Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading the Ladies of Creative Writing

There is something so particularly annoying in bad contemporary poetry as to make me more resentful of the time spent on it than of that wasted on almost any other reading. I can not quite explain this any way other than by first admitting how much I like the look of poetry in modern paperbacks. The style is to print these poems, lines double-spaced, on creamy pages, with vast white margins, at less than one hundred pages, slipped between bright and artful covers of thick glossy paper that feels almost oiled. Pretty things, these books are satisfying objects, designed to tempt without taxing even the most lackadaisical reader. To this same end, the back cover nowadays most often has a handsome small photo of the author, smiling, nice looking, with a fresh complexion suggestive of quiet idylls in a dappled place, perhaps a potting garden, and contented observations on the flight of a bee. Beside the photo runs the poet's biography, the name in bold type:

"Y___ Z___ is the author of twelve previous chapbook collections of poems, including Arugula Washings and Stumpings, and her poems have appeared in a variety of journals, anthologies and other venues, including The South-West South Dakota Poetry Forum, Willow Lashings, and The Klamath Review. She has a degree in Sanskrit from Ohio State, and currently teaches Creative Writing at The Learning Center & The University of Western East Washington. She lives with her husband Tim, on a working pear orchard in the Tawalamuck scablands of Eastern Washington."

Above the photo and brief biography, an isolated stanza of charming warmth, usually running something like:

"Dusk. The trees are deathly still against the white-breathed

windless night-sky. Crows squabble over the frosted wind-falls

and my eye falls after them, gambling through the dead grasses

in pursuit of the messenger's deeper black, pitching caws and broken

shards of snapped fruit, lost and retrieved and gobbled in moonless places

in the gathering night, sharp beaks working in wet unseeable triumph."

Up from this, in a bold type, the endorsement of the poet's former creative writing teacher, and just above that, the publisher's breathless paragraph of almost inexpressible pleasure in the poet's first publication with the poetry professionals at the Fawn's Wallow Press:

"With an unrivaled ear for the dizzy thrum of nature, motherhood and the bypassed commonalities of everyday interaction in American language, Y___ Z___ retrieves the missed moments, deep losses and joy of a restless spirit becalmed by the narcotic of a life lived in constant, intellectual celebration of water-smoothed stone, buckets, and pear blossom. Here we find a dazzling intelligence in constant dialogue with itself, via the world, the rock, and the worn but faithful rubber boot. Her new collection represents an unflinching seeing into, as well as an embrace. A stunning achievement in expansive introspection."

How can one not?

I like fruit. I like crows. But then some random poem, usually near the middle of each slim volume, disrupts my thoughtless reading, suddenly raging without warning in the midst of all this tuneless jumbling of impressions, and my happy indifference is undone. Some resented father, or first husband, some man, at any road, bumbles in, slipping on the cowslips, tripping into the poet's solar plexus and unfeelingly induces an unladylike bit of excoriation, the bastard, and a bit of blood, human, black and unsavory, pours from the poor poet's sweet lips, and messes her Glogs. It's unsettling, to say the least.

"You sleep with a knife at my back

still, after all this years

in the sheets I scrubbed when you left..."


"My son will never know the erection

of the tomb you built me, Dad..."

And... I'm done. From that invariable moment, I'm awake suddenly to the slipshod and the silliness of the whole awkward enterprise. Could I really have read even so far as the back cover of the book and not seen how giddy and gross all this is? How did I miss her eye rolling through the grass? ! And yet, often as not, until I get at last to that first furious line, I read along from each clumsiness to the next -- as I never would, reading prose -- the senselessness just stumbling by me, scattering poesies, so pretty seemingly, so poetically arranged in all those all but equal lines...

And then I put the book from me, annoyed, not so much with the poet, who after all is entitled to her thoughts, resentments, and publication, but rather with myself, for getting suckered again, by a pleasant, rather even than a pretty face. I am an easy touch, when it comes to poets with nice smiles and loose gray hair. I can never quite see the hint of crazy in the eyes, but then the photographs are kept small. Yet, one would think I would know better by now. There's always a spot of blood on the trowel.


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