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Chard Deniord

Chard Deniord

Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Double Truth (2011) and Night Mowing (2005) both from University of Pittsburgh Press and a book of interviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Jack Gilbert, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin and Robert Bly) titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on Contemporary American Poetry (Marick Press, 2011). His fifth book of poems, Interstate, is scheduled to appear from the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2015. A co-founder of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry, he works as a Professor of English at Providence College and lives in Putney, Vermont.

Resistance And Independence In Contemporary American Poetry

The legacy of resistance inherent in American poetry since Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson reemerges with new force in the second half of the twentieth century. Those poets born primarily in the twenties and thirties maintained and renewed a rebellious eloquence that was as subversive in its form as it was in its content. Like Whitman and Dickinson, many of the major American poets born in the decades between 1915 and 1935 employ a "transpersonal self" that yawps "barbaric" but thrilling renunciations, paeans, confessions, pastorals, and jeremiads.

In their antinomian conceits, Whitman and Dickinson effected a quality of terror Longinus claimed was beauty's essential alloy. Their new forms, though vastly different from each other—Whitman's prosaic "meter-making arguments" in contrast to Dickinson's verbally nuclear lyrics—nonetheless emanated a common duende: what Frederico García Lorca would define several decades later as "dark sounds [that are] the mystery . . . from which we get what is real in art. . . . not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action." These "dark sounds" have inspired at least five generations of American poets since Whitman and Dickinson to undertake wild explorations of unconventional subject matter. Coleridge called these raw, oneiric subjects "fugitive causes," a phrase inspired by his upper school teacher, James Boyer, who instilled in the young poet the muse's mercurial nature. Coleridge learned from Boyer "that poetry, even that of the loftiest and seemingly that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes."

During an interview I conducted with Galway Kinnell in 2009, I made the following observation: "A consistently raw quality runs throughout your work, resounding with primordial energy. It's almost as if you write with dirt in your mouth, figuratively speaking of course." His response confirmed my appreciation for the grounded energy in his work. Laughing, he replied, "That's pretty good." This figurative dirt is not only reminiscent of what John Keats called "the poetry of the Earth" in his poem "The Cricket and the Grasshopper," but the earthy language of those Whitman identified as the "powerful uneducated persons" one should "go freely with." It was precisely this earthy vernacular that Whitman believed renewed language with his definition of "wit": "the rich flashes of humor and genius and poetry—darting out often from a gang of laborers, railroad-men, miners drivers or boatmen!" The "slang" or "earthy chants" that Whitman celebrated so

acquisitively—like no other American poet before or since—enriched his new expansive idiom with what he called "the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry." I think this is precisely the connotative meaning of "dirt" Kinnell responded to with such immediate affirmation in his interview.

Exactly a century after the first publication of Leaves of Grass in 1955, Allen Ginsberg refreshed "the wholesome fermentation" of Whitman's language in his ground-breaking poem, "Howl," a poem that led to the landmark Supreme Court decision, The People of the State of California Vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (the publisher of "Howl") and Ferlinghetti's eventual exoneration from obscenity charges. Ginsberg had upped Whitman's ante from slang to perceived "obscenity" in his attempt to reprise "the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally in active in language" (Whitman). Several bold, innovative books of free verse poetry followed "Howl" in the early sixties: James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break, 1961, Galway Kinnell's What a Kingdom It Was 1960, W.S. Merwin's The Drunk In the Furnace, 1960, Adrienne Rich's Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, 1962, Ruth Stone's In an Iridescent Time, 1960, and Sylvia Plath's Ariel, 1961. Turning away from the academic poetry of the fifties, this generation of contemporary poets following on the heels of the first generation of post modernist poets—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman—reconceived the mystical conceits of Whitman's and Dickinson's respective manifestations of duende with their own iconic tropes: "that sticky infusion, that blood by which I live" (Galway Kinnell, "The Bear"), the "gross, hysterical, nude" disposition of the beat outlier (Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"), "the Wreck" (Adrienne Rich, "Diving Into The Wreck"), "the african in me still trying to get home" (Lucille Clifton, "hag riding" ), and "the oil-stained earth" (Philip Levine, "They Feed They Lion"). Although these poets crafted their own particular styles, they each shared a common spiritual aesthetic in which the unconscious communes with nature, the common-place turns strange, the unsayable echoes in silence, and truth lives in doubleness.

