David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Portland!

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Portland Goes Wild for Mathew Dickman and the Objectivist Tradition

Now: I can’t tell you whether or not two days ago I was in a brief e-mail back and forth with Matthew Dickman. I can’t tell you whether or not we were e-mailing a few hours before his book launch and reading for Mayakovsky’s Revolver at our downtown Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. I can’t tell you whether I mentioned to him that Wendy Willis and I were planning on getting super drunk before arriving for the 7:30pm start time. And since I can’t tell you whether or not I actually wrote that, or did or did not get super drunk — or whether Wendy and I treat whiskey and champagne as strictly medicinal this week since we’re both fighting colds, strictly medicinal — then I can’t tell you either whether or not Matthew wrote back right away to say where he may or may not have been going prior to the reading with Carl Adamshick, or if the word “brewery” was in the answer. Can’t tell you. Might not have been like that. Probably not. Not much. At least.

I can tell you that some two hundred Portlanders packed the top floor of Powell’s City of Books to hear the home town kid read from his new volume. I can tell you the crowd had such the feel of a home court advantage that Dickman not once but twice stage-whispered something to his mom and then fielded questions from two other family members, including what looked like a teenage nephew who asked (I was a bit out of range) something about whether writing poetry helps get girls. Uncle Matthew gave a disapproving smile and said, “No.”

Matthew Dickman is a poet with a scholarly knowledge of poetry and an evangelist’s zeal for the art. Listening to his winning, generous spirit got me thinking about the ancestry of his vivid poems. His generation of poets, those born in the 1970s, a decade after my generation, has embraced a materialist aesthetic. Not materialistic, mind you. but materialist.

These new Materialist Poets, I’ll call them, write as if all things, including ideas and experience, are intertwined and phenomenal, that material reality is actual energy, that matter in human experience (whether it’s sex, siblings, the body, the mind, cities, public transportation, food, dog grooming, television, pop music) is primary. But the spiritual is secondary. Dickman’s poetry is a mashup of the Denise Levertov slash Gerald Stern strain of American poetic ecstatic-ism with a post-Cosby Show, post-immigrant cool of Objectivist distillation and Confessional litany-making baked in.

It’s a sign of the democratization of American poetry that a Westerner like Matthew Dickman can be so influenced by East Coast neo-shtetalists like Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, and David Ignatow — and, naturally, Allen Ginsberg and Louis Zukofsky. It’s like middle class American Jewishness in the post-war era got translated away from ethnic experience into a Northwest working class 21st century cognizance, viewpoint, and perspective — all of it absolutely urban, all of it nursed on post-racial television, and all of it fashioning an uncoded form of irony that make “In the room, the women come and go / talking about Michaelangelo” seem like English translated into Croatian translated into Swahili and finally translated back into English again with a dappled, sepia sort of sophistication and double-down ambiguity. All of that cognizance — Dickman’s combination of genial expansiveness and old-fashioned yawpishness — has come to make his poetry sincerely his and, in this new book, distinctively his.

Popular too. The tradition of the man in the street with some big-hearted suffering has found two great post-Objectivist practitioners since the Vietnam era, one a Westerner (Larry Levis), the other a Southerner (Rodney Jones). Those two are precursors to what I’m calling the Materialist Poets, and the lineage to Dickman’s body of work, so far, seems direct.

But, wow, thinking of it, those Objectivist poets of the Modernist era who never got the ink afforded Eliot, Frost, Pound, Stevens, and Williams just keep chugging along, don’t they? George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff and Lorien Niedecker and the others have cut such an influential swath beginning with their East Coast Imagist scrawl, then moving westward toward a Beat howl, then cruising South through the Black Mountain plosives, then finding a way, for a spell, cheek by jowl, with the televisable Spoken Word usurpation, until quieting in the workmanlike palaver of MFA-era educated, quasi-MTV poets, like Dickman, born, as I say, in the seventies, and now publishing regularly and gathering steam.

All of that was in full throat on Monday night in the bustling poet-land of Portland in Matthew Dickman’s highly pleasurable reading, a night drunk on the poesie of PDX, on food carts, on bike lanes, on fedoras, on basement bands, and single-flask backpacks. A kind of hipster clusterfuck that made me think, well, OK, there you go, just 3,000 miles from Objectivist poets to Materialist poets, and in just under a hundred years. Yes, yes, no doubt: Many hellos in America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →