on Four New Poetry Anthologies

The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, edited and translated by Charles Simic (Graywolf)
Seriously Funny, edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby (Georgia)
Poetry of the Law, edited by David Kader and Michael Stanford (Iowa)
Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics, edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg (Saturnalia Books)

The Horse Has Six Legs was first published in 1992 just as the war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia was pared down to Serbia and Montenegro. Charles Simic made no mention of these events in his original introduction (which is included in the updated, enlarged edition). Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic moved to the U.S. in 1963 at age 15. By his mid-twenties, his translations of Serbian poetry by Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalić, and Momčilo Nastasijevic were appearing in literary magazines, just as his own first books were published. The Horse Has Six Legs was the culmination of a long entanglement with and commitment to Serbian verse.

Here is “Last News About the Little Box” by Vasko Popa (1922-1991) from “The Little Box” cycle:

LAST NEWS ABOUT THE LITTLE BOX

The little box that contains the world
Fell in love with herself
And conceived
Still another little box

The little box of the little box
Also fell in love with herself
And conceived
Still another little box

And so it went on forever

The world from the little box
Ought to be inside
The last offspring of the little box

But not one of the little boxes
Inside the little box in love with herself
Is the last one

Let’s see you find the world now

AnthSimic.jpgSimic’s new introduction begins with recent events but then pushes them offstage, asking the browser’s first question: “How much of this unhappy history is reflected in the poetry written at this time? The answer is: not much in any obvious way … This wariness of poetry with a political message, I imagine, stems from the memory of early communist years in Yugoslavia when poets were called upon to write poems in which the struggle of revolutionary masses against the reactionary forces of the past was depicted and exalted.” Simic’s representative 24 poets prefer the folkish mind, the intimacy of stories told in hushed or heated tones, humble details, a laconic or candid point of view, a dash of acidity or lunacy, and the looming sense that all of life is in trouble and assessed in the precision of the word.

Radovan Karadžić, arrested in July, 2008 in Belgrade for war crimes, published three books of poetry while in hiding. He won the Jovan Dučić award for poetry in 1969. Perhaps his is the kind of poetry Matija Bećković (b. 1939) had in mind when he wrote these lines from “No One Will Write Poetry”: “No one will write poetry anymore, / The immortal themes will abandon the poems / Unhappy with the way they were understood and versified. / Everything that once was the subject of poetry /Will rebel against it and its cowardice.”

***

A poet can accept any criticism except the charge that his or her verse is humorless. Say the work is too trendy, obscure, or anachronistic and the poet will simply regard you as an idiot. But say he/she has no sense of humor and the poet will become violent or morose. Ed Wynn used to say that a comedian isn’t a person who says funny things – no, a comedian is a person who says things funny. Poets who say things funny are the stars of Seriously Funny, an anthology selected by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby who looked for poems “that evoke poetry’s timeless concerns but include a comic element as well.”

AnthFunny.jpgIn Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud claimed that “laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity.” So I speculate that a poet striving for comedy is an artist with confidence and trust in “psychical conformity” since he/she knows the audience arrives hard-wired for collegiality. The poet accesses freedom when he/she proceeds to say things funny, speaking to a listener laughing alongside at the very moment the words appear. In a poet inclined to speak funnily, the comedy is a presence in one’s spirit that precedes communication. This is why the French call comedy “une maladie du regard,” an outlook dooming the writer to perceive and linger over the ridiculous in life.

Seriously Funny brings levity to its own subheads, such as “I Was Alone When It Hit Me: The Self” and “The Heart is a Lonely Perineum: Love, Marriage, Divorce and Hatred” and “It Occurs to Me I Am America: Wrestling with a Huge Rococco National Identity.” The poets one expects to find are here: Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young – but as I read them in tandem with contributors who aren’t routinely characterized as “humor poets,” their poems seem good-naturedly humane, generous, fond of their materials, and impossible to categorize as “merely funny” as some critics like to do.

Humor requires situation and characters, and often, the armature of narrative. (Stephen Dobyns’ satirical poetry reads like the plot structures of novels he’ll never get around to writing.) There is little interest here in the “I don’t trust language because the self is a construct foisted on me by the State” school of poetry. This anthology is filled with a respect for and love of people – including the poems’ speakers who almost always include themselves as part of the cracked world. Aside from O’Hara, Koch, Ginsberg, Berryman, Clifton, Matthews, and Corso, the poets here live and breathe. So many masterful, chatty, hey-listen-to-this voices – Tom Lux, Denise Duhamel, Ron Koertge, Lawrence Raab, Bob Hicok, Albert Goldbarth, James Tate, Lucia Perillo, David Clewell, Kevin Young, Mark Halliday – but also poets one doesn’t immediately think of as “funny,” such as Louise Glück, Stephen Dunn, Michael Collier, Gary Soto, Galway Kinnell, Carl Dennis, and Alan Shapiro. And many more.

***

My grandfather was a bootlegger and a bookie. My father and his two brothers were lawyers. When I was in college, they concluded that I had the makings of either an attorney or a criminal and counseled me to go to law school. I confounded them by becoming a corporate executive and a poet (the first, they said, a job for chumps and gerbils, the other a debased and pointless form of criminality). So I have always been mystified and somewhat repelled by the workings of the law, the pleaders of grievance, and the weighers of justice.

AnthLaw.jpgBut poets have been using legal imagery and commenting on the courts since at least the time of Chaucer (about “A Sergeant of the Lawe”: “Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas; / And yet he seemed bisier than he was”). Editors Kader and Stanford claim that Poetry of the Law is “the first selective anthology on the subject ever published … The abiding popularity of law-related films and novels makes it even more surprising that no one has yet made a serious attempt together the poetry of the law.” Jose Ortega Y Gasset said, “Law is born from despair of human nature,” and poets expedite things by giving their attention directly to despair. Thus, there really isn’t an ample supply of contemporary verse about law to collect in the first place. Less than a third of the poems included were written by living poets. Most of the work here is serious in tone, competent but hardly among the poets’ best work. Some of the selections were written by poets trained in the law: Charles Reznikoff, Roy Fuller, Brad Leithauser, Lawrence Joseph, Martin Espada. As a whole, the collection is markedly testosterish.

The editors lay out their brief with precision: poems about lawyers and judges, historical trials, the citizen in the legal system, punishment, legal concepts, and applying legal metaphors to nonlegal subjects – but they wisely do not group the poems as such. To begin, there are poems by Spenser, Raleigh, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne – establishing early the sense that poets acknowledge their status within a society of laws, but also bend judicial concepts to their own ends. By the nineteenth century, the poets begin to hand down their own decisions. Emily Dickinson begins, “I had some things that I called mine -- / And God, that he called his, / Till, recently a rival Claim / Disturbed these amities.” In narrative poems like Hardy’s “The Mock Wife,” in which a wife is charged with murder for poisoning her husband, the court looms in the background where guilt is harshly determined – but in the foreground, the reader’s judgment is more ambiguous.

The most recent poems here were written by Thom Gunn, Stephen Dunn, Charles Wright, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Rita Dove and a few others. The general progression of Poetry of the Law is away from directly addressing the law as topic and towards using it metaphorically or ironically. William Matthews’ “Negligence” below is one of the better later examples:

A woman opens a parcel with no
return address. Last month her only son
drove himself full tilt into a maple
and each day brings new drudgery from grief.
What's this? A vase, an urn? Off with its lid.
And so she's up to her wrists in her son's
Ashes—not, by the way, like silt or dust,
but nubble and grit, boneshards and half-burnt
burls of cartilage, cinders and nuggets.
I ask you, ladies and gentlemen
of the jury, to glove her hands with yours
and sieve the rubble of your beloved
only son, and also I ask you this:
what simple task could the funeral home
perform to run this cruel film backwards,
to lift this woman's hands from the cinders
of her son and wind them back to her slack
lap, and why did these merchants of balm
fail to perform it? I believe you know
as well as I that it takes but paltry
seconds more to write a return address
than to endorse a check. It's easy to say
what they ought to have done, and did not do.
What's hard to know is how to value grief.
It's very hard—but it's the very job
you're here to do. You have to ask and ask,
Could this grief have been prevented? until you
answer. Money may seem a crude measure
in philosophy, though it seems exact
enough for the grocer's and mortician's
bills.
I beg your pardon, Your Honor.
I meant but to say that a jury's duty
is to blame or not to blame,
and if there's
fault there's got to be a reason for it,
and so a price for reason. What's honor
worth that's ladled like soup onto plates, all
the slosh that fits and then no more? Suppose
you pulled into a gas station and asked
for a full tank. "How far you gonna go?"
"Twelve miles east of Bozeman." "Then half a tank
will do." A freak mishap (golf course, four iron,
lightning) is one thing, and preventable
heartbreak another. This woman's bruised heart
is evidence, ladies and gentlemen
of the jury, and this plain brown paper
with no return address. If there's excuse
for every harm, what use then is law?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask
you to vote against random pain, to vote
that suffering has cause and thus has blame,
to vote that our lives can be explained, and
to vote compensation for my client.

***

Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg have selected work from 18 female poets to exhibit the formal, tonal, and topical aspects of a poetics Greenberg christened nine years ago as “gurlesque.” Gurlesque is a lively tour through the phenomenon (“it’s not a movement or a camp or a clique”).

AnthGurlesque.jpgShe writes in the introduction, “So I was reading all these books where women were writing about and through femininity in what seemed to me an exciting and new way: harshly, playfully, provocatively, indulgently, and while these were overtly poems of women’s experiences, of the female body and sexuality, poems rooted, you could argue, in the understanding of America as a rape culture, there appeared almost no trace of the earnestness, sensitivity or self-seriousness that marked many such poems stemming from Second Wave feminism … These poems were silly and scary, pretty and dirty, wild and demanding.”

They are also poems that participate eagerly in and echo their popular culture – the movies, novels, music, and comedy. When my daughter Jenny auditioned for Lorne Michaels and the writers at “SNL,” her routine was essentially gurlesque. (None of the material, however, was suitable for major network prime-time.)

THAT ONE WAS THE ODDEST ONE / Dorothea Lasky

That Robbie Wood is so weird
He seriously makes me want to fuck his brains out
Oh fuckable man, why do you have to do and say such
Strange things? Why if they were only all so weird
I would fuck them all night, their dicks hanging out of their mouths
When I am done, little red mouths with no words
Instead no one is so weird
They have muscles
I write these poems instead of staying in a bed
Sweaty all day
With men who are truly fuckable
I fuck men with muscles, brains, a heart
Men who might listen at times
Not one of them tells jokes about chameleons and armadillos
Like sweet Robbie Wood, who calls me out of the blue
And the one first time I saw him smile, I felt as if
I had been punched in the gut
Oh I know how that one student felt who was in love with me
I saw weird things
Weirdness is such a turn-on

Burlesque, artifice and camp. Lara Glenum reminds us that Susan Sontag opened the aperture when in “Notes on Camp” she wrote, “The essence of Camp is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration … Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” The gurlesque poets often mock their culture by playing the sorts of tricks on readers that are played on women when they walk down the sidewalk. Glenum glosses critic Sianne Ngai’s essay “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” in which the violability and passive accessibility of the cute object “is often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.” What year was it when Erica Jong wrote in Fear of Flying that her boyfriend’s asshole was so clean she could eat off of it? One does remember things like that. Her prowling for the “zipless fuck” equates to shopping for stylish shoes on sale.

There’s something very serious churning through these poems, what Glenum sees as “outright defiance of classical aesthetics and their masculocentric practices.” The gurlesque poets respond with burlesque and kitsch that put the body on display – “the grotesque engages the body as a biological organism . never finished, ever-morphing, unstable, and porous.” But also, “Gurlesque poets put the unabashed quest for female pleasure at the center of their poetics. This, along with the disavowal of persona, is one of the primary things that separates them from poets of earlier generations, such a Sylvia Plath.”

ESTAMOS EN VIVO, NO HAY ALTERNATIVO / Matthea Harvey

Down here in the land of slammed doors,
the factory puffs its own set of clouds

into the sky. Fake larks fly through
them, lifelike. Let’s not go into contractions

of can’t and won’t or how behind the line of trees,
the forest is gone. Dip that tiny brush into

your paintbox and mix up something nice
and muddy for me. We’ve got a lock

on the moon so now it goes where we want it –
mostly proms, sometimes lobbies.

This is my favorite sign: “Live girls, live action!”
and in smaller but still flashing lights:

“girl on girl, girl on _______.” Among the permutations,
there’s no “girl on hands and knees begging for her life.”

No one we know wants it that badly.

I don’t buy the “disavowal of persona” claim, but rather hear in Gurlesque a disaffected and radical set of voices with quite a lot in common regarding tone and attitude, and perhaps more group-speak than the editors acknowledge. The randomness of Harvey’s remarks, finally yielding what’s on the speaker’s mind or at least using a somewhat more cohesive set of final images to hint at a basic apprehension, describes what has become standard fare in American poetry.

Greenberg writes, “Um, do you think this Gurlesque stuff is just, like, already over? Or not really all that exciting or shocking or new or different? Sort of stupid? I could care less.” I don’t believe that either. Gurlesque is a provocative entertainment that makes me care a great deal about the people – the personae! – who have created and speak this art.

***

The Horse Has Six Legs, 272 pages, $18.00 paperback.
Seriously Funny, 440 pages, $69.95/$24.95.
Poetry of the Law, 234 pages, $22.00 paperback.
Gurlesque, 312 pages, $20.00 paperback.

Thanks

I enjoyed your review and am happy to have some new books to hunt down. Cheers.

comic anthol

far as i know i'm the only poet (of my gen anyway) to have published a "collected comic poems" (or BOA published it, not me) so obviously i didn't qualify for inclusion in this "seriously funny" i guess mine aren't serious

anyway all my books of poetry can be downloaded free via my blogspot blog

Humorous poetry

David Kirby is one of my favorite poets and I can't imagine an anthology like this without his own poems in it. Which Louise Gluck poem is in the book? Denise Duhamel is my goddess of blithe spirit.

Your wish comes true

I agree completely, David Kirby and Barbara Hamby both deserve to be included in their own anthology -- and are -- including David's "Elvis, Be My Psychopomp" ... There are two Gluck poems in the book, "Purple Bathing Suit" and "Midnight." Both exemplify the editors' point about the wide vocal range of "funny." I think of Gluck's MEADOWLANDS as a comically genial book about the break-up of a marriage.