University of Iowa Press ($18)
by Stephanie Burt
If you started writing, or reading, contemporary poetry in the 1990s, you may remember how disconnected from practical matters so many poets (mostly white ones) seemed; you may remember how many then—urgent questions about art and language and style spoke almost entirely (so it seemed then) to art and language and style. And if you've read what counted as contemporary poetry in the late 1960s, or the 1930s, you may already know what happens when once-detached poets get woke; how self-important, or shallow, the results can be. Poets write what they need to write, when they are acting as poets, whether or not it reacts to the news; poets, as Auden put it, seek "the clear expression of mixed feelings." Yet some of those feelings—especially in these rough times—can be "holy crap, I've been privileged! What have I missed?"; "Why do I keep writing poetry, when the world is on fire? Isn't it selfish, or pointless?" You may also ask (if you have kids) "How can my poems help my kids?"
All those feelings energize Nick Twemlow's disarming new book, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, which feels almost—but not quite—like a palinode, a taking back, of the more recondite, more evasive work that he and other members of his cohort were writing, and publishing, ten and fifteen years ago. It is, not by coincidence, also a book of autobiography, a book about parenthood (especially fatherhood), a book about realizing what you have inherited (like it or not); how you can inherit privilege and damage, shame and pride, at once; and what to do when you realize that your old conceptions of style no longer work for you.
For those questions, Twemlow has found a cadence that pursues disillusion, frustration, anticlimax, the sense that he and his past have let him down. He writes almost entirely in long demotic sentences broken up into choppy free verse, exactly right for flat questions like this: "Tell me / How your / Radical formalism / Saves lives / Exactly?" Or like this: "What do you need / To be reminded of your / Obsolescence? I can/ Go on, but do you need / Me to?" Such short lines, rich in anticlimax, dribble down the page for most of the book. What were the 1990s, for Twemlow? Answer: "We didn't just live / In a bubble, we built / The fucker breath by breath . . . We were students of something / Complicit / As two plugs of dirt."
Few poets so clearly committed, emotionally, to poetry have dwelt for so long on the dubious value of their own poetry, and Twemlow—whose poems do run long, like shaggy dog jokes—strives to convey the feeling that he is wasting his life: "These lyrics offer nothing, / Stolen & begged for, / They relieve / No one as they relive / The traumas . . . of my past, / Which I've grafted / Onto you." Twemlow sometimes prints the same kind of language as prose: "Why depict spiders skittering All over our dreams I didn't mean I didn't always Love my mother her Name is Robyn same As my wife." (No, Rain Taxi hasn't left out the virgules: that's how it looks in the book.) The Robyn who married Twemlow is Robyn Schiff, whose most recent book of poetry, A Woman of Property, pursues some of the questions that Twemlow asks—is poetry worth it? is art self-indulgent? what can we do for our kids, in these parlous years?—She and her husband have moved in opposite directions, he towards apparent mess and spontaneity, she towards the involuted and nearly Baroque.
Both address art history, too. The titular Harrow painter is one of those "people" art historians make up—nothing about him, beyond his work, is known. That work—ancient Greek vase paintings of beautiful boys—is regarded as minor, or inconsequential, as Twemlow fears or believes our poetry will be. "Classical Greece," like "civilization," like "poetry," promised a lot more than it can deliver now:
The great poem
Is chiseled rock.
The great poem
. . . . . . . . . . .
The great poem
Of toilet paper
Every chance it gets.
"The great poem," we learn, might be no better, and no better for the young, than a tennis coach given to inappropriate touching: "I'm an artist, he told me." No wonder Twemlow's attention to visual art comes about almost reluctantly; there's more here about his teen and post-teen years, his smoke-filled hangouts with Kira, George, Andy, which might not be that different from poetry workshops, or urbane launch parties, with writers whose names you might know:
Poetry is super duper,
In a loop, say it with me.
I'm fine with all this
About how my friends are
My only real audience
Except didn't some of us
At least have slightly bigger
The word "slightly" hurts. So does Twemlow's admission, "Most of the poets / I've met felt ashamed": ashamed either of making their art merely personal (what the scholar Gillian White calls "lyric shame"), or of unrealistic, revolutionary vanguardist ambitions (radical critiques of capitalist language, comprehensible only to friends). They might be ashamed of their present lives, having settled in an English department rather than organizing Gulf Coast flood relief, and they might remain ashamed of their past, of the sexual trauma or class trauma or whatever trauma made them think creative writing would save them.
Attributed to the Harrow Painter talks back not just to White's idea of shame but to Ben Lerner's recent argument (in The Hatred of Poetry) that we look down on actual poems, and their authors, because no real poem can cash the checks that "poetry," that lofty concept, writes. Why does Twemlow use verse, if he's lost belief both in the old ambitions of verse (to be lyrical, to last forever, to save our souls) and in the new ones (to make us all modern, to attack cliché, to bring revolution)? One answer fits the kind of verse he chose: verse is the medium of introspection, of turning and turning back on oneself, of stopping yourself short as often as you go on. Twemlow's long poems (and they are long: "Burnett's Mound" lasts twenty-one pages) also partake of the offhand ongoingness familiar from book-length post-Beat works like Ariana Reines's Coeur de Leon and Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day: the verse fits not condensed conclusions but helpless impressions, reluctant notions, and unwanted, disorienting memories, as when Twemlow recalls being "So high coming / Back to [a high school] class one day, / Investing myself back into / My chair," and then, of course, laughing.
Is poetry just another fidget spinner, a way "To distract myself / From the need to / Distract myself"? Is there any point in "Conveying how just being / Just feels" when "My latest concern / Is our son"? Twemlow throws shade on the value of poetry, and and on the value of your time, if you keep reading him, but there is one source of value he never doubts: his and Schiff's son Sacha (named in the book). What kind of poetry can make the world more valuable, or safer, or more fun, for Sacha? If such a poetry exists, can Twemlow write it?
Maybe not—who knows?—but, having given up on older defenses of poetry, Twemlow can try. The title poem tells a sad, disturbing story, one whose ending I won't give up; the poem, and the story, ultimately suggest poetry, like the other arts, exists not because it can save us, but because some of us can't help but make it, and can't help but want it, or want more of it:
You read the wrong thing
At the wrong time
& poof! There it goes
All getting under your skin
Twemlow once worked reading commercial screenplays—anti-poetry, as it were; proposals for spectacles; he "learned to hate / Reading anything / That was for sale." Poetry might even sell—it might get you a job—but it's still a kind of resistance to practicality, to spectacle, to being told what to do, or doing what sells. So is toking up and skipping class, but poetry stays interesting for longer, at least when you're an adult. Poetry won't answer your scariest questions, but it can certainly help you ask them; poetry also—because it can be very short or very long; because its lines give writers a way to stop, or reverse, or restart, our sense of time; because it lets you listen to yourself—can help you address your own past; you might even find out what, if any, of your prior thoughts, of what you once thought you had to say, rings true.