[2 April 2003]
“Books have become products like cereal or perfume or deoderant.”
Asserting that the best art satisfies and lures academic, “high”-minded specialists, as well as the colloquial masses, is nothing new. Look at the original Star Wars trilogy, or The Matrix, and the wealth of philosophical, literary, religious, and mythic roots and branches they have—and then watch them just for the cool action and effects. Either interaction with the film is a valid and, I’d say, important human act. Think about the Beatles, James Brown, Radiohead’s Ok Computer, the novels of Tim O’Brien, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish—all work that has been critically acclaimed and publicly feasted upon.
It’s this question of value, and this fusion of poles, that I have in mind when I see a collection like 101 Poems that Could Save Your Life, lauded by its own book jacket as “the first poetry anthology designed expressly for the self-help generation.”
Scott Simon’s forward makes solid points in the middle (“These poems respect our grief and experience by not blithely assuring us that things will get better. Things often don’t. What’s easier to say is that we will get better”), but is bookended by smirky humor that squeaks of pride in occupying some emotional “edge”. The forward opens by proposing poems come with warning labels and directions (“For sleeplessness, sorrow, loneliness, and grief, take two poems with water”), and closes with the final caution “Contents are definitely under pressure”.
Editor Daisy Goodwin’s introduction is a little more effective, citing the notion that poems are “the right words in the right order”, something academics almost automatically respect, and then making sure the everyday reader’s tastes are satisfied as well by asserting that “the right poem at the right time can change your life”—she then goes a step further by admitting such an instance from her own life, where a poem by C.P. Cavafy called “The Big Decision” changed hers. This ultimately led her to compile this book, which she explicitly suggests be used “for self-help purposes.” She recommends we go to the “emotional index”, scan for our ailments, and turn to the corresponding section of poems. I think about my family and friends, the issues that have troubled us, and decide to check out “Divorce”, “Hangovers”, “Getting Married”, “Staying Married” and “Friendship”. With the exception of an excerpt from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, there’s hardly a poem among these thirteen that I have use for.
In the “Divorce” section, there’s one solid poem about the tendency in some marriages to sink into emptiness, while the other three are at times vicious, and at times spirited—but I feel almost easily so—utterances equivalent to the final middle finger in a marriage.
But at least they take some kind of risk or stand. While two of the three “Friendship” poems are from canonized British poets, they are excerpted and seem to be so just to create a section for the book. It’s an almost radically neutered excerpt, not the potent entirety, of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree” and a prose excerpt of John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions that make this section, as valuable as both Blake and Donne and their particular excerpts are (admittedly, even when taken out of context like this), feel contrived. How is the Donne excerpt specifically about friendship and not other, even larger issues? What’s worse is the other poem, entitled simply “Friendship” by Elizabeth Jennings, which is quite possibly one of the most faceless, gutless, pointless, awful, and fluff-full poems I’ve ever read.
Like a lot of poems in this anthology, “Friendship” is highly formal—iambic, rhymed quatrains—and represents the worst tendency here: the tendency of being a poseur rather than a poet, one trying to write something that sounds profound, philosophical, poetic, rather than simply writing as a sweaty, solitary, aching craft of both the mind and the heart.
There are a few risky poems here that seem to really matter, and actually cause a physical reaction. Tony Hoagland’s “Perpetual Motion” is particularly ambient and admirable, while the closing of Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Darling Letters”—“Once in a while, alone,/we take them out to read again, the heart thudding/like a spade in buried bones”—is a marvelous rendering of the visceral quality of memory.
But so much here is so light. Another quick glance at the emotional index yields the following topics: “Bad Hair Day”, “Bereavement”, “Career Crisis”, “Commitment Problems”, “First Date”, “First Wrinkle”, “Is This Relationship Going Anywhere?”, “Monday Morning”, and “Retail Therapy”. Occasionally the more heavy-handed sections produce some strong work. Dorothy Parker’s “Resume”, Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning” and Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes” are widely anthologized poems from the “Rock Bottom” section, while W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (from “Bereavement”) is a great poem in any anthology.
At any rate, it’s a poem like Dickinson’s that seems out of place here. As she seems to be one of the more troubling yet interesting figures in American poetry, her work is instantly recognizable, and also just as opaque in its often mechanical and linguistic tangle. Her work can go in three and four conflicting directions at once without resolution, and it strikes me as a little odd next to the high number of epigrammatic, amusing or soapbox ra-ra poems in this book. I read Mandy Coe’s “Go to Bed with a Cheese and Pickle Sandwich” and go, “Well, isn’t this cute!” At the bottom of Rosemary Norman’s “Lullaby”, I’ve written “Big deal.” These aren’t good signs.
The problem is the poems get predictable, with the same old moves, refrains, and rhyme schemes; despite the variety of emotional ailments they address, it is done so with a general monotony of procedure and voice. And they seem to take almost zero linguistic or emotional risks for being “An Anthology of Emotional First-Aid”, but I guess we’re supposed to take that subtitle lightheartedly. I think of another specialized, ailment-driven anthology of poems—Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Redemption—which can’t fail to move a reader. It’s a compelling, urgent, meaningful, and serious anthology, one which people might actually be pulled through, while this is one through which to browse, stroll, window-shop.
I can say with certainty this book isn’t dressed up for red-blooded American guys watching the NCAA, and it’s not for halfway serious poets or readers of poetry either. It’s for everyday lightweights who aren’t normally interested in, devoted to, or even patient with the arts. It’s a way to “be into” and “use” the art. Maybe I’m abnormally well-adjusted, or more academic than I want to admit, but my everyday life already has enough helpful art floating around that I don’t need to crawl to a pink book in my purse when someone I know dies.
I can’t imagine any of these poems saving my life. I’ve come across a dozen or so that I cherish for various reasons, and I can say they’ve done more to keep me from flying off the handle or the deep end without being explicitly about depression, adultery, drugs, or bad hair. Poem’s like Jeff McDaniel’s “Disasterology”, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”, or Heather McHugh’s “Not a Prayer” sturdy my literal and literary lives with more subtlety, imagination, and less formula, categorizing, tidying. Regrettably the general reader, thinker, liver depends on these training wheels. While it’s obvious we might consider the appearance of this anthology a symptom of the danger our emotional lives are in, we could say the same for the health of our literacy.
If one of these saves someone’s life, or even just gets them looking into poets they might not have before, then that’s probably what matters most. Some might find genuine use here, and ultimately, I have no qualm with that. The arts should be used, not in the sense of exploitation or as in mere ornament, but they should serve—we should look at them as toy-like tools. I just won’t be keeping many of these in my garage.