August Imaginings: On the Poetry of Reality

David Wojahn Click to read more...

David Wojahn is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2004 (Pittsburgh, 2006), a finalest for the Pulitzer and winner of the O. B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  His collection World Tree received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and his most recent is For the Scribe (Pittsburgh, 2017).  He has produced two books of essays and is a Guggenheim fellow, as well as winner of NEA Grants, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize and the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship.  Wojahn teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

We weren’t worthy or sure enough of ourselves
to catch hold of the subjects beyond our reach
–Julia Hartwig, “Meditation (On Czeslaw Milosz)”

     My favorite literary feud came to its moment of crisis in 1979, in an interview that took place with the novelist and essayist Mary McCarthy on Dick Cavett’s talk show. Cavett, a comic with intellectual pretentions, had an easy-going quality that belied his ability to entice guests into saying snarky or outrageous things. Is there any writer of your generation you regard as over-rated? asked Cavett of his guest. McCarthy’s answer: Lillian Hellman.  “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘the’ and ‘and.’”  1  At that time the two writers had been battling one another for years, originally because of politics: in the 1930s, Hellman was a Stalinist, McCarthy a Trotskyite. But the causes of their disdain for one another also surely had to do with professional jealousy–McCarthy apparently resented Hellman’s financial success: her plays and their movie adaptations brought in a lot of bucks. Hellman seems to have longed for McCarthy’s reputation as a Serious Intellectual, something Hellman was not. Mind you, Hellman seems to have indeed had a bit of a problem with the truth. Her best-selling memoir, Pentimento, tells us that in the 1930s she undertook a dangerous mission to Berlin, carrying a big wad of cash in her pillbox hat, money destined for the Anti-Hitler resistance. (In the movie adaptation of the book, Jane Fonda plays Hellman, sporting a very stylish fur pillbox hat.) The mission was supposedly arranged by Hellman’s friend “Julia”–a member of the resistance. And Hellman tells us that for various reasons she cannot identify Julia by her real name, even though the book was published in 1973, when the only remaining Nazi higher-ups were either in Spandau Prison or donning wigs and fake beards in Paraguay and Argentina. In all likelihood, Julia never existed, though Hellman seems to have based the Julia character on a real life American spy, Muriel Gardiner, who she never met. Hellman reacted to McCarthy’s putdown by slapping her, Dick Cavett, and PBS (which aired the Cavett show), with a 2.5 million dollar lawsuit that wound its way through the courts for a good many years, until finally being dropped by her heirs after Hellman’s death. I’m attracted to this particular literary spat in part because McCarthy’s putdown is so deliciously merciless. But I am also drawn to it for nostalgic reasons. Mary McCarthy knew a liar when she saw one, and was willing to stick to her guns in defending her statement, at a huge financial cost, and in what turned out to also be a terrific strain on her health. And McCarthy furthermore knew that if someone lies about one thing, that person is likely to lie about others. Truth is good and lies are bad, and, incidentally, a pattern of falsehood makes for bad writing.

    As evidence to this latter claim, we need only look at the Tweets that are tapped out by the tiny little thumbs of our current president. Shortly after his election, the website PolitiFact asserted that on the campaign trail an astonishing 70% of Donald Trump’s statements were falsehoods, 26 % misleading half-truths, and only 4% legitimate truths.  2   And of course the lies are not just outrageous, they are uttered with a doltish bellicosity, and with the intention to dismiss any statements which disagree with his own as “fake news” generated by the liberal elites and the media.  This is exactly the sort of divisiveness that allows those forces which support Trump–be they Breitbart, Fox, or White House advisor Kellyanne Conway yammering on about “alternative facts”–to peddle falsehoods as truth, false equivalencies as credible analogies, and wacko conspiracy theories as plausible and worthy of investigation. Not too many years ago, Stephen Colbert lampooned this indifference to factuality by calling it “truthiness,” but now the jargon is moving in a more ominous direction that isn’t funny at all. In 2016 the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” as its Word of the Year. The word’s definition:  “adjective. Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 3

     Given this state of affairs, it’s not surprising that the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick has in recent years come to seem less like a journeyman who cranked out fodder for the pulps and more like a prophet. And, given his penchant for psychedelics and speed, he might rightly be described as a prophet of the “wild-eyed” variety.  Not long before his death in 1982, Dick relocated to Orange County, just down the road from Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland, and the birthplace of that most storied of nutcase organizations, the John Birch Society. There he wrote a screed that Kurt Anderson–in a singularly distressing analysis of the paranoid strain in American culture entitled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History– describes as Dick’s  “perfect summary of  his dread about the transformation of American society and culture as the real and the unreal become indistinguishable.”4 Anderson quotes from this document at length, as well he should:

We have fiction mimicking truth and truth mimicking fiction. We have a dangerous overlap, a dangerous blur. And in all probability it is not deliberate. In fact, that is part of the problem….The problem is a real one, not an intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.

And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes.

