Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets
Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems
An Alchemist with One Eyeon Fire
Here are three writers from another generation, overlapping one another by a few years, messengers from a world shaped by two pivotal events in American life—the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. Each has lived through the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, and now the Iraq war, and weathered most of the catastrophes, victories, and defeats of a long period of decline of American civilization.
Daniel Hoffman is the group’s senior member, born in 1923 into Prohibition and the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, and the flowering not only of modernism and the Harlem renaissance, but the overwhelming sense that American art and literature had become the major forces in Western expression. You can feel it in his sonnets, which are jaunty and muscular, not at all studied or bound by the sort of formalities British poets were still observing well into the 1960s.
W.D. Snodgrass is the middle member, born in 1926. His outlook and passions were shaped by his combat experience in World War II. His images often refer to Hitler, the Holocaust, the turmoil of a conflict that oozed across two continents and was punctuated by the dropping of two atomic bombs. Snodgrass is often credited with launching confessional poetry in 1959 with his first book, Heart’s Needle, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry that year and cleared the way for a much darker mode of self-examination that reached its climax in the work of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. War embittered this poet and drew him toward the dark side of human nature, in which power always seems to wear a Nazi uniform and memories of totalitarianism and death camps feed the sense of evil in which he deals.
Clayton Eshleman was born in 1935, in the heart of the Great Depression, the same year Elvis was born. His language is more shrill and panicky, and his imagery wriggles beyond the control of his logic. It is as if the events that marked his youth—government witch hunts in the ’50s, the Korean conflict, the slaughter in Vietnam, and the unraveling of the presidency under Richard Nixon—conspired to create a feeling of impending madness. His poetry sprang from a desire to heal oneself through a mode of self-probing briefly referred to as “Deep Image,” a Jungian method of catching hold of fleeting images buried in the psyche and fleshing them out in a jumble of plots from daily life that seemed to cohere around a sense of terror and unpredictability.
These are men with a long memory, to whom history is not so trivial as a few heroes and some dates picked up from a cursory high school education. They share a common dread of what America has become in the last 60 years, and are just old enough to recall an earlier, more innocent time of mom-and-pop stores, friendly neighborhoods, cities that ended abruptly at their suburbs with little or no sprawl, trains that ran on time, and dads who came home for lunch. The old-time, Norman Rockwell world that held experience together shattered early on, and they were caught between strong cultural winds tearing America from Europe even as U.S. universities clung to their ties with England and the Old World. Pop culture celebrated consumerism, and the city became a landscape of neon advertising and office towers, with ordinary citizens pushed out to the suburbs. The center was missing for all three men, who made up for it by writing impassioned lyrics on loss and the desire to cope by finding spiritual consolation in art, if not in life. Their poetry was a kind of flashlight in the gloom, a way of getting back home to wife and family, a shelter of a few beliefs.
Hoffman’s book of sonnets, Makes You Stop and Think, opens with “The Sonnet,” in which a famous visiting poet, Louise Bogan, long the poetry editor at The New Yorker, remarks after her reading, “This is a bad time, / bad for poetry.” The kids she reads to want to know about the “poetry of Rock,” not the great tradition; even so, the poem in which her remarks appear is sturdy and lean, a well crafted lyric spasm with an ironic twist at the end. Bogan remarks on the good Irish sheets she slept on the night before. Some things endure, among them the curious, tightly sprung language of a good sonnet, which will weather out its exile in the modern age, the poem tacitly argues.
What follows in Hoffman’s 41 other sonnet and sonnet-like poems is a quick tour of his education, well-founded in the English and American classics from Coleridge to Poe, his favorite author, and the subject of his most famous book, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, after the tintinnabulation of Poe’s poem, “The Bells.” The poems are allusive, ironic, sinewy with taut verbal constructions; like the man himself, these poems are all bones and a little flesh, very spare in their movements. But Hoffman is a master, and his poems can be intimate conversation with the reader, or brief flashes of anger, or touching little episodes from nature, the nature we know as suburbanites living on a fringe of woods. “Wakened by bird calls, I stroll down our lane,” memory lane, that is, as the poet thinks back on his life at 11 years, which triggers Dylan Thomas’ image of the “apple bough,” and the line preceding, “When I was young and easy.”
Memory is everywhere in this older man’s thoughts, as in the poem, “O Sweet Woods,” where he strides “Down my most tangled paths of reverie.” Only to be confronted by a man hauling a “Rock box” the other way, the figure of the menacing future, “reverie’s assassin.” Time’s winged chariot hurries near, he says in “Emblems,” but puts it his own way: “When the mandibles of the clock have gnawed / The journal of another day.” This dated eloquence is intended to locate the poet on the other side of the moment, the far side where things have come to a graceful end, with this friendly, often disarming voice persuading us that the past is not irrelevant or vanished, but lingers as a window into a better time.
I’m not sure why Snodgrass chose to open his handsome selection of old and new work with a bit of self-mockery, “These Trees Stand,” with its well-known refrain, “Snodgrass is walking through the universe.” It’s a kind of Prufrockian poem and sets in motion a voice we might recognize as Charlie Chaplin’s or Woody Allen’s, ironic and self-conscious, but coy, even manipulative—an occasionally melodious voice with which he can write movingly about his daughter in the sequence, “Heart’s Needle,” and with leaden humor about his doctoral orals in “The Examination.” The early days were good for Snodgrass; his craftsmanship was notable in a time when, as Denise Levertov complained, any squib written on an envelope (she was thinking of the Beats) could pass for poetry. Here was a poet composing on his fingers, tidying up his accents, making the stanzas into elaborate, rhyming mazes in which the thought, modern enough, is a thread running through some dazzling (distracting?) metrical virtuosity.
