I’m working for free. I’m not a cynic.
…one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine.
“Does this poet just have an institutional imagination?”
That is the big question you ask when you read a poem, if you go looking for something genuine. “Or is this one maybe, like me, sort of crouched over here behind that garbage can across the street?” Hiding from trouble, or just waiting on it? Then, if you are lucky, you sort of look over there, appreciatively, see an elbow behind that bent number with a Yard Waste sticker peeling across it. “It looks like this one really does mean some kind of business.”
Maybe this poet even turns bright blue, like certain species of poisonous tree frogs. Or a bunch of hands start waving around her body, a fine bit of special effects, simple stagecraft (Ginger Rogers) or something inexplicable (Ginger Rogers). Maybe this character, whom you have realized does not have an institutional imagination after all, and who probably does not exist, just stands there, in no way intending to watch you start in on your skit, on your parody, snapping your fingers, taking your solo. “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet to end.” This one might have written one chapbook, kind of surreal and/or twee, and now their new work is strictly documentarian, one image and bit after another, followed chortles and sobs, with other sections making you aware of the perversity of language, all these choices you might, given the choice to think about them for yourself, not even consider, but that does not mean they do not create a series of possibilities in which the possibility canceling out any possibility always remains a tragic possibility. What you will learn in any real poem is the story within the mere narrative, by way of inflection and trust. If a car pulls up, and the people in that car want to start some business, I know that a poet will weigh in, with words, possibly demonstrating something moral. In any of these scenarios, the effect can be called unsettling. All those eyes in the firkins in “Directive” are in fact other poets. Another possibility is that she is with the people in the car, on Twitter with every other jagoff.
On the other hand, a diabolically bad poet is like a rotting corpse. You almost have to seek them out, dig around, Eyegore-like, for Dr. Frankenstein. There is also a poetry of real anger. You can’t mess with real anger. It’s hard to counterfeit real anger, but if an institutional poet or product, a good student of some sort, gets angry, you can tell because the meeting notes have angry coffee rings all over them. Whether teaching or not, some poets are still into grading. Judgment. Assessment. Classification. Division. The search for themes. And so on. It all depends on where a poet has found his or her, or their, mind, not really on where a poet makes bread, but on how a poet spends time. There are free spirits everywhere, too, of every stripe and genre. But are there less of them? I think maybe so.
The era of some version of the campus pirate is thankfully long past at this point. Maybe we met some of these jolly Rogers when the grey hairs touched their temples in previous decades. Twenty-five years ago, at least one friend had at least one professor trying to French kiss her against book cases. That guy was old then. He must be ancient now, shirt tucked into shorts. He remembers my friend. He says, “Arrgghh.” Enough of him. Thank God for the overhaul of some institutional values. If it’s the past we’re talking about, we will have to use our imaginations to get free and even. Think of what Dugan says at the end of “The Jack-Off of the Graveyard Shift”:
the foreman said the cops
had been around the office after him. He was
a total innocent, a total fuck-up,
a natural for the graveyard shift
to liven up the nights of noise,
with the four-slide stamping-out machines
going 12-to-8, 12-to-8, 12-to-8,
sex-and-money, sex-and-money, sex-and money.
He was missed. He kept people from going crazy too.
These stories were told about him for months.
Dugan’s poem is full of non-institutional humanity. It seems like he was the last public defender who still believed in the insanity defense, and that we actually enjoy the story when somebody gets crazy sometimes. You don’t get moral credit for being better behaved than a crazy person trying to hump your leg while you keep the break room coffee from burning your fingers. Yesterday’s institutional imagination is sometimes tomorrow’s sicko. Narratives of selfhood, overt or not, are more often than not big bores, same as anything else we attempt, attempts to guard against selfishness and preserve the self from the risk of change, sometimes through the preservation of pain itself through narrative piety.
One of the more volatile elements you can add to poetry, requiring a novelist’s cheerful honesty about the disreputable tactics each competitive self employs to blot out the claims of other people and imaginative observation rather than journalism, is social texture. Poets sometimes leave a lot of themselves out, and thus social texture gets left out because it is hard to commit to a world that contains social texture and to likewise contain in a reasonable and just facsimile of goodness, just as some poets renounce imagery to save themselves the trouble of having to learn to use it with power. Nice introduction, lousy portfolio. Some prefer self-protective seriousness or even a sense of aesthetic mission, which often amount to the same thing, and some prefer Don Juan. It turns out that Byron is perhaps the more renewable, the far looser resource. Self-righteousness adds to greenhouse gas.
One recent academic year containing the start of a disastrous presidential election season ending in Trump got off to a bad start when an obscure poet and library professional named Michael Derrick Hudson pretended to be a Chinese lady named Y-Fen Chou to get even more of his foursquare poems published—the infamous yellow face scandal. Most poets who heard about any of this false racial identity business, I think, felt sort of disgusted on an additional unspoken and purely personal level, and not just with this librarian poet in Indiana, but with ourselves because the only sort of ground safe from ego was entirely, paradoxically, personal, the place where we really live and really triumph and also where we really fuck up. Thank you, Staples Singers. And thank you for this pad from Staples. And thank you for staplers. Binder clips. Paperclips. Is it true that Theodore Roethke once spent his entire paycheck on a case of paperclips because he could not find one in the English Department at the University of Washington? That he once jumped out a window and tried to slide down a flagpole outside a conference room window? Did the fire department really rescue him? To questions number one and number two, I say, “I hope not.” But if Roethke needed some rescue, I hope the firemen did the job.