I consider that the matter of defining what is real—that is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans—as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities, and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. 5   

Around the very same time that Dick penned these words, the French post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard was at work on his maddeningly ponderous but equally prophetic tome, Simulacra and Simulation. For Baudrillard, the problem is even more dire. It is not simply that fake realities are indistinguishable from the real: we have instead arrived at a cultural juncture in which, wittingly or unwittingly, we have come to see the fakery as more real than what is authentic. Early in the volume he says this: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real…Never again will the real have a chance to produce itself—such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences.” 6  Our new era of the hyperreal not only blunts our ability to distinguish truth from lie, it also lobotomizes the notions which those of us with artistic temperaments hold so dear—mimesis, creativity, idealism. Baudrillard’s forebears, fellow mandarin philosophes such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, giddily announced that the author was dead. Baudrillard goes them one better: now it is the imagination itself which has bitten the dust. Now that the eon of the hyperreal has dawned, will we ever be able to again recognize that which is real, or, as artists, produce works that are akin to the real, works that express that mysterious mimetic acuity which has traditionally been one of the principle consolations that characterize the creative process?

     And during a time when the very notion that art can offer consolation has come to seem quaint, a vestige of the Victorians and the more churchy versions of the High Modernists, the search for such consolation can be slantwise, circuitous and fraught. Not long ago I spent a snowbound Saturday afternoon with my teenage sons, watching Ridley Scott’s masterly 1982 film, Blade Runner, one of many cinematic adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s novels, in this case the woefully entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The boys had not seen the film before, but they had recently seen its deeply flawed sequel, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Both films posit a future in which various models of androids called “replicants” have been manufactured by a sinister multinational corporation. The replicants, identical to actual humans in almost every respect—save that they possess superhuman strength–are menials and slaves. The males are sent to off-world mining colonies to do work too perilous for actual humans; the females must labor in off-world brothels. But certain models of the replicants have a tendency to malfunction; they decide return to earth incognito, and to pass as real humans. This is relatively easy for them to do: each replicant has an individual physiology, and each has been programed to believe at least in some degree that it is a human and not a machine. They have been programmed with childhood memories, and been issued small caches of photographs from made-up pasts. They require nothing more elaborate, for each of them is also programmed to break down—to crash like a computer—five years after it has been manufactured. The nominal hero of the film, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a Blade Runner, whose job is to retire (or kill, if you’re of an anthropomorphic bent) reprobate replicants. His job is far from easy, and has been made more so at the time the film begins. The androids have begun to stage an outright rebellion against their human masters, and are led by an especially charismatic replicant named Roy Batty, played by the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. The film becomes a cat and mouse game between Roy, as he attempts to gather converts to his rebellion, and Deckard, as he tries to capture Roy and retire him. The plot is a gorgeous mish-mash, part hard-boiled detective story in the mode of John Huston, part Kubrick’s Spartacus. Set in a dystopian Los Angeles where it is perpetually raining,  where the streets and buildings are gaudy and trashy, and lit by garish signage that evokes a futuristic Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, the film is always visually stunning—and the sets have a palpable quality that the computerized willfulness of the sequel cannot match. The film’s climax is a lengthy fight scene between Deckard and Roy, whose rebellion against the humans has come close to being successful. Roy has assassinated the head of the multinational and creator of the replicants, and thus Roy’s de facto father. But Roy’s time of obsolescence is approaching. He is about to crash, and Deckard’s task is to draw out their battle to the point that he can outlast Roy. It’s an eerie sci-fi prizefight, taking place in the upper floors and roof of an abandoned hotel. As Roy nears the end of his existence, the dialogue is wholly his. While Deckard simply groans as his bones get broken—here we’re reminded, not that we needed to be, of Harrison Ford’s limitations as an actor—Roy declaims one of those brink-of-death speeches you find in the fifth acts of Jacobean dramas. There’s some Shakespeare here, and a good bit of John Webster. But then it dawns on us: as Roy’s end approaches and as he continues to speechify, we realize that Scott’s inspiration is neither Philp K. Dick, nor Spartacus, nor The Maltese Falcon. It is Milton’s Paradise Lost, specifically Paradise Lost as viewed by the romantics, where Satan is a tragic hero. In fact, as Hauer’s Roy stands naked before the camera, his white skin glowing opalescent against the background of the rain, his stance is identical to that of Blake’s famous watercolor of Milton’s Satan. (Scott is a sucker for this sort of quotation from art history: his first film, The Duelists, is set during the Napoleonic wars, and its backgrounds scrupulously reference the moody fog-bound landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Frederich.) At this point in the film, we must radically reconfigure our assumptions: Roy and his fellow replicants are the real heroes of the story, who, by expressing their old-fangled revolutionary longings–aspiring to Liberty, Equality, Fraternity–are more authentically human than their makers. This theme also figures in Villeneuve’s sequel to Blade Runner, though as kitsch rather than as tragedy: Ryan Gosling’s doe-eyed replicant protagonist is singularly un-Miltonic. Instead, he’s Pinocchio, longing to be a real boy. Scott’s Blade Runner is a remarkable accomplishment and at an advance screening of it described in Lawrence Sutton’s biography of Dick, the writer heaped effusive praise on Scott. 7 The film, he said, was the most successful adaption of one of his books that he could possibly have imagined. The pair then posed for a publicity photo. Dick died of a stroke not long after the event. Scott, for his part, has confessed that he never finished the novel the film was based upon. 8

     As the credits of the film began to roll on the DVD, I tried in the least lofty terms I could muster to explain to my sons about why Scott’s Blade Runner is superior to its sequel. But they were having none of it. Why? Because the special effects of Scott’s film make it look so dated and “retro,” a word they used with special disdain. As the DVD was ejected, they immediately picked up their phones to text or Snapchat. I came to suspect that to dwell in Baudrillard’s Eon of the Hyperreal was perfectly ok with them.

     Where does this state of things leave poetry and poets, practitioners of an art that is vastly more retro than a 35-year-old sci fi film? There are various camps of poets who would insist that our condition of Hyperreality should suit us just fine. The Language Poets began to say this forty-odd years ago. Let’s just enjoy the new status quo, they say. This way we can abandon entirely the notion that selves write poems, for the very concept of selfhood is a quaint delusion. And for more “mainstream” readers who crave something like a “sincere” and good-for-you-in-an-oat bran-way traditional lyric, there’s always the cult of Mary Oliver, whose assembly line epiphanies may as well have been outsourced and produced in various factories in China. (Although, to their credit, the readers of Mary Oliver seem to deeply crave encounters with poetic authenticity.) Where can we look to find a poetry that speaks against Hyperrality and for a recognition of that deeply endangered condition, Plain Old Reality? Though I would hasten to add that reality is never plain, and never easy to glimpse or engage—or to dwell in for more than an instant. This is the message of one of Wallace Stevens’ very last poems, written in the early 1950s, when he knew that his cancer was terminal. You may have already guessed the title I am referring to—“Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination.” It’s an uncharacteristic poem for Stevens, as it seems based on an honest-to-God event—some people are driving at night, “from Cornwall to Hartford.” The speaker finds himself entranced by the sights he views from the car window, though he hastens to add that they are blurred and occluded, not like “a night blown at a glassworks in Vienna or Venice,” but instead “a grinding going round/under the front of the western evening star.” There seems to be nothing “lyric” here, nothing sublime. Yet the speaker hastens to insist that the sublime is in there, if only as glimpsed for a fraction of a second before it retreats: “The vigor of glory, a glittering in the veins,/As things emerged and moved and were dissolved.” 9 It’s an “insolid billowing of the solid.” But if you are vigilant, if you look with the proper fixity, the solid can be abstracted, reality can be seen, if only insofar as we can recognize that it is continually elusive, continually in flux. And, yes, you need an august imagination to make such a reckoning, one that we are untrained for during a time when we’d prefer to scroll through our phones for YouTube clips of kittens and puppies doing something cute.

    In the pages that follow, I would like to make a highly subjective and admittedly quixotic list of the qualities that characterize a Poem of Reality, and to discuss some poems that exemplify it. In doing so I hope to offer something more eloquent than bullet points. Stevens has already given me my first point, though. The goal is not to define reality but to glimpse it, to get a sighting, to be like those birders who see, or think they see, what may be a long-extinct Carolina Parrot; or that National Geographic film crew who, after months of stumbling through the Himalayan snow, finally have their footage of a yeti creeping down a rock face, though it may be only a mountain goat; it may be a trick of light.

     Let me move to my second quality, and it is exemplified again and again in the majestic poems of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who foresaw the Age of Hyperreality with uncanny prescience and terrific dread. By the time of his defection to the West in 1951, having narrowly escaped arrest by the Stalinist authorities he had previously served, Milosz was finished with ideologies in any form. And although he was, and remained, a profoundly spiritual poet, he increasingly found himself drawn to spiritual systems founded upon paradox, doubt, and hermeticism. During his years of exile in the gilded cage of UC Berkeley, he frequently taught a course on that most unabashedly gloomy of religions, Manicheism, which sees the forces of good and of evil perpetually locked in a kind of theological Mexican Standoff. He read deeply in Gnosticism as well, a belief system built upon a kind of cosmic conspiracy theory, in which the material world is thought to be fashioned by deluded gods known as Archons. A believer may find a truth that lies beyond the vast Potemkin Village that is our world, but doing so is never easy. This is a principal message found in the great devotional poem of the Gnostics, “The Hymn to the Pearl,” probably composed in the third century, and a title that Milosz liked so much that he used it for one of his own collections.  Given his immersion in systems such as these, it is not surprising that Milosz’s poems frequently question the nature of reality—and with it language’s inability to evoke the real. This sort of skepticism is repeatedly expressed in interviews conducted with the poet. Here is a typical example: “But what is ever really real? Neither when we experienced it or now, when we put it in words. The poem keeps harkening back to one thing—the inattainability of the real. What we want to get our hands on. The language changes and we change with it. We acquire distance; we are influenced by language…Language is always an obstacle to perception.” 10 This tone of exasperation also figures in many of Milosz’s poems. They may in places arrive at an affecting lyricism, but this quality is apt to be critiqued as soon as it is expressed. “Gathering Apricots,” from Milosz’s 1991 collection, Provinces, is an elegy to Milosz’s long-suffering wife, Jana. It is achingly tender—and then it is not:     