Any number of poems exemplify this new inspiration, but I have chosen two examples, "Mock Orange" by Louise Gluck and "Speculation" by Ruth Stone, that exemplify the resistive, raw muse that inspires duende and fiercely independent spirit.

In "Mock Orange," which first appeared in 1993, Louise Gluck created a paean to the spirit's allergy to sex. Throughout her career, Gluck has written with a bold, counter intuitive voice that has challenged masculine conceits, particularly romantic conceits, with unabashed feminine fury and oracular authority. Gluck decries sincerity as a false poetic criterion. "The advantage of poetry over life," she wrote in her famous essay "Against Sincerity," "is that poetry, if it is sharp enough, may last. We are unnerved I suppose, by the thought that authenticity, in the poem, is not produced by sincerity." Unflagging in her attention to connecting the authentic postmodern agon of her life as a contemporary female poet with archetypes of Greek mythology rather than the scriptural narratives of her Jewish tradition, save the story of Ararat, she has become perhaps the most terrifying and vatic poet of her age.

      Mock Orange

      It is not the moon, I tell you.
      It is these flowers
      lighting the yard.

      I hate them.
      I hate them as I hate sex,
      The man's mouth
      sealing my mouth, the man's
      paralyzing body—

      and the cry that always escapes,
      the low, humiliating
      premise of union—

      In my mind tonight
      I hear the question and pursuing answer
      fused in one sound
      that mounts and mounts and then
      is split into the old selves,
      the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
      we were made fools of.

      And the scent of mock orange
      drifts through the window.

      How can I rest?
      How can I be content
      when there is still
      that odor in the world?

As if with Dickinson's poem "I cannot live with You" (706, Franklin) in mind, Gluck updates Dickinson's anti-antiphonal confession with an unabashed brown study of her own on the after-effects of love-making. By renouncing Christopher Marlowe's idyllic invitation, "Come live with me and be my love," written in 1599, Gluck sounds a sea change in the tradition of the love lyric. Like Dickinson's speaker in "706" and Walter Raleigh's nymph in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," Gluck takes a jaundiced view toward love's pleasures without denying engaging in lovemaking. Dickinson gives several reasons for why she cannot live with her beloved, all of them sadly impracticable for emotional and theological reasons.

      It would be life
      and life is over there
      behind the shelf
      the sexton keeps the key to...

      Because Your Face
      would put out Jesus'-...
      Because You saturated Sight-
      And I had no more Eyes
      For sordid excellence
      As Paradise.

Gluck's allergy to sex is written from the perspective of an angel trapped in human skin, willing to partake while painfully cognizant of the inevitable tedium that follows. Or as Dickinson herself so succinctly described the same human vicissitude: "For each ecstatic moment/ We must an anguish pay/ In keen and quivering ratio/ To the ecstasy."

