As long ago as 1998, Stephen Burt noticed a tendency for contemporary poets to want to have their cake and eat it too, to speak from the heart while gesticulating comically at the bloodied chest cavity where a heart blatantly isn’t. Such poets, Burt wrote at Boston Review, “try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” Last year at The Account, Rachel Greenwald Smith resurrected these paradoxical souls—whom Burt had dubbed “Elliptical poets”—to roundly criticize them in an essay entitled “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics.” For Greenwald Smith, it is a sign of bad faith to draw simultaneously from a modernist tradition debunking the self while also employing a lyric tradition that values the individual, personal voice. Such poets, she argues, reinforce late global capitalism by constructing a marketable version of the individual, all feely bells and ironic whistles.
Jennifer L. Knox’s latest collection, Days of Shame and Loathing, pinballs delightedly between a sincerely-felt self, an ironically-meant self, and a horde of other selves altogether, taking on many different personae in the course of the book. Her poems frequently interrupt themselves—“Hey, what kind of poem is this?”—or dissolve into an ironic “real, really felt feeling.” In “Nazi Art” a curator is deeply moved by the discovery that art about Nazis is really Nazi art, while in “The Stendhal-Santa Syndrome” our speaker is reduced to tears by the sound of her own voice singing:
So the tears begin in my voice
(the call is coming from inside the house!)
when, so moved by its sincerity, I’m
compelled to wade into that
clunky old body of water, open
my mouth, and drown.
At other times, we are allowed to believe in the sincerity of the poems’ feelings and in the “real, really felt” feelings they make us feel. In “A Fairy Tale,” an individual’s loss of faith is traced back to a persuasively horrible childhood experience. In “Hive Mind,” a narrator, having grown up with an unbending OCD mother, confesses she is jealous of sunflowers, which bend as a matter of course to give room to one another:
I envy anything that moves itself to accommodate another: a
subtle shift to the left or right, self-preservation that could pass
These are post-Freudian narratives, in which an early experience embeds itself indelibly in the psyche, enslaving the individual. Apparently weighty in the poems above, Knox can give the post-Freudian a quite different spin—superficial, comic, grotesque—in the next poem:
So who knows why, when I was nineteen, I got that
horribly swollen taste bud worthy of an ER visit,
but I do know that when I cut it off with toenail clippers
it bled for days—hurt way worse—like my tongue
needed a cast—and now when people speak
of piercing their tongues, I know I know
too much to follow them there.
The narrative in which a person is irrevocably marked by a single event is characteristic of our popular culture (just look at all those superhero movies). It co-exists oddly with the idea that the individual is both free and free to change. Meanwhile, “I know I know too much” might be the mantra of the postmodern subject, who must simultaneously live within this post-Freudian narrative and constantly ironize it.
The stance of irony shot through with moments of sincerity is not one unique to Knox, of course. In Kathleen Rooney’s telling, this is the stance that contemporary poets have to take in order to engage with a contemporary readership, because this is a readership that knows it knows too much. In a New York Times essay about the influence of Jack Handey on today’s poetry, Rooney remarks: “For contemporary poets who are unable to embrace either an elite Modernist tradition that doesn’t much care if it attracts a wide audience or a lyric-confessional tradition that’s content to recount familiar slice-of-life epiphanies, one of the biggest challenges is how to connect with readers emotionally and intellectually without being sentimental.” Rooney attributes to contemporary poets “a strategy of brilliant fake-outs,” using irony to win the reader’s trust and thus earn their measure of sincerity.
Sufficient irony preemptively absolves the poet of sentimentality, so that sentiment can in fact ring true. Knox has a stake in winning the reader’s trust, but her humor sometimes tips over into meanness. The “rich people” of “Drones” or the “new too-tanned, top heavy prize bunny / swishing her porny French manicure” of “The New Let’s Make a Deal” don’t benefit from Knox’s otherwise keen capacity for empathy. They are summed up snidely and thrown aside in the service of winning over a readership that knows, smugly, it is cooler than the rich and more sophisticated than the porny.
But there is more to Knox’s burlesque than the attempt to connect with her readers. Splicing together irony and sincerity may earn some trust; but at the same time, it makes the reader struggle to trust themselves. Why do I, reading Knox, take the mother with OCD seriously but shudder and laugh at the clippered tongue? Who, inside me, is vetting these feelings? And can I change how I feel? Let alone how I behave?