The racial insult was hurtful enough, the year’s first trumpet. What does a bogeyman do for people? But there was a deeply absurd undercurrent. What did this say about our own published work? Nobody who has published poems would have published as many poems if they did not have friends or allies, even allies of aesthetic choice, looking to help a poet’s work or work like it out into the world. None of us really has a sense of deserving respect or praise. Why would we? Should we? Maybe not. What for, poems? Scratch the wood on any kind of loudmouth. It’s the same green wood.
The Baltimore laundry place at the center of the characters’ lives in the John Waters movie Pecker is a lot more creative than the art gallery, from the point-of-view of how one actually makes poems.
All that being the case, the next largely unspoken thing I think most poets felt is that making people self-conscious about their relationship to the market conditions while they try to write poetry is just cruel. I don’t know that this was this Hudson guy’s intention, but he certainly made everybody think of the mechanics of publication, something that he was giving too much thought in the first place out in Indiana. The only way out of thinking defensively is to possess a core of subjective and idiosyncratic art and to blithely ignore or consume that which increases self-consciousness and market thought, the enemies of creative generosity. “The poison of the honey bee/ Is the artist’s jealousy,” as William Blake says. Of course, honeybees are not really poisonous—unless you are allergic to beestings, the metaphorical ones worse than real ones. It would have been a good year to throw away smartphones, to disappear from all social media right from the start.
People sometimes disparage the ideals of originality and authenticity as constructs that have bad effects. Back in 2004, I luckily got the chance to review Phoebe 2002 for free, the compendium poem that retells the movie All About Eve, the classic and acerbic Bette Davis movie about a treacherous understudy who worms her way into the life of an initially unsuspecting actress. I love this giant and various book by David Trinidad, Jeffery Conway and Lynn Crosbie. The Phoebe theory of American poetry is that every kind of poetry has its originals, its Margot Channings and its immediate cunning Eves, and that the great majority of what we deal with when we look through journals and books is a vast wash of diluted Phoebe-dom, the imitators of the imitators, trying to find their own human way.
There are mostly just a few sounds getting made. This is simply the way things always are.
And, just as an aside, Sabrina [ed: the author’s spouse], as for my behavior at that dinner party towards the end of last June, that was bad behavior of a totally different sort of horrible, but I was, in fact, really bugging you. I apologize. You know what William Butler Yeats says in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”:
I am content to follow it to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing.
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
I can hear you putting this together the right way: “Guess that makes one of you, pretty grandiosely put for acting like a putz. You IS a putz, as Rimbaud puts it.” Everyone is a Symbolist. Have to start somewhere.
Unpleasant people who can write well should not let their having crummy personalities go to their heads because good writers should be able to move from knowing their own inner workings to knowing some things about other people as well, and doing so with with love. How well we do that is the actual worry and only originality. Have to start somewhere.
For poets who are caught between fending off/defending the institutional imagination, in its discontents, while just trying to write living poems, a group that includes just about everybody, good or not in any way, part of the deal involves not not knowing the quality of your own work and still trying to make it go. Things have changed and not changed, and our uncertainty has not changed at all, despite all of the marketing and self-marketing, and its attendant neurosis. Somehow, we have to make a friend of uncertainty, make it our useful goad, so that we don’t act or think like various versions of small town rubes. If I had to define the institutional imagination, I would say that it is what none of us entirely can escape, and it can be best judged by its poems. “I protect my good name,” Milosz chides himself, “for language is my measure.” A sober list of characteristics of these poems might look something like this:
True Characteristics of Institutionally Imaginative Poems
It may be more to the point to say that while a poem must have social intelligence, poetry needs weird subjectivity to live, and all living poetry mediates these contradictory qualities. When we meet a poem that has a measure of sophistication but still rolls a flat tire despite the fact that maybe a lot of people think otherwise, we are on the trail of the unwritten rubrics of the institutional imagination, that which causes so much boring and well-intentioned writing, including much of our own. As Steve Almond says, the superego makes lousy art. This line of thinking, my own habitual bus route, and maybe yours, misses a number of big things, no doubt, such as some goodness of discovering like-mindedness in a world without community. My mother used to bring us to a food co-op in the basement of a progressive church. There were flies on the grapes and cheese. It was still life.
Even so, I began this essay just imagining that what happens when we read good poetry is like being on a street at night with various poets peacefully taking refuge behind garbage cans, or revealing themselves as gods or aliens, or aggressively preparing to throw down. But how far can such an image take us? Remember Merwin’s great poem about Berryman:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
The wonderful thing is that whole business is just in our heads, as so many things truly are. One nice Sunday afternoon this summer, Sabrina and I crossed the train tracks that separate suddenly crunchy Somerville and now less crunchy Cambridge and walked across town on foot. Somehow, we found ourselves wandering around the Longfellow Mansion, struck by the Teddy Roosevelt uniforms of the United States Park Rangers, the feeling of friendship and family, the good bad taste of the many landscape paintings—nothing there like a Mount Etna blasting a night sky to get Pompeii—and how Longfellow’s last living daughter had had the old gaslight fixtures over everything inside rewired for electricity a few years after World War One.
Walking back home, I thought of how that apparently very gentle Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cat, just being there, in that little yellow mansion he may even have thought that he actually expanded by himself, and deserved, once drove Edgar Allan Poe crazy enough to commit book review. Who deserves anything? Let’s be honest about our gifts.
David Blair is the author of three books of poetry, Ascension Days, which was chosen by Thomas Lux for the Del Sol Poetry Prize, Arsonville, and Friends with Dogs. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Ploughshares, Slate Magazine, and many other places as well, including the anthologies The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Devouring the Green, and Zoland Poetry.