Interrogations at Noon
Graywolf Press ($14)
by Michael McIrvin
I have long been suspicious of poets who write in form because form runs counter to the world bequeathed us: we know the infinite reticulations of matter are as random as a thunderbolt, for example, and consequently our attempts to make it all cohere remain provisional by definition --and therefore our language must be fluid, transformational, always in flux. Which is to say, the urge to form is at once human (the need to temporarily freeze in time what flows past us and through us) --and thus the impetus for all poetry, all writing, all art --and nostalgic, especially if it includes reaching after an ideal of order when we no longer believe in the possibility.
Somewhere in human history a sonnet could hold the world because we knew the world as a series of observable cause and effect relationships that reflected the divine will. In short, we knew the world precisely as order, and thus poets had little trouble pouring everything they knew into 14 lines with a particular rhyme scheme--the form itself was a natural thing that rode into creation on the breath of God. What better participation in the universe than to actualize incipient form, to turn our thoughts and emotions into a palpable thing?
But then we awoke to the bloodbath that is human history, and any notion of order crumbled into the dirt, sonnets and villanelles included. For how could such perfect vessels hold this terrible carnage, the poets asked? How could form exist at all in art when it doesn't exist out there, in the world at large? The trick became, and remains, how to speak at all; but more of this in a moment.
It doesn't help matters that the majority of postmodern formalist poetry (which is not the oxymoron it appears) is terrible--a pastiche of Spencer or Donne that hides bad content behind strident end rhyme and perfectly distraught iambs, as if form were an inherent excuse: after all, I did rhyme the whole damned thing, and each line is perfect iambic hexameter, which is quite hard to do, you know. But even as I write this, it occurs to me that the observation begs the question of poetical competence: most poetry in America stinks at the moment. I suppose some poets have retreated to form thinking that if those who don't know a dactyl from an anapest write garbage, maybe stark rhythm and rhyming everything abab will make one's utterance sufficiently poetical. Sadly, however, no such easy fix will suffice.
Which brings me to Dana Gioia's latest collection, Interrogations at Noon. Like it or not (and Gioia doesn't seem to mind), the poet is associated with the New Formalists, a loose affiliation of poets ranging from those who think naively that form in and of itself will save American poetry from the vacuous trap it has made for itself to a more enlightened minority whose notion of form (generally) is more complex--who seem at least to intuit the contradiction they are up against. The latter tend to remind us that the best poems, regardless of the issuing camp, are incipient song, that rhythm (of breath and heartbeat) separates us elementally from the dead. But they also seem to recognize that strict form is anomalous, a wistful backward glance at a conception of the universe we simply can't abide given the abundant evidence to the contrary.
And the best formal poems in Gioia's collection do just that, employ their self-imposed patterns in the service of meaning while recognizing the limitations of applied forms, but there are also poems that fall apart precisely because the poet has strained too hard to fit them into their own overly tight little shirts. An otherwise good poem like "Entrance," for example, ends weakly because the poet insists on exact end rhymes for the last two lines.
It is telling, however, that the poem is a failed sonnet, twelve lines instead of fourteen, which symbolizes the contradiction a poet attempting formal poetry faces: the desire to formalize (in a structurally determined poem) the chaotic world. But more than this, the slipping in and out of poetical forms, their manifestation only to deconstruct before our eyes, is innately elegiac. Consider this stanza from "Metamorphosis":
And you, my gentle ghost,
Did you break free before the cold hand clutched?
Did you escape into the lucid air
Or burrow secretly among the dark
Expectant roots, to rise again with them
As the unknown companion of our spring?
This is the world held at arm's length for observation. Even the speaker's emotions in response to a terrible loss appear only obliquely, as a culmination of imagery. Wordsworth could have written this stanza, except for the fact that its sprung iambs in a book of poems that aspire to one form or another, usually purposefully failing to achieve it in the strictest sense, makes the stanza far darker than Romantic nostalgia. The world has gone awry, has both exceeded our bleakest expectations and overwhelmed our belief that human experience makes sense (i.e., overwhelmed our belief in humanly authored form). The result is a profound disappointment.
The titles of poems like "The End of the World" or "Song for the End of Time" suggest the depth of the speaker's sadness, a recognition that the shadow of death now haunts the culture if not the species itself. In "A California Requiem," the dead themselves say,
"Forget your stylish verses, little poet--
So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim."
This is a recognition that the poet's forms are empty gestures on the void, that poems generally, regardless of the poet's formal assertions (from spoken word to this solemn and pedestrian rhyme scheme), are at best a personal rant against time (as Williams told us), but they are ultimately ineffectual in the face of the cold facts of human existence at the dawn of the 21st century (in this case the despoliation of the poet's native state). As a poet acquaintance at Harvard told me recently (in the same disparaging breath in which he told me that if he were to throw a rock in a random direction in Cambridge he'd hit a teaching poet), poetry will never be the reason the masses storm the barricades or otherwise act to change the messy state of things. In short, as Williams asked himself aloud (and thereby asked us all), the unspoken question in Gioia's collection seems to be, why write at all?
The most telling title in Interrogations at Noon is perhaps "The Lost Garden," which is about an actual place but also emblematically a reference to Eden--from which we have not so much been cast as we have cast ourselves. In "Juno Plots her Revenge," Gioia tells us, "[Hercules] will use violence to make his claim. / It will not bother such a man to rule / A decimated and demolished kingdom." He could easily be talking about the human race. Which is to say, at best the poet offers up an indictment, a picture of the world crumbling, but he cannot save the kingdom, cannot save the garden, cannot incite the masses. But, indeed, every poem is homage to the innocent belief to the contrary, and therefore a heroic (if futile) act.
However, we cannot live for long in the dark territory of our recognition that humanity stumbles helplessly, gleefully, toward some awful abyss of our own making. Despair over the poet's lot, impotent understanding, leads only (and always) to self-destruction. In "Descent to the Underworld," the poet tells us that to be "Confined to this black place is worse" than death. And thus we must ascend, become an instantiation of Orpheus singing even as we climb out into the light, where
What matters most
Most often can't be said. Better to trust
The forms that hold our grief.
(from "Corner Table")
For as Williams accused Crane, failure to find a form to hold our reality (and grief is the poet's operative mode in postmodernity and, therefore, elegy the poet's most likely content) will certainly destroy the strongest among us. At the very least, I must give Gioia credit for trying.
I still can't trust poets who write in strident form; too many are weak writers hiding behind self-imposed constraints, and the urge to absolute form still smacks of unrestrained nostalgia. But Gioia, for the most part, struggles with the concept of form on that larger scale: how to make sense of the world for the race, which after all is the poet's primal job, however perfect or disrupted one's syntax, however useless the act in the end--which, somehow, ennobles the attempt.