On the surface, "Mock Orange" iterates both the good and bad news about sex. On further reading, however, Gluck's refreshingly bold rebuttal stands as an overdue feminine objection in the poetic legacy of the prevailing male love call. No slant telling of the truth about the double-edged reality of sex here. Rather, Gluck tells the truth about sex straight out in remarkably economical, exigent language that avoids addressing her speaker's lover in favor of instructing her reader about the psychic whiplash of post-coital tristesse. Gluck takes Dickinson's lovesick response to her shepherd in #706 (Franklin) a step further in "Mock Orange" by ultimately renouncing both her lover and sex. By invoking a Manichean view of lust, Gluck dismisses the sexual act as an inherently flawed "material" ecstasy, "a low, humiliating premise of union" that makes "fools" of sexual partners. How carefully Gluck has chosen the word "premise" here over "promise" as a sonically clever indictment of sex's deception. Premise rather than promise "escapes" as the conceit of the love cry itself. While bitter kiss-off poems are as common as ecstatic love lyrics in the Western Canon, from Thomas Wyatt's "Whoso Lists To Hunt" to Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather," there are only a very few Medusa-like poems by women that turn their readers to stone. This is one of them. Katherine Philips' "Against Love," Emily Dickinson's "I had not minded walls," and Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" are three others that come immediately to mind.

No less than a calling out of lust's bluff, "Mock Orange" depicts sex as an inadequate anodyne for the "old antagonisms" that return with a vengeance when lovers "split into the old selves" following sex. Although profoundly fresh, if sobering, as a contemporary feminine non-response to the age-old male love call, this poem borrows strongly from D.H. Lawrence's extended metaphor about tortoise sex, "Lui Et Elle," written in 1923. By employing a crucifixion trope to highlight the "fragmentariness" that sex begets, Lawrence also indicts sex as a fool-making activity.

      Alas, the spear is through the side of his isolation.
      His adolescence saw him crucified into sex,
      Doomed, in the long crucifixion of desire, to seek is consummation
      beyond himself.
      Divided into passionate duality,
      He, so finished and immune, now broken into desirous fragmentariness,
      Doomed to make an intolerable fool of himself
      In his effort toward completion again.

By impugning the mock orange, the traditional wedding flower, as a trope for sex's trickery, Gluck offers a devastating response to romantic custom. In her own "fugitive cause" she equates the mock orange with the curse of sex, picking up where Sylvia Plath left off in her poem "Tulips," namely, with a similarly defiant feminine voice. Gluck isolates sex from love as a biological act with an odor that mocks the beauty of the very flower from which it emanates, portraying it as false as the poem's eponymous flower. Gluck, like Plath, employs health as a trope for convention that is anything but healthy. By also dismissing the moon as well in the first line of the poem as a possible cause of her lyrical brown study, she makes sure at the start to inoculate her radical complaint from any proverbial male claim of menstrual contrariness.

At the conclusion of her essay "Against Sincerity," Gluck writes that "the true, in poetry, is felt as insight." She then adds that such insight "is very rare, but beside it other poems seem merely intelligent comment." Indeed, "Mock Orange" manifests a deeply felt insight that is instructively offensive to the male tradition of courtly love. As the Lady speaks in this poem with such exquisite lyrical velocity, as if directly from the shadows of Averno (the entrance to the underworld as well as the title of Gluck's fourteenth volume of poetry), the reader hears her "felt" truth that transcends mere "intelligent comment." Gluck has culled this lyric from the centuries-long silence of women's voices as a response to the beautiful but "foolish" calls of so many troubadours. How to reinvent a credible complementary romantic tradition in this century without continuing to sound foolish or oppressive or polarized? This is the implicit question that the speaker's final rhetorical question poses since contentment, at least for men, has historically presupposed romantic inspiration—the call for the unpublished response—as one of its primary emotional staples.

The recalcitrant voice in "Mock Orange" calls for a new male love call that transcends the conventional invitation of Marlowe's passionate shepherd with more psychologically complex poems that address Thanatos as well as Eros and alienation. While today's poets continue to write love poems, relatively few address Gluck's challenge to look beyond the immediate longings of Eros. Now that female American poets have responded for almost a century in strident ways that disappoint Marlowe's shepherd with renunciations, iterations, and confessions, a new more egalitarian style of romantic address and self-overhearing has replaced the traditional apostrophe of "call and response." The popularity of "Mock Orange" betrays strong evidence of this. Its candid, emotionally complex "response" signifies overdue progress in the tradition of the love lyric. As chilled as male readers may feel by its conceit, "Mock Orange" has achieved iconic stature in its very iconoclasm, signaling a new era in which the poet's voice, both male and female on equal terms, resonates beyond the old courtly patterns of call and response with a new "broken music" that is as candid and strange as it is erotically-charged.

