In order to begin thinking about the relationship between popular culture and contemporary lyric poetry, it is useful to consider the consumption and recent reception of lyric poetry in the public sphere. In particular, I want to examine the assumption that an ever-larger audience cares about reading poetry—an assumption that was strategically launched by the director and board of the Academy of American Poets in 1996, when National Poetry Month was created. To put this occasion in perspective, let us examine the phenomenon three years after it was instituted. In April of 1999 The New Yorker included a "Special Advertising Section" promoting National Poetry Month, the many readings occurring in New York, the proliferation of poetry web sites, and the books recently published by prestigious presses. 1
Among the latter, Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, published the year before, had become a national bestseller and had even occasioned a discussion on Oprah. As the advertisement pointed out: "When Ted Hughes' poems about his marriage to Sylvia Plath were published last year, the Times carried the story on its front page, and within weeks, Hughes' Birthday Letters had displaced Toni Morrison's Paradise as the number one hardcover bestseller at Coliseum Books" (55). If you knew nothing about how most poets play in the public sphere and had only read this advertisement you would think poets were well-known celebrity-artists richly rewarded for their art. The following blurb from the advertisement suggests as much:
Today, when shoe manufacturers plan a new ad campaign, they are liable to consider enlisting the help of poets, in the same way that Ford, forty years ago, asked Marianne Moore's help in naming the ill-fated car that management (ignoring Moore's recommendations) ultimately called the Edsel (56).
Popular artists, entertainers, actors, sports stars and celebrities have been used to sell things, and they have been richly rewarded for participating in these advertising ventures.2 But off hand I can't think of any poets—in advertising, or behind the scenes—who have served, or could serve the same function. And yet, the poet as potential icon-celebrity, capable of swaying public opinion in the area of capitalist consumption, is briefly marked here.
Much is also made in the advertisement of the appearance of excerpts of poetry in the public sphere: on billboards, beer coasters and subway posters.
In Los Angeles, last winter, an organization called Poets Anonymous spent an estimated one million dollars to rent sixty well-placed billboards, which were filled with verse excerpts from such poets as Pablo Neruda, Charles Bukowski, and Lucille Clifton (56).
And lest we think poets have a special calling, the advertisement provides an anecdote suggesting otherwise.
In April 1998, on "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno took camera and mic out into the street, informed random pedestrians that it was National Poetry Month and-in what seemed like a good-natured spoof of the Favorite Poem Project-asked if they had a poem to share (56).
With the advent of his "Favorite Poem Project" in 1998, Robert Pinsky had invited "ordinary people" to read their favorite poems for inclusion in an archive at the Library of Congress:
Among the citizens who volunteered to read their favorite poems for an archive that the project will create at the Library of Congress, were a zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo, a trapeze artist, a belly dancer, and a ballpark vendor. Reflecting on the larger purpose of the project, Pinsky said: "If a thousand years from now anyone should ask who Americans were, this archive might help give an answer" (55).
We are also told in the advertisement that poetry "should be as universal in hotel rooms as the Gideon Bible":
Inspired by poet Joseph Brodsky, who had declared that poetry books should be as universal in hotel rooms as the Gideon Bible, Andrew Carroll of the American Poetry and Literacy Project crossed the country in a rental truck distributing the wares. More giveaways are underway. All of Volkswagen's new cars shipped this month-an estimated 40,000-will come equipped with a poetry book as a standard "feature (56).
Finally, the advertisement tells us that reading poetry will make our politicians—and perhaps, us by association—more ethical: "The President [Clinton] revealed that he had to memorize a hundred lines of Macbeth in high school." He credited this experience with teaching him "about the dangers of blind ambitions, the fleeting nature of fame, the ultimate emptiness of power disconnected from higher purpose." Said Clinton, "Mr. Shakespeare made me a better president" (56).
There are several assumptions in this "Special Advertising Section" worth ruminating over. Poetry's inherent value is linked both to its hypervisibility in the public sphere and its assumed accessibility. The consumption of poetry is associated with democracy, and this populist impulse overshadows the visibility of the poet making poetry. Poetry doesn't just come from poets; we all have poems in us; selecting a poem for Pinsky's project is akin to writing one. Poetry, to be crude, is a commodity dependent on a system not unlike capitalism; it is produced, put in circulation, and consumed. Although we have the unidentified celebrity poet who might behind the scenes help market a product, what is missing here is an image of the isolated, unseen unpublished poet, who keeps working despite the odds against being published.
