Friday, July 6, 2012

Contemporary Verse and the New Classic Tradition

Aaron Poochigian, The Cosmic Purr: Poems

Too much current poetry falls into two camps: singsong lyrics to soothe risk-averse masses, or image-rich free association evidently designed to alienate the audience. What happened to versifiers like William Blake and Walt Whitman, who saw their ability to reach and challenge readers as a duty and a privilege? Or holy poets like Sophocles and Shakespeare who crafted celebrations of the motivating spirit that makes us both human and divine?

Like his fellow classicist AE Stallings, Aaron Poochigian forms a bridge between the dead luminaries he translates, and today’s introspective verse. He makes use of the ancient, somber forms so many readers love, but he applies them to a muscular contemporary poetic ethos. And though his verse is very new, addressing current concerns for a living audience, it has a lyric texture of something much older, with a robust Greco-Roman spine.

When I say that Poochigian’s verse has an older tenor to it, I don’t mean he presents it like a museum piece. Poetry, for Poochigian, is no mere dead specimen for critics to parse and teachers to enforce on defenseless pupils. Consider these lines from his sonnet “Off the Clock”:

Co-conspirators for an afternoon,
we gathered, hush-hush, at the slow café.
Last week was debts and earthquakes but today
nothing is pressing. If a coffee spoon
is stirring, if the shadows lengthen there
beyond the awning, or the daily news,
catching the breeze, rustles around our shoes,
our minds are absent, and we just don’t care.

Notice that Poochigian uses the octet, the opening eight-line passage from the original Italian sonnets invented by Giacomo di Lentini. This form is much rarer than the Shakespearean quatrain, largely because it’s much harder to sustain. But Poochigian also contemporizes the line structure, with enjambed line endings, and very short clauses within longer lines. It has a disconcerting effect because it’s both ancient and, in some way, subtly new.

Traditional forms work well for Poochigian, as for the better known Stallings, because they see forms as tools they can use and adapt as needed. Many New Formalist poets treat forms as hidebound and inviolable, and would not create the tension between enjambed lines and mid-line commas. That would be just too troubling. Poochigian uses forms like a carpenter uses power tools, customizing them with ad hoc splices to make them suit his needs.

This same malleability applies to his subject matter. As a classicist, known until now primarily for his translations of Sappho, he has spent his professional life immersed in the Greco-Roman world. But he lives in Judeo-Christian America, and in some of his verses, he views Jerusalem (to pinch a metaphor from St. Anselm) through the lens of Athens. Consider the opening stanzas of “The Bad Tree”:

Why was the bad tree so appealing?
Why did the fruit perspire so much?
Its musk reached out, a red-light touch
tugging them toward a funny feeling.

Their friend the snake spoke like his glide.
Who could refute such breathiness?
God never talked to them like this.
They gobbled, giggled, ran to hide.

Poochigian continues in this manner, daring to ask: why is knowledge forbidden? If the truth will make us free, why does knowing comprise our Original Sin? Like Socrates twisting Euthyphro’s ear, Poochigian resists the desire for pat answers. To him, the question, not the answer, reigns supreme.

This give-and-take pervades Poochigian’s verse. The contemporary illuminates the ancient; the pagan illuminates the Christian; the life of action illuminates the life of the mind. Poochigian is not content to sit still, and his voracious mind roves over many topics, challenging us as readers to reevaluate what we think we take for granted.

Some of Poochigian’s topics will take nobody by surprise, yet his viewpoints certainly will. For instance, this book’s concluding twelve-poem cycle turns a modern eye to ancient and medieval topics. In poems like “Medusa” and “Helen’s Iliad,” he presents myths often told through pugilistic male eyes. But he forces us to see them through the vantage of the women who are so often passive, yet so instrumental, in these archetypal stories.

Aaron Poochigian comes from a firm foundation, which he builds onto with confidence and panache. For a generation that has come to associate poetry with open mic gloominess or lit class antiquity, he serves as a breath of fresh air. He writes for ordinary readers, and I believe ordinary readers, if given the chance, will embrace him as few of today’s poetic generation has been embraced by plain-spoken, literate masses.

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