Rob Neufeld

The Best American Poetry Gets More Ithidrial by the Hour

A Review of Jonathan Williams’ Jubilant Thicket
and Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins

Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems by Jonathan Williams,
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 2005, 314
pages, ISBN: 1-55659-202-7, $20.00 paper

The Best American Poetry 2004 edited by Lyn Hejinian, Scribner
Poetry, New York, 2004, 288 pages, ISBN: 0-7432-5757-X,
$16.00, paper

The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000–2004 by Adrienne Rich,
W.W. Norton, New York, 2004, 114 pages, ISBN 0-393-05983-9,
$22.95, cloth

Here’s my problem. I’ve got Lyn Hejinian’s volume, The Best
American Poetry 2004, on my night table alongside a compendium
of witty quotations. The quotations are more entertaining and edifying
than the poems.

“It’s just epigrams,” one might say about the packet of witticisms.
In defense of such, I refer you to a handsome new production by
Copper Canyon Press—Jonathan Williams’ Jubilant Thicket: New
& Selected Poems. Williams is a connoisseur of epigrams. He can
discern bon mots in roadside posters.

He also does sacred things with other profane forms. For instance,
he frames a baseball broadcast as an epic moment. And a hitchhiker’s
conversation becomes yawp for the ages.

             o the Smokies are ok for me but me
             I go for Theosophy…

             I reckon I get more i-thidrial
             by the hour

Jubilant Thicket produces masterful poems that advance literature;
and unlooses toss-offs that wriggle on the ground. Sometimes you
feel that the naughty stuff is mainly a shake-up call to word priests
who have yet to take their heads out of their mouths. At other times,
you think it’s a reaction to Puritanism—like the Tibetan monk who
poured more tea than a full-of-himself guest’s cup could hold.

My one reservation about Jubilant Thicket may be attributable to
the editor, who overfills parts of his Williams compendium with
too many cup-overfloweth koans.

             hegel once said the
             owl of Minerva flies
             at dusk i think
             i can top that
             the bowel of Minerva
             moves at dusk so
             what do you think

You see, here, above, is one of Williams’ flourishes sitting on a
page separated by my expository prose, and it is refreshing.
Though Hegel had something important to say—wisdom comes in
reflection, not during the time of activity—Williams has something
important to say, too, namely, it’s not all philosophy, bub. That
Williams’ wisdom crystallizes in a pun is yet one more challenge to
the i-thidrial orthodoxy.

But you don’t want a pile of these things. Put four on a page and
you begin to consume them like joke-candy. I think some of the
inclusions could have been weeded out to give the remaining more
room. This is especially true in the clerihew and limerick sections.

             Hank D. Thoreau
             too seldom used eau

             de cologne,
             and was asked to live at Walden on his own.

The jokiness of the Thoreau poem makes the Hegel one seem less
resounding. You get the same sort of effect in a book of e.e.
cummings or Ogden Nash poems. A piece of immortal Nash verse,
when packed into a super-size offering, begins to sound like Edgar
Guest. It is not easy writing good “light verse.” Take Calvin Trillin
in The Nation. As well-crafted and serious of theme his verse is, it
rarely rings the bell.

Williams’ light verse, ejaculations, jokes, and haikus are a form of
lyricism. A bird chirps; people clap. However, poets must avoid the
clap trap, into which I have probably just fallen. So let me say this.
Academic notions aside, Williams’ oeuvre—the short pieces and
the more ambitious ones—is helping us Americans find our voice.

Since the days of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams,
American poetry has become more aesthetic. One wants to feel like
Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaiming about the work of Walt
Whitman—someone’s finally doing it! When will someone do it—
cultivate the traditions, return us to the power of primitive ritual,
and be as modern as our times demand?

No wonder Williams looks everywhere for it. “I’m 50 years old/
not counting/ the 34 years/ I went barefoot,” a guy named Carl
says, and Williams memorializes it as a poem.

“Wahuhu wahuhu wahuhu wahuhu wahuhu wahuhu w/ uku
uguko…” (Williams records the sounds of a screech owl, a hoot owl,
and then twelve other animals on a summer’s night in Cherokee.)

Hejinian writes in the introduction to her anthology that the poems
in the volume are informed by “strong emotion” and that “they
make sense in a year that one can scarcely make sense of.” She
seems to answer the call. Let’s take a look at some of the entries,
starting somewhere in the middle.

To keep things snappy, let’s play the gong show. It’s a good way to
rivet one’s attention.

First, Heidi Peppermint’s “Real Toads.”

             He got up to play in the partable

Gong! “Partable” turns out to be not a clever Scrabble word, but an
adjective modifying the “terrible vision” that follows in the next line
after a double-space. Surprising line breaks are fun, but this one
doesn’t yield much except a concept too metaphysical for openers.

Next, Bob Perelman’s “Here 2.”