If the different pitches made for poetry during National Poetry Month promote the belief that mass culture has appropriated lyric poetry as popular entertainment accessible to all, how might we characterize the lyric poet's relationship to mass culture, and what form does it take? Several questions come to mind. Do poets still write lyric? If so, how has lyric poetry accommodated itself to popular culture? Is lyric poetry actually elitist, despite the claims being made that it is readily accessible? To put it another way, how do lyric poets negotiate between "high" and "low" culture? To whom is their poetry addressed? I argue that poets do in fact still write lyric and that they have found many strategies for responding to popular culture, particularly in the subjects they choose to write about. (I am thinking here of poems like Robert Pinsky's "To Television," Nora Mitchell's "Ode for Jacqueline," Amy Clampitt's "The Halloween Parade," and "The Godfather Returns to Color TV," and Mark Doty's "At the Gym.") Instead of looking specifically at poems that take aspects of popular culture as their subject, however, I want to focus on a phenomenon in lyric poetry, which provides a suggestive link with popular culture and its concerns.
Of late there has been a proliferation of lyric poems about the lives of others; and these poems, with their emphasis on a poetics of disclosure and affiliation, take someone else's life and turn it into art. I once thought this impulse in lyric poetry was vexing because I thought that "real" people—even if they were dead—were being robbed of their privacy, put on display and stripped of an "inner life." I subscribed to the belief that visibility is a trap. Poets were acting like biographers. I also thought that this lens of hyper visibility and scrutiny would serve to tame or normalize lives that were arguably different and eccentric—and best left that way.3 Although I was not suggesting that we have a mock tabloid culture operating in lyric poetry in which secrets are disclosed and lives are put on display, we do have an emphasis on the recycling or re-inventing of other people's lives. Some of these poems are just bad, but the most interesting of these texts involve delicate negotiations between the past and the present and between "high" and "low" culture. At their best, these poems serve to unmask the life under consideration, to bring it into fresh focus, to critique and comment on the narratives already in circulation, to re-affirm through modes of affiliation a belief in singularity, the possibility of interiority, and the fusion of art and life. I am suggesting that in poems of this sort affiliation and performativity replace an emphasis on the poet's interiority and more straight forward lyric self-reflection.
These poems, which can be intimate and self-revelatory even as they look outward, provide a different kind of pleasure from other forms of lyric. Part of the pleasure of writing and reading these poems comes from being an insider, from being a voyeur of sorts, from being someone who knows the biography or archive of the subject and accepts the iconic status of the subject. Even when these texts revise the received life narrative, they do so with a certainty that most readers will know the point of departure and recognize the often encoded allusions. It seems to me that contemporary lyric, in its emphasis on transforming someone else's life into art, both mirrors and implicitly critiques the ubiquitous trend of recycling and re-creating celebrity lives in popular and mass culture. In addition, lyric poetry, like other forms of cultural production, which re-invent or re-visit aspects of someone's biography, implicitly addresses a widespread fear in the culture at large that the inner life no longer exists. But unlike other forms of cultural production—and here I am thinking of TV, film, and biography—lyric poetry often succeeds in affirming the possibility of interiority even as it questions the vantage from which it is approached. Other lives, rather than our own, give us access to ourselves; identification and affiliation replace the worship of singularity.
Some of the most intriguing poems of this sort do not simply allude to the record as established by biographers and critics, but instead revise or re-invent some aspect of the life lived.4 These revisions often lead to a critique of the way versions of literary history and biography shape reception. Written for insiders, they depend on a shared assumption that the audience knows the biography and thinks it matters. A case in point is Holly St. John Bergon's "John Keats in Colorado." What if Keats had gone to Colorado instead of to Rome? Bergon asks:
He has no choice: he must leave England
and travel, not to Rome, a mistake in his case,
but to Colorado where the mountain air
and winter sun will clear his lungs (142).
Later, Bergon gives us an image of a healthy Keats, who despite his exile, will continue to write:
he'll long for home but out of the difference
he'll heal and live for years writing
about the hunting songs of coyotes
and the revelations of the frontier" (142).
