It's Poetry Month again, highlighting new extremes

The Argument

'Slams' and New Formalism set the present limits of the art -- leaving fine work in between

April 06, 2003|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

Throwing a patched tweed elbow into the eye of contemporary poetry, the assertive trend is "New Formalism": a return to rhyme, meter and fixed forms such as the sonnet and the sestina. Evidence of the New Formalism's influence includes the recent appointment of one of this informal school's principal poets, Dana Gioia, to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; and a young New Formalist like Adam Kirsch, himself published by the country's most prestigious imprint, Knopf, writes influential poetry reviews in The New Republic and The New York Times.

Outside the poetry journals and deep inside those small, dark warrens where poetry readings are held, the most audible sound in poetry these days is the "jam" -- so-called "spoken-word" performances in which acting skill is at least as important as poetic deftness. Poetry jams (HBO is currently even sponsoring a series of 'em, The Def Poetry Jam) derive directly from rap music lyrics, which in their own way are, if more profane, every bit as formalist as the tweedy boys: strict rhyming couplets, declaimed at a staccato pace that often scans sonically as good ol' iambic pentameter.

In other words, Dana Gioia has more in common with Eminem than he does with John Ashbery. Put this way, there's a simple explanation for the reason both New Formalism and spoken-word have caught on among academics and large pop-cult audiences alike: The poems "make sense." Unlike the intentionally vague, dreamy, often abstract elusiveness of Ashbery or other Ashbery adepts such as John Yau or Jorie Graham, both New Formalism (with its orderly forms) and spoken-word (with its lines written to be recited like speeches) can be immediately grasped by a reader.

True, in the case of a poet like Kirsch you may need knowledge of his numerous classical allusions, and in the poetry of spoken-word you need to be up on your hip-hop slang, but either way, the words enter your ears as coherent statements about life, love, nature or tough times in big cities. Both trends react against the impression many lay readers have of modern poetry -- free-verse free-for-alls, in which you have to reread a poem over and over to wring even the smallest drop of sense from it. This stereotype maligns "difficult" but frequently marvelous poets ranging from Wallace Stevens to John Ashbery to Al Young.

It's not hard to understand the frustrations of many would-be poetry-lovers who just can't make their way through mazes of words in search of an organizing syntax, or who are put off by the worked-up rantings of too many self-consciously "angry" spoken-wordsmiths.

The curious parallels between Gioia and Eminem define the extremes.

Take, for example, Timothy Donnelly's Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (Grove Press, 97 pages, $14). As the venerably adventurous poet-scout Richard Howard explains in his introduction, Donnelly's title poem is about an imaginary play about "an entire life (Eine Lebenszeit = a lifetime)." Donnelly italicizes the "props," which seem perversely, delightfully random: Take your worry to the sofa, lie there / There's a pillar of books and a French periodical / on either side. / Before you know it, / it's always midnight. Now the owl of Minerva / takes its flight down the nickel wire.

Donnelly's book is filled with dreams both romantic and funny. He only seems to write whatever pops into his "soiled and grandiloquent head"; in fact, his self-deprecating surrealism is vivid and often touching.

Kevin Young, editor of the invigorating, thoughtful anthology Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers, recently published his third collection of poems, Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf, 176 pages, $23), full of poetry influenced, as its title suggests, by music but that does not depend on the musical delivery of a spoken-word poet --Young's work reads well on the page. Take, for instance, the dreamy sensuality and daringly impious humor of the beginning of "Summer Song": I think of your kiss / & bite my lip. Place / your hands into / upon my wounds / Hell & heal me / with your blessed body! / I shake like a booty, / I thieve, and grieve.

In The Unraveling Strangeness (Grove, 80 pages, $13), Bruce Weigl writes with eloquent directness about only-apparently ordinary events -- helping his daughter with her homework; accidentally hitting a dog with his car late at night -- so forcefully that his subjects reveal a great deal of wisdom about life. Weigl is a meditative poet without being sententious; he writes about nature and death without melodrama or pity. "On the Event of My Untimely Death" uses the image of catching and releasing a trout as a metaphor for the release of a soul: Thank God I let that fish go. / It swam upstream and away, then turned into a spirit / that promised many fish to come. / Sunder my ashes there.

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