Monday, October 22, 2012

The Unsettling Tension of Poetic Truth

Linda Gregerson, The Selvage: Poems

Linda Gregerson’s very long poems, with their loping lines and exploratory tone, channel the likes of Walt Whitman and Ciaran Carson, without merely imitating those who have gone before. Her use of classical allusions reminds me of AE Stallings and Aaron Poochigian, though Gregerson stakes her own territory in this neoclassical vein. She has not been the most prolific of American poets, but her compressed intensity makes up for her relative scarcity.

Gregerson participates in the recent trend toward very long poems (she has more than one which reach to nine pages), but I never feel in reading that she has stuffed them with filler. Her language retains an urgency that I have struggled to maintain in my own verse. But when I say “urgency,” don’t mistake me to mean “frenetic.” Her work is characterized by a spirit of inquiry, as in this example from “Getting and Spending”:

We’re told it was mostly the soul
          at stake, its formal

          setting-forth, as over water,
where, against all odds,

the words-on-paper make
          a sort of currency, which heaven,

          against all odds, accepts.
So Will, which is to say, May what

I purpose, please, this once, and what
          will happen coincide.

This passage is entirely representative of Gregerson’s style: extremely long sentences fractionated by very short lines. Clich├ęs subverted by compounding them. Linguistic shortcuts that conceal how the narrative voice evidently still searches for what point it hopes to make. Though seemingly shapeless, we still get a sense that these questions deserve an answer now. (These very qualities, though, make finding reprintable excerpts difficult.)

Notice, also, the aggressively enjambed line breaks. June Jordan, back in the day, encouraged her students to use line breaks as a form of punctuation. My poetry professors discouraged this, calling it cheap. Gregerson does neither, using line breaks instead to create a tone. By breaking sentences mid-clause and drawing attention to punchy one-syllable verbs, Gregerson makes common language less familiar, forcing us to look harder at content which seems ordinary.

Gregerson emphasizes the unfamiliar hidden beneath the veneer of ordinariness which surrounds us every day. Even when she utilizes scenes unfamiliar to us—English slate miners, Greek landscapes—she essentially immerses us in the commonplace, which she then makes strange. I like how she accomplishes this in “Ovid in Exile”:

          Omitting the rust-
bedazzled storage tanks and parched

cement, the cedar-and-pressboard
          pavilion, the border

          of marigolds mustered in
forced good cheer, ignoring

the beachfront disco (closed), the eighteen
          crumbling stations of miniature

golf and now the singer at the microphone
          in solemn Dolly Parton

          aspirational, the bravery’s
in the welcome here.

You may also notice, in both excerpts so far, Gregerson’s use of unrhymed couplets. Gregerson makes nods to the familiar by her half-glimpsed forms; other poems use tercets and quatrains, and appear at a glance to feature some form of meter (do scansion, and this proves an illusion). This movement toward, but not actually into, conventional form, heightens the sense of familiarity that never quite arrives, keeping us pleasantly disoriented.

This oscillation between the familiar and the alien extends into her subject matter. In the passage above, she successfully contrasts Ovid’s ancient Black Sea banishment with the post-Soviet tourist trap now on its site. Elsewhere, she turns a contemporary eye on poetry’s ancient heritage, defamiliarizing Greek and Christian myth, as in “Dido Refuses to Speak”:

                    There is no
          outside to such arguments.
And surely I took precautions? What

          was true for me ought doubly to
have been the case for one whose
                    future he

secured. So hostage both.
                    All three. And now
          I’m told he wasn’t a

                    child at all but a
          god in the shape of a child.
Redundant.

Be honest: you didn’t get a word of that, did you. But this take on Queen Dido’s passion when the god Eros touched her breast, causing her to love a man who cannot return her affections, seems nevertheless somehow familiar, like something we’ve all felt when we loved someone who did not love us back. The universality of her sentiment creates a tension with the specificity of her language, keeping us engaged.

That, perhaps, is why Gregerson succeeds in a poetic field so crowded, lately, with striving mediocrity. That same tension of what we all know, poised against what only she can express, gives her the kind of power that all struggling poets wish we could share. Gregerson speaks as only she can speak. Yet at the same time, she voices the truths we all, somehow, share.

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