Bergon also reunites Keats with Fanny Brawne, who "will travel by stage to Denver / and together they'll ride down the valley / between mountain ranges to a new home" (142). Finally, she leaves us with a comic image of Keats hearing "in dreams the songs / of [both] the coyote and the nightingale" (143). The poem thus asks, How might we re-imagine this touchstone of high culture and refinement by envisioning him in nineteenth-century America, confronting the "uncivilized" wildness of "revelations of the frontier" and surviving the tuberculosis that eventually killed him? (It is interesting to note that Keats's brother George did in fact go to America and experience the frontier; while there, he was swindled by John James Audubon, who talked him into investing in a steamboat that had already sunk. Keats later loaned his brother money—he could ill afford to part with—so that George could continue to live here with his family.5) With her emphasis on Keats's illness as inseparable from his poetic work, Bergon also points up the almost cultic fascination with Keats's untimely death. How might his past and future reception be re-imagined, the poem asks, by granting him a different fate? Finally, by transporting Keats to America and inviting us to imagine him confronting frontier life with all its demands, Bergon begins to re-invent Keats as a poet who was not simply tied to "high" culture. With this re-invention she suggests that "high" culture may actually be disabling.
In contrast to Bergon, Debora Greger, in "Keats in Ohio," implies that she, and perhaps by extension other poets, cannot escape being haunted by Keats's early death and his exquisite understanding of the plenitude of loss and stillness. Keats's aesthetic and his early demise become entwined for her and are made visible in the course of her poem. For Greger, to write about autumn after Keats is necessarily to be belated; but acknowledging this does not lead to mourning or resistance. It becomes instead a conscious way of forging an affiliation with Keats, one that grants Greger the autonomy to map, in her own voice, the fullness of loss and change without losing sight of how Keats continues to influence what she sees. To accomplish this she places her own narrative beside one concerning Keats.
The poem opens with the speaker in "A clearing somewhere / in the lost forests of Ohio" (28), meditating on "the last leaves," "the fires of fall," and "the world trimmed in white / on its way to death, / blade and leaf enlaced in frost" (28). Reading this "brilliant library of loss" (28) gives Greger access to the richness and abundance of autumn—to the Stevensian realization that "death is the mother of beauty." It also reminds her inevitably of Keats and his autumn journey to Rome,
where he would await his death.
This is the coldness
needed to make the sweetness sweet,
the sugar maples know,
the leaves inflamed, the air too red
to breathe, as if,
parting the branches, into the clearing
a man would step who,
from a hired carriage reeling toward Rome,
had seen two footmen
in the Campagna assist a cardinal.
One loaded the gun for him,
One like a good dog beat the bushes
To flush the songbirds
Favored in the Eternal City.
In a rented room
Death would keep watch over his sleep
As it worsened,
Over the friend who sketched him sleeping (28-29)
Some poets implicitly propose that another artist's life, experience, or temperament may be seen as a mode of influence on their own art, revising in the process the assumption that poets are primarily influenced by other poets' texts. In "Even in Paris," Richard Howard traces poetic influence and affiliation through elaborate allusion to a life lived, though in his epistolary narrative he consciously and playfully departs from the received biography of his subject: Wallace Stevens. Implicitly examining the influence a transgressive, secretive, and highly discriminating Stevens has had on his own poetic project, Howard creates a what-if situation, in which Stevens is a closeted homosexual, who pays a secret visit to Paris in the 1950s that no one must discover: "The whole preposterous episode / is to be wiped out, elided-never was!" (11). Stevens of course never went to Paris and was not thought to be a homosexual; much of the play of the poem depends upon Howard's readers knowing this. But given Howard's own aesthetic preference for "hints and disguises" (to quote Marianne Moore on Stevens)—and his association of such an aesthetic with being a gay artist of a certain generation—he homosexualizes Stevens to secure their connection.
In the poem, Stevens, who in real life was reclusive and seldom traveled, cries out for more contact: "I have survived / too long on postcards from Paris or Toulon . . . I have dined enough with the faithful dead" (10). He also asserts, again out of character, "I want to be, this once, a living man / and a posthumous artist" (11). Depicted as eccentric, socially awkward and withdrawn, Stevens is described as a "Sacred Monster" (13), who is transfixed by the sight of Monet's Nympheas: "he was slowly, in a sort of demonic shuffle, / turning, turning round the oval room, / palms out and humming harshly to himself—" (13). As he looks at these paintings, he recites Whitman "like a sacred text" (14). Although Howard's poetic rendering of Stevens's secretive, closeted "life," which he links to Stevens' temperament, his imagination, and his aesthetic appreciation of certain types of high art, becomes an encoded mode of acknowledging Stevens' influence on his own poetry, it is finally the eroticisation of aesthetic appreciation and the link between the life lived and the art produced that the poem marks: "I have been told," Stevens exclaims in the poem, that "one is embraced, they [Monet's Nympheas] curve / around one in a continuous ecstasy . . . . I'd like to let those water-lilies have / their way with me; I'd like to learn from them" (10-11).
