‘Dailiness: Essays on Poetry’ by Mark Jarman: A Devotional Poetic Voice

Meryl Natchez

Amidst the clamor of poetic voices, reading Mark Jarman’s Dailiness: Essays on Poetry (Paul Dry Press; 177 pages) has been a deep pleasure. These essays display a profound, thoughtful, rigorous attention to poetry, especially its roots and formal structure. Jarman is a formal poet, and his explication of Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins, as well as contemporary poets you might not expect (Michelle Boisseau, Rita Dove, Brenda Hillman, and Sophia Stid, for example) is insightful and rewarding to read.

The premise of the book is that life and work consist of daily showing up. This theme pervades the essays—poetry as daily devotion, a steady practice, a habit, what Jarman quotes Seamus Heaney as calling “a work lust.” As someone who for years at a time has taken that first best hour of the day for poetry, I can’t find fault with this approach. And yet, I couldn’t help thinking back to years of my life that were chaotic, prickly, and precarious, during which the assumption of this daily practice as a possibility would have brought out my most murderous instincts. 

Nonetheless, I admire Jarman’s steadfastness, his gentle humor, and his deep commitment to the practice of poetry. This is a serious book for serious poets who want to discover not just that a particular poem is moving, but how it is specifically crafted to have that effect. Jarman is able to deconstruct and comment on the elements of a poem, repetition, metaphor, rhythm, rhyme in a way that illuminates why it works. “My weakness as a reader,” he comments, “has always been a greater interest in how a thing is said than in what is said.” But for the reader of Jarman, this is a strength, not a weakness; his dissection of specific poems, including his own, is thoughtful and provocative. He writes beautifully on topics as diverse as Gilgamesh and the Beatles. 

Belief in the Christian God, also plays a prominent role in these essays, poetry as prayer, the devotional poem, faith itself also play prominent roles in these essays. Jarman’s examples of devotional poetry range from Herbert and Donne to Chase Twitchell, John Berryman, Philip Levine, Jean Valentine and Maurice Manning. He ends this particular essay with Dickinson and Whitman. And his touch can be feather light, as in his discussion of “Song of Myself”: “Whitman’s faith, in this greatest of American devotional poems, is that there will be a reader who will find him. I think he shares this faith will all poets, even those who profess to have no faith at all.” 

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Jarman does a wonderful job of explicating his own devotional work, from “Unholy Sonnet #14” to tender poems about his mother initiating a prayer circle over a sink full of suds. I especially appreciate moments when his family (current or past) enter these essays. “The Story of a Feeling,” covers heavy ground, including Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” and Andrew Hudgens’ “Beatitudes,” a grim poem in which each line begins with the anaphora, “Blessed is…” and that ends “Blessed is the horror,” about which Jarman notes: 

“The pattern of repetition in this poem tells the story of this complex feeling: that our horror is blessed, as is our consciousness of horror, and our ability to articulate our horror, our willingness to represent horror, to acknowledge it, and to tell its story in patterns and forms that make it stick in the minds of others as poetry.”

He then continues for a few pages, which begin: “That was where I ended when I first drafted this essay. But my family admonished me for concluding with some depressing poems.” That same humor appears later in “Writing as Daily Practice.” After talking about writing a poem for his daughter as a kind of prayer, he notes: “Sometimes, often in writing my poems, I feel obliged to explain Christians to non-Christians (in fact, that’s what I’m doing most of the time.)” I also found his framing of his discussion of the Aeneid, Book VI, within his visit to his aging and ailing father very moving—it made Aeneas’ struggle personal and relevant.

These essays demand a focused attention from the reader; when I read one on pubic transit I almost missed my stop. One has to dredge up definitions of mostly forgotten metrical feet like trochaic tetrameter, to immerse oneself in the intricacies of formal structure in a way that is rarely examined in contemporary discussion of poetry. The explorations, especially that of poetry as prayer, soul and self, of Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid, Book VI, are not light reading. 

Jarman’s insistence not just on daily practice, but on his specific practice of sitting down not in a coffee shop or amid the clatter of life, but daily, reverently, outside the clatter of life, at one’s desk to work and rework a poem may feel discouraging. He also fails to mention the value of getting out among other poets, of exposing oneself to different voices and sensibilities, of bumping up against new forms and styles. Nonetheless, his specific ability to help the reader understand why a poem or even a particular word works is extraordinary.

In his essay, “Something Like That,” Jarman focuses his laser eye on the pronoun “something…in particular when it is used most consciously as a word, a provisional word, even a place-holder, tentative, unstable, yet charged with such inexpressibility…” His examples range from Macbeth to Sondheim and from Herbert to Larkin to Frost, and include a full quote of one of my favorite Creeley poems. I love that when writing about “First Thought” by Brenda Hillman, whose last line he takes as the title of his essay, he starts with, “I do not know enough about the kind of Gnosticism behind this poem.” That humility is endearing, as is Jarman’s willingness to engage poetry he doesn’t fully understand. 

I found reading this volume Dailiness broadened my understanding of formal poetry, and I spent many happy hours with these essays. Clearly, Jarman has been out in the world as well as daily at his desk, and we students of poetry benefit from his explorations.

Meryl Natchez’ fourth book, Catwalk, is newly released from Longship Press with blurbs from Jericho Brown, David St. John, and Lynn Emanuel. In addition to ZYZZYVA, her work has appeared in LA Review of Books, Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, and many other publications. She blogs at www.merylnatchez.com where you can find a 14-day Social Distance Online Learning Retreat with poems, prompts and journal suggestions.

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