Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in the Fall of 2008; Carl Phillips is the current judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
Ten years ago, Yale University Press prepared an anthology of poems selected from its Yale Series of Younger Poets, a prize that leads to the publication of a first book by an American poet under forty. In its early incarnation, during the years following the First World War, the Yale Series published a number of rather dull volumes of neoclassical poems espousing the virtues of patriotism. Its editors, all of whom worked at the press, ignored the more interesting and destabilizing work being done by American modernists at home and abroad. After some ups and downs, and the decision to invite well-known poets to select the prize winners, the series achieved true renown in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the Yale prize was given to, among others, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, Jean Valentine, and James Tate. (Its new relevance could in part be attributed to W. H. Auden, who, when displeased with the finalists, would cast about for a more interesting manuscript.) By the late 1990s, however, the series was hardly at its apogee. Its most recent editor, James Dickey, had grown ill, and was unable to devote his full attention to the duties of selection and editing; two of the books he chose were published after he died.
More than that, the aesthetic balkanization of the poetry world had led to a kind of tentativeness in the editorial stance of many of its editors. The selections lacked coherence, ranging from the unsentimental naturalism of Talvikki Ansel’s My Shining Archipelago to the urbane, Europe-infused lyrics of Ellen Hinsey’s Cities of Memory. The editors now changed every four years, meaning that the structure itself was ill-suited to the establishment of a notable editorial vision. By 1997, the series seemed to have diminished in stature, even when it published interesting books.
Over the last five years, this has changed, largely due to the work of a new judge, Louise Glück, who has held the series’ reins since 2003. The revival of the series is epitomized by (and perhaps due to) Glück’s active editing of the prize: where some of her predecessors were reluctant to read manuscripts, she embraces the task avidly. In his first year as editor, Archibald MacLeish, for example, grudgingly read 12 manuscripts, selected by readers at the press, only to complain about the “millions of pages” he had been asked to read. Glück, by contrast, reads about one hundred manuscripts per year. She also has requested that the manuscripts arrive without name, publications page, acknowledgment, or the evaluative notes from the press’s screeners, so that she is not unduly influenced by others’ opinions. More notably, she encourages close contenders to work on their manuscripts and re-submit them. In some cases, she will meet with those writers and explain her hesitations, going closely through a manuscript to tighten it up. (This practice originally concerned John Kulka, the Yale editor who oversaw the series, according to Glück. But, as she says, the Yale Prize is designed to cultivate young writers, and she does not guarantee that anyone she has worked with will win the prize.) One thing that unifies the books is how much thought has gone into the selection and the order of the poems, as well as the use of sections to create mini-narratives or tensions within the larger work.
Of course, none of this would matter if Glück weren’t choosing remarkable books in the first place. Each of Glück’s selections so far—Peter Streckfus’ The Cuckoo, Richard Siken’s Crush, Jay Hopler’s Green Squall, Jessica Fisher’s Frail-Craft—is impressive in its own way. (The latest selection in the series is Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic, forthcoming this spring.) The collections are not of a piece: their formal strategies, thematic preoccupations, and tonal range vary dramatically. But they are unified by an engagement with what Frank Bidart has called “the radical given”: each writer speaks with a profound sense that a stance of enigmatic remove is not sufficient. For the most part, they resist the de facto armored irony typical in poems of younger poets today, a limited style that Glück tartly diagnoses in her introduction to Green Squall:
Irony has become less part of a whole tonal range than a scrupulous inhibiting armor, the disguise by which one modern soul recognizes another. In contemporary practice, it is characterized by acute self-consciousness without analytic detachment, a frozen position as opposed to a means of inquiry. Essential, at every moment, to signal that one knows one is not the first to think or feel what one thinks or feels. This stance is absolutely at odds with the actual sensations of feeling, certainly, as well with the sensations of making—the sense, immediate and absolute, of unprecedented being, the exalted intensification of that fundamental isolation which marks all things mortal.
Instead, the books have what Glück calls in her introduction to Frail-Craft a “quality of persistent strangeness,” which derives in part from their accepting certain contemporary conventions while strenuously resisting others, as the poets seek to redefine the relationship between contingent human speech and the hard realities of the insensate world around them. The result is idiosyncratic, off-kilter, often or occasionally brilliant. That is not to over-hype the books: each writer has his or her weaknesses, his or her lesser poems. But none is working complacently within poetic convention. At the same time, what Glück says about Jessica Fisher could apply to all of them: “experiment never deteriorates into complacency.”
