Notes on Are You Experienced? Baby Boom Poets at Midlife
In this book, you will encounter a good deal of news that has stayed news for centuries: the great themes of lyric poetry are stubbornly persistent.. Sappho or Li Po would agree, as the poets collected here do, that life is a hot dream, briefer, it often seems, than a summer storm; that the sweetness of love can come to us like grace, sudden, odd, and unstoppable; that nothing good arrives without its accompanying shadow of loss--along with the ache of such recognition; that memory both preserves and reinvents the past; that the blood pull of kinship in its many forms is our tragic and at times comic destiny; that doubt and faith form two sides of the same coin; that time is the ultimate mystery. These are some of the songs we cannot help singing, age after age, despite our frailty and despair, regardless of local circumstance.
Each age must reimagine and fashion its own versions of these profound and ordinary truths, just as each era must translate the classics to its own taste. The familiar is notoriously hard to see, much less to express vividly, but we have little choice but to make the attempt--as this anthology does in setting out to chart the play of familiar lyric motifs within the compass of a single, highly storied generation at midlife.
It is always a matter of taste, of course--personal and, in the case of this book, also generational. Since baby boom poets share a range of reference and experience, readers of a certain age will be forcibly struck by many details in this collection, by frequent references to rock and roll, drugs, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, and other formative features of our collective history. Midlife being a time of reckoning, poem after poem here reckons with love lost and gained, the aging of body and soul, the twists and turns of memory, and so on--all in the context of baby boom history.
But rather than focusing here on generational definition, I want to attend to the editor's taste in another aspect, her relish for the minute particulars of experience, the fragrance and swirl of life vividly rendered. By and large, this book collects poems that are, in Czeslaw Milosz's beautiful phrase, "loyal toward reality." William Carlos Williams once defined "the poet's business" as follows: "Not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal." Some would define the task of a poet more broadly (and some more narrowly), but the Williams tradition in our country has proved both fertile and durable. Through the decades, a great deal of "talk in vague categories" has indeed been committed by and about the baby boom generation, as well as a certain portion of useful analysis. In this book, however, you not find much abstraction; mostly you will find the stuff of life itself, as understood and expressed by the participants and as embodied in savory figure and image. And that is this book's special contribution, I think.
Ultimately, all that we know comes to us via the senses; and when skillfully captured, the texture of experience is a pleasure in itself. Yet as William Carlos Williams knew well, such texture is also a window into all sorts of knowledge, and thus comprises both means and end. Poets who give us their accurate and fresh renditions, then, participate in an evergreen and necessary process. Poetic texture, as I am thinking of it, is more than decorative, more than a way of dressing up opinion or feeling in pleasant attire. At its most powerful, it is a primary means by which we link experiences both inner and outer, personal and public, past and present, actual and dreamed. Whether focused on plain reality or employed to create an imagined mindscape; whether describing the present, recounting a memory, or speculating about the future, texture is the indispensable grain and heft of a poem that hopes to be loyal toward reality.
In this anthology, certain currently popular modes of poetic cerebration and linguistic investigation are largely absent, along with some stylistic proclivities. Still, the poems in this gathering stake their vital claim on the classic themes and range considerably in tone and style. For my part, I return most often to moments of piercing descriptive clarity such as Tony Hoagland's portrait of a bedridden, dying mother:
Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed her belly and her chest, the sorry ruin of her flanks and the frayed gray cloud between her legs. [Lucky]
Such plain accuracy of observation carries considerable weight as the poets herein reflect on midlife. Often in these poems the facts of bodily longing, joy, or decay are quite forthrightly confronted, as when Leslie Adrienne Miller writes of a pregnant friend, "I've been wanting / to touch the hard jar of belly. . . ." Or Kate Sontag, responding to friends and kin with breast cancer, offers a wonderfully strange secular prayer to the goddess of chance who has somehow spared her:
Take it before it's too late to take it, scrubbed clean of powders, colognes, body oils, these last glittery grains of sand, the promiscuous taste of rum and sea salt, before I can no longer
picture it as a rotting coconut weighing my lifeboat down, a woody nest of termites, a sack of moldy coriander seed, a milky jellyfish ready to sting. [Caribbean Breast Lullaby]
Or Andrew Hudgins, in the simultaneously poignant, creepy, and hilarious "Ashes," describes cleaning up a friend's cremated ashes spilled on the floor in drunken grief:
. . . Johnny wrestled the splayed broom from my hands and slapped the heavy ash and particles of crushed bone toward the can "Come on now, Rachel," he said, "you wild woman you," and weeping, Johnny stabbed and swatted at the floor until I found a paper towel, wet it, and mopped the last fine dust.
Poetry doesn't get much more touching (in both senses) than that. In taking the classic "dust to dust" motif quite literally, Hudgins, like many other poets here, effectively presents news that stays news.
Even when treating less tangible matters (grief, doubt, faith, love) the poems in this collection are richly embodied in a variety of ways. Cathy Song, for instance, writes of a mother’s love for a newborn son with declarative directness: "My breasts were sweet for days." Jim Daniels, in a lyric of homecoming, expresses longing and regret in a more complicated but no less palpable metaphor:
Once I stood here for hours trying to hit the streetlight with a snowball, to leave a white smudge. I have left no smudge. [Blessing the House]
Leslie Ullman discovers an unforgettably tactile metonym for marital tension:
Keep your voice down, my husband hissed this morning across his plate, then knotted his tie to a fist that would hold all day. [Peace]
As in any honest midlife accounting, there is no shortage of anguish, doubt, disappointment, and other private or general sorrows to be found here. Perhaps that is why I am drawn so strongly to the odd moment of blessing or praise--especially when rendered with zesty specificity-- the universal discovered within the particular, just as Williams advised. I love it when Thylias Moss presents a religious epiphany in imagery that would be perfectly comprehensible to the author of the Psalms:
I tilt my head, let it rain in my throat. Inside I feel like a wheat field ready for perfect harvest leading to perfect feast, but I'm never cut down. That's the best part. [Dennis's Sky Leopard]
In a different but still celebratory vein, Bob Hicok imagines the awkward grace of his parents' mating dance:
So despite the shame of something deeper showing, the unhinged self, my father comes over between songs, lowers my mother's head to his shoulder and begins to sway rigidly like rust, until her skin and the blue dress with one strap almost falling, until her hands plowing the long muscles of his back, make him forget he hates to dance, to douse his body in music. [Choosing My Conception]
Trying to explain to myself why a metaphor like "plowing the long muscles of his back" pleased me so much, I came across a passage in Jane Hirshfield's essay "The Myriad Leaves of Words." Though her topic is classical Japanese poetry, I trust the relevance to the poetry collected in Are You Experienced? is clear:
The trope is no decorative addition, but a fundamental tool for the seeding of meaning: by a fertile imaginative turning of outer image, we plow the ground of our lives. Japanese poetry keeps close to this primary mode of conceptualization--it uses the power held in the seen, the heard, the tasted, to quicken and instruct and unfold. [Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry]
I can hardly feign objectivity in assessing this book--the editors' taste obviously overlaps largely with my own, as would be clear enough just from the poems of mine included. Still, in the best work here I find lyrics that resonate by means of exactness of memory, honesty about complex feelings, and trust in local shades and colorings. Other anthologies will scan the immense terrain of contemporary poetry from different vantage points. This one quickens me, again and again, with the power held in the seen, the heard, and the tasted.
Introduction (untitled in book) to Are You Experienced? Baby Boom Poets at Midlife. Ed. Pamela Gemin. U Iowa Press, 2003: xvii-xxi.