Days of Shame & Failure sparks off questions of individual adaptability, change, and inevitability that, because they are writ large upon our civilization, are urgent. The book trains its sights on the planetary environmental catastrophe toward which we are hurtling, and it wonders whether a different narrative is possible in these “end times”: “It’s that kind of poem: a poem for the end of the world.” Crucial to Knox’s investigation is the “self-preservation that could pass for love”—the sunflowers that bend, the human that, perhaps, is incapable of bending, less angel kin than automata. In “The Ten-Million-Year War”, dogs who have been flayed still come “gallumping happily back to us / with orange croquet balls in their mouths,” unable to change their behavior, mirror image for the army who, marching upon the enemy, is undone by its craving for junk food:
“Know what I could go for?” Bart asked suddenly,
his dank, black mouth full of clouds…
[…] ”No,” I said and meant it. “Tater tots,” Bart grinned.
“Tay-der-tots! Tay-der-tots!” we tolled like bells
and toddled around the hill until we all…finally
lay down. “Jus’ restin’ our eyes uhlittlebit.”
Addiction, behavioral conditioning, nostalgia, happiness, tears, low attention spans, the ever-oncoming locomotive of old age, our knowing we know too much: these are all implicated in humanity’s inability to adjust to the fact of an impending apocalypse.
The question of free will, and the hames we have made of it in any case, echoes through Knox’s collection to the wry final poem, “Immutable”. In it, the self changes (or changes happen to it), altering the body and identity. The freedom of will entailed is hazy, whether we are talking of the rash on a “ring finger” or “the side of the war we died on.” The poem’s final lines drip with a sad angry irony:
Not the way we’ll slip out of this world,
our swan songs clogging the ears of all
the wordless species going first—
“After you.” They do not define us:
these skins, these sky-high
piles of hides.
“Skins” here refers to three things: to everything physical that (we rebelliously declare) does not define the (fluid, constructed) self; to our literal skins, which we will inevitably shed; and to the skins of all the creatures we destroy in the name of change and progress. “Immutable,” in other words, tells of a species all too busily singing about its own adaptability and diversity while it slides into irrevocable annihilation, bringing the planet with us.
It would seem a surprising poem were we convinced by Greenwald Smith’s portrait of the contemporary poet as engaged in an unthinking embrace of “the individual as both self-consciously constructed and immensely valuable.” What Greenwald Smith misses, though, is that this paradoxical view of the individual is not a condition a poet like Knox necessarily embraces; it is the condition from which a poet like Knox must begin her thinking, the chains from which she must attempt her escape. “God made thee perfect, not immutable,” Milton’s angel tells Adam in Paradise Lost:
And good he made thee, but to perservere
He left it in thy power, ordain’d thy will
By nature free, not overrul’d by Fate
Inextricable, or strict necessity…
Knox takes on, as her poetic inheritance, both the self’s constructedness that’s insisted upon by modernism as well as the individual’s value that’s insisted upon by the lyric form; but, far from touting compromise, she is scarifying in her diagnosis of the contemporary human condition.
Days of Shame & Failure is often surprising, sometimes brilliant, and from time to time it is laugh-out-loud funny, but then, in the end—“these skins, these sky-high / piles of hides”—it is not funny at all. The structure might be a fairly realistic representation of how the end of the world will go, I suppose: gradually, and then all at once. I hope, though, that the final note of Knox’s book does not betray an anxiety that the book’s humor renders it insufficiently weighty, that something grave must be intoned before the lights go out. Such a concern would be misplaced. It is an anxiety that echoes, oddly, in Knox’s own defense of humorous poetry. On a series of blog posts for Best American Poetry, she declares that gravity should always be punctured by humor:
The funny poet questions the sanctity of our medium’s most revered trope: gravity. The graver the poem, the more important. Does the just plain stupid, irrational, ashamed, or lazy have any place in a poem? Never ever? I feel those feelings all the time… In life, no tone is constant, the line of thought always interrupted—the crucial by mundane, shame by egocentrism, peace by chaos. One moment, you’re sobbing in your living room, the next, remembering there’s a sale at the Gap.
But by portraying humor as something that interrupts gravity, Knox does her own humor a disservice. In its full-on engagement with the trouble we’re in and our denial of it, Days of Shame & Failure bears testament to the fact that what is funny is itself serious, because the culture of transaction—the dehumanizing global system which has brought us to this pass—does not know what to do with funny. I don’t mean parody or satire, both of which are easily consumed and both of which may only act as a safety valve for any system, capitalism included.
Knox’s humor is the kind of funny which is surprising, generous, and vulnerable, and which demands generosity and vulnerability from the reader. This is the kind of funny we have found in writers as various as Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, and Kenneth Koch, as well as in many of the contemporary writers included by Stephen Burt in the modern “elliptical” mode. Absurdism, surrealism, camp, bait-and-switch, jiggery-pokery: the kind of funny, you don’t get what you paid for, you can’t sell it on. It’s the humor, not the gravity it supposedly punctures, which makes Days of Shame & Failure worthy of our attention, all the way through.
Ailbhe Darcy is lecturer in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Subcritical Tests, in collaboration with S.J. Fowler, is forthcoming from Gorse Editions.