Steve Almond’s Bad Poetry Corner #20: Ascension

By

(Writing wretched verse so you don’t have to since 1995… but this is the end of the line)

With an introduction by Matthew Zapruder **

Before we get started on the final, yes final, Bad Poetry Corner by Steve Almond, here are a few words from renowned poet Matthew Zapruder, author of Come on All You Ghosts:

The poems in Steve Almond’s Bad Poetry column were written by a young man (and not so young man), trying to figure out some things and be a writer. He has affairs, suffers bouts of self-absorption, and is self-aggrandizing and judgmental in an ultimately harmless way. Reading the column I remembered what it was like to be that age, also just starting to write. I was, of course, a total jerk, and I’m glad I hardly knew me.

The impulse to be a writer is often ridiculous, mostly unexamined, and almost certainly motivated by all sorts of retrospectively embarrassing desires to be listened to and admired. But it is not “bad,” not in the least. It is, actually, good, even noble, especially given most of the other options.

Yet it is also the case that the poems he has offered us over these past months are truly quite bad. But why? In Bad Poetry, Almond writes many interesting and useful things about metaphor, style, enjambment, compound words, and the dubious ethics of appropriating the suffering of others into your poems. It is a compendium of terrible decisions typical of our literary environment. Thinking about why these decisions are such bad ones will help any writer get past superficialities.

But the column was about something far more interesting and important than mere style, or literary merit. “Bad” is a moral judgment masquerading as an aesthetic preference. We reserve the term for art that doesn’t just bore or displease, but somehow offends. For Almond, these poems are “bad” because they are unethical. And they are unethical because they are dishonest.

Honesty in writing is of course not the same thing as accuracy. A piece of writing can be completely invented, yet emotionally authentic; on the other hand, writing can be factually true (autobiographically revealing and painful for instance) yet somehow emotionally manipulative and false. And some poems, like the ones in these columns, can be both false on the surface and also unintentionally revealing of immature emotional states, without any other merits. In Almond’s analyses of the poems, it becomes clear that what is wrong with the poems is also what was wrong with him.

So why was Almond not so good at writing poetry, when it turned out he would be very, very good at writing prose? I think it was not just because he was young. In the poems you can feel him searching for, and failing to find, some way of distancing him from his own raw feelings and turning those feelings into something that will be of use to others. In his analysis of “Weather Channel,” he writes “What was I trying to say here? What was I ever saying? Someone, anyone, help me. I’m dying in here. But that’s not a poem; it’s a suicide note.” Clearly the mechanisms of poetry did not provide enough distance for him from himself, and did not keep him from sinking into didacticism and self-absorption.

For whatever reasons of personality and inclination, Almond needed the mechanisms of prose, particularly story — character, setting, plot, etc. — to channel his emotional intensity, intelligence, antic and disruptive hilarity, and deep sadness. He needed those qualities of prose writing in order to get enough away from himself to be true.

Almond writes, about reading Thomas Lux’s poetry and comparing it to his own, “I knew there was something different and better about Lux’s poems, but I chalked it up to the poverty of my imagination.” It is not richness of imagination that makes some poetry better than others. Nor is it facility with language, or (despite what Aristotle thought) inventiveness of metaphor, or accurate visual imagery, or lovely sounds, or anything at all having to do with style or aesthetics. It is a matter of the purpose, the necessity, the emotional truth, of the poem. He goes on to write, “It never occurred to me that my heart was at issue.” Yes, it always is.

In his Confessions, Augustine writes about the same period in his life, “For I had my back toward the light, and my face toward the things on which the light falls, so that my face, which looked toward the illuminated things, was not itself illuminated.” This, I think, is a typical and understandable mistake almost all of us make when we are starting out as writers. We don’t understand that writing about ourselves does not have to be self-absorbed or narcissistic. It can be a humble admission that we are ordinary members of the human race, and that our experiences (in however direct or altered fashion they appear in the writing) are like everyone else’s. To let a little light fall on one’s own face is the writer’s task, Almond didn’t achieve it in his poems. He fell on his face. But that fall, or series of falls, produced the column, a generous and funny literary reckoning.