Sometimes the life-as-art poem is fueled by the recent death of someone the poet knew and is mourning the loss of. After David Kalstone died of AIDS in 1986, a number of deeply personal poems, written by close friends, appeared about him in quick succession: Howard's "For David Kalstone, 1932-86," James Merrill's "Investiture at Cecconi's" and "Farewell Performance," Henri Cole's "Lost in Venice," Anthony Hecht's "In Memory of David Kalstone," and Adrienne Rich's "In Memorium: D.K." Although these poems are personal expressions of grief, which pay tribute to Kalstone's discriminating taste and temperament and mark his embrace of "art" and high culture, they also serve a social and political function. Kalstone was a very private person and he made sure, as James Merrill would do after him, that it was not common knowledge that he had contracted the HIV virus and was subsequently dying of AIDS. All of his friends protected his right to privacy while he was alive, yet these poems in effect constitute an outing of him posthumously. This move functions to bring Kalstone, as gay critic, into the circle of gay poets about whom he wrote so eloquently, to solidify a sense of community and affiliation in the face of death, and to begin to provide a portrait of "the way we live now." As Howard writes: "Who would have thought that irregular line-up/ of communicants at the altar-rail/ of sex, in which we took our place, would one day/ possess the power to destroy itself?" (334-5). Or, as Hecht, who is straight, says:
"Men die from time to time," said Rosalind,
"But not," she said, "for love." A lot she knew!
From the green world of Africa the plague
Wiped out the Forest of Arden, the whole crew
Of innocents, of which, poor generous ghost,
You were among the liveliest." (66).
What interests me is the way these poems imply that it was Kalstone's temperament—his love of certain types of art, their own included—that fueled his sexual desires, that opened him up to the erotic experiences that ultimately led to his death.6 As Merrill states in "Farewell Performance":
"Strauss, Sidney, the lover's plaintive
Can't we just be friends? Which your breakfast phone call
clothed in amusement,
this is what we paddled a neighbor's dinghy out to scatter— (93).
Or, Howard who insists on repeatedly marking Kalstone's "pursuit of happiness" in concert with his appreciation of opera, ballet, Henry James or Renaissance poetry. For Howard it is finally Kalstone's "reverence of certain figurations,/ certain forms by fond artifice achieved" that cements their bond:
Balanchine and Bishop and the creator of
Merton Densher. "Denture David? Didn't James
for once bite off less than he could chew?" "My dear,"
he rounded, "I'm glad you said that to me"—
art was always an unpersuadable justice done to the world, and contemplation
of poems indeed the temple undestroyed" (334).
Langdon Hammer suggests that Merrill and Rich's poems are "asking in effect, what art could or could not do for Kalstone" (104), and by implication for anyone dying of AIDS. He concludes that they both "wonder whether there is not something potentially unhealthy, even contaminating about art—above all, about art's effects on the way one lives" (105). In doing this, Hammer suggests that their concerns and anxieties mirror "tabloid fantasies in mass culture" concerning homosexuality. Hammer does not write about the other Kalstone poems I have alluded to. Considered in total, I believe that by celebrating rather than mourning the link between Kalstone's appreciation of high art and his erotic desires, these poets collectively both speak to and counter the mainstream assumption that views AIDS as a homosexual disease brought on by a particular relationship to culture.
In "Letter to Walt Whitman," which was commissioned by BBC Radio Three and first read on the program Fan Mail in September 1997, Mark Doty writes about how Whitman haunts his own poetic project, but unlike Howard on Stevens, he ultimately chooses to underline the distance between his own work and Whitman's. For Doty, to forge an affiliation involves both paying homage to his predecessor and asserting his independence from him. There is no direct, uncomplicated line of influence from Whitman to Doty, the poem asserts, though writing off Whitman helps Doty clarify the aims of his own poetry.
Although Doty yearns for an intimacy with Whitman and expresses his admiration for him, he also charts his discomfort with the way images of an iconic Whitman, his vision and his texts have been appropriated, misunderstood and debased in contemporary culture.