In the sun, while there, below, over the bay
Only clouds of white mist wander, fleeting,
And the range of hills is grayish on the blue,
Apricots, the whole tree full of them, in the dark leaves,
Glimmer, yellow and red, bringing to mind
The garden of Hesperides and apples of Paradise.
I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence
And put aside the basket and say: “It’s a pity
That you died and cannot see these apricots,
While I celebrate this undeserved life.”

COMMENTARY

Alas, I did not say what I should have.
I submitted fog and chaos to a distillation.
That other kingdom of being or non-being
Is always with me and makes itself heard
With thousands of calls, screams, complaints,
And she, the one to whom I turned,
Is perhaps but a leader of a chorus.
What happened only once does not stay in words.
Countries disappeared and towns and circumstances.
Nobody will be able to see her face.
And form itself as always is a betrayal. 11

       The poem begins with a bucolic description, but even in its opening the details are subtly fraught. Milosz and his co-translator Robert Hass offer the English version of the poem in a stately blank verse—yet the poem’s first line, with its three caesuras, is metrically dissonant, as if to enact the way the sun glints through the fog-bound vista of the bay. (Milosz evokes the landscape of California in many of his poems, but rarely in tourist bureau fashion: in a churlish poem of homage to Robinson Jeffers, he see the Carmel coastline as a place where “Prayers are not heard. Basalt and granite./Above them, a bird of prey. The only beauty.”). 12 When the fruit-laden apricot tree does appear, it comes less as a feature of the speaker’s garden than as a vision from a dream, though not a particularly pleasant one. The apples of the Hesperides, you’ll remember, were guarded by a dragon. As for the apples of paradise, we know what happened when they were consumed. And, as the speaker reaches to pluck an apricot for his basket, the phantom presence of the dead beloved is suddenly acute. The speaker’s subsequent revelation is a heartfelt and straightforward articulation of the poet’s loss: “It’s a pity/ that you died and cannot see these apricots/ while I celebrate this undeserved life.” It expresses the survivor guilt that figures so insistently in Milosz’s later poems, and also pays homage to the elegiac melancholy of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Consider Buson’s great haiku: “The piercing chill I feel–/my dead wife’s comb/in our bedroom, under my feet.” The final lines of the poem’s opening stanza offer a similar abjection and immediacy. But as soon as we arrive at this moment of pained epiphany, Milosz offers his section of “Commentary,” which calls into question everything that the poem’s initial section had asserted. Milosz has of course scrupulously prepared us for this reversal, which turns out not to be such a reversal after all—there’s the metrical shredding of the poem’s opening line, the description of the fog-bound landscape, and even the poet’s choice to use apricots as the vehicle for his revelation: the fruit is symbolically associated with female genitalia, but in medieval Europe it was also associated—and the dauntingly erudite Milosz would have known this—with doubt. Still, to follow the poem’s most emotionally wrenching moment with the deadpan, “Alas, I did not say what I should have” seems almost shocking, and it is not a simple case of Milosz noting the insufficiency of the lyric poem. While the first part of the poem used “fog and chaos” as a vehicle for poetic effect, for a “distillation,” the poet now realizes that these forces represent a cosmic disorder and turmoil that eludes expression, that the voice of the dead beloved is only one among a unnumbered legion of the dead, all of them keening so loudly and insistently that no single voice among them can be discerned. The poem’s true moment of revelation is not the speaker musing as he places his apricot in the basket: that is something that happens in poems. Instead, Milosz offers with a far more inconsolable conclusion: “Nobody will be able to see her face./ And form itself as always is a betrayal.” The final line seems less a critique of our impulse to memorialize the dead through art than it is a “distillation” of the Gnostic belief that material reality is an aberrant construct. Still, brutally pessimistic though the poem’s ending may be, it nevertheless seems oddly bracing. The impulse to elegize, to memorialize–a quality that has defined what it means to be human at least since the time of the Neanderthal flower burials unearthed in Shanidar Cave—remains undiminished in Milosz’s eyes. Milosz’s poem simply insists on the difficulty—and perhaps the impossibility–of these endeavors. Its pathos arises from doubt. Here then, is a second feature of the poem of reality: it must accept, to reiterate Milosz’s observation, “the unattainability of the real.”

