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Annah Omune Sidigu

Poets Not (Always) Disimproving: ‘We Begin in Gladness’ by Craig Morgan Teicher

We Begin in GladnessWe rarely have the opportunity to observe a poet’s writing process, even though we may occasionally see earlier drafts that serve as evidence of it. But Craig Morgan Teicher gives us the next best thing: his new book examines poets’ creative processes over the courses of their careers.

Part guidebook for emerging poets and part homage to a wide range of major poets, Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (164 pages; Graywolf) is one of the most enjoyable books about poetry I have encountered. His obvious love of poetry infuses the book with the “grace, certainty, power, and humility” he so admires in one of his literary heroines, Lucille Clifton. Additionally, because he surveys a diverse group of writers, providing relevant biographical background and anecdotes from their lives and his own, We Begin in Gladness is a book with wide appeal.

Given its focus on showing how poets progress, it’s unsurprising that the majority of poets featured in Teicher’s book are well known. However, he makes a significant distinction between these poets. On one hand, there are those rare writers who are considered major poets because they produced “very different poems over the course of their lives”—a skill, he notes, which is now a requirement for most modern poets. On the other hand, most major poets refined both their subjects—essentially writing the same poem across many years before finally getting it as right as possible—and their styles to the point where each of them inhabited a singular voice. And while Teicher does not completely disavow the popular notion, espoused by Paul Muldoon, that “Poets disimprove as they go on. It’s just a fact of life,” he is intent on examining the leaps, breakthroughs, and “steady progress” in the quality of work produced by major poets. To do so, he presents and scrutinizes excerpts from poems by Sylvia Plath, Brenda Hillman, John Ashbery, Lucille Clifton, D.A. Powell, W.S. Merwin, William Butler Yeats, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Louise Glück, and others.

Teicher also offers a few examples of deterioration in the quality of some major poets’ works. For example, he introduces us to the relatively unknown Delmore Schwartz, a writer he characterizes as “the twentieth century’s most thwarted poet.” As with Teicher’s assessments of the weaknesses of other poets—Plath, Lowell, Ashbery, and Merwin—his brief overview of Schwartz’s work is as much a celebration of that writer’s triumphs as it is a cautionary tale. However, as Teicher shows in his analysis of how Susan Wheeler picked up where Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” left off, the great works of poets who plateau or “disimprove” may live on in new work that seems almost collaborative, albeit across gulfs of time and death. Indeed, Teicher asserts, “Sometimes, it’s only in the work of the newer poet that we can identify the achievements of the older ones.” Reading this book, I found myself experiencing Teicher’s epiphany, as it was only in reading his analysis of Yeats’ work that I noticed the influence of that poet on one of my literary heroes, Derek Walcott.

It is interesting to review a book that is in conversation with many other books and that reviews works by other writers. In that sense, Teicher’s work offers lessons for art critics, too. While I think it’s safe to say he admires much of the work of every poet in We Begin in Gladness, Teicher’s praise for their best poetry is tempered by his honest appraisals of their weaker efforts. So while Teicher celebrates the “stripped-down simplicity” and “soft-landing (epiphanic) leap” that characterizes Merwin’s best work, he finds much of the esteemed writer’s other poetry to be full of “self-importance.” The story of how Stanley Kunitz once told Louise Glück that a group of poems she had written and shared with him was “terrible”—an assessment that became a springboard for Glück’s dramatic improvement—is both a subtle commentary on critique and an encouraging anecdote for any poet who questions the quality of their own work.

We Begin in Gladness‘ secondary theme seems to be how nearly every poet grapples with the inadequacy of language. Nonetheless, Teicher notes, writers turn to poetry precisely for this reason. Poetry is, according to him, the best tool we have to convey that which is “genuine.” “When we hear and understand what can’t be said and heard,” he writes, “that’s when a ‘pure change’ happens,” And yet, “the unsayable is never quite said.”

Teicher shows us how the work of major poets, including Hayden and Yeats, has essentially been a struggle to say what they mean, getting closer and closer to this goal but eventually making peace with the impossibility of such an endeavor. In Yeats’ case, this finally led him to an understanding of what he loved in poetry, which, it turns out, was not that which he sought to capture—not reality—but the imagined worlds his quest produced or the poetry itself. This sentiment is echoed by Lowell, who wrote, “I want to make/something imagined, not recalled?” Teicher’s book is full of insights like these, and it’s a pleasure to see how the poets he features in it are in conversation with one another across time (generations, even) and space.

Though not necessarily a craft book, We Begin in Gladness does what all good craft books aim, but so often fail, to do—it makes the reader want to go and investigate the many works of poetry the author references and to learn more about their makers, much as (as Teicher asserts) “a real poem points to everything beyond it.”

