Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Coin of the Realm and Haiku

After reading Carl Phillips' collection of essays, Coin of the Realm, I see more clearly what draws me to his poetry. His poems aim at seduction of the reader, through beauty that comes from authority that, in turn, comes, from athletic thinking. There are fine essays here on individual poets, such as George Herbert and T. S. Eliot, and on individual poems, such as George Oppen's "Psalm," Gwendolyn Brooks's "A light and diplomatic bird," and Sylvia Plath's "Winter Trees." There is also a long substantial essay on the Psalms. These essays give a strong sense of the poetic qualities that Phillips value: besides beauty, a prayerful attitude akin to desire in its openness; an exquisite control.

Fine as these essays are, I prefer the essays on poetics, which are illustrated by a wealth of examples from a wide range of poets. In defending the use of association in poetry, Phillips also points out its limits, of final clarity and ultimate pattern. His examination of what makes a prose poem is judicious and thoughtful, in the course of which he throws out this gem:

... the lyric poem is a torso. Without the extremities of arms, legs, head, the torso has to serve as representative of all that's missing, has to resonate in the manner of Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo. 

In the essay "Abstraction on Parnassus: American Poetry of the 1950s" he looks at the poetry of Ginsberg, Levertov, Creeley, Orson, Berryman and O'Hara to show how the post-war Americans wrote on the assumption that content determined form. It is clear that Phillips sees himself in the same American lineage.

Most valuable to me is his essay "Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry." He begins the essay by describing how his class responds to a poem by Langston Hughes called "Island." Before he reveals the name of the poet, the class dwells on its "existential" meaning. After he tells them that the poem is by Hughes, the class becomes certain that the sea voyage in the poem is a veiled reference to Middle Passage. When Phillips adduces the fact that Hughes was gay, the inability to reach the island becomes, for the class, a metaphor for socially enforced isolation. Phillips thus shows how poetic identity can narrow the interpretation of a poem. He is against such narrowing.

I also enjoyed his coming-out essay "Sea Level." His interview, however, I find evasive. The two essays on books and reading do not give anything very new.


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i tear the lid slowly
off the can of soup for lunch--
the mounted cop squeezes his thighs

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