Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
The books sent in this month for review in Poetix got me thinking about poetic ambition. All three books have relatively modest ambitions, but that is not automatically a flaw. While we can’t all write the next “Wasteland,” it often seems like we should at least try. But that is not always the case. Sometimes we, as poets, are better off not trying, better off reining in our ambitions, and instead trying to be the best poet we can be, within (and fully cognizant of) our limitations. Yet at the same time, too little ambition can prevent us from even living up to what potential we have.
YELLOW TREE, RED SKY
Chapbook by Terry McCarty
Terry McCarty is up front about his ambitions for his poetry. In “it’s not just you” he states “I like being a cheap entertainer/ and committing the sin of being easy to understand.” This would seem a pretty easy ambition to live up to.
Yes, he is easy to understand. There is not a single poem here where I wondered, for even a second, what the poem was about. (With the possible exception of “shya lebuff,’ but that’s only because I’m not up on my pop culture -- who is Shya Lebuff anyway?) That’s fine. I’m not one who considers being easy to understand a sin in poetry. In fact, I believe that the audience should be given, at the very least, an understandable entrance into a poem.
However, if a poet makes being easy to understand their ultimate goal, he or she is usually in trouble. More on that in a minute.
McCarty’s other stated goal is to entertain. Again, an acceptable
goal in poetry. Maybe not the most ambitious, but acceptable. But it is
a goal I find McCarty falls short of. I found some of the poems in
Yellow Tree, Red Sky mildly amusing, but most of them elicited at most a
The problem is McCarty, in these poems, doesn’t have much new to say. His political poems are the worst in this matter. Let’s see: Al Gore releases a lot of carbon dioxide talking about global warming, and Obama moved towards the center after the primaries.
But in all his poems, he refuses to go very deep. His poems skim across the surfaces of his subjects. Also in “its not just you,” he writes “I’ve been told to get educated/ and upgrade my craft to be taken seriously,” an option he rejects in favor of being the aforementioned “cheap entertainer.” While it would be easy to read this as mere laziness, I prefer to take him at his word —that his ambitions like somewhere other than “well-crafted” poems. But he seems to have confused depths of meaning with craft, and rejected it as well. The result is he prevents himself from even hitting his own modest goal.
McCarty writes in a flat, deadpan style. (This is especially true of his performance style, but the deadpan comes through in the print versions as well.) His poems have a just the facts tone.
What is interesting is that his poems are almost entirely devoid of irony. Usually, a deadpan style is used to heighten irony, but McCarty really is interested in only the facts. Now irony is an overused device these days, and on the one hand I commend McCarty for managing to avoid it. On the other, this is another way McCarty avoids layering meaning into his poems.
The problem is, the facts that he gives are often just the obvious ones. Which makes for poems which may be easy to understand, but are not even very entertaining. And certainly don’t have the depths I look for in poetry.
There are exceptions. In “at marilyn monroe’s grave in westwood 6/1/08,” the facts he chooses to tell, from “the possibility of getting west nile virus” to the “four red lipstick kisses” on the grave itself, say something new and interesting about Monroe’s current status. And in “it ended on the farm-to-market road” he ends with a detail which brings the whole story (of a woman murdered by her abusive lover) to life:
I miss my nursing job
at the state hospital
and particularly miss
my favorite patient ruby
ruby keeps asking for me every day
and the staff on the third floor
always tell her i quit
and moved away
and no one knows where to find me
But too often McCarty doesn’t make the effort to find such telling details, to add that depth to his poetry.
Okay, now I’m applying my own standards. And my standard is that the
strength of poetry is its ability to incorporate layers of meaning into
a single poem. As I said, a poem should have an easily understand
entrance into it, but once inside the poem the reader should find more
depths. The poem should reveal something new on every reading. McCarty’s
poems are all entryway.
