Featured art: Shoeshine Stand, Southeastern United States by Walker Evans
We asked each of three poets—Wayne Miller, Helena Nelson, and David Rivard—to present for discussion someone’s bad (weak or shallow or disap- pointing) poem, and someone’s good poem. With a total of six poems thus placed “on the table,” Miller and Nelson and Rivard conversed via email.
David Rivard presented “The Idea” by Mark Strand, and “Kindergarten” by Dennis Schmitz.
by Mark Strand
For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we feel we were close
Until the night wind said, “Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”
And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea.
David Rivard: Robert Creeley famously remarked that a poem is not a sign-board for experience—a corollary to his notion that a poet should make his poem out of thinking and feeling in the act of composition, not prior to it. Everything else is illustration of thought or emotion, and not an event. For me, Mark Strand’s poems bear the same relation to life as an advertisement in Vogue—with an atmosphere of airbrushed “existentialist” glamor and fabular dislocation, they seem designed to sell “poetry” as an accoutrement, or as a particularly sophisticated system of mood lighting for one’s lakefront condo. It makes him one of the most overrated poets of the last forty years.
With his vaguely Stevens-like rhetorical effects and music, Strand’s thinking often seems imposed; and as statement, not so much general as generic.
The abstract diction and fugal phrasemaking in the first five lines of “The Idea” (from Strand’s The Continuous Life) presents a facsimile of thinking. I’m sure that most of us have wished (in our own melancholy and/or desperate ways) “to possess / Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves, / Beyond our power to imagine,” but do any of us experience that in consciousness as a kind of summary formula? I doubt it. I’m not opposed to the use of summary lyric intelligence—as Larkin uses it in “Reference Back” or Hass in “Meditation at Lagunitas”—but it ought to initiate or advance an action. This opening statement seems only to signal that we are in the presence of a high-concept “seriousness”—let’s call it “Poetry.”
Strand’s vagueness sends him into a fabular landscape, “ghostly and white / Among false curves and hidden erasures.” I’m not sure what either “false curves” or “hidden erasures” are, other than versions of a supposed poetic wit meant to simulate paradox. That seems the whole point of the allegorical narrative that stretches to the end of the poem—to simulate a sense of paradox that can be passed off as wisdom. It’s tiresome.
by Dennis Schmitz
Bee-logic: each small life
for the hive,
but not one of them lived out
at the same speed—
your heart thuds fortissimo but slow,
my heart trots to its death.
Proto-druggist pickpocket or priest
begin as mysteries to themselves.
Big-Head Vincent who chews his pastels
& wipes spit with the blue
over his squat trees,
& Levonn too who wets himself
is one of us.
Our keeper Sister Agnes,
wrinkled as a peach-nut & left-handed,
sings Latin, whose inside
is God’s, she says, but we can go in
too with our tongues & the head
will follow, simplifying
heaven. Vincent went to heaven
in wet April. We sang a few words
of “Nunc Dimittis” among the gladiolus
& floribunda wreaths,
gripping each other’s fingers
as we knelt all points in a compass,
expecting somehow to sing
Vincent up. But we belonged
to the headless Vincent
someone crayoned on the cloakroom
wall under his coathook,
the feet broken
right-angles, the heavy
arms straining against gravity—
a child’s unfinished body,
waxy & insistent.
David Rivard: What I love best in poetry is the ordinary revealing itself as strange- ness in body knowledge. Which is why, in Dennis Schmitz’s “Kindergarten” (from Singing, 1985), the image of “the headless Vincent” crayoned on the wall has always seemed inevitable to me—a memento mori set before you as you put on your coat in that cloakroom that all of us will have passed through in our schooling. Nunc dimittis—“Now lettest thy servant depart.”
Schmitz’s use of multiple perspectives, his layering of image, dictions and music, his mix of syntactical precision and verve—all these things make his writing seem necessary and intended. But the paradox is that “Kindergarten” also feels fresh, improvised, open to the slidings of association. It surprises.
The poem’s telegraphed thesis is a meta-analogy that seeks to define biological fate in thirty-five syllables (the poem’s first two stanzas). But Schmitz downshifts from there, and as always his shifting is driven by musical association: the long o of fortissimo and slow turning him toward the Proto-druggist, and the alliterative action pushing on to the unlikely pairing of pickpocket and priest.
Then the poem’s energy streams into the unexpected pathos of the twinned mythic creatures, the proto-Van Gogh, Big-Head Vincent, and Levonn. “Levonn too who wets himself / is one of us”—this moment of awkward idiom is a plaintive, pre-school kind of talk. It’s a ventriloquial moment. Part of Schmitz’s power is in his ability here to inhabit simultaneously the perspectives of both child and adult.
The poem is so spontaneous in effect it can include the semi-comic figure of Sister Agnes, and her enigmatic explanation of Latin, it can leap from her into the tragic image of the children ringing the compass needle of the coffin and pretending to be all the directions the wet wind blows out of, and it can then collage the drawing of the dead boy through the glue of an oddly inflected patch of idiom, “But we belonged / to the headless Vincent.”
Collaging may have been involved in the poem’s composition, but Schmitz’s tracking intelligence makes it seamless. I’ve admired his work for over thirty years. For me, he’s in a class with superb, serious experimenters in the lyric tradition like Fanny Howe and Tom Clark—all of them loners on the playground.
David Rivard’s most recent book, Standoff, received the 2017 PEN New England Award in Poetry and was listed by The New Yorker in its “Books We Loved in 2016” roundup. His five other books include Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, and Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. A recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and the NEA, he teaches at the University of New Hampshire.
Originally published in NOR 9 Spring 2011