     And yet, to accept that condition is not to acquiesce to it. Doubt does not nullify Milosz’s spiritual yearning, nor does it diminish the urgency of the quest for spiritual renewal. A similar quest is undertaken in the poems of the Kaveh Akbar, whose debut volume, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, published in 2017, is a savage and relentless parable of addiction and recovery, a struggle that is most notably evidenced in Akbar’s “Portrait of the Alcoholic….” sequence, a series of ten poems, interspersed throughout the collection.  Each is a skewed and expressionistic self-portrait, sometimes written in third person, sometimes in first, and bearing titles such as “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly,” and “Portrait of the Alcoholic Frozen in Block of Ice.” The book has garnered considerable attention, and for good reason. Although the collection’s subject matter is harrowing, and Akbar’s treatment of it relentless, he has shorn the poems of the artifice, irony, and benumbing professionalism that so bedevils the work of other young poets. Akbar’s models are unfashionable ones, most notably confessional poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, and the poets of the Deep Image, particularly James Wright and W.S. Merwin. The poems’ dramatic situations recall the jagged dark nights of the soul found in poems such as Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” and Sexton’s “The Double Image.” In their imagery, the poems harken back to the hushed, post-apocalyptic manner of Merwin in collections such as The Lice. As with middle-period Merwin, the voice of Akbar’s poems seems wounded at one moment, prophetic in the next. And it is fitting that the poems are formally dissonant, favoring couplets and quatrains made jarring through the use of surprising applications of white space and startling enjambments. Here, for example, is the opening of a poem entitled “Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives”:

the prophets are alive but unrecognizable to us
calligraphy to a mouse           for a time they dragged

long across the sky     now they sit
in graveyards drinking coffee forking soapy cottage cheese

into their mouths    my hungry is different from your hungry   13

To garner a full appreciation of Akbar’s method, with its tonal shifts, astringent sonics and snarling use of metaphor, one needs to examine a poem in its entirety. Here is the volume’s concluding effort, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island”:

I live in the gulf
between what I’ve been given
and what I’ve received.

Each morning I dig into the sand
and bury something I love.
Nothing decomposes.

It might sound ungrateful to say
I expected poetry, but I did—

palm forests and clouds above them
arranged like Dutch still lives,
musically colored fauna lounging
in perpetual near-smiles.

Instead, these tumors under the surf.
Wildness: to appear
where you are unexpected.

My favorite drugs are far from here.

Our father, who art in heaven—always
just stepped out, while Earth,
the mother, everywheres around.

It all just means so intensely: bones
on the beach, calls from the bushes,
the scent of edible flowers
floating in from the horizon.

I hold my breath.
The boat I am building
will never be done. 14

     Akbar’s speaker is a post-modern version of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and his plight is in many ways identical to that of Defoe’s hero, whose tale is less a thrilling yarn of survival and rescue than a dogged–and undramatic—quest for redemption, deeply informed by Defoe’s Dissenter piety. The novel’s action is repeatedly halted so that Crusoe can offer uplifting spiritual counsel. As he makes a life for himself on his solitary island, Crusoe notes, for example, that “the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance….”  15 Like Crusoe, Akbar’s speaker is waiting not for a sail to appear on the horizon, but for a spiritual transformation that will sustain him through any form of calamity. The poem speaks the language of surrealism in its “bones /on the beach, calls from the bushes,” but it also alludes to the lingo of 12-Step Programs: “I live in the gulf/between what I have been given/ and what I have received.” The speaker’s island is the scene of his “searching and fearless moral inventory.” Read in this way, the poem’s final trope, “the boat I am building/will never be done,” is simply a highly inventive metaphorical recasting of the Tenth Step: “we continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Akbar’s collection may be seen as his own version of “The Hymn to the Pearl,” as a species of devotional literature. Yet one has to look back to the likes of Donne and Hopkins to find a devotional poetry of such relentless invention and physicality. Akbar’s poem also represents another feature of the Poem of Reality: it may take the form of a quest or initiation, and, as with all quests, the journey is fraught with peril.

     And we must recognize these perils, if only obliquely, from the very moment of our departure. “The Body Mutinies,” the title poem of the late Lucia Perillo’s second collection, published in 1996, is a steely account of one such recognition:

              The Body Mutinies
               –Outside St. Pete’s

When the doctor runs out of words and still
I won’t leave, he latches my shoulder and
steers me out of doors. When I see his blurred hand,
through the milk glass, flapping goodbye like a sail
(& me not griefstruck yet but still amazed: how
words and names—medicine’s blunt instruments—
undid me. And the second, the half seconds,
it took for him to say those words). For now,
I’ll just stand in the courtyard, watching bodies
struggle in then out of one lean shadow
a tall fir lays across the wet flagstones.
Before the sun clears the valence of gray trees
and finds the surgical supply-shop’s window
and makes the dusty bedpans glint like coins.  16

