ARE YOU READY FOR THIS? FRANZ WRIGHT BATTLES JAMES TATE!!!

Franz Wright fans gather excitedly for the big match.

James Tate and Franz Wright, born in the booming, volatile middle of the 20th century, grew in the intellectual climate of the partying 1970s when the Iowa poetry workshop took control of poetry and America went from heroic and expansive to bureaucratic and self-pitying.  Well, America was never heroic and expansive, except when we were fighting the British; since Emerson, American intellectual life has been solidly and politely apologetic and anti-heroic. 

Sometime between the insanity that was WW I and the insanity that was WW II, American poetry became an Africa, and Paul Engle became our Cecil Rhodes. 

The basic elements of literary life are pretty simple when it comes to savvy male poets like Tate and Wright.   Tate and Wright would make great clowns, or fools, in a Shakespeare play: Tate, sarcastic, Wright, sad.  The Romantic poet, or Hamlet—which the modern poet has never escaped—was pathetic/heroic; our contemporaries like Tate and Wright are merely pathetic, and of course I don’t mean pathetic in the modern, slangy sense, but aesthetic pathos.   But pathos is never enough: with Tate, the heroic has been replaced by a rueful humor and Tate’s poetry is wicked, fast, and fun, written on-the-run and off-the-cusp and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t and where’s-the-next-party-anyway?  Franz Wright chooses a different path; the nerdy kid not invited to the party, Franz broods on his poems, he writes them slowly and contemplatively and instead of adding something else to pathos, he’s crazy enough to think that he can keep up the romantic trope and do the pathetic/heroic—in a grand, vengeful, wise-man, nerdy sort of way.

Wright and Tate were only given one poem in Rita Dove’s recent Penguin anthology—which they both triumphed with in Round One, but now their selections must come from elsewhere as they attempt Sweet 16. 

Note here how Wright plays the Romantic pathetic/heroic card.  You can see the heroic in the adjective “vast” and in the stunning image of Romantic-era Walt Whitman at the end of the poem.  Sure, the pathetic exists here, too, but Wright is one of the few contemporary poets who goes for the Romantic heroic trope as well.

WHEELING MOTEL

The vast waters flow past its back yard.
You can purchase a six-pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee
 
a block down. It’s twenty-five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours.
The river is like that,
a blind familiar.

The wind will die down when I say so;
the leaden and lessening light on
the current.

Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.

With Tate, we are fully in the 20th century—no Romantic heroism for him.  This poem reminded me of Becket’s Godot,  and note the pathos combined with the rueful humor:

SUCCESS COMES TO COW CREEK

I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is

inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
none. It’s been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he’s the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
coagulations
of shit and vomit,
and I’m sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.

A conductor’s horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
like anesthetized
fleas, ruffling the
ideal locomotive
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
Gerald shouts
terrifically as
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
destination. I
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.

“as fast as my boots will allow; as always, neglecting to drown” captures the whole pathos essence of James Tate and the replacement of the Romantic pathos/heroic with the Modern alternative of pathos/self-deprecating humor.

Here is the origin of Slam poetry—as written poetry evolves into stand-up comedy before a live audience.  

Pure poetry is something that is read by one person alone, and there is no design upon that person except that they enjoy a poetic experience, far removed from everything else, and, hopefully, in some way superior to that ‘everything else.’ 

Slam poetry, which, ironically, truly developed out of the poetry workshop atmosphere, and not the tavern, embraces the ‘everything else,’ stoops to it, revels in it, and the ‘live poetry’ experience is all about one person’s design on another, whether to impress a teacher in a worshop seminar, or to get laid in a bar.  Of course reading poems aloud in bars or in the street might seem like something which has always occured and has nothing to do with academics, but this, I maintain, is a romantic falsehood, and the people who go to bars and walk down the street in bygone days had the good sense to know that poetry does not belong in bars—only drinking songs do.

Wright is obviously infected with Slam (his reference to Tammy Wynette) but the irony here is that his reference to Whitman is Slam pathos, too.  Whitman is not pure poetry.  He, too, has designs on us.  Walt was the first Slam poet, before the horror of Slam existed. Whitman has become a circus in himself, and now represents the same cheap, honky-tonk Slam poetry atmosphere which the schools unconsciously promote.

But Wright’s a smart poet, and his “examining a tear on a dead face” is an attempt to reverse this Slam trend and bring Whitman back to some Romantic semblance of heroicism and feeling.

Tate tells better jokes, the guy with boots who “neglects to drown” is brilliant, and perhaps Wright is just sorry and pathetic, but we need to give Wright points for his brooding insights and sensibility. 

Go, men in black!

Wright 75, Tate 73

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