The 2013 National Book Award Winner in poetry: Mary Szybist.
“The unprotected eye cannot look too long at the sun, and the unprotected poem cannot be too long looked at.” —Thomas Brady
Scarriet has decided once again to dip into contemporary poetry that has a certain official approval and give it more than a cursory look.
Poets who are Iowa MFA graduates and presses run by Iowa MFA graduates are busy in the real world. Lying on our couch of pleasant dreams, passing judgment idly, swooningly, philosophically, Scarriet’s introspection knows no end. Mary Szybist, having earned a writing degree at Iowa before winning the National Book Award just announced, has us sitting up in a slightly less languid position. We wish to pass judgment on the contemporary school of nuanced difficulty in such a way that registers its intelligence and nuance, but with an eye to its future of actual worth.
Mary Szybist writes poetry which is unmistakeably good—how good?
The musical quality of any poem makes its presence felt in fits and starts: a line can be musical, a single syllable can intimate a song. We inevitably meet poetry somewhere in the prose poem. Like a wave breaking, a prose line will suddenly whiten with music; prose will suddenly obey an unseen metronome and change briefly into song. The sensitive prose writer tosses and turns in a poetic dream. Poetry murmurs along a quiet ridge of prose, and nature, which lives in nature, makes a vague day of cloud and sun poetry at last.
There is something that makes a poem gain weight and live its form the more often we trace, with our reading, its temporal existence.
The experience of re-reading is like one of those brain-teasing visual tricks that ‘flips’ after we stare at it for awhile.
Re-reading makes the prose poem fall to prosaic earth. After a trial or two, we see it really cannot fly.
A finished poem doesn’t just “happen.” It “happens” anew every time we read it.
Mary Szybist is perhaps the millionth prose poet whose poems can be described this way. We always like the “nice” prose poem better the first time we read it, even to admiration, but by the fourth perusal we become convinced that what we had admired the first time is now the merest trash.
We think the reason has something to do with the fact that music can exist in our mind’s ear partially at first, but that inevitably musicality demands, with our familiarity of it, that its musical identity continues to vibrate in the poem as a whole. It is sort of like getting to know a person in which the reaches of their wit are reached in our mind, or any limit of any object is reached, so that the object’s own unity begins to judge its parts by the standards set by its whole self.
Susanne Langer and John Dewey are two twentieth century philosophers who disagreed on the fundamental question: does art belong to art (Langer), or does art belong to reality (Dewey)? Both, however, agree that art has a “rhythm” which distinguishes it. Call it the “music of the spheres” if you like. There is a “reality” of art that we all experience—even if we finally disagree about everything else. Is the poem real because it happens to be situated in reality, or is a poem as real as reality?
Harmony versus discord is one sweeping way to judge both art and life. Harmony is health, peace and beautiful art. Discord is sickness, war, and ugliness. It doesn’t get any better than harmony. It doesn’t get any worse than discord. Those are the Two. All morals, all religious and psychological ideas, all aesthetic judgments, fit within the simple model of Harmony v. Discord. All sophisticated nuances or gestures to “realism” and “politics” which try to bring discord into the ‘Harmony’ tent do so at a risk: harmony is discord resolved, but discord completely realized will destroy harmony, will destroy both Langer and Dewey’s “rhythm,” the musical identity that defines all art–-as art.
We loved this poem, “Hail,” from Mary Szybist’s prize-winning book, Incarnadine, the first time we saw it:
Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.
We were seized by an immediate liking for this poem. How exquisite these phrases: “ankles brushed by dark violets,” “honeybees above you murmuring into a crown,” “here are the pears I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves, asleep by the hyacinths.”
Apart from the lovely phrases, we also have the simple, beautiful idea, replete with mystical sweetness, that “Mary” is both a being and a mere sound; the narrator navigates between presence and absence in the poem in a delightfully teasing manner—in an earnest and serious search for essence. Such a theme was made for a poem—Mary Szybist’s poem is more than up to the task.