Certainly, Peter Streckfus’ The Cuckoo looks nothing like most first books of poetry. The Cuckoo constellates itself around questions of travel, or, more specifically, of journey. The cuckoo’s journey, of course, is a non-teleological one; it has nonsense as its goal. Streckfus employs a poetics of nonsense as a way of mining fresh perceptions from unexpected juxtaposition, and, perhaps, as a way of exploring the problem of human self-consciousness. Generally, the tone is playful yet ascetic, steeped in the stringency of the Zen koan: “I’ll speak nonsense. You speak truth. We’ll see what comes of it,” the poet writes in “After Words.” The cuckoo is a descendant of Keats’ nightingale: a bird that sang in dim ease, not knowing anything about time. In contemplating the bird, the poet understands his dilemma anew: access to language makes our songs less song-like, more abstracted, referential. The book’s first poem, “The English”—meant to evoke not only the inhabitants of that British Isle, but the language itself—establishes the poet’s preoccupation with this dilemma. It takes the form of a dialogue:
Crusoe: A bee.
C: Aye, a bee.
F: Cee Dee.
The poem stages several transformations neatly: the move from nature to civilization; the move from sound to sense; the perennial reminder—in the form of poetry—that the more one longs to access a nature beyond self-consciousness, the more one is cut off from it.
The Cuckoo‘s peregrinations comprise many perverse songs, as one would expect. Over the course of the book we are taken on a seventh century Buddhist monk’s journey from China to India, immersed in Francis Parkman’s descriptions of nineteenth century life on the Oregon Trail, and thrown back to Ronald Reagan’s boyhood. Deploying a wide variety of forms—from prose poems to couplets to loose hexameters—Streckfus explores violence from a holy fool’s perspective, and by juxtaposing the cultural modes of East and West. His speakers wish to be birds (“The Bird”) or to live fully in the moment (“Memories are Nothing, Today is Important”). Like the cuckoo, many of the longer poems here borrow from existing sources (“At Eagle Grief.”, “The Organum,” “Journey to the West”) for their language, but some of the finest poems are hermetic lyrics in which the speakers’ desires remain fuzzy, nearly recalcitrant, like the half-transmitted instruction of someone raised in a world alien to us.
The Fool, of course, is less self-conscious than the rest of us: he resides outside the usual perimeters of accepted behaviors. Knowing less about how the world is supposed to be than we do, he can therefore see more about how it is. One of the strongest sections of the book is the concluding section of “Event,” in which a lichee tree witnesses a concubine beaten to death, and mistakes this violence for normal human generation:
Because I’d seen them so often come here
to the most remote part of the garden and rub the centers
of their bodies together beneath their changing petals,
I considered them part of my own. And they considered me the same
coming to me as they did on this day.
They took one of my fruit and gave it to her, and then taking my
branch and stripping it of all its leaves,
and stripping her garments, they beat her with my branch,
the white flesh of my fruit running through her fisted hand until it
held only my seed.
I saw her stiffen, from blossom to dead
and pregnant fruit, the white flesh almost beaten away, her
body rolled to a ball.
I saw a kind of shell within her open, its contents taken by the wind.
Ah, so this is how they are borne.
Streckfus’ poems are peculiar enough to resist swift summary, but one key element of his work concerns its insistence on deconstructing narratives, commenting on the artificiality of making even as the poet continues to make: “I know nothing / of goats. I apologize beforehand that they become tangled in / my story. The billy will wish it’d never had horns, / its whole life spent / licking its own penis and scratching those castles on its head / as if they were boils that needed lancing.” The poems possess a kind of innocent vulgarity, as if they were spoken by the son of Pan, rather than the son of Man. The result expands the post-Romantic poem’s relation to its own tradition, allowing Streckfus the illusion of pitting “inhuman” curiosity against human longing.
Where The Cuckoo aims for Buddhist equanimity, Glück’s second selection, Richard Siken’s Crush, has all the urgent desperation of a junkie in need of a fix. It is characterized formally by its long lines, its reliance on anaphora, and its use of fractured syntax, all of which evoke excess, trauma, a speaker in thrall to (or forced to submit to) his own need. One of the finest poems in the collection, “Scheherazade,” opens the book and set the stage for these concerns:
Tell me about the dream were we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget they are horses.