     Perillo, who died at the age of 58 in 2016, managed to at once be her poetic generation’s most unflinching investigator of the subject of illness and mortality (she was long afflicted with crippling multiple sclerosis), and a poet of the most savage and outlandish wit. As a social satirist, whether she was lampooning Viagra commercials, the anthropological scams of Carlos Castaneda, or describing the caretaker of a “Tsunami Museum,” Perillo had no contemporary equal.  But Perillo’s levity was always a form of gallows humor; in a haunting essay entitled “A Glimpse,” written near the end of her career, Perillo, bemoans how the experience of living with affliction has sapped and eroded her capacity for black comedy: “…..my version of my illness has left me—slowly, over the course of twenty years—ever more physically compromised, and I have felt deficient of both willpower and spiritual vigor in being unable to control the slip and swoop and skid. To speak of this does not seem seemly because our tribe likes to hear stories of the body rising.” 17  “The Body Mutinies” is a premonition of this loss of control, a poem about the first recognition that the trope of the body rising will no longer apply. The account of the speaker’s diagnosis has a smidgen of Perillo’s characteristic waggishness—the doctor “latches” the speaker’s shoulders to lead her from the consultation room, and later gracelessly waves to his patient from his window. He’s the epitome of social cluelessness. In the movie version of the poem, he’d be played by Don Rickles or John Cleese.

     The poem’s other descriptions are meted out with painstaking gravity. This effect is achieved in no small part because of the poem’s form. It’s a flawless hybrid sonnet: envelope stanzas in the octet, and a  Petrarchian sextet that employs what is sometimes called “tail rhyme,”  with the rhyming mate for the last line’s “coins” appearing three lines earlier; the tidiness of a concluding couplet has been eschewed, a gesture that is surely befitting in a poem designed to evoke apprehension and dread. Yet the poem’s formal dexterity is more than matched by the resonance of its imagery: the speaker’s diagnosis is described as a brutalization, “medicine’s blunt instruments.” And as the speaker stands benumbed in the cusp between the realms of the healthy and of the afflicted, she glimpses her future through details set forth with cinematic brio: the fir tree casts an ominous shadow as “bodies struggle in and out” beneath it. But then the chastening sun appears, and with it comes a distinctly shadow-less foreshadowing. It “finds the surgical supply shop window/ and makes the dusty bedpans glint like coins.” We’re reminded of the grimly harsh light of operating rooms and laboratories, and the speaker seems to spy the place where she will one day make her crossing; she even sees the coin that she will offer to Charon. 

     I fear, dear reader, that my discussion of the Poem of Reality has thus far favored only poems of “harsh reality.” Perillo’s poem is magisterially executed, but it is also wrenching and bereft. The import of Milosz’s and Akbar’s poems is less so—but not much less. Can the sort of poem I hope to define here embrace the “real” but also, however guardedly, approach the sublime? I think it can, though not often, and only via some slantwise and conflicted strategies.   

     And my example will come to you from what seems an unlikely source—a poem by Robert Penn Warren, whose work as a poet has now been quite nearly forgotten. Although a handful of recent poets have spoken admiringly of his verse, Natasha Tretheway among them, the eclipse of Warren’s poetic reputation has far exceeded the critical re-adjustment that tends to follow in the wake of a writer’s death. This process was already fairly well along 16 years ago, when I reviewed John Burt’s 2001 edition of Warren’s Selected Poems in Poetry—a three-hundred-page distillation of a 1998 Collected nearly three times that length–and observed that, at times, Warren is an uncontestably great poet. Looking back at the review today, I’m somewhat chagrined by the fact that this claim is buried under pages of caveats about Warren’s limitations and infelicities. Snarky one-liners abound: “Warren serves up the Big Abstractions the way Burger King churns out Whoppers” being the most egregious one, but there are others. If you were a reader curious about Warren’s poetry but unfamiliar with it, the review would likely have destroyed that interest.

     It’s not that my assessments were wrong, exactly. But with hindsight, I’ve come to see Warren’s bad writing—from his awkwardness to his ham-fisted grandiosity—as the product of ambition rather than clumsiness or ineptitude.  Like Hardy, another novelist who turned exclusively to poetry in his old age, even his best poems are marred by some howlers. But I have become more forgiving of both writers, in no small measure because I am no longer a young poet, nor even a “poet in mid-career.” I am now “a poet of a certain age,” and derive immense solace from the fact that Warren, again like Hardy, wrote his best poems at the end of a very long life. It’s only with his 1968 collection, Incarnations, published when the writer was in his sixties, that Warren can be said to be a of poet of significance, and with that book he became dauntingly productive, issuing seven further collections before his death in 1989. And there is yet another parallel with Hardy: Warren had been practicing to write like a geezer throughout his career. (For example, his first published volume, Thirty-Six Poems (1935), features a galumphing effort entitled “Aged Man Surveys the Past Time,” which contains some jaw-droppingly wretched lines typical of early Warren, among them “Grief’s smarting condiment may satisfy/His heart of lard the wry and blasphemous theme.”) 18 When the time for social security checks finally arrived, Warren had the Old Man Act dead to rights. More importantly, though, during the writing of Incarnations, Warren had somehow turned his defects as a writer into a sort of dogged authenticity. The change is partly due to Warren abandoning the somber Eliotic modernism of his early career in favor of the vernacular and autobiographical verse that so dominated American poetry in the ‘60s and ‘70s. James Wright, a great admirer of Warren, offered one of the most astute appraisals of how Warren’s work had changed.  In a 1956 review of Warren’s   Promises, a collection that anticipated the essential poetry which he was to write in his old age, Wright observed that Warren had “deliberately shed the armor of competence–a finely meshed and expensive armor, forged in heaven knows how many bitter intellectual fires–and [went] out to fight the ungovernable tide.”  19 A halting, stammering music now characterized the poems, one which sought to replicate the immediacy and illogic of the self in moments of crisis, moments when ecstasy can abruptly metamorphose into despair and back again. Wright notes that, although Warren regards himself as a poet of philosophical intention, given to existential brooding on the nature of Truth and Time, his writing is also aggressively visceral: “The really curious and exciting quality [of Warren’s work] is the way the poems can almost drag the reader, by the scruff of the neck, into the experiences which they are trying to shape and understand.”20 

     How do these qualities relate to my effort to define the Poem of Reality? Some tentative answers to this question can be found in Incarnations’ most resonant lyric, “Masts at Dawn.” Like Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” the poem commences with an aging speaker fighting insomnia. He’s in the midst of that REM-state-deprived brooding that experts tell us is characteristic of the sleep patterns of the elderly. The speaker has long given up on his efforts to fall back to sleep; now it’s simply a matter of toughing out the last couple hours of darkness. The view from his window is bucolic—a harborscape, likely somewhere in Italy. But the scene Warren evokes is weirdly askew:

Past second cock-crow yacht masts in the harbor go slowly white.

No light in the east yet, though the stars show a certain fatigue.
They withdraw into a new distance, have discovered our unworthiness. It is long since
The owl, in the dark eucalyptus, dire and melodious, last called, and

Long since the moon sank and the English
Finished fornicating in their ketches. In the evening there was a strong swell.

Red died the sun, but at dark wind rose easterly, white sea nagged the black harbor headland.

When there is a strong swell, you may, if you surrender to it, experience
A sense, in the act, of mystic unity with that rhythm. Your peace is the sea’s will.  21

No armor of competence here: the owl in the “dark eucalyptus” may have been hooting melodiously, but not our speaker. There are poetic effects a-plenty, but all of them are jarring: the jackhammer spondees of the opening line; the personified stars; the disjointed syntax with its oddball parentheticals and archaic-sounding inversions (“Red died the sun.”); the personified stars; the so-bad-it’s-good characterization of the English having finished “fornicating in their ketches”–and the personified stars. And then there are the baffling prosodic effects: the decision to alternate couplets and single-lined stanzas seems wholly arbitrary, as are many of the enjambments, particularly that “and” dangling out in the middle of nowhere. And of course the lines are too long to offer any metrical effect. In his notes to the poem in Warren’s Collected, editor John Burt remarks that Warren’s lines seem intended as “a feature of book design rather than of versification.”  22 In other words, Warren simply liked the way his behemoth lines looked on the page. Burt also lets us know that “Masts at Dawn” looked even weirder in an earlier version that appeared in a quarterly—instead of giving us stanza breaks, Warren followed each line with a trio of asterisks.  Yet for all of this, the effect of the poem’s opening is mesmerizing, for Wright is absolutely correct: we are being pulled by the scruff of the neck into the consciousness of a speaker querulously trying to make sense of events that should be rhapsodic, but decidedly are not. The poem begins in almost utter stillness: the actions described are so kinetic as to be frenzied, but they have all taken place earlier. The owl has called it a night, the English have fallen into a post-coital slumber; those personified stars are weary of twinkling. But the masts in the harbor “go slowly white,” an odd description, given that in the poem’s next line we are told there is of yet no light to illumine them. The speaker asks that the reader surrender to the rhythms of the tides, yet this injunction is oddly unsettling, recalling the “oceanic feeling” that Freud tells us can accompany the death wish. “Mystic unity” with the sea’s rhythm seems an invitation to oblivion. And, as the poem continues, the poem’s sense of existential alarm grows ever more adamant:

But now no motion. The bay-face is glossy in darkness, like

An old window pane, flat on black ground by the wall, near the ash heap. It neither

Receives nor gives light. Now is the hour when the sea
Sinks into meditation. It doubts its own mission. The drowned cat

That on the evening swell had kept nudging the piles of the pier and had seemed
To want to climb out and lick itself dry, now floats free. On the surface, a slight convexity only, it is like

An eyelid in darkness, closed.

