Where is the wild poetry, let out of the cage of the mind so it can (to paraphrase Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book I know by heart, having read every night for years to my children) roar its terrible roar and gnash its terrible teeth and roll its terrible eyes ? Yes, we often think of the new as wild but often I find that's not the case. There's the new prose poets, the new formalists, the language poets, the new avant-garde, conceptualism, and all the interface art and trends in writing and, and, and yet we almost forget, nothing is new and everything is new! (Ok, Inspector Clouseau also knows nothing and everything.) We see styles come and go like Eliot's women, like Shakespeare's men and women in "The Seven Ages of Man" :
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.
I grew up with artists and the conceptual art movement of the late 60's into the 70's, so when someone writes the poem in an odd arrangement on the page, reads their poems to music or accompanying dancers, or film or amidst art as if it is groundbreaking, I feel like I'm in the Emperor's new clothes nightmare and my jawbone hurts from yawning... well, I exaggerate for fun. This sounds like I'm talking about a heart v. head kind of thing--no, I'm not.
We know there's tons of new, exciting stuff out there and what remains supremely unique is of course, each poet's voice and in whatever guise or setting its sings, where we can still enjoy it, be inspired by it, want to hear more of it... or not. Which takes me back to my question: Where's the wild poetry, the passionate, visceral, catch your breath polaroids of the mind/heart/body in motion?
In a recent article entitled, "Photo Finished" Mark Van De Walle describes the iconic Polaroid's history and sudden death in February when the company "announced it would no longer make film." Everyone, especially artists will trade a new technology for this favored tool among photographers and artists. This reminded me of all those coy articles about whether poetry mattered (we laughed) and would survive, articles about what poets mattered (sometimes we cried) and uh-oh, suddenly, I am like one of those instant polaroids coughed out of the camera and I am afraid to say it out-loud: can lyric passion and exciting imagery disappear altogether, be replaced with the genre's new technology-lures, the linguistic masterbatory mind-games (which can be fun) and conciliatory middle of the road ennui (which can be comforting)? Can the push to unleash what's new make us forget our ancestral primitive origins? Of course not, emotional linch-pins driving language such as anger and desire rise together with each generation, each new era's of cultural angst like Freud's death and sexual instincts needing to "reestablish a state which was troubled by the apparition of life." It seems poetry too, whether directly or inadvertently, still wants to feel, to roar and gnash and be troubled by life and the apparition of life it recreates.
I'm compelled by anything revolutionary so long as it is revelatory. The Surrealists, somewhat accidentally, showed us a necessary connection and distinction between the revolutionary and revelatory. There are established poets (their "wildness" expressed in different ways) who can still refresh my humanity and imagination, one word at a time: ie, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Galway Kinnell, Harryette Mullen, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, David St. John, Mary Ruefle, etc, etc.... and there are "new" poets on the rise who also fill the lungs with fresh air and keep the heart pounding.
Today, my California poet is Brendan Constantine. Brendan Constantine's poetry, "a piece of ice on a hot stove," (Frost) does everything it's supposed to and everything it's not supposed to do. In his debut book, Letters to Guns (Red Hen Press), Constantine rises to the occasion of the unexpected, keeping the wildness pure with intellect, feeling, humor and revelatory, wild imagery. This is not enough to do him justice, but taste this from "And Only Once":
when I was a girl, I watched a white swan
choke to death on my hairbrush
Then it was the shape in his throat
Then it was a trumpet full of sand...
My favorite book described the sadness
of the man who invented nitroglycerine
I knew I was meant to be him but he died
Every day that I was a girl, my hair caught fire
when I moved
Oh, to celebrate language with the whole body, to be shaken out of the sleep of the mundane! Constantine does this with every vibrant book (I have the advantage of seeing his manuscripts not yet in print).
Even if we don't agree with all the editors' choices, we can celebrate the anthologies that show our genre's great range. Sarabande's Legitimate Dangers is one of many, and Norton's American Hybrid also comes to mind, having been thrown into several talk-cauldron articles. We know there has been much said out there about all the great cutting edge presses, Wave Books, Fence Books, etc., so what I can do is bring some attention to the west coast for a moment. Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry & Opinion is an ambitious project put together by Calvin Bedient ( Days of Unwilling, Saturnalia Books, 2009 ) & David Lau (Virgil and the Mountain Cat,Univ. of Californa Press) Editors. Their preface submits, "The Modernists called out insecurity... By contrast, most contemporary American Poetry is insecure only on the surface.; it's Insecurity Lite. Instead of the passion for the real---which breaches formalizations and, as Lacan said, goes missing from its place, escaping with force--it offers weak-tea assurances or consolations. What passes for disturbance in poetry today isn't half disturbing enough." Check out Marjorie Perloff's essay in there, "The Ecstasy of Always Bursting Forth!" : rereading Frank O'Hara. She says, "what really interests the questioner is mental dirt..." Ah, I love the taste of minerals and iodine in the morning! Les Figues Press, one of the exhuberant "avant-garde" presses, does a superb job of snapping the tablecloth from the proverbial table, countering the "apres-garde" while maintaining the elemental balance of unfathomable beauty "rendering fact to artifact," championing an aesthetic reverence and enthusiasm. Their writers are often also scientists, artists, environmentalists, lawyers, from all over the globe... as deliberately self-conscious as they can be, I can still find work that is ignited by passionate diction, exciting images, music and insight. I'm all for walking the wilds of the mind (like a forest full of decay and new sproutings), as long as I can be reminded why I am alive, "And thereupon my heart is driven wild." (Yeats)