on The Iron Key (Norton) and The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf), poems and essays by James Longenbach

Writing about poets in his essay “Purity, Restraint, Stillness” (VQR, 2006), James Longenbach observes, “More than lack of ambition, it is the inability to surrender to our characteristic callings and rhythms that keeps us from fulfilling our promise … The surrender of the will is itself impossible merely to will, and we may struggle with the act of surrender more deeply than we struggle with the act of rebellion.” In The Iron Key, his fourth book of poems, Longenbach waves his own tattered white flag, surrendering into fulfillment. His progress toward this collection is fascinating and instructive to witness – even if the great art of The Iron Key remains unaccountable. I say unaccountable because Longenbach says so himself: “impossible to will.”

LongCOVER.jpgOr, perhaps the work is unaccountable but not entirely unexpected. In his critical writing, Longenbach scratches circles on his racing form – this horse, not those. He qualifies and narrows his preferences. He argues and exhausts his way toward poems-to-come, simultaneously clarifying and clearing away his intentions, calculating the odds and then watching his horse run. The issue has been: How much whipping is necessary, how much withholding?

What should the poet hold back and why? What forms do these refusals take, what sounds? How intentionally may the surrendering poet employ them? What effects do the clashing impulses of restraint and release have on the poet and reader? Are they always opposing forces? In The Resistance to Poetry (Chicago, 2004), Longenbach considers several poets’ methods of restraint; it is clear that the topic appeals to and complicates his thinking. If disjunction and darting shifts of register both rein in the poet and make discovery possible during the run-time of the poem, then how much spontaneous leaping is fitting?

As Longenbach the critic and teacher speaks in his VQR essay, we hear an undertone – the exertions and squirms of the poet. He invokes Yeats’ moment of self-recognition as a “ ‘withering into the truth’ … for the discovery does not feel like a blossoming.” How does the poet surrender to his own limitations while exercising his freedoms and reaching beyond his prior work? Hanging in a precarious, beckoning balance, the stakes weigh heavily within Longenbach’s forbidding, fateful question:

“What happens to the American poet who is destined to wither into stillness and restraint, the poet whose deepest inclination is to associate risk with submission?”

LongenbachPLCovewr.jpegFinding precedents in the work of Marvell, Pound, and Oppen, the essay examines those poets’ syntactical means of achieving restraint. Ultimately, Longenbach refined and repackaged this technical discussion for his essential tutorial, The Art of the Poetic Line. There he says of Frank Bidart’s syntax in the final line of “Confessional,” “The wisdom of the sentence lies not precisely in what it says but in the endlessly reticulated process of arriving at what it says.” A heightened use of syntax makes for variation (“What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation”) and variation makes for assertion, disclaimer, lateral movement, sprint, disappearance. Endless arrival is the longed for end point. But how may a poet of constrictions achieve such an effect? (Earlier, in The Resistance to Poetry, he was fixated on how to evoke “not so much a speaker as a rivetingly engaged act of speaking” – but remained suspicious of poets “interested in language but not in the drama of speaking.”)

LongenbachCasual.jpgIn the VQR essay, he wrestles with the provisional element in Marianne Moore’s “When I Buy Pictures.” He begins by regarding her line endings as “willfully arbitrary. Or should I say delightfully arbitrary? In itself, the arbitrary is not a problem: there must be such effects in poetry. But even the arbitrary must be driven by necessity, and necessity can be judged only on a poem by poem basis: what does the language of this particular poem require at this particular juncture?”

Longenbach’s previous book of poems, Draft of a Letter (Chicago, 2007), is a work of spare, attentive decorum. Thematically, it trafficks in uncertainty and struggle. But formally, it revels in precision, agility and shapeliness. Sonically, it pulses with cerebral exactitude. The persona suggests someone trying to be knowledgeable but repulsed by limits. He says “poets fear wisdom” in his prose, then portrays the condition in the poetry. There is something of a gap between the rigor of self-inventory and the ineffability of felt conditions. The rigor dominates. “Second Draft,” below, emits the power of severe necessity – but it has little use for the arbitrary:

As an older man,
Graying, not stooped,
I saw the future:

Cold, tongue
Foam at the lips.
Excessive hope

Seemed more
Than despair.
I ran great distances.
I stood in sunlight

Just to see my shadow,
Show it off.
For the first time I remember

My soul looked back.
What other people learn
From birth,
I learned late.

My soul perched
On an olive branch
Combing itself,
Waving its plumes. I said

Being mortal,
I aspire to
Mortal things.

I need you,
Said my soul,
If you’re telling the truth.

When Longenbach sees the need to back off from declaration in Draft of a Letter,, he employs sharp-edged fragments or a few lines of description, as in the opening of “Ghost Pond”: “A sack with a hole. / A tree without roots. // Desert of sand. / Dust that blinds. // Lake beside the graveyard. / White swan frozen in the lake -- // I skated past it. / Circled back.”

Given its specific ambitions, Draft of a Letter succeeds on its own terms. But in The Iron Key, everything Longenbach has said about the values of variation, restraint, tentative destinations, and mystery yields individual poems and a collective rhythm that take the reader elsewhere. In The Art of the Poetic Line he writes, “Words mean something because they always threaten to sound like something else.” The Iron Key makes good on the threat -- and most fully embodies the answer to his essay’s question about “what happens” to the poet.

The book opens with “Knowledge” – this, from the scholar who has written: “Poets fear wisdom. This is why great poems threaten to feel beside the point precisely when we want them to reflect our importance: language returns our attention not to confirm what we know but to suggest that we might be different from ourselves”:


Of the vastness of clouds
We knew nothing;
We slept in houses underground.

How the sun brings day by spreading light across the sky,
How night covers the earth in darkness
To reveal the stars, the planets

In their courses fixed
For eternity –

Here, what’s left of the lost book. On Knowledge ends.

Where was I born?
Where was I when my mother fell?
When Gail died?

Of the gods’ existence that
These wonders were their handiwork --

New Jersey.

The Iron Key takes root in several narrative poems, their lines reaching further than in the past – as if Longenbach’s material is relaxing into itself. The restraints and turns in the poems, the incompletions, generate vectors of unanswered feeling, memory and observation that point beyond the work itself. If his speaker takes longer and deeper breaths, the air itself has the scent of unknowingness, from the opening poem to the end. Former strict tensions, perfect for assessments, loosen into tender speculations.


Mrs. Hunter is the only name I have for her,
A rich old woman who engaged my father, a painter,
To document her collection of keys.
Photographs she considered vulgar.

She lived in a mansard carriage house, painted black.
While my father made paintings of the keys
I made drawings of the house —
The Chinese parasol in a backlit case,
A sheikh’s robe draped across the dining-room table, under glass.

I added things that should have been there, a harpsichord.
I deleted what seemed mysteriously out of place.
Once, after I fell against my father’s palette,
He had to scrub the paint from my hair.

Not to make things was idleness.
The house contained things to be made.
Not raw material: material that bore
Heavily the impression of having been used, worn,
Made previously into other things —

Like the house itself, once a place for horses,
Now the visible confirmation of what I knew by instinct
But had never seen: that only strange things could be beautiful.
McNamara, Westmoreland — outside the war was on.
Her house was where I lived in my mind.

For a time, I thought I’d be a painter, too.
Then I thought perhaps a musician.
When I first saw San Simeone Piccolo
Floating across the Grand Canal,
I stepped into my mind.
I bought Mrs. Hunter a key.

“The Iron Key” was originally titled “Venice.” The memory of that city, La Serenissima, provides a tidal, mythic center point -- “a record of human resourcefulness that cannot be finished because it couldn’t have been ordained” (from “Archipelago”). The great commercial port, a city of artful construction and masks, yet unordained, and therefore arbitrary, doomed. Longenbach’s tone is elegiac. In “Abundance,” the speaker wonders: “Why did a man who’d lived here all his life, / Who knew enough to unfasten his skis, / Cross ice no more than forty-eight hours old?” “Introspective Voyager” recalls A. Walton Litz, a Princeton professor and Stevens scholar – the life remembered is difficult, the tone of the recollection is sadly sweet. “The poem is the cry of its occasion,” Stevens wrote, “Part of the res itself and not about it.” This poem manages to be “not about” its subject through the seemingly arbitrary variety in its modest delivery – the “res itself” is the speaker’s mind.

LongenbachColor.jpgThe new poems still include self-reflexiveness, Longenbach’s inescapable signature gesture. Announcing “only strange things could be beautiful” as his ethos, he dares himself to fail to show us anything that isn’t strangely beautiful. He lets us know that these poems were “things to be made” in an urgent fashion. So the tense desire to be found worthy is hardly diminished. The difference here is in Longenbach’s awakened generosity: he gives us much more to do, not just to reflect on. And what we do is wonder and drift with the poetry. The world in these poems, rendered from memory on a mythic tide, is at once palpable and numinous. It is a story-world of archetypal and personal tales, blended smooth.

Osip Mandelstam defined classical poetry “as that which must be, not as that which has already been.” The membrane between memory (what has already been) and the present moment (what must be, as history and myth tell) needs to leak in order for poems like these to exist. What happens to the poet is a lucky puddling, a manageable mess. I’ve read The Iron Key several times – I’m reading it still – trying to verify what I’ve seen and each time seeing it anew.

[The Iron Key. Published October 4, 2010. 89 pp., $24.95 hardcover.
The Art of the Poetic Line. Published January 10, 2008. 130 pages, $12.00 paperback.]

Click HERE to read James Longenbach's essay, "Poetry, Restraint, Stillness."