The second contemporary poem I'd like to hold up as a stunning example of "fugitive causes" is Ruth Stone's "Speculation." In this overlooked, "buried" poem, Stone employs the ancient conceit of the posthumous elegy, but with the new twist of speaking from the elements of the grave itself.


      In the coolness here I care
      Not for the down-pressed noises overhead,
      I hear in my pearly bone the wear
      Of marble under the rain; nothing is truly dead,
      There is only the wearing away,
      The changing of means. Nor eyes I have
      To tell how in the summer the mourning dove
      Rocks on the hemlock's arm, nor ears to rend
      The sad regretful mind
      With the call of the horned lark.
      I lie so still that the earth around me
      Shakes with the weight of day;
      I do not mind if the vase
      Holds decomposed cut flowers, or if they send
      One of their kind to tidy up. Such play
      I have no memories of,
      Nor of the fire-bush flowers, or the bark
      Of the rough pine where the crows
      With their great haw and flap
      Circle in kinned excitement when a wind blows.
      I am kin with none of these,
      Nor even wed to the yellowing silk that splits;
      My sensitive bones, which dreaded,
      As all the living do, the dead,
      Wait for some unappointed pattern. The wits

     Of countless centuries dry in my skull and overhead
      I do not heed the first rain out of winter,
      Nor do I care what they have planted. At my center
      The bone glistens; of wondrous bones I am made;
      And alone shine in a phosphorous glow,
      So, in this little plot where I am laid.

Stone's haunting phrase, "the changing of means," captures Coleridge's "fugitive cause" as a meditation on the transformative effects of death on her impervious corpse. There is no mention of an afterlife or God, only "the changing of means" which resonates as an organic phenomenon rather than as a miraculous transformation from earthly body to heavenly entity. Stone once commented to me that she was an atheist when I asked her about whether she believed in the prospect of an afterlife. "You get what you get when you get it," she answered, then guffawed in her inimitable way, mixing resignation with humor as she also did so often in her poems, especially those about Walter, her husband. And yet she proclaims in "Speculation," "Nothing is truly dead," defying death on natural instead of religious grounds. Her authority here is striking, re-affirming what Whitman celebrated most eloquently in his poem "This Compost." Like Whitman, Stone gets in her last prescient word before she lies "so still that the earth around me/ Shakes with the weight of day." In the absence of her senses she feels, sees, and hears on a transcendent level that becomes iconic.

                                              Nor eyes I have
      To tell how in the summer the mourning dove
      Rocks on the hemlock's arm, nor ears to rend
      The sad regretful mind
      With the call of the horned lark.

These five lines serve as a lyrical synecdoche for Stone's entire oeuvre. Almost completely blind for the last seven years of her life, Stone's vision only grew sharper and clearer in her poems, seeing through her darkness to the interior landscape of even her grave. Duende emanates from each line of this posthumous epigraph as Stone speaks so ecstatically yet impassively for her corpse with a logic that is simultaneously realistic and sublime.

      I do not heed the first rain out of winter,
      Nor do I care what they have planted. At my center
      The bone glistens; of wondrous bones I am made;
      And alone shine in a phosphorous glow.

She arrives at the fugitive cause of her radiant bones, appearing to contradict the inert nature of the rest of her body. But she is aware of something while still alive, that death can never know, nor take from her, despite its powers of decay, namely, her incandescent, "wondrous bones."