. . . I've crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge,
PA to Jersey, past Walt Whitman High,
Even stopped on the Turnpike at
(denigration of our brightest hopes)
the Walt Whitman Service Area: shakes
and fries, the open freeway splitting what's left
of your American night. . . (31).
What is most interesting about the poem is that Doty does not exclude himself from this debasement, nor does he let Whitman off the hook, believing as he does that Whitman, late in his life, was complicit with the image of himself that continues to shape his reception. Doty shuttles back and forth between a consideration of Whitman in his own time—" You saw / shattered soldier boys bound up in their beds, / lost your day job for writing scandalous / verse . . ." (29)—and an assessment of his legacy now. In so doing he reaffirms the aesthetic of his own poetic project: "I'd like you to see my view" he tells Whitman in section three; and he makes visible an image of contemporary gay community that is enabled by his reading of Whitman, but finally is separate from Whitman's vision.
The poem, which is made up of four sections, begins with Doty wondering what Whitman, as celebrity poet, has come to signify for poets, gay men and mass culture generally.
Are you more than editions, or the grave's
Unconditioned hair? (More likely these days,
Permed and mowed to chemical perfection.)
I hope this finds you. I know you've been bothered
All century, poets lining up
to claim lineage. And not just poets—
in a photobook, brand-new,
handsome lads wrestle in sepia,
freshly laved by some historic stream:
the roughs are models now, and pose
in nothing on the opposite pages from stanzas
of your verse: a twentieth-century
letter to you. As are the scrawls
beneath the underpass, ruby and golden
cuneiform reinscribed on train-car sides:
songs of me and my troops, spray-painted
to our prophet. . . (24).
It is significant that Doty, who finds the gap between how daring Whitman was in his own time—"you knew no one would base a world / upon what you believed" (29)-—and what he has become in contemporary popular culture lamentable, does not exclude himself from these troops, who sing "songs of me . . . to [their] prophet."
Without denying his own estrangement from Whitman—"I am so far from you, Uncle" (24)—Doty describes a visit he and his lover Paul make to Whitman's former house in Camden, New Jersey, which has been turned into a museum. He begins by describing what now surrounds Whitman's modest, clapboard house—a prison "glowering across the street," (25), "car alarms / decibeled outside" (25), and a "neighborhood so torched / it doesn't even have a restaurant" (25). Camden, Doty tells Whitman, has become "the hole in which / we throw anything . . ." (25). When they first enter Whitman's house, Doty notices, to his dismay, "too many / photos of your [Whitman's] tomb: the stuff of image, / useless pomp in which you [Whitman] readily / partook" (25). He then discovers Whitman's parrot: "your glassed companion / / still these ninety years in his sealed vitrine" (26). As Doty looks closely and attentively at the bird we see his own aesthetic emerge and an assertion of his independence from Whitman, who he will not parrot. Through his meticulous observation of this creature, Doty both gives the bird autonomy and likens him to a work of art: "head crooked toward the future, / ambiguous as a construction by [Joseph] Cornell..." (26). (Later in the poem, Doty likens the sky over Columbus, Ohio to "one of Rothko's brooding visions" (30).) Seeing Whitman's parrot ultimately makes him feel closer to the poet and allows him to ignore the noise in the street.
This leads him to address Whitman, questioning him about his vision of Democratic America and his belief that "the bond of flesh to equal flesh, / might be the bedrock of an order" (27). Having experienced the potential for this firsthand—"in a beachside changing shed packed with men," (27)—Doty recounts how he initially believed the experience might lead to a new sense of community; but finally he concludes, when they all departed they went their separate ways "in separate clothes, / in separate cars" (28) and "headed home to the song of my self, self, / self" (28). The section ends with a question addressed to Whitman: "That moment, unguarded, / skin to skin, why didn't it make us change?" (28).
Having wondered throughout the poem whether Whitman's image of "America" and gay "fellowship" or "adhesiveness" (27) can be recuperated in gay communities, or in any community now, Doty ends the poem by suggesting that contemporary society is now only bound together by materialism and consumption. Whitman's vision of strangers, united by "crowding fast in the streets" (30), has been replaced by a motley crew, who are united by their desire for things, by their desire to shop.
