Thursday, October 19, 2006

Put that in your smoke and pipe it

Anyone unfamiliar with Mark Strand read this:

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man,
I snarl at her and bark,
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

I read that over a decade ago and never forgot the name or the poem. I like this poem. It’s cute, postmodern (if we must impose a distinction upon it) and it stuck with me as a young guy in junior college who thought he might someday write something as cute and postmodern, even if I didn’t know or care what the fuck postmodernism was. Whatever the case, I liked the poem then and I like it now. That being said, I never followed Strand’s career as poet laureate or celebrated writer who will forever find his lines eating up space in The New Yorker. I once saw a singed copy of one of his books at a store in Evanston and snatched it up. Why not, I thought. Further reading of Strand allows me to report that I like some of what he does, which is more than I can say for a lot of writers.

Flash to this week’s copy of The Reader or go to if you want to read in full the review of Strand’s new collection, Man and Camel. There’s some downright heavy critiques of the newest work by one of America’s biggest names in contemporary poetry. And I can’t disagree with the weight of these criticisms, yet I have not read the actual poems, just the vivisected bits in Noah Berlatsky’s review. As a result, it’s hard to make a fair judgment. I will agree with Berlatsky that the image of drinking whiskey at sunset is pretty goddamned clichéd, but maybe that’s because I drink every single day as the sun starts to set. Ah, liquor at dusk… my best friend, the only one who understands and always forgives.


I decided recently that I would rather write poems than literary criticism, although it appears that writing literary criticism would assure me publication, whereas writing poetry will not. And someone someday would read my critical writing, I am sure— maybe even use such brilliant insights as the basis of their lousy undergraduate term paper— though not many are likely to read my poems ever. Still, I made my decision and am sticking to it. Seeing Strand get his ass handed to him in this week’s Chicago Reader was fun, but it made me remember what Alexander Pope said (or what is at least attributed to him), and what I might offer to the Noah Berlatskys of the world who always seem to know exactly what “another nail in the coffin of contemporary poetry” looks like:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool.
But you yourself may serve to show it,
Every fool is not a poet.