The rhythms of the poem are now insistent; even the caesuras and enjambments can’t impede the sense that the speaker is fiercely grappling with the meaning of what he sees. The personification Warren so favors remains—the sea “doubts its own mission”—but it is the metaphors and stark descriptions that now move the poem forward, and they are brilliant: the sea likened to a windowpane laid flat on the ground, and later like “an eyelid in darkness, closed.” And then there’s the drowned cat, at first bumping against the pier but now floating free; the image is so striking and kinetic that the poem seems to suddenly reconfigure itself around it. The cat is the punctum, the center around which every other detail in the poem revolves, and when Warren follows this description by likening the sea surface to “an eyelid in darkness, closed,” it’s almost impossible for us not to conflate this metaphor with our mental image of the cat. We are no longer seeing the water’s surface, we are instead left with a vision of that cat, affixed in the pupil of an eye, affixed there even if that eye—as the speaker will later tell us–is closed in a darkened room.  Warren has now set us up for the poem’s finale:

                                       You must learn to accept the kiss of fate, for

The masts go white slow, as light, like dew, from darkness
Condenses on them, on oiled wood, on metal. Dew whitens in darkness.

I lie in my bed and think how, in darkness, the masts go white.

The sound of the engine of the first fishing dory dies seaward. Soon
In the inland glen wakes the dawn-dove. We must try

To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God.

This scene is so powerfully evocative that we do not at first see how utterly strange it is. The dew on the harbored boats condenses and glows; the masts seem to whiten not from the dawn’s light, but from some ghostly inner force. And of course the speaker does not witness this scene; he’s in bed imagining it. The dove-cry and the sputter of the fishing dory are real, but the scene of dawn breaking upon the harbor is all speculation—reliable speculation, but not unassailable. Once we are made aware of this, the poem’s ending, which might at first seem to us a non sequitur or rhetorical trick, speaks to us with authentic grandeur. And not as grandiosity: it is an exigent but ambivalent plea, a stuttering agnostic prayer, its wisdom—and I have no hesitation about using that word—derives from Warren’s bewildered astonishment.  Let me add that “Masts at Dawn” represents yet another characteristic of the Poem of Reality: it must stammer and self-correct itself toward sublimity. The poem’s method must reflect the rough and circuitous workings of the poet’s mind; elegance would be inauthentic. For half a century, we have used such language to describe the archly nonlinear poetry of John Ashbery. But Warren here maps consciousness with just as much acuity—and with a far greater urgency.

*

    As I write this, a simulacrum sprawls behind its desk in the Oval Office. Every word it utters is a lie, including “and” and “the.” Other fake humans gather round it, passing it a pen to use as it prepares to sign another Executive Order. It dwells in a pseudo-world, where the pseudo-country that it claims to run has been made Great Again. Philip K. Dick foresaw the arrival of this creation, and predicted how it has imperiled us all; its fakery does not diminish the immensity of its danger. And that prediction, or prophecy, is indeed an activity of the most august imagination.  Is there any place for poetry in this new reality? Or should I label it this new unreality? I think there may be. What makes Warren’s poem heroic–if I may use another durable but unfashionable word—is its capacity to unrelentingly struggle against what Milosz calls “the unattainability of the real.” As Milosz well knew, in that struggle the poet will invariably lose. But, as I hope I have shown here, poets have some strategies at their disposal that will allow them to approach if not attain the real. And to engage in such an effort during a time when fakery and the public lie so prevail, is an act of moral as well as aesthetic imperative.  It may not save us, but at least we will go down fighting.

NOTES

  1. McCarthy’s pronouncement was apparently not a spontaneous quip. She had earlier uttered it in a different interview. The narrative of the McCarthy/Hellmann feud has been well-documented. A particularly lively retelling can be found at http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2008/08/uncivil-wars-lillian-hellman-vs-mary.html (Jan 15 2018).
  1. Maria Konnikova, “Trump’s Lies vs. Your Brain,” https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/donald-trump-lies-liar-effect-brain-214658. (Jan 15 2018).
  2. “Word of the Year 2016 is……” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016. (Jan 15 2018).
  3. Kurt Anderson, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History (New York: Random House, 2017), p. 233.
  4. Philip K. Dick, quoted in Anderson, p. 233.
  5. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 2.
  6. Lawrence Sutton, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (New York: Harmony Books, 1989), p. 274.
  7. “Read the Full Transcript of Wired’s Interview with Ridley Scott,” https://www.wired.com/2007/09/ff-bladerunner-full/. (Jan 15 2018).
  8. Wallace Stevens, Selected Poems, ed. John N. Serio (New York: Knopf, 2011), p. 313.
  9. Ewa Czarnecka and Alexsander Fiut, Conversations with Czselaw Milosz, trans. Richard Lourie (Sand Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), p. 212.
  10. Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco Press, 2001), p. 557.
  11. Milosz, New and Collected Poems 1931-2001, p. 252.
  12. Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2017), p. 55.
  13. Akbar, pp. 88-89.
  14. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), p. 63.
  15. Lucia Perillo, Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016), p. 22.
  16. Lucia Perillo, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2007), p. 4.
  17. Robert Penn Warren, The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, ed. John Burt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), p. 49.
  18. James Wright, Collected Prose, ed. Anne Wright (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 240.
  19. Wright, Collected Prose, p. 241.
  20. Warren, The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, p. 233.
  21. Warren, The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, p. 702.
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