In the big store's warmth and open embrace
Who could I think of but you? We were
Americans there—working, corporate,
Bikers, fancy wives, Hispanic ladies
With seriously loaded shopping carts,
One deftly accessorized crossdresser,
Indian kids in the ruins of their inheritance,
Loading up on Easter candy, all of us standing,
Khakis to jeans, in the bond of our common needs.
You wrote the book against which we are read.
Every one that sleeps is beautiful,
You said. Every one who shops is
Also lovely: we go out together
To try on what the world is made of,
To accommodate all that bounty,
To praise and appraise, to see what's new.
As if to purchase were to celebrate.
I stand close with the other shoppers (32).
Although Doty is one of the anonymous shoppers and seems disinclined to detach himself from the energy they collectively embody, he ends the poem by endorsing a retreat from them. Without discrediting Whitman's vision—"It stops / my breath, to think of what you said." (29), or pretending Whitman would be at ease in this society—"You would not / like it here, despite the grassy persistence / of your name" (31), Doty ends the poem by carving out a place for his own aesthetic, which is finally distinct from Whitman's. He turns away from "the sheer ascending numbers of us" toward the apricot tree, which he had described earlier in the section as "newly burst into the first of seven / burning days" (32):
. . . Who could be hopeful
for the sheer ascending numbers of us,
the poisoned sky and trees? Still I thought
of our apricot's upright, brandished flame,
scintillation held to the face of heaven,
new bees about their work
as though there'd never been a winter (33).
In contrast to Howard and Doty, whose poems concern the lives and work of canonical figures, Amy Clampitt often chooses to mark an otherwise unmarked life. Her poem, "Margaret Fuller, 1847," for example, captures the fullness of Fuller's life, while also acknowledging how unseen she was by her male contemporaries. Clampitt imagines Fuller in Italy, in love with Angelo Ossoli, and writing to her mother: " 'I have not been so well,' / . . . 'since I was a child, nor / so happy ever'" (231-232). She then poignantly captures how Fuller, waiting to give birth to her child, begins to feel haunted by old, recurrent dreams: "her mother dead, / re-dreamed her best friend's body lying / on hard sand, until the waves reclaimed it" (232). This time in Italy tragically and enigmatically serves to prefigure Fuller's own death by drowning, which occurred off the coast of New York, as she made her way back to the "New World," that never accepted her on her own terms: "What would Carlyle, what would straitlaced / Horace Greeley, what would fastidious/ Nathaniel Hawthorne, what would all Concord, / all New England and her own mother/ say now?" (232). Praising Fuller's transgressions and her nonconformity in the face of ridicule, Clampitt concludes: "What did she do? / it would be asked (as though that mattered). / Gave birth. Lived through a revolution. / Nursed its wounded. Saw it run aground. / Published a book or two. / And drowned" (233). In her rhetorical question—"What did she do?"—and in her matter-of-fact and understated list of Fuller's activities and accomplishments, Clampitt underlines the futility of all lives, particularly those that are unmarked and misunderstood. Yet the sum total of her poem conveys the unremitting energy and courage of the life Fuller led, leaving us with a sense that Clampitt can silence or temporarily mute the voices that did not accept Fuller.
Clampitt's poem "Grasmere" also celebrates an unmarked life, focusing as it does on Dorothy Wordsworth and her role in the William Wordsworth household. The poem opens with the speaker's visit to Dove Cottage, where she initially feels the landscape and weather are "both so wild / and so tea-cozy cozy, so snugly / lush, so English" (234). Yet, she reflects: "A run-into-the-ground complacency nonetheless is given pause here" (234) because of Dorothy Wordsworth: "What gives one/ pause here—otherwise one might not/ care, as somehow one does, / for William Wordsworth—/ is Dorothy" (234). Dorothy's attachment to her brother is well established; although separated as children, when they were reunited in their teens they ended up living together, with occasional short separations, from 1794 until William's death in 1850. Dorothy referred to their reunion as "The Day of My Felicity" (235). The poem is largely taken up with what it meant to be William's companion, his witness and reader: "Wednesday. . . . He read me his poem. After dinner / he made a pillow of my shoulder—I read to him / and my Beloved slept" (235). Clampitt is interested in capturing the texture of the life Dorothy led in consigning herself to this role: "(the circle / of domestic tranquility cannot / guard her who sleeps single / from the Cumbrian cold)" (235). "Spring, when it arrived again, would bring / birch foliage filmy as the bridal veil / she'd never wear" (235). At the same time Clampitt implies that there must have been a richness and fullness for Dorothy in loving, watching and responding to her brother and his family. Finally, however, the poem is notable for its omissions, for outlining that which remains unknown or unexplored: What did Dorothy think about when she wasn't ministering to others? When did she find the time to write her journals? Why did she write? What did William think about her?
Anne Carson's recent volume of poems, Men in the Off Hours, is also saturated with poems that take as their subject some aspect of another person's life. Carson takes a particular pleasure in writing about people whose lives only intersect in her imagination. Sometimes she brings voices from different centuries and cultures into dialogue: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on war in the opening prose poem, "Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides On War," or her own voice and Woolf's in the closing prose poem, "Appendix to Ordinary Time," in which she meditates on her mother's death, Woolf's, and ordinary time. She also meditates on personal loss, when writing a poem in memory of her father. In "Father's Old Blue Cardigan," Carson captures the moment she "knew / he was going mad inside his laws" (47). Although this poem, which begins in the present and circles back to the past, is deeply intimate, it is also about the necessity of giving her father autonomy and a quiet dignity as he moves toward his death. She also allows herself a necessary distance, thereby asserting her own singularity: "I put [the cardigan] on whenever I come in, / as he did, stamping/ the snow from his boots. // I put it on and sit in the dark. He would not have done this" (47).
Sometimes a life is brought into focus through reading someone else's version of it. In "A Station" Carson writes about the experience of reading a biography of George Eliot:
I was reading a life of George Eliot.
After marrying Cross
She caught laryngitis
And three pages later lay in the grave.
"The grave was deep and narrow."
Why so sad, I hardly knew her.
Saddest of all the little dropped comments.
Someone passing Highgate:
Is it the late George Eliot's wife going to be buried?
Up the hill and through the rain by a road unknown
To Hampstead and a station (23).
The matter-of-fact details given about Eliot's life and burial are less important here than Carson's aside: "Why so sad, I hardly knew her." With this comment on her own role as reader, Carson underlines how feeling becomes interpretive and inevitably interrupts and revises received narratives7.
Carson will also sometimes take a well-known figure and reveal something deeply disturbing, or at the very least unsettling. Her poem, "Freud (1st draft)," captures Freud in "the off hours" engaged in his work; drawing on Freud's papers and some "facts" Carson takes us inside his mind, revealing in the process her distaste for, and distrust of, his probing and dissecting of his subjects.
Freud spent the summer of 1876 in Trieste
Researching hermaphroditism in eels.
In the lab of zoologist Karl Klaus
More than a thousand to check whether they had testicles.
"All the eels I have cut open are of the tenderer sex,"
he reported after the first 400.
The "young goddesses" of Trieste were proving
it is not permitted
to dissect human beings I have
in fact nothing to do with them," he confided in a letter (20).
Similarly, in her poem "Audubon," Carson seeks to unmask Audubon and his deceptions. "Audubon perfected a new way of drawing birds that he called his. / On the bottom of each watercolor he put "drawn from nature" / which meant he shot the birds / and took them home to stuff and paint them" (17).
Audubon colors dive in through your retina
Like a searchlight
Roving shadowlessly up and down the brain
Until you turn away.
And you do turn away.
There is nothing to see.
You can look at these true shapes all day and not see the bird (17).
Later in the poem she mocks the hypocrisy of his self-fashioning, drawing a link between his wired bird specimens—"his new style"—and his desire to pass as a great American naturalist:
In the salons of Paris and Edinburgh
where he went to sell his new style
this Haitian-born Frenchman
as a noble rustic American
wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist" (118).
Unlike some of the poets I have been discussing, Carson does not revise, or reinvent existing narratives about her subjects. In both this poem and "Freud (1st draft)" she exercises restraint, keeping her range of reference narrow, when it might be tempting to add to the record.
Although I began by implying that there was a dissonance, or binary opposition between the populist aims of National Poetry Month, in so far as they can be recovered, and those of the isolated, elitist poet laboring behind the scenes, I have also tried to suggest that there is actually a link between the values underpinning National Poetry Month and the motives behind the particular thematic and stylistic gestures in some recent lyric. Both the proponents of National Poetry Month and the contemporary lyric poets I have been discussing implicitly seek to dissolve or destabilize various oppositions, including those between "high" and "low" culture, "art" and "life," the past and the present, and the private sphere and the public.
