July 25, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Making Poetry Matter

David Orr’s review of The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War, a new book of poems by Frances Richey, in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, quickly turns into a meditation on the role of the personal in modern poetry, but it might just as easily be a reflection on our need to construct frames through which to view any art. The book, as Orr notes, “reportedly sold at auction for a solid six figures,” an astonishing sum for a book of poetry. (As Orr points out, that’s “approximately five figures more than most poets could ever expect to see from a collection.” And have the words “auction” and “poetry” ever occurred in the same sentence?) Orr speculates that the book’s publisher, Viking, has invested not in the poems themselves but in what Hollywood calls the back story: the book offers Richey’s reflections on her relationship with her son, a Green Beret and West Point graduate who served two tours in Iraq. That’s quite a hook, and Richey’s “memoir in verse” gives us all the wrenching emotion for which publishers of the contemporary memoir hunger. A poem like “Kill School” is all act and feeling, the son’s emotionless narrative of learning to kill contrasted with his mother’s silent response:

The trainer showed him
how to rock the rabbit

like a baby in his arms,
faster and faster,

until every sinew surrendered
and he smashed its head into a tree.

They make a little squeaking sound,
he said. They cry.

He drove as he told me:
You said you wanted to know.

I didn’t ask how he felt.
Maybe I should have,

but I was biting
off the skin from my lips,

looking out
beyond the glittering line

of traffic flying
past us in the dark.

Of course, Richey’s gesture of (literally) biting her lips is a mother’s response, while the poet’s is to gaze out of the car window at the metaphoric closure forming around them. There’s a doubleness about these poems, which are simultaneously emotionally raw and . . . I started to write “polished,” but that’s not the word exactly, since it implies a specific quality of verse. Savvy, perhaps. Richey’s website includes a photo gallery that begins with Richey cradling her newborn son, then shows his progress from happy child to proud soldier, along with a blog in which the author shares stories sent in by readers who have their own experiences of families affected by the war. It’s moving, but also thoroughly professional, exactly what you’d expect from a best-selling memoirist. Her list of personal appearances includes stops at West Point, the Special Forces Senior Spouse Conference at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as well as the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Poems from the book, her author bio notes, “have appeared in a two-page spread in O, The Oprah Magazine, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column, on the Lives page of the New York Times Magazine, and the local PBS show ???New York Voices.’”

I don’t mean to criticize Richey here, only to suggest how little this resembles the experience of most poets: the marketing of this “memoir in verse” puts much greater emphasis on its role as memoir than its formal qualities as verse, and Oprah’s couch seems within reach. In fact, one of the strengths of Richey’s poetry is that it never gets in the way of the emotion. “I don’t normally read much poetry,” the Publisher’s Weekly review begins, “but Frances Richey’s The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War “ was riveting.” The reviewer, Ren?? Martin, praises Richey for evoking so precisely the anxiety shared by all mothers of soldiers in this war:

My son is a Green Beret and has deployed to Iraq three times. I understand the constant fear when he’s in harm’s way; wanting to know what he’s doing but also the dread of knowing what he’s doing; and trying to live my life constantly on the verge of tears. Her poem “Letters” made me remember when my son first went to Iraq and I’d go a month or more without hearing from him–all the while hearing news reports of soldiers being killed. The emotional relief of finally hearing from him still gives me a huge lump in my throat. Richey’s honest and raw poems will make anyone understand the pride and the anguish that mothers of warriors feel.

“Now, Mother, what’s the matter?” Hamlet asks in Act 3, Scene 4, when he enters Gertrude’s closet, and his pun on the relationship of maternity (the Latin word for mother is mater) and the matter of his tragedy has itself been the matter of endless psychoanalytic readings. In the same way, I’m tempted to ask, “What’s the matter with poetry like this?” I’m less interested in praising or criticizing Richey’s book than I am in the way both a commercial publisher like Viking and those readers who “don’t normally read much poetry” clearly value the matter of Richey’s poetry – its subject matter, the fact that this experience of war matters at this moment in our history, and the way it’s all wound up in the maternal emotions shared by Richey, Martin, and so many other mothers of soldiers.

But then, I would argue that poetry matters whether it has matter or not. The matter of poetry is what readers try to grasp through the language, but what makes poetry matter is the language itself, its resistance to being reduced to matter. Clearly, matter is easier to sell than a lot of postmodern muttering, which is why Richey’s book “reportedly sold at auction for a solid six figures,” and for many readers who “don’t normally read much poetry,” matter is a relief, since it seems to elevate their own lived experience into the solemnity of art. But if we glance back at the doubleness of the speaker’s response in “Kill School,” we might see a useful metaphor for all attempts to make poetry (into) matter: if the poem’s matter is maternity, the mother’s powerful emotions as her son vanishes into the soldier, then that matter is silent, containing all that she can’t say to her son when he tells her the story, while the poet’s response is watchful and articulate, gazing out the window in search of the perfect metaphor. In this sense, poetry is the betrayal of matter, or at least its complication, that doubleness of mind that makes what’s said (or not) strangely less important than how one says it.

We all want poetry to matter, but not if that means judging it strictly in material terms, like “a solid six figures” book sale. Obviously, describing Richey’s book in those terms is an oversimplification of her work, as I’ve suggested about the implied irony of the speaker’s stance in a poem like “Kill School,” and it smacks of sour grapes. But there’s also an implied transparency in responses to the book which describe it only in terms of its matter. While clarity may often be a virtue in poetry, transparency rarely is: what makes poetry matter isn’t simply its material, but the tension between that lived experience and the language we use to articulate it. We might call that tension metaphor, and it too is the product of a conflict that transforms, like a son who comes home changed by war.

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