Later in “it’s not just you”, McCarty says:
if it doesn’t make most hosts
and some audiences go
mmm, mmm, mmmm
it just isn’t poetry anymore
Now this is a rare minute of ambiguity for MCarty. What exactly does he mean by audiences going “mmm, mmm, mmmm”? In context, I’m guessing he means they don’t really understand the poem, but are impressed anyway. However, I often go “mmmm” at a poem not because I don’t understand it, but because it made me think. I believe poems should make you think.
If McCarty doesn’t want to make his audiences think, I guess that’s okay, But if that is the case, I do wonder why he’s writing poetry.
I must say that I didn’t find Yellow Tree, Read Sky the best example of McCarty’s work. In the past, he has produced poems which say more, in the same deadpan style, than the poems here. I would recommend his chapbooks Engagement Day and Hollywood Poems over this one. They find a much better balance between accessibility, meaning, and entertainment.
Chapbook by Mary Torregrossa
Mary Torregrossa is not as up front about her ambitions for her poetry. but I might hazard some guesses from what she accomplishes. Shoebox Poems is a collection of modest, but quite successful poems.
Torregrossa’s strength is capturing a moment. She does through physical imagery—describing how things looked at that moment.
We buried dead birds with ceremony
beside the wall of fieldstone
that separated Isabel’s yard from mine,
pressing blood red berries on the rocks
to mark the site. In November
we would dig the frozen ground
revealing wings and bones,
finding tiny crushed skulls
which we held in our hands like seashells.
(“Passages” p. 13)
My chin perched on crossed
arms, I gazed toward the red
brick tower and its ledges
of stone, where the big
bells rang every Sunday --
where brave starlings lit
to look about
(“the Promise of Snow” p. 14)
Again and again, she places us right in the spot she is talking
about. These images work because the language is careful and precise.
Although she covers a variety of topics, there is a subtle theme running through Shoebox Poems. Many of these poems concern childhood, whether Torregrossa’s own childhood memories, or her current thoughts about her own children. This is fitting, as the chapbook was originally assembled for a fundraiser for Hillsides: Creating safe places for children (www.Hillsides.org). She manages to capture the simultaneous fragility and resilience of childhood.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think Torregrossa is trying to rewrite “The Wasteland” here. I think she is trying to do just what she accomplishes -- write some very nice poems. She is obviously working to hone her craft, to pay attention to every word of her poems. And that enables her to produce some poems she can be quite proud of.
Book by Billy Collins
Just to show how ambition, or the lack thereof, can affect even the big name poets, I need to mention the latest book by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I don’t know when I last read a book which demonstrated so little ambition.
I used to really enjoy Collins’ poetry. I especially loved the way he could take the ordinary incidents of life, and turn them into poems which found depths of meaning in those incidents.
Now it seems he doesn’t have anything to write about except the fact that he is writing a poem.
But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?
(“August in Paris” p. 3)
What is there to say about them
that has not been said in the title?
(“Brightly Colored Boats Upturned
on the Banks of the River Charles” p. 7)
And these are just from the first few pages. For a while I hoped that maybe the first section of the book was dedicated to such poems, and that he would expand his vision as I read deeper in. But no, still more poems about writing poems.
and today the pride of writing this down,
which must be the reason my pen
has turned its back on me to hide its face in its hands.
Occasionally his old talent shines through, as in “The Four Moon Planet” (p. 12), with its conclusion:
But think of two lovers on a beach,
his arm around her bare shoulder,
thrilled at how close they were feeling tonight
while he gazed at one moon and she another.
I have to wonder what happened to Collins’ ambition. A friend suggested that he’s become more enamored with the idea of being a poet than with actually writing poetry.
Of course, his stature is such that it doesn’t matter. He stills get
a nice hard cover edition of his seventh book of poems, which every
bookstore in the country carries. But is it a book worth reading?
The lesson is that a poet’s ambition (in my humble opinion) should be to write the best poems he or she can. For some poets, that may be a masterpiece. For others, it may be just a handful of little gems. But either way they will at least end up writing poems worth reading.
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