Although not that innovative in form or strategy, "Speculation" represents a lasting example of poetic genius that arrives at shaman-like, mortal discoveries. Stone claimed that she didn't read her contemporaries out of fear of being too influenced by them—an especially legitimate concern since she was blessed with a photographic memory. With her innate gift for language, she conjured new subversive expression for the chthonic afterlife. This expression was borne out of Stone's audacious musing about her inevitable decomposition. Although an atheist, she finds truth in her own hardwon epiphany that "nothing is truly dead," only transformative in its "means." In this one sentence she resists Christianity's doctrine of the afterlife with a poetic expression of the first law of thermodynamics: energy is never destroyed, only moved around. An avid reader of science journals and great admirer in particular of the mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, Stone found mystical inspiration in science. Its laws were fodder for her poetry and hardly a deterrent to her metaphysical claims.

The logic in these two poems by Louise Gluck and Ruth Stone, like the logic in so much of the poetry by those contemporary poets listed above, is "as severe as scientific logic," divining paradoxes that transcend the literal with imaginative leaps into the unknown and hidden realms of nature and human nature. These leaps are their "fugitive causes," their own curious, wild directions, guided by craft, sensibility, and imaginative daring. They exist in a mythic landscape the poet makes real while living in exile in her own backyard, growing raw again, even "cut to the brains" like Lear on the heath, mad for a moment, perhaps, but brought back to sanity by the power of language.


While there exist many contemporary poets whose work I enjoy and admire, I suffer from the impression, whether true or not, that there are more poets today than readers of poetry. Perhaps American poets have always suffered from this illusion since the most passionate readers of poetry in this country are often secret readers. At least five thousand new titles of poetry are published every year in the U.S. How to hear the soul-waking "howl" anymore "in the midst of the crowd"? Maxine Kumin commented during my interview with her in 2010 that "it would all get sorted out in time." While I took solace in her prediction, I'm still not so sure it will. If today's poets are to understand the paradoxical nature of their particular marginalization, it is important to trace the arc of renunciation in American poetry from its provenance in 1855 with the first publication of Leaves of Grass to the present plethora of so much eclectic poetry. Whitman and Dickinson wrote against the conventions of Puritanism and prosody, the modernists against the annihilation and nihilism of the first and second world wars, the contemporary poets (a term I think that should now be enshrined in the past) against patriarchy, the influence of the modernists, the military industrial complex, racism, and the academic poetry of the fifties.

The particular agon of today's poets is overwhelming: a seemingly impossible struggle against the forces of commercialism that have infected the counter tradition of American poetry with corporate takeover and exploitation. The MFA and writing industry in general, while providing valuable apprenticeships for beginning writers, has also created a theory-driven climate that undervalues what Emerson called the innate "genius" of every person in his essay "Self-Reliance." Most of the senior poets I cite above never attended MFA programs. So, how should today's poets resist the corporate leviathan they've helped create? How "to have the wilderness pure" again (Robert Frost) in which resistance, independence, and difficulty run like "the west running brook"?

Each new generation of ground-breaking poets since Whitman and Dickinson have consisted of mostly outliers. The same is true of the fathers and mothers of jazz and rock and roll. A culture existed between 1855 and 1980 that allowed poets to flourish in their resistance to the dehumanizing and artistically desiccating forces of their day. James Wright's Philippic, "Ars Poetica, Some Recent Criticism," echoes today with the same elegiac resonance it did in 1973, "Reader, we had a lovely language./ We would not listen." The "lovely language" of the past can't be repeated, nor should it be, but today's poets "repel the past" (Whitman) at their own expense. By cynically dismissing their forebears' ageless and subversive music, they run the risk that future generations of poets will dismiss them as well. Recognition of the past is essential for preserving the vital tradition of difficulty and resistance in American poetry.

