In the spring of 1969, four of the world’s most prominent poets—Charles Tomlinson, Jacques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguinetti, and Octavio Paz—assembled in Paris for one of the most beguiling literary projects of the second half of the 20th century. Earlier that year, Paz, who has been living in Paris, convinced the noted French publisher Gallimard to underwrite the composition of the first European renga. For a week, the poets gathered in the basement of the Hôtel Saint Simon every morning, writing interlacing couplets and tercets. The result is the first quadra-lingual renga, a chain poem in Spanish, English, French, and Italian. A few years later, Tomlinson translated the whole thing into English, and it was published in England, to some acclaim, in 1972.
I first discovered Renga: A Chain of Poems (Brazillier, 1972) in a used bookstore in New York during my first year of graduate school. I was transfixed. I was so obsessed with the idea of a group poem that I persuaded three other poets to join me in our own four-person uni-lingual renga. We opted for nights rather than mornings, and upstate New York won out over Paris. But, eventually we completed our own renga: sixteen poems divided into four sections of four poems. Each poem was comprised of four four-line stanzas. There were a lot of fours. I’m not sure it was all that great, but I can still recite entire poems we wrote. To this day, it is the most collaborative poetic project I’ve ever worked on.
Poets are drawn the renga for this very reason—it is both personal and collective. A classic Japanese genre, the renga is a chain poem consisting of interlocking stanzas or tankas. A traditional renga can be written by as few as two people but generally involves anywhere from four to fifteen. The renga begins when one poet writes a three-line haiku then passes it to a collaborator who composes a two-line seven-syllable couplet before sliding it over to a third poet who responds with another haiku. The 3/2/3/2/3/2 pattern continues until the poem ends, usually at 36 or 100 lines, composed collectively. The tankas talk to each other, both formally and thematically, and for a poet this is thrilling. Writing poetry can be a solitary business. And a slow one. So, the chance to work with others to create a group poem that is actually done in one night is pretty dreamy. At its best, a renga is an infinite loop of dialogue between writer and audience and writer.
Crossing State Lines: An American Renga is certainly not the event of the Paris project, but it is nonetheless a fascinating book. While Paz and company had a global poetry in mind, Crossing State Lines is far more nationalistic in scope. In his introduction, co-editor Bob Holman acknowledges the book’s bigness: “[F]ifty-four U.S. poets collaborating on a single poem represents the kind of audacious hope that is the whole project of America.” One reads this sentence and thinks of two things. First, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Are we to see this book as “presidential” or Obamaesque in some way? And second, one can’t help but recall Walt Whitman’s famous claim about America and poetry: “The United States themselves are the greatest poem.” To be sure, there are strains of Whitman both in the macro scope of this book and in its micro jags and eddies.
As it turns out, the renga is a surprisingly appropriate genre for America—its lower 48 states are themselves a kind of chain poem, connecting and referencing each other in literal and metaphorical ways. Crossing State Lines goes after these links on formal and thematic levels. The fifty-four poets were each asked to write one ten-line poem organized thusly: a tercet, a couplet, a tercet, and a closing couplet. The alternating three-line stanza and two-line stanza turn out to be a tidy homage to the 3/2 patterning of the renga while at the same time freeing up the poets to compose a slightly longer individual poem. This particular renga takes as its subject matter that belligerent beauty that is America, which mean its topics run the gamut. You get President Obama’s election, gay and lesbian rights, the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the Dust Bowl, white collar crime, poetry itself, and of course the vast expanse of space. This mélange of news, history, and politics combined with the quick turnaround time for the poets (they each had two days to respond to the previous poem and pass it along) makes for a collection that feels immediate, even current.
The strength of the book is the diversity of voices. Between the same covers you find a poet like Rae Armantrout snuggling up next to Nicole Cooley and Billy Collins poetically spooning Rita Dove. Anne Waldman rolls over to find Vijay Seshadri alongside Marilyn Hacker. There is a fantastic foursome of David St. John, Marie Howe, C. K. Williams, and Heather McHugh—sort of a paginated Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice. Since most of the poets incorporate a line or a trope from the previous poem into their own, this lyrical interlacing gets accentuated in pleasing (and surprising) ways.
