I asked a number of young poets to speak to Carl Phillips’s influence on their work and selves. This is the concluding part of the two-part series.
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Carl Phillips is the poet who taught me how to break the rules about beauty.
At twenty-three, during the second year of my MFA program, I was becoming more and more suspicious of beauty—or representations of beauty—in poetry. At best, much of the “beauty” presented in poetry seemed pointless and artificial, but at worst, it seemed irresponsible, in that it seemed bloodless. It seemed a tool of hegemony, an abstract luxury that such a violent and difficult world could not afford (and so, in that sense, a threat to the relevance of poetry itself). Poems must be raw, I thought, and rawness is ugly, arising as it does from a festering wound. But later that year, I read two sentences in Coin of the Realm that irreversibly altered my thinking:
The point about beauty is to see it. The point of the poem is not to say anything about beauty, but to enact the vision of it.
Rawness is visceral, and beauty, in lesser hands, is often a distraction. But Carl Phillips taught me that a vision of beauty need not be hollow and untethered, that beauty can arise in the raw and carnal, and that a poem, when sliced open by the reader, can be beautiful to the bone. If the human in the twenty-first century is a nanomachine, if we live in a digital thought-cloud, if the wildflowers in “Cortège” are unusually wild because wildness on Earth is a rarity nearing extinction, then the poem should be allowed—no, encouraged—to reclaim the messy flesh of the human body, in all its viscera and sweat and sex. To regard the human body in such poems as a source of beauty—despite the violences in which it participates, or the violences it suffers—is not only a meaningful act, but also, perhaps, a necessary one.
Is it okay to be human. Yes.
Among other lessons, Carl Phillips has taught me that beauty can be complex. His poetry often arrives like the dream one speaker in “Cortège” envisions: a swan, a wing folding slowly across the page, which, when regarded more closely, is mutilated.
A recipient of awards from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sara Eliza Johnson is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Utah.
It took me years to understand Carl’s work. I was not used to the dramatic syntax that, in a way, was a script with its own stage commands, breath pauses, sudden negotiations between emotions and knowing-unknowing. With all of the prosodic mastery it was his vulnerability that taught me the most. What Carl is willing to say is just as poignant as what he is unable to say, and it is the silence, the doubt, the weaving in and out of understanding what makes us tick as human beings that has influenced me the most. Carl has always written the poems he’s had to write without worrying about who is reading and what is expected of him. It is that audacity to create what he must, how he must, that has taught me how to believe in my own voice, needs, and interests without hubris and always with the intent of taking risks.
Phillip B. Williams is a MFA candidate in Writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
“To take everything back, reverse the limbs turned out/outrageous, the breath foundering,” begins Carl Phillips’s “Perfection.” The first time I read that, I was 18 and confused as hell about everything. “O never to get, nor have//got there,” mourns the penultimate stanza, which is an apt summary not just of how I felt then, but of the distance I still try to navigate between my many selves and their myriad desires and ambitions.
I just looked up the definition for “perfection,” whose meaning Carl’s poem makes me wonder if I take for granted as it is both a definition and a lens through which to view the possibility of choice. It’s defined as “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from flaws or defects.” I am awed by this notion of the condition of freedom, and by the ways Carl’s poem highlights that the pursuit of perfection is not necessarily to live up to expectation, but the freedom to pursue the possibilities of the self.
It is in this way that Carl Phillips is one of our most powerfully visionary poets. To remind us that it is not necessarily important to get nor have gotten, but to “thirst gothically, to want—“ as he writes in the final stanza, “like a spire: no discernible object but more sky.” I am grateful, as ever, to Carl for all of his beautiful, shattering poems, and for reminding me again and again that it is perfection enough to want more sky.
Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (SIU Press, 2014), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in New England Review, Ploughshares, Washington Square, Poet Lore, and elsewhere.
When I first read Carl’s work, I had what Will Self describes as “an epiphanic moment of empathy.” He is the only poet whose work has evoked the same emotions in me as music does. On a personal level, as I have said before, Carl’s poetry goes beyond mere interest! His work is invaluable for the intellectual and spiritual metamorphosis I experience every time I read it—the culmination of a millennia-long erotic, syntactical and imaginative project that is a legacy of homosexuality. He is a generous poet and friend, without being charitable, and it is his poetry that I want to be reading at the end.
Dante Micheaux’s debut collection, AMOROUS SHEPHERD, was published in 2010 by Sheep Meadow Press.