***

Without further ado, here it is: Steve Almond’s FINAL BAD POETRY CORNER:

Ascension

He is a singular flock in a faded cloak
wooing with a sack of bread crumbs
in one hand, birds limned fist to elbow,
elbow to breast, cooing as if strummed.
Tourists stare from a bridge. Thin face,
underbite, eyes that blink too fast:
a flight risk chased from another state
and settled to this strange holy task.
The geese yank his pants with cheddar beaks,
honk at the pigeons and doves who dance
and peck his fingertips whitely, sleek
hungry messengers unfurled like fans.
Who wouldn’t want to be clothed in wings,
carried up each day to the heavens?

Yes, who wouldn’t? I mean: a bird! I mean: fly like an eagle. It’s such a totally killer metaphor for freedom and, like, the celestial.

But why was I writing about the celestial when that I was (in fact) an atheist? Because, as a Bad Poet, it was my specific job to pontificate about all the stuff I didn’t know or understand.

I also wrote about the marginalized and mangled, the diseased and destitute, those figures who made me feel a shivery sense of commiseration but who were, upon further inspection, receptacles of my own self-pity. That was me, folks: Jesus Christ, MFA. That was me, shamelessly slinging the liturgical hash, limning fists and cheddaring beaks. I couldn’t help myself.

None of us can. We’re all teenagers at heart, hiding from the mundane pointless sting of our woe. Listening to loud shitty music, cooking up feuds, scrawling purple code into journals. That’s, actually, what I love about us.

I’ve long been of the belief that people get better as writers because they get sick of their bad decisions. That’s all I’ve been trying to do, lo these many months. I exhort you to do the same thing, if you can stand it. Look back at your old poems and stories and rants. Figure out who were beneath all the fraught adverbs. (What was happening in your life? Who were you hurting. Who was hurting you? What did you want? What made you afraid? What were you afraid to want?) Then write about that. It’s a form of forgiveness, actually.

A few years back, I had the chance to examine the early drafts of one of my heroes, a fellow by the name of Vonnegut. He had this one novel that was just putrid, a kind of pulp version of World War II. He had to look at those bad decisions for 20 years before he wrote Slaughterhouse Five. It all takes longer than we think it will. For us Bad Poets, anyway.

*

As for the Good Poets, let us now praise them. Without their radical eloquence and honesty, I would never have worked up the nerve to launch so many leaky ships from the shores of overwrought metaphor.

Honestly: poets are the sexiest people on earth. They stand no chance of making any money. They’re totally out of touch with the relevant bourgeoisie enticements. There’s a decent chance they haven’t even seen The Wire. So let me thank a few of them.

First and foremost to Dave Blair, author of the remarkable collection Ascension Days, who suffered many of these Bad Poems with a bottomless and inebriated patience, and who remains a true friend and hero. To the hundreds of poets I’ve watched read over the years, often while weeping with envy: D.A. Powell, Tim Siebles, Mary Szybist, Seamus Heaney, Camille Dungy, Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Stephen Dunn, Maxine Kumin, Frank Bidart, Tony Hoagland…

It’s a long fucking list.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should do everything. But I do believe we’re all doing the same work. We’re all teammates in the great contest of mercy.

Read as much poetry as you can stand. Late at night, alone or with company, drunk, nude, whatever. These folks won’t waste your time – not nearly as well as you do anyway. If you pay sufficient attention to their work, to the effect generated by a few precise words, your sentences will start to seem bloated and insecure. As they should.

But why listen to me when you can listen to Kim Addonizio? This poem is from her debut, The Philosopher’s Club, a book I keep reading, over and over, in the hopes someday I’ll get it right.

What the Dead Fear

On winter nights, the dead
see their photographs slipped
from the windows of wallets,
their letters stuffed in a box
with the clothes for Goodwill.
No one remembers their jokes,
their nervous habits, their dread
of enclosed places.
In these nightmares, the dead feel
the soft nub of the eraser
lightening their bones. They wake up
in a panic, go for a glass of milk
and see the moon, the fresh now,
the stripped trees.
Maybe they fix a turkey sandwich
or watch the patterns on the TV.
It’s all a dream anyway.
In a few months
they’ll turn the clocks ahead,
and when they sleep they’ll know the living
are grieving for them, unbearably lonely
and indifferent to beauty. On these nights
the dead feel better. They rise
in the morning refreshed, and when the cut
flowers are laid before their names
they smile like shy brides. Thank you,
thank you, they say. You shouldn’t have,
they say, but very softly, so it sounds
like the wind, like nothing human.

***

Fear not, Bad Poetry Corner fans, a collection of these columns is forthcoming from Steve Almond, available for pre-order soon!

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →