hole and drown. So far
lost, so far
found: a bone-cutter’s house in a blood-lit town—
an Oedipal drama that inescapably evokes Plath’s “Daddy.” In both, the verbal play that disguises content, even from the self, makes revelation possible.
While I’m bemused in the bee-loud glade, here’s an excerpt from Julie Larios’s “What Bee Did,” which plays on be as a prefix: “And because Bee tokened summer / (the one season we all, like Bee, must lieve) / Bee also dazzled.” Sharon Dolin’s “Tea Lay” creates purely homophonic music in couplets—a John Clare sonnet, her note discloses, translated into other words with the same sounds. Dolin’s translations, unlike Louis Zukofsky’s, do not aim for a coherent parallel text, e.g., “Ear-moist, diving highest, I ease a taller thicket, / Announce Time’s sick of us, foam in its spigot.” “Chance and the dictionary,” she explains, “as well as my associations to word-sounds, all played a part in what I hope are independent poems that teeter on the brink of sense.” But doesn’t the fun in homophonic verse come from recognizing the original? As a student I learned “Liza Grapeman, Alry Myndus / Weaken maker Liza Blime / Andy Partin, Lee B. Hindus / Footbrin Johnny sans a dime.”
In no earlier volume in this series have the poets’ notes been so necessary. The reader can no longer assume Coleridge’s principle that a poem must carry within it all one needs for its appreciaton. I would enjoy discussing with McHugh how she selected some of these without prior access to the game plan. Robert Pinsky, for example, informs us that he’s enacting personal and cultural processes of remembering and forgetting in “Louie Louie” by “acting dumb.” Susan Parr explains that “Swooping Actuarial Fauna” is made of “nouns and verbs and other parts I found scattered in a word list attached to unsolicited e-mail sent me by Renegade K. Leveraged, or someone of her ilk. Made, that is, of subfragments—sent by a figment,” contemporary cultural “whistling wherewithals.”
Some poets here improvise on the tennis court of conventional form. Marya Rosenberg’s haiku sequence on her experience as a cadet at West Point (“If I Tell You You’re Beautiful, Will You Report Me?”) treats the convention loosely (“We slept in the trash / heap, and I lay all night warm / in his arms”). In contrast, Amit Majmudar’s “By Accident” bears witness to the rewards of playing within the strict traditions of the ghazal. Alan Shapiro in his note describes his “Country Western Singer” as “a profoundly affectionate parody of a genre of music I love.” Also in conventional form are Richard Wilbur’s playful couplets and Helen Ransom Forman’s flirtatious “Daily,” in which she orders Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” stanza to amuse a different muse:
Today I did a washing and the line
Bowed and flopped with my job; dearly I scrubbed
To make the chirping suds fizz in the tub
And bead in bubbles. This my pudent wine.
Not all the play in this ludic collection is primarily linguistic. Albert Goldbarth in his sonnet-shaped “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” draws his own conclusion to Frost’s poem, moving that outward-facing classic wonderfully inward. Forrest Hamer’s “Initiation” pulls the rug out from under the reader, as does Stephen Dunn’s strangely moving “Where He Found Himself.” And the reader who expects the predictable from Donald Hall will be surprised by “The Master,” which opens: “Where the poet stops, the poem / begins. The poem asks only / that the poet get out of the way.” This might have been a
cautionary epigraph for the 2007 edition of Best American, where so many of the puzzles can be solved only when the poet steps out in front of the curtain.
In the context of a culture where much poetry asserts a radical dissociation between language and meaning, many poems here may seem to deny, or at least avoid, the substance of contemporary life. Perhaps, though, as in “Flu Song,” the apparent denial provides the sole means of approach. Such, often, is the function of satire, whether Horatian (gentle ridicule) or Juvenalian (savage critique). Nabokov claims “satire is a lesson, parody is a game,” but in this collection the line between game and lesson is nebulous, as is the line between satire and invective. I’ll now venture across these lines from Horatian to Juvenalian and on to darker game.
Many of the targets of satire here are linguistic. David Kirby, in “Ode to the Personals,” has elaborately witty fun with the English-language classifieds in Italy. It’s a hoot. So is Mark Halliday’s “Best Am Po,” a parody of poets’ notes in this series. Denise Duhamel in her “Language Police Report (after Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police)” begins its five prose paragraphs: “The busybody (banned as sexist, demeaning to older women) who lives next door called my daughter a tomboy (banned as sexist) when she climbed the jungle (banned; replaced with ‘rain forest’) gym.” I’m delighted she stretches the limits of the prose poem for a subject so ripe for ridicule.
Billy Collins and Linh Dinh, for their parts, ridicule our culture’s attitude toward vulgar language, but to different ends. Dinh’s “A Super-Clean Country” catalogues a cleanliness-obsessed culture’s reduction of shit to a ubiquitous meaningless intensifier. Collins’s catalogue of offensive insults in the poetry of Catullus, that “mean-spirited pain in everyone’s ass,” licenses him to indulge in the invective he derides even as he puts down “the afternoon shadow of a column” and Wordsworth’s daffodils.
In “Maggie’s Farm: The Fate of Political Poetry in Our Time” (The Writer’s Chronicle, May/Summer 2007) David Wojahn laments the artistic glibness of much anti-war poetry and regrets the paucity in English of strong poems such as we find in world poetry, poems that engage “the intricate relationship between self and politics.” Why, he asks, do so few of our poets tackle the great issues of our time? Of those who do, why do so few produce memorable art? McHugh’s own “What He Said,” on the literal silencing of Giordano Bruno, is one of the poems in English that stands with the work of Herbert, Milosz, and Hikmet, in—to quote David Lehman—“shouldering the burden of conscience.” As editor, she does, within this banquet of linguistic experiment, include poems that respond to Wojahn’s challenge, avoiding the “overwhelmingly subjective and hermetic” recent poetry that Wojahn deplores.