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Walking a Loose Rope: ‘Sidebend World’ by Charles Harper Webb

Sidebend WorldCharles Harper Webb’s Sidebend World (78 pages; University of Pittsburgh Press) contains some genuinely lovely and worthwhile poems. At his best, Webb is funny and self-effacingly honest, delivering poems that are intimate and warm. Unfortunately, other poems in the book often border on careless—that is, they rely on weak associations or seem half-halfheartedly crafted. Worse, however, some poems contain stereotypical portrayals of others and humor that some will likely find offensive.

First, let’s consider the positive aspects of Sidebend World. My favorite poem in the book, “Turtle Hunt,” is one that I could return to time and time again. The rhymes are both obvious and hidden. And the poem is interspersed with formal meter in lines like:

But at the bayou—where dragonflies, metallic red
and blue, snap up mosquitoes over tea-stained
water full of tadpoles, crayfish, punkinseeds—
Teddy flops into a snarl of thorny weeds,
and being 5, runs home crying. Carol, afraid

to mess her dress, whines, “I’ve got to go,”
and scampers back to Barbie. I’m left alone . . .

It’s a lovely, thoughtful poem with universal appeal and a satisfying conclusion. This is the kind of work that stays with a reader.

“Nice People Aren’t So Bad,” another of Webb’s poems that I admire, contains some of the same formal elements as “Turtle Hunt.” The stanzas are tight and follow a fairly strict syllabic count, which, along with the subtle rhymes, carries the rhythm of the poem. More importantly, the poem feels intimate, focused, and genuine. The reader believes these are people the speaker knows and things that actually happened to him. Here are some lines that I think convey the essence of the poem:

In a four-man lifeboat, they’ll let a fifth
climb in and share their food: extremely
stupid, unless the fifth is you.

Nice people don’t call the sky punch-
in-the-eye blue. They won’t so much as kiss
if either one is married to someone else,
though they may say, “I really like you,”
in a cherry-blossom shower, then rush
away . . .

Aside from the “cherry-blossom shower,” this poem is as grounded in reality as Marge Piercy’s “To be of use” and is told in as relatable a voice. Other standouts in Sidebend World include “Have I Got a Script for You” and “Nice Hat.”

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Relevant and Relatable: ‘American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time’ by Tracy K. Smith

American JournalAmerican Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (120 pages; Graywolf) delivers on its promise of introducing readers to some of our most important contemporary American poets, both well-known and emerging. Moreover, the writers featured in it are a reflection of the diversity of the United States, which is what one would hope for in a collection curated by the current U. S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In addition to featuring a racially diverse group of writers, there are poems by old and young, female and male, and straight and gay poets (although queerness is not a theme that is really explored in it, except in Terrance Hayes’ “At Pegasus”). Clearly, there is a wealth of perspective in this book, making one wonder whether a collection that attempts to appeal to such a broad audience might read as too general or watered down. This isn’t the case.

The poems in American Journal both celebrate and critique the American “way of life.” There are poignant portrayals of small-town and rural America (not to be confused with white America) in poems like Oliver de la Paz’s “In Defense of Small Towns” and Vievee Francis’ “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding,” as well as nods to urban America, such as in Major Jackson’s “Mighty Pawns,” a witty poem about a tough and brilliant kid from Philadelphia who “could beat/any man or woman in ten moves playing white.” There are also honest appraisals of our frequent complacency in the face of injustices meted out by our government in Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” and in Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” which is something of an anti-poem that recounts in a nonlinear fashion the Abraham Lincoln-sanctioned execution of thirty-eight men from the Dakota tribe. Near the beginning of the poem, Long Soldier alerts readers:

You may like to know, I do not consider this to be a ‘creative piece.’

I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.

Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an ‘interesting’ read.

Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.

That said, I will begin.

You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.

Other poems touch on other relevant social concerns: Tina Chang’s “Story of Girls” and Donika Kelly’s “Fourth Grade Autobiography” speak to our increasing societal awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse—an awakening facilitated by the #Me Too movement. One of my favorite poems in the book, Eve L. Ewing’s “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on Then,” is an intimate and recognizable portrayal of contemporary school life, but I can’t read it (especially its final lines) without thinking about recent school shootings.  The poem characterizes several members of this school community, painting an especially vivid portrait of a student named Javonte Stevens:

Sing of Javonte’s new glasses,

their black frames and golden hinges that glint in the sun,

and his new haircut, with two notched arrows shorn above his temples.

