The debut collection of poetry might just deserve its own taxon in the categorizing of literary contributions. One can almost picture beneath the heading of ‘Debuts’ a series of subheadings such as ‘Showed Great Promise Only at First,’ ‘Terrible Poetry for How Great the Poet Became,’ ‘Only Collection Published During Lifetime,’ ‘Strong Start to a Strong Career,’ ‘Published Debut Only to Be Murdered for Political Reasons,’ and maybe even ‘Sophomore Effort Non-Existent.’ (With the proliferation of ultra-small presses adept enough at registering for ISBN numbers, contributions to this last category seem to grow smaller every year, no matter the quality of the poet’s debut.) Every poet read today, save for the handful of posthumous resurrections and those who predated the secular publishing industry as we know it (c.1450CE), had to suffer through the publication of their debut collection.
W.H. Auden’s story of first publication is one of fraternal support. Stephen Spender, Auden’s good friend as well as the first Poet Laureate to the United States to have not been born here, picked through two hundred of Auden’s early poems, gathered together a mere twenty, hand-printed them in a small run, and titled the collection, as if giving us perfect examples, Poems. This ten-to-one ratio of poetic output to poetic publication seems appropriate for any young poet, let alone a poet who would go on to become W.H. Auden, one of the more influential poets of the last hundred years. Without much exertion we can find Auden’s influence on many of today’s younger poets. James Arthur, who will have his debut collection Charms Against Lightning published by Copper Canyon Press in November, is one such poet. In Arthur’s collection there are forty-seven poems. We do not know quite how many were written and then pared down to this number, but, frankly, whatever that number was, the end result, these forty-seven, is far too many. Had Arthur maybe kept it to an Auden twenty, the reader could feel a bit more of the power the handful of good poems found here contain.
By the tenth poem in Arthur’s collection one begins to feel the heavy hand of Auden’s influence. (It won’t be until the thirty-sixth that Arthur finally dedicates one of his poems to Auden.) In “Ghost Life” (the third poem) we are presented with the first of many walkers. In this case it is the narrator’s own shadow that ‘steps outside, a knit scarf / double-wrapped around his throat, / wearing his feel-good canvas coat’ which incidentally Arthur calls ‘a hand-me-down’. In Arthur’s fourth poem “Utopia” we find an almost subverted version of Auden’s “The More Loving One,” where after contending with the stars rather than having the stars disappear we have the man who is ‘erased’. Take a look at Auden’s and then Arthur’s following,
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
This is better than lying on a cold suburban beach
admiring stars so far away, he’d be seeing them
as they were before the dawn of human speech.
This is another country, not an ordinary place,
where a man, no matter how exceptional
he felt, would finally be erased.
There are many other places that we find Arthur contending with Auden’s influence (timepieces litter a few of the poems and, maybe only coincidence, there are quite a few geese flying about), and of course, these days, it is almost impossible to speak of poetic influence without bringing up Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. So there, it has been brought up. But only in order to remove it from the discussion because maybe this is the anxiety of influence that Arthur is dealing with, but maybe it is something else altogether. Something that Auden himself would have gladly embraced.
Those two hundred poems of Auden’s that Spender sifted through would all eventually see the light of publication about seventy years later when Katherine Bucknell would gather them together in an aptly-titled collection Juvenilia. In her introduction she tells the story of Auden’s early years of writing poems. She says that Auden “looked for examples everywhere and imitated everything he liked,” that his “brilliance as an apprentice poet lay in his talent for imitation. He fell in love with his most important models and identified with them completely…” In fact, Auden even gave this practice a name: “literary transference.” So maybe Arthur is in fact practicing a bit of his own literary transference. One can hope.
There are, though, a few poems in the collection that feel like Arthur’s own. Some are very good, some are not. The editor of the book has done Arthur a good turn, by bookending the collection with two of his best. In the title poem “Charms Against Lightning,” which opens the collection, the reader experiences a great use of anaphoric technique when Arthur lists all the atrocities we may need charms against, such as, “losing your fingers, drinking detergent, / earthquakes, baldness, divorce, against / falling in love with a child.” Each stanza, which is more one long line enjambed once or twice and then indented below the first, is led with the word “Against” and gives the poem an almost sermonic rhythm. For example,
Against lupus and lawsuits, lying stranded between nations,
against secrets and frostbite, the burring of trains
that never arrive
You could almost nod your head and say Amen at the close of each stanza. And if you did, you wouldn’t be far off from at least one of Arthur’s marks. The biblical, as well as biblical technique, can be found in a few places within the collection.
The poem that impressed Don Share, one of the editors of Poetry, enough to ask in astonishment “How did they do that?” is “The Land of Nod.” In the poem Arthur tells us how as a young boy he would read the story of God’s casting Cain from the Garden of Eden into the Land of Nod and how Arthur “thought Nod / would be a place where the blue scilla / would bloom gray, a country of the rack and screw.” Arthur goes on to say that “As a grown man, I’ve heard that Nod / never was a nation…but a mistranslation of ‘wander'”. Mr. Share goes on to say “This poem seems to me just to come seamlessly from somebody’s mind.” It is difficult to disagree with Share on this, but one can agree and still find the poem lacking. Sometimes that flow is the result of too little editing. Mr. Share, to make his point, says ‘You go from those blue scillas, that bloom gray which kind of sounds like an awful line of lyric poem and what it’s really talking about is a country of the rack and screw, / the serrated sword where the very serving cups were bone.’ That line does sound a bit like ‘an awful line of lyric poem’, and you know what they say about quacking like a duck.
The forty-five lackluster poems, bookended by the two best, oscillate between utopian and dystopian landscapes where one moment we might “incline to the future” and the next we might find “a fire truck in fallen flowers. So much mass / under so much nothing.” The problem with the collection is that with this oscillating comes an unevenness, one of the most common traits of debut collections. Arthur may be showing us what it is like to live in a time where many people are dealing with the dystopian vision of the present and the hope of a utopian future, but unfortunately it feels as if he is only showing us something we already know rather than delving to the root and cause of our situation. He has in this case only brought the news rather than an artistic commentary on it, leaving us feeling as if we are all living in the Land of Nod, wandering from day to day. Unfortunately, this does not feel intentional. Instead, it feels like a byproduct of a young poet who is as skillful as he is undisciplined. It will be interesting to see years from now just what category this debut collection will fall under.
Arthur’s poems are at his best when the solipsism of young writing has been pushed away or edited out, and it would not be a complete surprise to see his poetry mature into something great. We may just find this collection under the heading “An Uneven Debut From a Poet That Went on to Astonish.” There have certainly been quite a few of those.