Friday, July 24, 2009

Margaret Christakos

Wordsworth told us poetry was "spontaneous emotion recollected in tranquility." Us post-postmoderns now consider this trite in the extreme. About the only thing people seem to agree on these days about poetry is that they don’t agree on anything.

When I first encountered Wordsworth’s construction as a dim undergraduate, though, it seemed reasonable enough. I hadn’t read any Wordsworth. The only poetry I’m sure I’d read before ENG101 was Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie (such was the state of Ontario’s school system in the 1980s – which is much improved these days, I’m sure).

Still, somehow I’d decided to pursue a degree in English lit, and I was ripe with spontaneous emotion. Recollecting my teenage chaotic inner life in tranquility seemed almost delivered by doctor’s orders.

I even wrote a couple dozen poems following that principle, some of which were published. Others, of course, were horrid, but I kept at it. I caught a Romantic fever and eventually had something that resembled a poetic voice, though my lines kept turning into sentences and my poems into short stories.

Now that I’m past 40 and more tranquil than spontaneous, I can no longer claim to understand what John Keats meant when he claimed to be "certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination." (A quotation I liked a lot back in those lazy, hazy, crazy days.)

Nowadays, poetry often irritates me. It seems too often naïve, baffling or irrelevant. At the same time, I long for some old time religion.

In part, my distaste for poetry is a rebellion against Romanticism, I know, and a rebellion against youth. My own. (How could I have been so stupid?) But it was never poetry’s fault, and it’s me who’s changed; me who had silly, unrealized expectations.

Another way of confessing this is, it took me too long to come into contact with Auden.

"To live outside the law, you must be honest" (Bob Dylan).

It’s not like I prefer the traditional over the experimental, or the formal over the visual. I like the original over the cliché, the lively over the staid, which isn’t saying much.

I want poetry to be sceptical about its insights and conclusions. But I also want poetry to be something other than another layer of advertising, technical lingo or other form of 21st century linguistic falseness.

Recently, therefore, I was pleased to discover Sooner (Coach House Books, 2005) by Margaret Christakos, which reminded me how wise, funny, irritating, insightful, dull, confusing, sexy, marginal, neurotic, blissful and mind-blowing poetry can be.

The book also stirred up my thoughts about poetry, which led to the above speculations.

The poems by Christakos seemed to be engaged in the same kind of struggle with their aesthetics that I’ve described above. Providing songs for angels while also proving the non-existence of God. Giving reasons to celebrate life regardless of the collapse of truth and the new unreliability of spontaneous emotion, however reflected or refracted.

Or whatever.

The book consists of seven sections. Some consist of a single long poem. Others contain a series of shorter poems. One lovely, Romantic Ode is about the voice of Peter Gzowski.


The voice of XXX the bodiless lover XXX is a trope
for the world’s XXX brooding power to XXX scintillate our aliveness


I picked up Sooner in a bookstore and bought it because of the two long poems that begin it. I read a few pages and wanted to possess them, wanted more time to read and contemplate them.

Each is a narrative. Characters do things, move through time. The reader sees different perspectives. Characters seek to fulfil desire and are disappointed. Ideals are unfulfilled, held back by reality.

"Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow" – TS Eliot.

This is the essence of wisdom. To keep trying, though failure is certain. Every destination is a new beginning and other cliches of this sort.

This is how the first one starts:


If there was a place in her body that could
turn to ice then melt again she might have seen

the point of walking forehead-first into the restaurant whose air
conditioning charged one with the sense of a balloon-shaped planet

whistling oxygen at alarming speed The park attracted her lungs
with a movement of green shadow She laid her body

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx on the grass like a wrestler felled by brute force


I trust this voice. I will go anywhere with it.

But, okay, not every section of the book pleased me equally. The section RETREAT DIARY I found hard to fathom. This I wasn’t keen on:


This is my new book.
This is of jouissance and I
half smile. You are some

one I like a lit
tle playing to lose pants fair
ly. Her middle fin

gers smell of the juice
before the curtains tank. …


But I appreciated the experimental spirit exhibited throughout. I sensed an engagement both with life and with language. This is vague and untechnical, but I mean it as high praise.

I'm happy to say I’d read anything by Christakos at this point, and I surely mean to read her again soon(er - ha - too irresistible). I trust her to read me somewhere interesting – and to provide fun (and sometimes strange and difficult) companions along the way.

She has helped renew poetry for me. An unending process, I imagine.

Thanks, MC.

Some links to check out:

1 comment:

Lemon Hound said...

Sorry I missed this engaged reading of Christakos! Very happy to see it.
In the recent issue of Open Letter she discusses her recombinant writing process, describing a similar crisis with poetry after becoming a mother--talk about the reality of body and daily colliding with a poetic practice! Of course Christakos has the same impulses as most poets do--look at, describe, and express. She does it in a way that makes the everyday seem otherworldly, though, as you point out. And you quote one of my favorite passages from Sooner.
And yes, I don't always get every gesture. But then there are few poets that I can say I get every gesture of, and if I could, likely I would be so bored I would be asleep.