Wednesday, June 29, 2005

When I say, as I have been known to do, that a ten-year-old could write better poetry than many School of Quietude poets, I’m not being snide. I have proof. Proof in the form of Fox of Gold, by Julia T. Mayhew. Here’s a piece that takes off from a familiar premise:

So much relies

on a picture


stains of coffee on it

deep in the forest

surrounded by animals

Each line after that hinge of a preposition takes this work in an entirely new direction. The result is absolutely simple & absolutely not. It’s the human imagination at its brightest & best. Here is a sadder poem, a dramatic monolog entitled “I Am a Pencil”:

I am a pencil who has a very
poor life. I am used by
a writer who seems like he
writes a word every minute in his
life. I expected to grow taller
but he peels my skin to only make
my point sharper. He scribbles
dark words with me when he
presses me on the white thing.
I have a friend, pen. He is more
than me. He has a
cap to protect himself. It is
time to get killed. He is coming
to write with me. I know it
I know it. Oh I wish I
was forgotten never been

Julia Tsuchiya-Mayhew takes off from the Kenneth Koch toolkit – she thanks him along with her parents in the book’s dedication – and does some extraordinary things with it. She has just completed the fourth grade.

Whenever I’ve taught college-age students, I’ve argued that one knows already everything one needs to know in order to be a fine writer. But life – and social situations – conspire to gunk up the works with extra layers of Stuff that get in our way the instant we think to call ourselves writers and set pen to paper. Much of the process of actually learning to write is, in fact, the process of unlearning, the process of getting back to that direct efficacy of imagination that any smart ten-year-old ought to be able to tap. I didn’t really get started writing until I was eleven, but I know that the older I get the harder I strive to get to the way the writing process felt to me right there at the very beginning.

Here’s an example of Stuff, of the order that so often gunks up the human imagination:

Poetry is in some ways lordly or aristocratic: It gets bored more easily than prose, it likes to skip steps, and it is very interested in pleasure. The rectangular blocks of print embodying its young, middle-class nephew, the novel, seem too confining for poetry, which prefers speed and glamour.

Yet at the same time it feels at home in the street, the kitchen, the playground and the tavern. It likes a good time, and it sometimes mocks or parodies solemnity.

These sentences come straight from last Sunday’s Washington Post, from Robert Pinsky’s column, “Poet’s Choice.” I know he’s being cute & all, but the very first thing that jumps out at you is that Mayhew takes her audience more seriously than he does. She’s not condescending where he is.

Pinsky is somebody whose writing I like. But casting agency into “Poetry” in this fashion strikes me as far more pernicious than casting it into a pencil. Given a life all its own, the prospective poet’s task is rendered immeasurably more difficult. Mayhew’s reader is definitely “more luckier.”

Here, just to contrast poetry with poetry, is something by Geoffrey Brock, the most recent winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize.


"Well that beats all, doesn’t it?" God said,
gazing across the field at a knot of men
arguing outside the tent. He seemed

tired; evening had fallen and many remained
to be interviewed. "Uh, yessir, it sure does,"
I stammered, handing him my application

and standing by the folding metal chair
that faced his own. "So, Mister . . . Brock—" A cry
cut him off there, and he rose to his feet,

flustered. One man lay prostrate on the ground;
the others darted back inside the tent.
A gust of wind disturbed God’s hair, his robe.

I cringed, expecting thunder. Minutes passed.
"Your application," he resumed, "I thought—
I thought I set it here when I stood up."

But there was nothing within a hundred yards
save us, two chairs, and sun-baked earth. He checked
his pockets—nothing. Then he turned to me,

chagrined but not apologetic, smiled,
and said: "I guess you’ll have to come on back
some other time." I thanked him and set out,

sad but relieved, toward the swaying trees,
now black against the darkening plain of sky.
"Good luck," he called to me. As I glanced back,

I saw a woman emerge from the tent, sidestep
the body, and begin the trudge toward God,
pale application flapping in her hands.

I will admit that I’m being unfair here – there are Brock poems that are actually quite good. But it is hard to envision the world in which this prolix & prosaic parable would ever been anything other than a lame piece puffed out with extra verbiage to get the metrics into their sad little lockstep. He actually has to get God to repeat himself in order to the metrics into line. That is as stunning a confession of formalism’s lack of interest in form itself as one might imagine.

Let’s assume, tho, for the sake of argument at least, that once upon a time Geoffrey Brock might have written as directly & intelligently as Julia Mayhew. Whatever he may accomplish as a poet going forward, he will never be able to get back to that.