Taking on this challenge implies a recognition and acceptance of complexity. Don’t expect easy formulas here for political poetry. Brian Turner’s “What Every Soldier Should Know” addresses directly the anomalous position of a soldier in Iraq, where “Men wearing vests rigged with explosives / walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah” (“Allah be willing”). This poem, like the poems in Turner’s Here, Bullet, gives his readers both the raw material and the tragic ironies of the Iraq war in simple, riveting
language. The satire cuts deeper in Robert Hass’s “Bush’s War,” sneaking up on the reader through the sensory abundance of a May idyll “south of the Grunewald,” “flash[ing] forward” to a catalogue of slaughters from recent history that lapses into sermon. If Swift’s saeva indignatio might be inadequate for confronting today’s outrages, themselves already self-parodies, Hass’s indignation is at least equally savage.
A few of the poets here address violence itself without irony or satire. Forrest Hamer’s “Initiation” struggles for an explanation of violence in himself and others, concluding: “How much I hated, / How much I wanted and how greedy wanting made me. / What I wanted most were better words,” want naming both the lack of words that leads to violent expression and the poet’s linguistic desire. On a global screen, three of these poets write on decapitation. Marvin Bell in “The Method” and Theodore Worozbyt in “An Experiment” both explore the consciousness of the victim at the moment after beheading. Joe Wenderoth’s “The Home of the Brave” responds explicitly to the video of Nick Berg’s execution, attempting to cope with simultaneous horror and helplessness—Berg’s and the poet’s own. His poem, he explains, “manifests the struggle to keep . . . contradictory forces intact,” to make the reader feel “both the potency and the impotency of the will he thinks of as his own,” a prevalent ambivalence in the current political environment. All four of these ambitious poems leave me craving further insight into the broader implications of the atrocities that have attracted the poets’ imaginations.
Yet another approach is available to poets wrestling intellectually and verbally with the state of the world: to examine history through today’s dark lens. Ed Ochester wields his “Voltaire at Cirey, 1736” to take a swipe at our anti-intellectual age. Geoffrey Brock’s “Flesh of John Brown’s Flesh: Dec. 2, 1859” suggests how the death of Brown “has much to teach us about the difficulty of defining terrorism and madness in places where the status quo is terrifying and mad.”
For me the most arresting and challenging political poem in this volume is Frederick Seidel’s “The Death of the Shah,” whose speaker slides freely from one temporal and geographical location to another, “a worldly man / looking around the room.” Since Seidel is one of the few poets who refrain from giving the game away in their notes, I’m on my own in interpreting his travels. I recognize the Shah of Iran (1919–1980), who appears here as a sexually self-aggrandizing monarch with every “foal” in the kingdom in his stable, as a racehorse, and as a pathetic exile dying of cancer. But who is the speaker? He describes himself as “not a practical man, / But clear-eyed in my contact lenses,” a worldly “blue-eyed white man” “Despairing of art and of life, / Seeking protection from death by seeking it / On a racebike.” From the notes I learn that Seidel and the speaker are about the same age (sixty-seven in the poem); from other sources I know Seidel is an addict of fine motorcycles. So what. The I of a poem must be considered a fiction.
In the architecture of this five-page, richly varied, tightly organized work the speaker establishes his point of view as a shrewd observer, capable of a compassionate sneer:
The future of psychoanalysis
Is a psychology of surface.
Stay on the outside side.
My poor analyst
Suffered a stroke and became a needy child.
As to the inner life: let the maid.
He considers contemporary analogies to the slave trade, making a visit to Ghana where
The slaves from the bush were marched to the coast
And warehoused in dungeons under St. George’s Castle,
Then FedExed to their new jobs far away.
I read this extraordinary poem as a portrait of a debonair representative of the new imperialism: Turn a page and catch a glimpse of his slithery identity:
Here I am, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi,
Ready to praise making pots of money
And own a slave.
I am looking in the mirror as I shave the slave.
I shave the Shah.
I walk into the evening and start being charming.
Prufrock a generation later? Ah, but a Prufrock with a disturbing sense of his identity with the corrupt world he smiles through—a shallow, self-indulgent “civilization,” capable of great cruelty. He is a cipher with no alternative weltanschauung (pride but no joy, sex but no love, magnificence but no justice) but a thinker, nonetheless, who can visualize the contemporary world from the perspective of a thousand years. The haunting word in Seidel’s poem is pity:
Have pity on a girl, perdurable, playful,
And delicate as a foal, dutiful, available,
Who is waiting on a bed in a room in the afternoon for God.
His Majesty is on his way, who long ago has died.
She is a victim in the kingdom, and is proud.
Have pity on me a thousand years from now when we meet.
The words of cummings pounce: “pity this busy monster, manunkind, // not.” Then I recall Wilfred Owen’s: “The Poetry is in the pity. . . . All a poet can do today is warn.” We are warned.
Much of the best poetry of the past century, from Paul Celan to Bei Dao, has accused those with power of the theft of language. Whether through verbal games, satire, or direct political commentary, the variously troubled poems in this volume work to create new language, or at the least to steal the old language back, raising in the process some of the most serious questions about the role of the poet in a darkened world. At times the logophiliac’s wordplay can light the way.