This poetry departs from "conventional lyric" in a number of ways. For these poets, the lives of other artists can be seen as a mode of influence. Engaging with someone else's archive for the origin of a poem replaces the sustained self-reflection and solitary nature of some lyric. These are not poems "recollected in tranquility." This work is social and conversational: multiple poems about a figure are often in conversation with one another. In the life—as text poem interiority is invoked through the archive, modes of affiliation, and performativity. Finally, it seems to me that it is precisely because there is a fear in the culture at large that interiority and privacy are no longer possible that we are seeing poetry—privately and in the public sphere—take on the role of guardian of the "inner life."
|1||See The New Yorker, April 19, 1999: 54-57. The text for this "Special Advertising Section" was adapted from David Lehman's foreword to The Best American Poetry 1998 (Scribner).|
|2||After Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 images of him as a young, "healthy," up in coming gay icon began to appear in designer jean ads.|
|3||I thought of the three biographies of Foucault that came in quick succession after his death and the way their repetitions and focus on his "queer" transgressive practices served to normalize him.|
|4||See, for example, Sheila Dietz's somewhat parodic or awkward "For Lota de Macedo Soares," which attempts to tell Elizabeth Bishop's "story" from Lota's perspective: "Would Lota be alive if Bishop had stayed/with her, or would she have killed herself later/anyway?" The poem may be playfully entering into the many conversations about Bishop's life, but as a poem it is flat and without nuance.|
|5|| See Walter Jackson Bate's biography of Keats and Amy Clampitt's "Winchester: The Autumn Equinox," found in "Voyages: A Homage to John Keats," a ten poem sequence concerning Keats's life. Clampitt's poem, which draws on Bate's biography, shows Keats rejecting America and warning his brother:
|6||See Langdon Hammer, who perceptively maintains: "Culture is seen in their [Rich and Merrill's] poems as powerless to help people with AIDS, so removed is it from the material realities of disease and death. Yet culture also seems strangely involved in the suffering caused by HIV, as if it were itself infected. The instability of the relation between culture and AIDS in these poems—the feeling that high art is alternately remote from the catastrophe "AIDS" names and deeply implicated in it—structures the unstable, ambivalent relations between these poets and their friends" (103).|
|7||See also Clampitt's poem, "Highgate Cemetery," in which she meditates on Eliot's life—particularly the ridicule she suffered for her scandalous attachments, first to George Henry Lewes ("an unconsecrated / attachment, a marriage that was / no marriage" (229)) and then to Johnny Cross ("younger by two decades, a banker, / athletic, handsome, read Dante with her" (229)). Clampitt ends her poem with a visit to George Eliot's grave, which "not quite a century later" is "hard to find" (230).|
Works Cited and Consulted
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Bergon, Holly St.John. "John Keats in Colorado." Ploughshares 23 (Winter 1997-1998): 142-143.
Carson, Anne. Men in the Off Hours. N.Y.: Vintage, 2001.
Clampitt, Amy. The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Cole, Henri. "Lost in Venice." The Yale Review, 78, 3 (Spring 1989), 462-465.
Dietz, Sheila. "For Lota de Macedo Soares." APR, 23 No.4 (July-August 1994), 35.
Doty, Mark. "Letter to Walt Whitman." Source. N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2001: 24-33.
Greger, Debora. "Keats in Ohio." Field 48 (Spring 1993): 28-29.
Howard, Richard. "Even in Paris." No Traveller. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989: 3-30.
-------. "For David Kalstone, 1932-86." Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003. N.Y: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004: 332-335.
Hammer, Langdon. "Art and AIDS; or, how will culture cure you?" Raritan, 14, 3 (Winter 1995): 103-118.
Hecht, Anthony. "In Memory of David Kalstone." The Transparent Man. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990: 66.
Merrill, James. "Investiture at Cecconi's." The Inner Room. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988: 92.
-------. "Farewell Performance." The Inner Room. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988: 93-94.
The New Yorker, "Special Advertising Section." 19 April 1999: 54-57.
Rich, Adrienne. "In Memorium." Poets for Life: Seventy-six Poets Respond to AIDS, ed Michael Klein. N.Y.: Crown Publishers 1989: 202.
Celeste Goodridge is a Professor of English at Bowdoin College where she teaches American literature. She is author of Hints and Disguises: Marianne Moore and Her Contemporaries, a co-editor of The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, and has also published essays on modern and contemporary American authors.