But after reading the poem several times, all that is mystical and hidden and subtle dies into the utterly mundane: “Mary, who mattered to me, gone or asleep among fruits, spilled in ash, or dust, I did not leave you.”
We realize, after re-reading the opening of the poem, for instance, just quoted, that what added to the pleasure of the poem the first time we read it was precisely that we did not know very much about Mary; we did not know what it quite means to be “gone or asleep among fruits.” The poem entered our brain inauspiciously, which rendered the images and movements and ideas perfectly appropriate to a kind of trance-enjoyment.
Inevitably, the faculty of trance-enjoyment is replaced by the faculty of judgment, almost against our will—it is not a conscious intention to judge; the judge, like a thief, sneaks into our mind’s purview of the poem. The judge asks: asleep among fruits?
The questions pile up, and these questions inevitably arise to pester the reader: “here” are the “pears” and the “heavy-winged doves,” but in what way are they “here,” and who put them “here,” and how? And how, exactly, does one “bathe” in the “syllables” of a name? These are those questions that we are not supposed to ask: “poetic license” bars them from being asked. But they will be asked, if the poem expects to take its place among real objects. The coy poem will be found out. Casual readers may not find them out. Critics will. Should critics spoil the readers’ fun? Should critics allow illusion to please, if it pleases? Let no critic be drawn in by this. Let not the temptations of warm hell corrupt cold heaven.
Moral admonitions aside, the aesthetic/moral turn is inevitable. As we re-read “Hail,” the brain teaser ‘flips’ on us: the very thing that appeared as one thing now appears as another; we read, with plain dullness what we now cannot make emotional or dramatic sense of: Mary-who-mattered-to-ME-gone-or-ASLEEP-among-FRUITS and we ask why “among fruits?” How among fruits? What kinds of fruits? How much did Mary “matter?” Is the narrator upset to the point of tears? How is the narrator uttering these lines? Which is more important, the “gone” or the “asleep,” the way Mary left, or that she left? What difference does it make to the narrator? What exactly was Mary to the poet? Who is Mary? The Mother of God? Are we being asked to partake in a vague religious revery? And is this enough? In poetry we need the rhythm of its answers manifested, not the mere idea of this difficulty.
in ash, in dust, I did not
The rhythm of that line break after “not:” what is it for? The more the ear hears that space, the more annoyance grows. Is it the way the phrase “leave you” leaves “I did not?” The clever showing off of the poet saying, “Notice how I am saying this.” Is it the attention thrown on “not” as it hangs at the end of its line? The “break” could finally be meaningful—or not. The “break” could be saying “I did not leave you (but I did)” or it could be saying “I did NOT leave you!!” and both could work, and that’s the problem.
Once we start using figurative language, the words come alive like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The poem comes alive and demands that it be understood in all its attributes. The train needs to decide which track (s) it’s on. The world of the poem needs to be able to contain itself. The anchor holding the ship in the bay cannot suddenly be “gone.” In “Hail,” we thought we knew what the poem was about when we didn’t know what the poem was about. The poem turned about, not on us, but on itself.
“I did not leave you,” the poet announces. Was Mary in the poem expecting to be left? Does Mary care that the poet did not leave her? Is the poet bitter and betrayed? Or not? How can we tell? What is the connection between the “ash or dust” and the “fruits?”
Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you, limbs & blue cloak and soft hands.
Mary is invoked by the poet, but we notice the introspective voice invoking her begins to unravel into prose; we lose the intensity of the voice in the fact of its prose. Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you… The poet is in a difficulty, but a prose difficulty.
We realize that the entirety of the poem’s music—or lack of it—is beginning to betray the poem’s piecemeal music—where is the music, we wonder? Where is the emotional guide?
The annoyance we feel is also felt (unconsciously) by the poet: “What is the matter with me?”
And the poet acknowledges the poor rhythm of the poem (which seems more enfeebled as we read it over) with “I am…a numbness.”