Allen Ginsberg wrote these lines in 1958:

      And all these streets leading
           so crosswise, honking, lengthily,
                            by avenues
           stalked by high buildings or crusted into slums
                            thru such halting traffic
                                           screaming cars and engines
      so painfully to this
           countryside, this graveyard
                      this stillness
                                           on deathbed or mountain
      once seen
                            never regained or desired
                                           in the mind to come
      where all Manhattan that I've seen must disappear.
                                                                    (from "My Sad Self")

Is this the last time a poet called so stridently for the disappearance of the mecca of finance? Ginsberg defined his great ambition as a poet "to pierce the world." Is this still possible? Does contemporary American poetry suffer from too much good writing that's often lost or obscured among the glut of weak writing? Are we drowning in it? No one gets censored anymore for obscenity. But what now? Without national denial in the guise of American innocence and naiveté—a three hundred year old soufflé that fell in the fifties—is there little or no opportunity for a new poet/prophet to compose a redeeming jeremiad or vision that serves as a foil to the real obscenity of national prevarication and lethal domestic and foreign policy? To conjure the new "main things" with a "fresh meter-making argument"? These are obvious but wrong questions. The new soulless obstacle for American poets to write against appears to be their own Trojan horse: po biz with all its competitions, fiefdoms, and programs. How ironic in light of America's recrudescent poetic tradition that today's captains of po biz and business would end up in the same corporate camp.

Such critics as Dana Gioia ("Can Poetry Matter?", The Atlantic, 1991), Mark Edmundson ("Poetry Slam," Harpers, July, 2013), and Joseph Epstein ("Who Killed Poetry?", Commentary, 1988; "The Poetic Justice of April 1" Wall Street Journal, 2013) have published essays over the past twenty-five years which have wrongly focused on what they see as tendentious weak writing. They have not ventured, however, to identify the multitude of today's strong poets. Amy King in her recent essay "Threat Level: Poetry" in , responds wisely to these critics: "These critiques have forgone the complex personhood of poetry, the one that goes on intuition, lives on emotional intellect, and senses the spiritual that even a few lines of Whitman or Dickinson evoke." King goes on to observe that "the writers of poetry's obituaries [align] themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default: it is more beneficial to divide and conquer or imperialistically claim, in sound-byte fashion, than to identify and envision beyond perceived limitations or some institutionalized formulaic trend."

What then specifically steers many American poets today away from writing more boldly about those "fugitive causes" that precipitate visions "beyond perceived limitations"? What tendentiousness specifically continues to incite conservative critics to sound the death knell of poetry in America? And where are the raw, erudite, rejoinders to these critics from today's poets that resonate with both the learning and innovation that James Wright's "Ars Poetica, Some Recent Criticism" did in 1973? It's easy to accuse conservative critics of indulging in a treacherous nostalgia for the golden period of modernism, for that is what they are largely doing. But despite the strong poetry emerging today throughout the country, the forces of po biz continue to homogenize, commodify, institutionalize, professionalize, dehistoricize, and theorize poetry into a literary industry of low expectations in which fewer and fewer poets entertain high ambition, an observation Donald Hall made as far back as 1988 in his famous essay "Poetry and Ambition."

How many poet / teachers are emphasizing the redemptive efficacy of the poet's paradoxical task of stripping herself of knowing, while simultaneously resisting repelling the past? How many MFA "mentors" are encouraging their apprentices to attain the shamanistic wisdom of the "gross, mystical" and "nude" seer, or to risk placing their full intellectual weight on the "plank of rason" to break it purposefully, then fall through "worlds" until they've "Finished knowing—then"? Ginsberg refers to Whitman as his "courage teacher" in his poem "A Supermarket in California." For poets to escape po biz's "perfumed rooms" they must trust in Ginsberg's same courage teacher enough to suffer anonymity and even ignominy for their daring, just as Whitman and Dickinson did, just as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly did, just as James Wright and Sylvia Plath did, just as Lucille Clifton and Etheridge Knight did, just as Adrienne Rich and Ruth Stone did. In this regard, they must become prophets as well as poets in identifying the illusory "gift" in their midst as a wooden subterfuge, and then write against it in a strange, new way that is also immediately familiar.


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