Reviewed by Chris Tonelli
The fourth installment of Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics showcases a worthwhile dichotomy. Part of this might have to do with the actual size of the journal--it is a bear, a yearly, and well over 500 pages and bound to include a variety of poetic ranges. In this respect it sort of reads like an anthology. But because of the segment “Poetry and Truth,” in which nineteen poets and critics answer a questionnaire that addresses the very nature of poetry and its place in society, a particular set of opposing poles is established. So what ends up happening is that poets and critics give their thoughts on poetry, and then the reader gets to see how the actual poems align or diverge, providing a sort of litmus test for the authors and critics as well as for the reader. While the poles set up in this issue could certainly be labeled in a number of ways, for me they boil down to poets who view their vocation as a sacred one and those who view their vocation as a ridiculous one. And by this I mean in terms of their aesthetics--presumably none of the poets or critics thinks poetry is ridiculous per se. But certainly the question this issue seems to beg is how sacred should poetry consider itself, or rather, how sacred should poetry sound about itself.
W. N. Herbert sets the table for the volume-long conversation between the divine and the silly. When asked “What is the most important poetry?,” he answers, “The most important poetry for me doesn’t need to talk about the big picture because it’s in the act of adding to it. Poetry is there to be with you.” On the philosophy of poetry or the fact that maybe there needn’t be one, Herbert comments: “I suspect, wherever it’s not completely expressed by and embodied in a poem, it’s just morning-after-breath.” Like his preceding poems (written in both Scots and English), Herbert’s answers are at once yeoman-like and playful.
Don Share’s poem “Squandermania, or: Falling asleep over Delmore Schwartz” follows. Share--in true Merrillian fashion (he rhymes “fuckit” with “bucket” to end the poem)--combines the formal and the colloquial. And David Lehman, like Larkin (“They fuck you up your mum and dad”), plays on the resonance of strict rhyme and the explicit in his “Crazy Jane Mouths Off”:
I walked past someone I used to fuck,
who made me give him head.
Is this the cock I used to suck?
Life’s a hotel. We keep changing beds.
Both engage and pay homage to historical figures of varying poetics (Share: The Who, Lorca, etc. Lehman: Yeats), as well as other figures of the past (presidents, astronauts, parents, priests), and their poems balance respect and rebelliousness towards these figures and traditions.
In moments like these, poets blend the dictions and forms of the reverent and the irreverent. For example, in “My Paris” Jeet Thayil writes:
on a bench in the sun
in the Rue Boucherie, kicking it
with Our Lady of the Stone
Face and Troubled Spirit.
Maybe asleep in the bookshop,
maybe waiting for the rain to stop.
While Paris romanticizes itself as soon as it enters any poem, especially when the speaker is taking cover from the rain in a bookstore, “kicking it” mixes the diction, showing an awareness that Paris is also just another place in which the self dwells.
But certainly not all of the poems in this tome incorporate such balance. Some poets seem to choose sides. David Kennedy’s “Calendar” has moments in which the poet is an oracular vessel of sorts: “Our skin is an archive . . . Our bodies are reservoirs / of writing.” And in the final stanza of his “Near Death,” Kennedy writes:
In a room, we remember
the dead with films, poetry.
We open our mouths, hold death
on our tongues in a plain room;
watch the light’s work on the clean walls.
A little way up the road,
traffic control deals planes up,
stacked planes down, drowns the squeals
of starting and the low drones
of ending in each other.
Winds crash around a plain room,
shriek through the cracks, into our mouths.
Though his poems here seem to consistently put the poet in the role of receiver and archiver, after being asked “What is and what isn’t poetry? What is poetry’s essential nature (if any)?,” Kennedy responds (with non-traditional punctuation and no caps), “i might even say that i think there is something wrong with poetry that people can still ask these questions after all we don’t ask them about film or painting.”
And when asked “What is the most important poetry? Who are the greatest poets? What do they accomplish?,” he answers, “the stuff that gets my attention the ones that get my attention getting my attention creeley gets my attention in a really big way these days because his work is about attention and that interests me yeats on the other hand has never got my attention.” While his poems lean more towards Yeats, his response owes more to Creeley.