Another of the strongest poems in the book, Danez Smith’s “From summer, somewhere,” is a must-read about the police killings of black boys that is written from the perspective(s) of the dead boys. It’s a compact poem packed with power. Here is a couplet from the poem: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy.”

Elsewhere, universal themes such as familial strife, forgiveness, and death are addressed in poems, such as the highly memorable “Reverse Suicide” by Matt Rasmussen and “becoming a horse” by Ross Gay. In Gay’s poem, which manages to be both down to earth and spiritual—humbling, really—the speaker reflects:

But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know

the sorrow of horses . . .

Feel the small song in my chest

swell and my coat glisten and twitch.

Diverse as they are, the poems in American Journal flow into one another, mirroring the melding of experiences that makes us who we are as a nation. This fusion is partly a result of the poems being grouped into thematic sections. Often, poems on opposite pages, such as Rasmussen’s “Reverse Suicide” and Charles Wright’s “Charlottesville Nocturne,” or Ada Limón’s “Downhearted” and Gay’s “becoming a horse,” address strikingly similar subject matter. It might also have been interesting to juxtapose poems that speak to each other in a different way—that also enact the tensions that are particular to a culture defined as much by similarity as by difference. For example, it might have created a pronounced tension to run Lia Purpura’s “Proximities,” which addresses police shootings, but from a perspective of privilege, next to Smith’s “From summer, somewhere.” As it is, they’re placed far from each other. While this may show the difference in the closeness to danger for each poem’s subject(s), this is a point that may be lost on readers.

Overall, American Journal serves as a strong overview of the poetry of our current moment. And in a time in which the only thing most of us seem to agree on is that we disagree—at a time when our nation is in what esteemed journalist Carl Bernstein has dubbed a “cold civil war”—it is refreshing to read a books that unifies our diverse perspectives.

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Queering Language: ‘Feeld’ by Jos Charles

FeeldA few days ago, I woke up half-dreaming in the made-up language of Jos Charles’s feeld (64 pages; Milkweed Editions), which is to say I landed softly. feeld –– which is currently longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in poetry –– challenges the reader to engage with a singular, complex voice (“Chaucerian English [translated] into the digital twenty-first century,” as Fady Joudah notes on the book’s jacket), but one that is also accessible and refined. Throughout the book, which contains sixty short poems, it is evident Charles is a poet who values breath and space. Both aurally and visually, the white space enhances the content, giving the reader time to grasp the meaning of each poem, as well as nearly every line and word. It is a meticulous work; there is nothing rushed or careless in it.

This is not to say one can fully comprehend every layer of feeld: appropriately, Charles leaves plenty of room for interpretation as her wordplay produces a great deal of double entendre. What happens between the words, how words are fused or disjoined, and the sounds they produce—in short phrases, such as “where it tends” in the poem titled “V” and “re member” in “XXXIX”—are as important as the words themselves. In addition, as Stephanie Burt notes in a blurb, Charles’s latest work displays a predilection toward puns. Much of this is accomplished through words—such as “sirfase,” “queery,” and “dicke,” as well as “copse,” “cropse,” and “corpse”—that contain echoes of other words.

Yet the puns in feeld are more tragic than comic. feeld is earnest in the best sense. Since, as the speaker explains in “VII,” there are so many layers to being transgender (and to feeld), when the poems employ directness –– such as in “LIV,” when the speaker laments, “u who unforl me/ how many/ holes would blede/ befor/ u believ/ imma grl” –– it is to devastating effect and causes the reader to pay close attention.

In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading feeld is when we happen across these instances of candor. This occurs again in the final line of the poem “XI,” in which the speaker states, “thomas sayes trama lit is so hotte rite nowe.” At that moment, it is as though Charles had been stretching a rubber band until it was capable of singing a little, but then allows it to snap, producing a powerful resonance.

It’s clear feeld is a book about identity and trauma, but is Charles’s work political? And if she intends to achieve any political aims through feeld, does the prettiness of her writing style soften the impact too much?

The truth, perhaps, is that Charles is an astute poet who has mastered the restraint apparent in well-crafted books of poetry that might otherwise be dubbed (and therefore dismissed) as overly personal or “political”—or, as the speaker puts it in the final line of the poem “XI,” “trendy.”

There are references to political concerns like “masckulin econoymes,” “votes,” and “balots” sprinkled throughout the text, but feeld seems more of an appeal to change at the individual rather than policy level.

While all writers are concerned with language, feeld queers language in such a way that it raises questions about whether what we perceive someone to be is as important as what we call them—and, therefore, how we define their existence. feeld asks us to consider whether existence is in fact defined by naming—that is, by language.

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