After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.
America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds. We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’ The author took me somewhere. I had a good time with him. He bought me dinner, and then took me home.
The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello. How rude is that?
It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner. Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like. Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.
The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why? The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible. Poets used to view facts as the enemy. What happened? Why are poets now so in love with facts? You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.
The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem. With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!
But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger. Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good. Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts.
Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem? In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts. But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go? Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another?
The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that. The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that.
But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.
Look at this poem by Auden. It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern. It pre-dates Godot by 15 years. It’s a novel-in-a-poem:
A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.
The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth. Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern. Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin? Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?
Enough yapping. Let’s rumble. Collins v. Mazer.
Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.” Collins is us. Ashbery is us. Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.” Collins is enjoying his little world. Note the wry reference to the 19th century:
THE BEST CIGARETTE
There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.
The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.
How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.
“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious. This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.
Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope. Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot. But this is what poets do. The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron. Collins is obsessed with clarity. (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent.
Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff. Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery. One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke. The humor is gentle and self-effacing. There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.”
We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:
THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIAHey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.