We should say two things quickly here: first, the poem’s exquisite loveliness does not disappear for us—our love for the poem vanishes. And secondly, it vanishes because the poem’s rhythm, from the first word of the poem through the last word of the poem—along the whole length of the poem—falls apart, like a ship in the throes of war.
We judge the poem—as a critic—with the weight of all that we know to be excellent in poetry—the sweet weight of all we love in poetry, and it is this comparison that finally kills Mary Szybist’s poem for us.
There is a common objection to this: why can’t you judge a poem on its own merits? Why this odious comparison?
We answer the following way: we cannot deny the sweet knowledge of all that is glorious in poetry that lives within us any more than we can deny ourselves. We compare involuntarily. We cannot help it. It is the best that condemns in our judgement, not us. We have nothing to do with it. As a poet is a vessel, even more so is the critic, since poetic composition is a more active process than poetic judgment—we as critics would do a disservice to become as active as the poet in our criticism. We know Mary Szybist will forgive us. But it’s a fait accompli. She must forgive us.
The best way to understand this is for the reader to do the test themselves: read over the Szybist poem several times, paying attention to its rhythm each time.
A poem can have lovely phrases, an intriguing premise, lovely images, subtle language, lyrical feeling, and these can all be of the highest order, but if the rhythm of the poem as a whole fails to cohere as a complete expression of whatever the poem is, the poem will finally tumble into fragments, and die.
A poem fails to be a poem (or turns into a conceptualist poem) if it is too precise—and Mary Szybist understands it would spoil things if she told us too much about the Mary in her poem.
We have not heard the typical complaint by the Silliman crowd against “quietism” as that which is not precise enough, or that which is too precise; Silliman’s censure belongs to other criteria; and yet, if pressed, I’m sure Silliman, if he knows his T.S. Eliot, would say that the problem with “quietist” poets like Szybist is they are precise where they should not be, and not precise where they should be. Much is hazy, even as we see the “dark violets,” the “heavy-winged doves” and the “hyacinths.” Silliman would of course advise: Be more clear about who this Mary is; take more care to be clearer in the depiction of your subject rather than in your adornment. Don’t be so coy.
Up to a point, we agree with Silliman; but “quietism” is mostly what poetry is, and to disagree is only to reveal you are in the wrong business.
The question is not really whether Szybist is too indirect in her poem; she is, and she isn’t.
Much can be said for the doctrine that it’s what we leave out of the art that makes it artistic, and here Szybist conquers precisely because Mary in her poem eludes us.
But again, this is not really the issue: poems are not successful for what they leave out—poems are successful for what they are, for what they do say, and how they say it. Think on your favorite poem (s). Are they shrouded in mystery, or do you know exactly what they are, what they are doing, and what they are saying? Things elude us, the unclear is…everywhere—obscure poems are common. Blatant, too-obvious poems are common, too. We know what the good poems do. They are uncommonly not-obscure and not-obvious. They have action. Imagery and action and sound conspire throughout the length of the poem in a rhythmic whole to produce an excellence that doesn’t come along every day. There’s no other way of putting it.
We might also add that the final 10% of a poem (if the beginning 90% keeps us reading) is probably worth 90% of the value of a poem. You have to close the deal.
We don’t think Szybist does: “I carried you a long way into my mirror, believing you would carry me back out. I am still for you, I am still a numbness for you.”
This is easily the dullest part of the poem: do not end your poem with its worst lines. We stole this advice from Poe, and he’s right.
And finally, we must proffer the truth that most poets hate to hear: Criticism, not poetry, is the gift that keeps on giving. As much as Criticism is true, poems—which are not true—succeed by flying through the hoops of Criticism’s truth.
The true Poetry Workshop, then, makes Criticism the guide, not the poetry of the (perhaps) talented students.
We hate ourselves for having to say this, as much as it sounds arrogant and cold.
Read “Hail” one more time.
La verite’ peut vous plaire.