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Let’s Hear It for Ball-Busting Poetry About a World Men Have Ruined!

Let’s have dangerous, trouble-making, side-sinister, cantankerous, mean poetry. Let`s have pure-damn evil poetry.

Looking out my kitchen window, having watched a red-tailed hawk stoop and carry off a baby rabbit, I thought of safe, anecdotal glop moved around with a spatula into something resembling a poetics and I thought, We have to talk about the bloody carcass that little bunny has become. And, yes, the magnificence of the hawk`s swoop and implacability of his yellow eye.

But then I put such thoughts aside, studied the daffodils poking through the dirty snow, hoped my sides would stop aching from the exertions of shoveling snow, and forgot the horror in the window and the surfeit of harmless and inoffensive poetry

Until, that is, my favorite literary gazette, The Times Literary Supplement, arrived with a back-of-the-book reminder that the language poet and critic Charles Bernstein had once declared that April is the cruelest month for poetry, referring to American National Poetry Month.

In spite of its dalliances with the doxies Smug, Arch and Snide, I revere theTLS and rely on it to challenge my mind. Sometimes I even smile along with the occasional adolescent meanness of some of its reviewers. So I read the lead piece with growing amusement. It tweaks the popularizing O, The Oprah Magazine, for having joined Garrison Keillor in his campaign to bring us accessible ” poetry. This, of course, implies that he and the O editors get to define what is inaccessible for us. It is rather like the mainstream media defining news by what they omit.

I’m 76 and used to this sort of thing. When I was at Columbia I had instructors who disparaged Hart Crane for his inaccessibility. Today, reading his work, I mutter, What the hell were they talking about? But they sure did put on a good show of knowing. As do all critics and professors, to our detriment, I think. The keepers of the adytum get to define the adytum, which is why it so often goes to their heads. Crane was taking up where Walt Whitman had left off, singing of tunnels, bridges and dead Iroquois warriors. He was singing our song, telling us about ourselves, and those who didn`t trouble to hear it painted him into a critical corner and called him opaque and difficult. Who was being difficult, after all? Crane or the lazy minds that refused to be challenged by his nobly rhymed and also his blank verse?

It was the 50s when I attended college. We were to be called the Silent Generation. I suppose we were rather buttoned down and complacent. We trusted a government run by Smiling Ike, seemingly from the golf course. I was hugely enamored of Grayson Kirk`s having told our class, When you graduate four years hence I hope you will have some small idea of how much you don`t know. I was enthralled by all I didn’t know, more enthralled, I think, than so many Americans are today with what they think they know. My ignorance seemed astrophysical and grand. I think it`s the job of our schools to teach us our ignorance, but of they don’t agree.

So perhaps it was only natural I would miss the Beat Era. It drove by me as unassuming as a freight train, even though it was anything but unassuming. I just didn`t bother to assume anything about it except the luxury of missing it. I regarded Ginsberg’s Howl, when compared to the grandeur of Crane`s The Bridge,as pretentious and whiny. I regarded the Beats as creepy. They were drunk on wonderful substances, some of which remain uncategorized today. I was drunk on Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. If I regarded the Beats as an exhibitionistic lot I regarded Rimbaud as truly dangerous, a subversive of the first order. I loved him. He should have been on Joe McCarthy`s list, but imagination wasn`t Senator Sleaze`s suit. And Rimbaud, of course, was French, among many more interesting things.

Baudelaire`s idea of truth in decadence had me in its thrall, and New York City in the 50s was a very good place to ply that thrall. I saw flowers of evil everywhere, and I adored them all. How could the Beats, with their beefs about America, which sounded much as the tepid Coffee Party does today, compare with Rimbaud and Baudelaire and their kind of subversion, which was more like blood poisoning than polemic?

Charles Bernstein would be the one to grump about the bland celebration of poetry, because language poetry is inherently subversive, which is why it`s so exciting. It aims to blow language up and remake it. And it isn’t always what it seems to be, because once we think we know what it is we find its influences in poets like the Frenchwoman Valerie Rouzeau, who isn’t strictly speaking a language poet but certainly exhibits its most inspiring influences.

It might be useful to ask ourselves when we overuse the word accessible do we really mean acceptable? That is aside from the larger question, of course, of what we mean by accessible. Do we mean dumbed-down? Do we mean poetry that conforms to ideas introduced by William Carlos Williams, the Imagists and the New Critics, or has our original use of such terms degenerated to mean poetry that we get in a flash and can thereafter delete, disposable poetry? Not all the poetry I love and return to seduced me with easy entry, and much of what I thought was readily accessible [that dicey term again] proved later to be elusive. I think, particularly of Yeats’s marvelous last three lines in `Under Ben Bulben`:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

I don`t want to purge the least feel-good poem. I’m delighted that poets should write about the old homestead and the pleasures of parenthood and gardening. Why not? But their ilk should not rule. No one should. I want to hear from the poet-terrorist, the assassin of complacency, the bomber of smugness. I want handbooks on blowing things up, blowing up ideologies, religions, the givens, the received ideas, the nostrums, the lunacies. I’d like to hear about the swindling car mechanics, doctors, investment counselors, rapists, child abusers, usurers, elected liars, the reigning, savagely right-handed booboisie. But they`re predictable culprits; I’d like to hear more from the ball-breakers, them especially because the world has been ruined by men.

It`s what the Beats thought they were doing. It`s what we thought they were doing. But back then, child that I was, I thought they were posturing. I looked to Rimbaud for real revolt. I thought we would have had to invent the Beats if they hadn’t obliged us, because the unrelieved gray of my generation and the assumptions of the previous and wondrously heroic generation were holding out to us just the sort of silver-fox kleptocracy we have embraced. The Gilded Age redux.

The Beats stood up to it, and I`d like more of us to stand up to it, and much more dangerously, which will mean a poetry of reckless thinking, paranoid intent, and madly twirling bullshit detectors.


— by Djelloul Marbrook


red-tail hawk

2 comments on “Let’s Hear It for Ball-Busting Poetry About a World Men Have Ruined!

  1. jenneandrews
    December 7, 2015

    Loved this essay–just brilliant until for me the unfortunate metaphor of terrorism in poetry. There is plenty of emotional and verbal violence and terrorism in the world at large. What “language poetry” purports to be doing–effecting some kind of revolutionary lexicon– to oversimplify, perhaps–to me signifies almost a death of the poetry that turns on a breathtaking mastery of language; the beautiful languages that are our birthright; what our ears receive and our hearts alchemize. Too many poets are clever rather than brilliant and quarterly editors are seemingly blind to this. We need luminous poetry, the lumen, poetry that illuminates and fills us up. Especially in these times, as it were, when there is so much hatred and perversion, ideology, deconstruction of the old texts into mandates to get to heaven by commission of mass murder–a great dark pall lies over everything. Women most certainly have had a hand in ruining the world with apathy, blame, and now we have female terrorists committing themselves to the objectives of ISIS. The life of the mind, the soul and the heart scarcely have a chance. Out of MFA programs come those who are newly minted masters of inscrutability and in these things, I despair, only held together by my muse. xj


  2. Reblogged this on Life in Rhymes / Vida em Versos and commented:
    “a poetry of reckless thinking, paranoid intent, and madly twirling bullshit detectors.” Let’s get on to it, shall we?


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