To the question “Is there (or can there be) a meaningful philosophy of poetry?,” Kennedy says, “might be don’t make the world reducible and don’t be reducible yourself poetry has to keep reminding us about excess that the world is excessive.” While Kennedy takes a stance in his poetry, one gets the feeling, based on his commentary, that these stances are only poem deep, that beneath each of his poems is a poet waiting to disagree with himself in the very next poem, and in only that way can he capture what he sees as an excessive world.
For this reason, Kennedy is quite representative of what this issue of Fulcrum seems to be up to. When asked “What is/isn’t poetry? What is poetry’s essential nature?,” Alexei Tsvetkov responds, “One is tempted to give the famous answer about pornography: I know what it is when I see it. But this won’t do for an obvious reason: pornography tries to appeal directly to our physiology, poetry does not and cannot; thus, what I know is not necessarily what someone else knows; our opinions are not vouched for by our common bodily functions.” To which I thought, really? What makes a poem sad but the tricking of our body via words by replicating a situation that would normally elicit the sad chemicals. Whether I, as a reader, agreed with Tsvetkov or not, I found myself prompted to explore possible rebuttals.
When Tsvetkov was asked about the relationship between truth and poetry, he answered, “Poetry, among all arts, probably comes closest to the search for truth since it expresses itself in language, which is the truth medium,” and I found myself wondering if language would be just as viable if someone were to call it the fiction or lie medium. Simon Armitage, for example, soon follows by defining poetry as “inventing significance in a life which is otherwise meaningless.”
Other poets, not as reverent perhaps to poetry as a medium, do their part to out a particular kind of poetry that simply seems to be doing a bad impression of itself. Landis Everson, in his one page essay “Limitation of Birds” (one of the real gems of this issue), depantses poetry and some of the more typical things it does to assure readers that what they are in fact reading is a poem: “A poem can often be made much more successful if the poet puts into the poem, freely and unselfconsciously, all the birds he wants. Once the poem is finished (if a poem is ever really finished!), he then simply discards all of them.”
It is this kind of back and forth that Fulcrum #4 spurs. For every James Woods, who says that poems “line the pockets of our minds w/ arrangements of words that are easier to remember than to forget, and which warm us in our days,” there is a Charles Bernstein who says, “[p]oetry does not relate to the human condition, it articulates ways of encountering & acknowledging it; sometimes it changes it. Poetry, by necessity, rejects the human condition.” Fulcrum does a nice job of being inclusive while exposing the reader to polar opposite aesthetics, inadvertently encouraging us to take a side. And then I thought . . . Fulcrum. Nice choice of a name for a journal that see-saws in a good way.
This same debate shows up just as consistently in the second half of issue four. “Give the Sea Change and it Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets (1951-2005)” is the Jeet Thayil-edited anthology of Indian poets writing in English featured in the final 300 pages of the issue. Perhaps the isolation and cultural confusion that Thayil eludes to in his intro lends itself to Mamta Kalia’s bitterness in “Against Robert Frost”:
I can’t bear to read Robert Frost.
Why should he talk of apple-picking
When most of us can’t afford to eat one?
I haven’t even seen an apple for many months--
Whatever we save we keep for beer
But much like the rest of the journal, for every poem that is wary of poetry’s time-honored figures, there are poems that pay homage to such traditions. R. Parthasarathy in an aubade entitled “East Window” writes:
Few are the body’s needs:
it is the mind’s that are insatiable.
May our hands and eyes open this spring afternoon
as the blue phlox open on a calm Salem Drive
to the truth of each ordinary day:
the miracle is all in the unevent.
What home have I, an exile,
other than the threshold of you hand?
Love is the only word there is:
a fool wears out his tongue learning to say it,
as I have, every day of his life.
Perhaps it is because, by this point in the journal, the reader has become attuned to such polarities that poems like these two seem to continue the conversation begun in the first section of the issue (after all, the anthology pre-existed the issue and there are no questionnaires in this section). In any case, “Give the Sea Change and it Shall Change” is at once an intriguing glimpse into a pocket of poetry a reader might not otherwise come across and a consistent partner piece to the rest of the volume.
Though the fourth issue of Fulcrum is a mountain of a journal, it provides enough variety of voice to avoid redundancy and enough consistency regarding form and style to avoid lacking an identity. It’s features on “Poetry and Truth,” on Landis Everson (and his correspondence with Duncan and Spicer), and on Indian poetry in English provide solid frameworks with which to read the core contents and offer the reader some pretty unique material.