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UD now talks about a series of modern …

… New Year’s poems. She’ll start with this one. It’s in the form of a New Year’s letter to a friend.

Modern poets bring a number of intriguing ideas and feelings to New Year’s. I’m not saying these ideas and feelings necessarily add up to what UD (consult her taste, at length, here) calls a great poem. But they tell you something about us, in 20… uh… 14.


Letter to GC has the slangy fragmented musing down in the dumps thing characteristic of many of our time’s poems. Although it begins

I say most sincerely and desperately, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

it really has little to do with the turn of the year. No references to the weather, to the passage of time, to resolutions, to change, to renewal, to failure to renew, which tend to be the established New Year’s themes. Rather, the poem has to do with the poet’s familiar, year-round, right on the edge of psychological menace, unhappiness. She writes desperately and is in a desperate place:

Having rowed a little farther away from the cliff
Which is my kind of religion
Adrift in the darkness but readying oars
How can there be too many stars and hands, I ask you

She starts her letter to her friend with the precise coordinates of her mental instability as the year begins, the good news being that she finds herself, at this turning point, a little farther from falling off of a cliff than she has been. Yet so unstable is her condition that she has made a kind of religion of staying afloat despite her fragile “adrift in the darkness” reality.

She needs a lot of help: stars to guide her in the dark, and helping hands from other rowers on the same “wide water, without sound” on which Sunday Morning‘s riser perilously floats.

The rest of the poem will discuss a major modern malaise: self-consciousness. The Romantics could write things like

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time

but we’re too cool, too hip for (as Dana Levin writes in her penultimate line) the drama of feeling. These days, feeling itself is a problem – a personal problem, and therefore also an aesthetic problem. We can’t write Blakeian poems anymore, but we’re still subject to the same intense emotions as the Romantics. How, then, to write? How to convey our emotions verbally?

We can convey our events; we can say in poetry what happened.

We are getting such lovely flourishes from our poets
Fathomless opportunities for turning literacy into event

We have much more trouble conveying our true feelings. The poet can say at the beginning of the poem that she sincerely wishes CG a happy new year; but that’s Hallmark sincerity. What presents itself to the poet as a problem is expressing her personal, deep, and authentic feelings in her poetry.

I would be disingenuous if I said “being understood” were not important to me
Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech

So here she assumes the voice of someone like John Ashbery – not lyrical but discursive… Even rather absurdly self-consciously over-discursive (those quotation marks around being understood which dissolve the possibility of being understood even as they write being understood). And note the tortured negative, and the tortured subjunctive, feel of the line… We’re very far from sincere direct address. Yet where, between inexpressible obscurantism and inauthentic social chatter, can the poet locate the language of emotional authenticity?

It is impossible to say just what I mean!


The imagination and its products so often rebuff purpose
And some of us don’t like it, and want to make it mean
I would never shoot you, even if you were the only meat around

This is the modern poet impatient with the obliqueness of the modern poem, the modern sensibility. She wants her poems to mean something, dammit, not just dance cleverly around things, the way she, in her religion, dances around that cliff. Why futz with fancy language no one’s going to understand? You wanna tell someone you love them, you say I love you so much that even if I were starving and you were meat I wouldn’t shoot you.

Humor… humor’s one way to go… A joke being, as Nietzsche said, an epigram on the death of a feeling …

Anyway, I empathize with your lower division semester (which sounds
kinda Dante, to me)

The poet commiserates with her professor friend’s upcoming teaching in a lower division (and as with the work of Charles Wright, she references Dante – true religion, if you will – in that skittish clever modern way she says she’s kinda trying to avoid); and she does confess, as her poem ends,

I want to be approved of, so much
Despite the image I’ve been savoring, the one of the self-stitching wound
Yes, I want to write that self-healing wound poem, the one with
cocoon closed up with thorns

It’d be great if she were, say, Andy Warhol; but actually she writes because she’s vulnerable and wants love and approval and understanding. She is very far from being a closed up cocoon.

So – a post-romantic lament at the turn of the year… These days, as she says… these special year-end days prompt thoughts of our current, particular, predicament.

Margaret Soltan, December 30, 2013 2:15PM
Posted in: poem

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