             Fact: the cordially hated present
             finally emerged from its dressing gown for good
             the morning Proust dipped his Krispy Kreme into Kafka’s coffee

Gong! “Fact:” is nice, modern journalism-speak, though overused.
I’m still with ya, Bob. “The cordially hated present” is a little too
sinewy a phrase, but it might open up. “Finally emerged from its
dressing gown for good” is too plodding. Check out Archibald
MacLeish for better phrasing. Still, a salacious or comic scene is
developing. “The morning Proust dipped his Krispy Kreme…” indicates
that Perelman is appealing primarily to kids in the Ratskellar.

Next!—“Pleasure” by Carl Phillips.

             This far in—
             where to say the sea
             and mean impossible
             makes sense,
             why not—you can
             almost forget

Sorry—gong! I like this form—someone whispering short phrases
into your ear, breaking the lines in odd places. It’s one of the voices
that modern poets continue to explore in the wake of Robert
Creeley and A.R. Ammons.

“This far in —” is an excellent start, full of ambiguity and promise,
springing suggestively from the title. Then things tangle—contorted
syntax, abstract intellectualism, lost audience.

Where are we…?

Isn’t “Jubilant Thicket” a great title, folks? It perfectly encapsulates
Williams’ stance; and it sounds just like its meaning. It makes you
think: marketing people—those who concoct product titles—
spend as much time on their word choices as do serious poets.

To find our true voices, and have them sound like music, we need
to have an ear for what feels authentic and incorporate it in our
epics and songs. Williams has a number of ways of achieving this
end. For instance, there’s the mountaineer voice:

             now boys that just naturally
             grinds and polishes
             the soul

Also, there’s reportage; marketing; haiku; Scripture; and the oracular
style of Pound and Charles Olson. Delighting in formerly popular
styles—such as Beat and Metaphysical—Williams sometimes
plays with a postmodern mix:

             twere I more the painter
             twould be cool to register

             the fields of asters,
             joe-pye, ironweeds, and shastas

        than hotrod thru the goldenrod, faster,
        into nearby Georgia for ice-cold buds

Missing from Williams’ range is the political poem. Are Americans
not speaking this language for the poet to hear? If they are speaking
it, is it non-musical and insincere?

“what do you do/ anything for?//you do it/ for what the mediaevals
would call/ something like/ the Glory of God,” Williams writes in
the last poem in Jubilant Thicket. “doing it for money, that doesn’t
do it,” he states—nor for vanity nor to justify a disorderly life. He
points to Briggflatts as a model, the glory of putting a stone next to
a stone or a word next to a word.

Briggflatts is a 17th century Quaker meetinghouse in Yorkshire. It
is also the name of a long poem by one of Williams’ favorites, Basil
Bunting. Williams is, apparently, a monastic!

Williams’ monastic sense of delight accounts for his disinterest in
the political poem. To look at how American poets are presenting
America’s political voice, one might turn to Adrienne Rich’s new
volume, The School Among the Ruins.

Rich, who can report sensuous impressions of mythical worlds, interject
her well-traveled experience, and compose lists of metaphors that
Bob Dylan should envy, falters on the political pulpit. In her second
section, “Usonian Journals 2000,” she spools out prose.

The title poem is the best, conveying a few moments in the life of
an elementary school class in Iraq. The children, boarded up in the
school during a bombardment, ask their teacher questions. She

        One: I don’t know where your mother
        is   Two: I don’t know
        why they are trying to hurt us
        Three: or the latitude and longitude
        of their hatred…

The voice is very good, intimate—one we know. It allows Rich to
let her speaker get away with the phrase, “latitude and longitude of
their hatred,” which is no folk person’s lingo—though it may be
the way an Iraqi talks in translation.

Later, the teacher fixes on a feral cat at her window, and makes it a
symbol to help the children. “Don’t let your faces turn to stone,”
she says. “Don’t stop asking me why/ Let’s pay attention to our cat
she needs us.”

Most of the time, however, Rich is not in the thick of things.
Regretfully, she senses the signs of ruins from the outside, and even
comes to question her abandonment of the simple pleasures that
are hers. Williams’ is an American voice because he is so blissful.
His “Paean to Dvorák, Deemer & McClure” is an apotheosis of
joyful sound to celebrate the composer who “studied/ with the
birds, flowers, trees, God, and/ himself.”

        VHOOR ZHOCK!
        VHOOR ZHOCK!
        VHOOR ZHOCK!

Man, do I get a kick hearing Williams chant Dvorák’s name as at a
football stadium. For four-and-a-half pages, Williams maintains his
tone, the closest thing to birdsong you’ll read in the expression of
human intellect.

        Delius tells us, Blake tells us, the lake, the
        catbird, the oak gall, the aspen, the plantain, the weed,
        seed, jugs, clouds, fires,
        thrones, thorns, mires, snakes
        tell us:
        We are the Ruination
        & the Light!

Finally, the poet asks a wood thrush to bless us, and it sings
“philos!” and