The dark side of Snodgrass is part of post-Holocaust writing. Theodore Roethke had it, so did James Wright, Robert Bly, James Dickey. A generation had lost its innocence in those images of global mayhem, as in “The Drunken Minstrel Rags his Bluegrass Lute”:
Whether I yodel, jive or jazzBlue gives my world the hue it has… Discord and dat makes a bluegrass luteI jams true blue and dat’s da trut’.
Truth, a certain pluckiness through all the despair, makes up Snodgrass’ unique take on world history. Snodgrass and Lowell were the only confessionalists who didn’t take their lives: Plath, Sexton, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz saw themselves as relics, bleak shipwrecks isolated on the remote shores in the 20th century, and ended it all. Snodgrass may have written his generation’s anthem in the close of his poem, “Disguised as Humpty-Dumpty, W.D. Practices Tumbling”:
Ring out the old—the downward swingOf clocks and stocks, the Fall of Man,Fall is where everything began… The Fall from Grace, the Market Crash.The real point isn’t winning; what’sImportant is to show some guts.
Clayton Eshleman takes another path through the last century and into this one in An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire, where the dark is not passive but menacing, a metaphor of the irrational in each of us, and a living presence that is at war with and often a seducer of the light. Long and careful study of South American writers, in particular Cesar Vallejo, whose work Eshleman has translated much of his adult life, has allowed him to import into American English a political surrealism characteristic of dictatorships and fragile, barely functioning democracies. Well known for his cartoon-like imagery, some of it taken directly from Disney and the rest from a dream world shared by Goya, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Chaim Soutine, and others, Eshleman is alone in American writing with his elaborate, Boschian visions of the fall of America.
“In the zone between here and not here, a lunar curtain parts,” he says, revealing “Cheney’s infantile wrath,” and Bush’s (W) “tiny tail, about 3 inches, / like the tip of a Komodo Dragon’s tail.” This poetry reads like a graphic novel without the pictures; the America that emerges is under the spell of the Book of Revelations, with avenging angels and apocalyptic horsemen and a vocabulary of Jungian symbols he has been developing in his poetry for the past 20 years. There is the self-devouring serpent of the unconscious lurking in the debris of the fallen city, “fecal rainbows,” “fetal propellers,” talking shadows and so on. A few pages later, “Dick Cheney’s mouth / slides on circular-saw teeth,” and “Bush is an enraged grave, / a plutonium bell tolling human clappers.”
The imagery is at times so dense and compacted, overlaid, baroque, as to be impenetrable, but the sense worms through like a thin mote of dusty light coming through a chink of landfill. Piled on all sides of his poetry is a world Pynchon would recognize as the ruins of Western civilization. The mind is deranged in this poetry. The world makes little or no sense. The persona gropes his way through fun-house clutter and nightmare interiors without much plot or argument; the process of negotiating the dead world of the early 21st century, ruled by warlords with infinite arsenals and endless government funding, keeps him alive. Paul Auster could do no better than some of the traumatic dreamscapes captured in these poems. “Bill Clinton as a Nkondi figure, his back bristling with Republican nails and blades.”
Even if there is more here than we can interpret, sense comes through. Of course Bill Clinton’s back bristles with Republican nails; he gave in too often to his persecutors in Congress and let most of his social agenda stagnate while Newt Gingrich carved up the wilderness and Phil Gramm liberated usury rates on credit cards and Trent Lott arranged for his impeachment. Sense comes through as a smell, a feeble thread of connection to a recognizable world under all the clutter and confusion he heaps up. And when sense doesn’t quite make it, you have lines like these from “Dead Reckoning” to keep you going:
I move, as if by dead reckoning,through the portico shades of daily judgment,Hart Crane’s tennis racket my paddle.Pushing my canoe through arctic whiteness,beer cooler packed with Iraqi hearts.
The language is a romp, a celebration of language above and beyond despair, the disillusionment. As others have observed, Eshleman is a funny poet, one of the funniest to come along. He may be shrill, overblown at times, Falstaffian in his swagger and drunken eloquence, but he is never flat or predictable. Every poem is a glimpse into a smoking hellscape, where the pigs are all flying with outstretched, diaphanous wings, and the politicians are upside down in the outhouses arranged along the lowest Dantean shelves of his imagination. Eshleman wails and beats his breast, but some of that is hamming. He is a man of conscience, to be sure, but he is also a kind of strutting Pozzo, waiting for Godot but not very seriously. His message is that we are crazy and our world is ruined, but that we may survive by our laughter and our scrambled wits. That is message enough for this age, and a far more promising piece of advice than one finds in the great wastelands of Writing Program poetry.
All three writers are survivors, hardheaded and deliberative men scribbling their way into an age they find untenable and opaque. Do any of them believe we are still making a culture in this era? I doubt it. They have their memories that they cherish, or their outrage, and perhaps the faith that some poetry readers will understand their language and agree that we are in trouble. No one provides the redeemer to deliver us from evil, but the fact that they are here and sending out their messages tells me we are not done for, not yet, anyway.
Paul Christensen writes frequently about contemporary poetry and is the author of books about Charles Olson and Clayton Eshleman. His memoir about living in southern France, Strangers in Paradise, will be out this April from Wings Press.