Innovation and Satisfaction

Billy Collins is the new Stephen King. Now that our Dark Master has gone all lit’ry with stories in The New Yorker, liking our former poet laureate (and his female counterpart, Mary Oliver) is the kind of thing I have to confess with a guilty shrug, as far as my poet friends and cyber-colleagues are concerned. At the same time I have become furiously bored with my own work – oh god not another 40-line lyric about housework and death – and most of the narrative free verse that comes across my desk as the judge of the Winning Writers war poetry contest.

As a writer, I’m hungry for stylistic innovation but can’t find a way in. I was the kind of teenage fogey who refused to read Andrei Bely and Donald Barthelme in high school, as some kind of protest against the crisis of authority among 1970s-80s progressive educators that meant there was no one to protect me from getting my lunch money stolen. (I first heard a principal say “the child must express himself” when the child in question was sitting on my head.) Now I wish I’d paid more attention in that modernism seminar. Sorry, Mr. Everdell.


But as a reader, I find that the poems that have saved my life over the years don’t do any fancy tricks with style and syntax. When I want to be astounded and entertained, to say “I didn’t know you could make poetry do that!”, I turn to mad geniuses like Gabriel Gudding and Jonah Winter. When I feel like jumping off a ledge, though, I read Anne Sexton’s “Angels of the Love Affair”, Wilfred Owen’s “Greater Love”, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Man Watching”, Stephen Dobyns’ “Indifference to Consequence”, or anything in Jack Gilbert’s latest book Refusing Heaven. And, yes, even some poems by Mary Oliver, who reminds me to rejoice, recede and let the world speak first.

Why is it so hard to optimize all those variables at once? Do surrealism, linguistic experimentation and unusual associative leaps/juxtapositions somehow work against a direct emotional connection with the reader? By connection I don’t necessarily mean a heart-tugging narrative, but something that at least implicates me personally, that tells me why I should care enough to wrestle with the complexities of this poem. (Some writers who get the basket and the foul: Mark Levine, Robert Randolph, Joan Houlihan.)

Or maybe the problem is just my inability to enjoy the experience of a poem, moment by moment, without rushing ahead to extricate the Meaning. I’m the kind of person for whom the Animaniacs invented the Wheel of Morality

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