It’s not like a tree whose roots have to end somewhere,
it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple to slice into
Crush is divided in three sections, in which a crisis of desire is laid out, examined, swerved away from—the middle section deals with childhood and adolescence—and finally left behind, without being fully resolved. In treating romantic and sexual desire and its perilous consequences —death, pain, violence, broken hearts—the poems risk melodrama but rarely indulge in it. The book is restrained by a hard-won shell of control, one that derives from Siken’s self-aware interrogation of his own impulse to tell these stories, and his skilled use of cadence and structure. Consider how the second poem, “Dirty Valentine,” countermands the needy insistence of “Scheherazade,” undercutting the apparent rawness of the voice: “There are so many things I’m not allowed to tell you,” it opens, “I touch myself, I dream. / Wearing your clothes or standing in the shower.”
The poems in Crush rely heavily on cinematic tropes and methods—jump cuts, panning shots, vignettes. In “Dirty Valentine,” the poet construes a love affair as a movie, campy yet sincere:
We’re filming the movie called Planet of Love—
there’s sex of course, and ballroom dancing,
fancy clothes and waterlilies in the pod, and half the night you’re
a dependable chap, mounting the stairs in lamplight to the bath, but then
the too white teeth all night,
all over the American Sky, too much to bear . . .
If Streckfus’ speakers are passionate in their efforts not to be human, Siken’s seem all too perilously human. Self-awareness is ratcheted up to an excruciating level, culminating in its most extreme form in a fascination with violence, a fetishistic death wish (“damn if there isn’t anything sexier / than a slender boy with a handgun, / a fast car, a bottle of pills”). Yet Siken’s speakers have an ambivalent, clear-eyed relationship to their own status as humans, doomed to an incomplete self-consciousness. Actors in a larger story than themselves, they are less concerned with the individual’s post-Romantic longing than with the form longing takes in all of us.
Hence the insistent use of the second person “you” as an address to the lover, which draws the reader into the poem, implicating her in this drama of violence, power, and desire: “I take off my hands and I give them to you but you don’t / want them, so I take them back . . .” Many of the poems in Crush rely on an “I do this, you do that” syntax, exchanging intimacies and refusals of intimacy until clarity arrives, often in the form of a skeptical cynicism (“Someone once told me that explaining is an admission of failure. / I’m sure you remember, I was on the phone with you, sweetheart.”) The circularity of this approach could be stifling, but in the strongest poems it conveys erotic cruelty and the impossibility of satisfying desire. Satisfying desire would extinguish it, and if there is anything the desirer wants more than the object of his desire, it is to sustain his need for the love object.
Siken evokes conventional male tropes of violence and cruelty and ties them to a homosexual coming-of-age narrative, in which an adolescent boy cannot make his desire known to its object for fear of being beat up, shunned, or worse. The speaker is thus doubly aware of the violence of desire, experiencing both the vulturous hunger of Eros and the cooler knowledge that this appetite is verboten; to reveal it could expose him to a complicated shame were he to be rejected for his very sexuality.
As stylistically and tonally different as The Cuckoo and Crush are, both books foreground the impulse to storytell so that they may ruthlessly interrogate it. These self-aware speakers cannot merely inhabit their own story of loss, love, and transcendence, even though, as “Scheherazade” suggests, they sense that stories can save or kill. The end of “Dirty Valentine” reads “We know how the light works, / we know where the sound is coming from. / Verse. Chorus. Verse. / I’m sorry. We know how it works. The world is no longer mysterious.” Such knowingness can seem too easily jaded. But Siken establishes a profound tension between the assertion of jadedness and the mystery enacted on the page: the mystery that knowing doesn’t stop us from feeling.
Jay Hopler’s Green Squall is the atmospheric Floridian Odyssey of a “mad scientist” (Glück’s term) where Siken’s Crush is a post-modern film-noir. By turns naïve and knowing, crude and cunning, Green Squall participates in a variety of traditions that at first seem utterly distinct from one another. The profundity of the best poems derives from the sense of a solitary being, not quite classifiable—an adult son still living with his mother—observing the world around him more closely than it deigns to observe him. This imbalance allows the poet permission—permission to be unfashionable, sui generis, distinct, almost ahistorical (not quite). Thus, “In the Garden,” the first poem:
And the sky!
Nooned with the steadfast blue enthusiasm
Of an empty nursery.
Crooked lizards grassed in yellow shade.
The grass was lizarding.
Green and on a rampage.
Shade tenacious in the crook of a bent stem.
Noon. This noon—
Skyed, blue and full of hum, full of bloom.
The grass was lizarding.