Even though the work is supposed to work collectivity, individual poems do stand out. I found myself drawn to Edward Hirsch’s contribution:
How many state lines did we cross
as we drove across a wide country
sometimes divided sometimes united
Every state is a state of mind
Every love is a drive
toward a move perfect union
Those are some fun stanzas. Thoughtful without being pretentious, well crafted but not overly wrought. I kept thinking of “wide country” as the wide country of poetry and how each of the renga-ers are themselves long distance drivers, steering the car of their poem across the many boundaries of poetry and poetic composition.
Add to that political composition, as many of the poems in this volume use the contemporary moment as a forum for political commentary. One of the best is by Brenda Hillman, who begins her poem by responding to a series of questions posed by Michael Ryan in his final couplet: “How many poets does it take to change / a country? How many presidents? How much pain?” Those are fantastic questions, to which Hillman responds at first with the local “—& a lightbulb /turns earth. Berkeley lovers in a / Thai café: mint, sweet // basil” but goes global:
You can take money
Out of the empire but you
Can’t take the empire—
Look. Enough of these wars. A
Rabbit crouches in the moon—
Of course, the dashes evoke Dickinson but also the unsaid, the unsayable, perhaps. The elided. The redacted. I like the quick leaps from the personal to the political and then back to the local. Or, is it the other way around? No matter, it all works.
A few poems later, Mark Doty picks up on the dashes and blanks, though for him, the connection is missing links. Through an exploration of the compositional similarities of Cuneiform and texting, he asks what writing can and cannot do. “How much to hope?” he queries. The following quartet of poems by Carl Phillips, David Lehman, Adrienne Rich, and Jorie Graham all try to answer Doty’s question, in part through a similar wrestling with the past and present. Here are the opening lines of Graham’s lyric: “But actually nothing’s—nothing’s—gone, and nothing’s new / About this new slip chip of time we’ve just now crossed the border of.” There are those dashes again, that incredulity toward the past and the present, toward stasis and motion.
If Crossing State Lines has a theme, it’s probably just that—motion. Movement. Crossing. Changing. Even the final poem by Robert Hass, which I will not give away, turns on the whole notion of turning. Where are we going? What are we pivoting toward? What, exactly, are we turning in to? This collection does a fantastic job of exploring these questions on poetic, cultural, and national levels.
Let me be clear: I really like Crossing State Lines. It is really well done and great fun to follow. It’s one of the rare poetry books you want to read from front to back in the order the poems appear. But, as you probably anticipated, we have now reached the point in the review where I am required to get worked up about writers not included. So, here goes: For starters, I would have liked to see an even more diverse pool of poets. I know I praise the book’s eclecticism, but most of the writers represent what a critic friend of mine calls “the poetry shirt people.” So, more poets not part of the AWP set would be welcome, as would the inclusion of some younger poets like Tracy K. Smith, Matthew Zapruder, The Dickman Brothers, Michael Robbins, Matthea Harvey, Timothy Donnelly, Terrence Hayes, or Sherman Alexie. Speaking of Alexie, since this is a book about America, it would have been particularly nice if some American Indian poets other than Joy Harjo had been invited along. Heid Erdrich, Sherwin Bitsui, Simon Ortiz, Linda Hogan all would have been great. Props to go Holman and his co-editor Carol Muske-Dukes for including people like Paul Simon and Edward Ledford, LTC, U.S. Army in the renga, but it would feel more American if more non-poets involved. What if Ryan Adams or Amber Tamblyn or Jimmy Carter or Calvin Trillin or Jim Lehrer or Oprah or some slam or street poets got to participate? That might make the book feel less precious, less of the poets and more of the people.
Part of me is also disappointed that Crossing State Lines isn’t really a renga. Rather than being one long collaborative poem written in one night, it is, in actuality, a book of fifty-four distinct poems composed over about half a year. It’s not a chain poem; it’s an anthology. And, the other part of me thinks that is just fine. Why? Because Whitman is wrong—the United States is not a poem. It is a series of poems, much like his own Leaves of Grass, constantly revising and remaking itself.