Nature is not entirely benign, in Hopler’s version of it, nor do parents take care of their young as they are expected to. There is the peculiarity of the “blue enthusiasm / Of an empty nursery.” There are the lizards doing their business, intangibly connected to the grass in which they move. There is the grass itself “lizarding.” There is a failure of boundaries, of the ability to make distinctions—a problem that troubles all these poets, in fact. Language is simultaneously impoverished and enriched by its contact with nature, which is alien to the human mind, beyond language, alive with a kind of totemic power that tantalizes and scares the speaker/perceiver of these poem-scenes.
In this tropical menagerie, the speakers find themselves oversexed yet asexual, uncertain of their relationship to nature. Are they natural? Or fantastical? It becomes difficult to tell which is which when one inhabits a landscape of such wild vitality. It also becomes difficult to tell when one is alone as much as Hopler’s speaker is; nearly the only other human figure to cast a shadow on this landscape is his mother. Hopler’s Green Squall is infused with the landscape of Florida and inflected by Wallace Stevens’ vivid descriptive language; Hopler’s voice, though, is far more playful and self-abasing. It is not as invested in language as an ornamental addition to reality, a self-conscious affirmation of the poet’s role as maker of things, i.e, poems. Hopler doesn’t want to fashion artifacts so much as register the atmosphere in which artifacts are made. We do not get from him the poem that would take the place of a mountain. Rather, we get expressions of what Glück terms “entropy” explored as a preoccupation with fading fertility.
Like The Cuckoo, Hopler’s Green Squall can profitably be read in relation to Keats and his nightingale. Where Keats’ speaker was at pains to say he did not envy the nightingale his song, Hopler’s speaker is full of envy, and for the strangest things:
There is a hole in the garden. It is empty. I envy it.
Emptiness: the only freedom there is
In a fallen world.
Father sunflower, forgive me—. I have been so preoccupied
with my backaches and my headaches,
With my sore back and my headaches and my beat-skipping
I have ignored the subtle huzzah of the date palms and
daisies, of the blue daze and the date palms—
Or don’t forgive me, what do I
I am tired of asking for forgiveness; I am tired of being
frightened all the time.
I want to run down the street with a vicious erection,
Impaling everything, screaming obscenities
And flapping my arms; fuck the date palms,
Fuck the daisies—
In another poem, Hopler’s speaker tells us he cannot conceive of a more genuine happiness than solitude, a vantage point consistent with his speaker’s attempts to achieve a state of pure being, a total sensory deprivation; he wants the emptiness of being without self, of being a hole, if not a bird. The closest state we have to that is solitude, in which we can experience sensations without naming them, as if we were Adam in the garden, knowing nothing of apples. The only other human figure we meet is the speaker’s mother, who both oppresses and enables the poet. She appears most often as the recipient of lament (“What have I done, Mother, / That I should spend my life / Alone?”), functioning like a human replacement for God, underscoring the absence of the divine in Hopler’s robust tragicomic vision.
Jessica Fisher’s Frail-Craft is perhaps the most reticent of the four books discussed here. Like the earlier prize-winners, it handles narrative cautiously, as something to be alluded to but never relied upon or explicated. Divided into four sections, the book explores the intersection between memory, sensory perceptions, “reality,” and language. What distinguishes the poems is the way that time ravels and unravels, as it might in a dream; indeed, many of these poems concern dreams, dreams that persist, as one speaker puts it, beyond waking. Fisher is interested in trying to convey, as Glück puts it, “emotional power without insisting on correlation between emotional event and insight.” Her poems question our habits of thinking about the relationship between what the eye sees and what it understands.
The first poem in the book, “Journey,” reflects Fisher’s intelligent practice of appearing to establish a linear narrative that quickly reveals itself as multivalent, nonlinear, incapable of distinguishing between “then” and “now,” a kind of linguistic Mobius strip:
Because the valley spreads wide, ridged with the signs
we read; or because what we needed was always at hand—
reach down and there was a book, there a slipper, there a glass
of ice cold water. Hopefully we walked
the paths laid before us, there was a burr-brush,
there a blue jay, quail and other creatures, too many
to follow. Where did they go once we lost their lead?
Which is to say, where did we not go? Quick, quick,
they called to us, but we heard only the sound
of our boots on dried leaves, and were mesmerized;
we spoke to one another of things in the path,
we chucked to our horses, when we had them . . .
Time here is cyclical, experienced by the speaker in a manner she cannot relate in a direct fashion; she chooses, instead, to move in and out of events as they unfold, to express sensation, to organize her observations around rhythms rather than plot, as Virginia Woolf (whom Fisher refers to elsewhere) once put it. Where these travelers are, and when, becomes increasingly hard to determine, even though the title suggests a teleological account. Instead, these travelers leave the forest and sleep only to find themselves back in the forest, somehow, somewhen:
. . . We tried to climb to a loft in the branches,
being wary of night’s prowlers, but the trunk tore our hands
and we bedded down in a hollow, the horses’ quiet whinny
our lullaby. And what do you think we dreamt, there in
the forest with no voice left to call with? We dreamt
of the spread palm of the valley, of the path that led
from ridge to ridge, past elation, and then into the forest.
A large portion of Frail-Craft—the title derives from a phrase Jacques Lacan once used—is devoted to prose poems. Fisher is drawn to vignette and ellipsis, and in the hazy background of these poems lurk shades of violence, abuse, the death of a child (perhaps a brother), the loss of a lover. The themes, are large; the manner contained and pointedly imprecise.
Like Streckfus’s, these speakers distrust the rigid logic of sense. So they repeatedly dredge their dream life for clues that might help them apprehend their experience more clearly. Yet they are also suspicious, like many a modern speaker, of the notion of an “inner life” that might be tangibly rendered. In one of the book’s strongest pieces, the prose poem “Novella,” Fisher writes: “Nowhere could I find the story that I craved, that would describe nothing in great detail . . . I began to think of the incredible boredom of reading.” There is a slight feyness to the tone here, the sound of a voice trying out a proposition: having learned about the world by reading, it is only now, it would seem, coming to suspect that there are things in the world it cannot read about, for they have not been written. But the feyness is justified by the context of the poem; it is not attitudinal affect, but the identifiable position of a speaker in the throes of dilemma. (“Novella,” as Glück notes in her introduction, demands being read in full, rather than in quotation.)
Like her fellow prize-winners, Fisher regards language as an imperfect medium, anything but transparent: “Although here and now is the medium you move through, there and then is the time of your verbs, every one of them conjugated, forgetful of the infinite which was their tense when they began and which they yearn for.” If we have become habituated to interrogating language, searching out its contingent relationship to what words denote, then Frail-Craft suggests we have not fully considered how what we see is merely an interpretation of an unknowable reality we create: “The eye is a roving light, it wants what it sees, and is what it wants.” Rather than assume her own detachment from the world, Fisher tries to inhabit this idea. She dramatizes the way her speakers come within grasp of narrative only to slide into a new dream, a new misconception. It is the ruthlessness with which these speakers report on these misconceptions, these purposeless but entrapping dreams, that elevates their reports to literature.
Clearly, the books Glück has chosen so far are as different as they are similar. But each one engages the post-Romantic, post-Modern problem of how to deal freshly with the burden of human subjectivity. Considered together, the books are an indicator of the fact that Glück’s accomplishments as an editor extend far beyond the selection of the winners themselves. Unlike almost all of her editor predecessors, Glück works closely with the winning author on the manuscript after it is selected (as well, sometimes, as before, as noted above). For example, Crush, Richard Siken’s book, changed between the time of selection and its publication. Glück proposed cutting the book and rearranging sections of the poems. Speaking by phone from her home in Cambridge, Glück told me, “Every phrase was an iota too long, yet you had to preserve the quality of excess.” And it’s not that Glück is creating miniature replicas of herself: she stressed that all she was doing was prompting Siken to see the poems with fresh eyes, helping him revise. No one reading the books Glück has selected to date would mistake it for one of hers, even if one hears echoes of her voice now and then.
One can discern from that statement about complacency (“experiment never deteriorates into complacency”) something about Glück’s stance as series editor: thus far, she has published poets who press gently against the traditional shapes of the lyric poem. But her introductions powerfully articulate how (and in what ways) the selected books refuse to participate in what Robert Pinsky once called, in The Situation of Poetry, the “enigmatic, slangy, fey, tough . . . knowing, ironic superiority to parts of one’s own mind” that characterized in his view a significant portion of contemporary American poetry. If the Yale poets published by Glück doubt the possibility of authority, of stable selfhood, they don’t take their limitations for granted, or refuse the possibility of a connection between world and self. They are, instead, sincere in their confusion. In being so, they rescue the term “sincerity” from its dire association with an authentic expression of selfhood, and restore to it, instead, its connection to the intuitions, briefly glimpsed, of possibilities of “clean, pure sound”—unadulterated by the tinny overtones of fashion or trite self-awareness.
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