Goldbarth still infuses his poems with an old-fashioned, childlike wonder at the marvels of our world, along with a bemused chuckle at the ways in which we so obviously fall short of our lofty goals.
Albert Goldbarth is almost certainly a happy man. For most contemporary American poets, being accused of such as thing would be a slur. But Goldbarth still infuses his poems with an old-fashioned, childlike wonder at the marvels of our world, along with a bemused chuckle at the ways in which we so obviously fall short of our lofty goals.
In his new volume, Everyday People, Goldbarth intends for all of us to share those lofty goals. After 31 books, he continues to be driven by a devout curiosity about both the intellectual—he devotes poems to Darwin, Darwin’s wife Emma, Darwin’s contemporaries, 19th century German artist Adolph von Menzel, and English scientist Rupert Sheldrake among others—and the profane; in his expansive verse, we find cameo appearances by joint-smoking car mechanics, a divorcé who sleeps—like a feral animal—in the woods, even Rod Stewart. The bifurcated nature of his subjects and their bulk, their sometimes meandering line lengths, are all the distinguishing physical characteristics of a Goldbarth poem, yet he’s as much interested in metaphysics and cosmology as he is in alcoholism and infidelity (usually other people’s).
It might be easy to dismiss Goldbarth’s symphonic voice as predictable, as much a limited palette as the chamber pieces of Philip Levine’s blue collar lyrics. As Eric McHenry suggested in Slate almost a decade ago, Goldbarth resists the idea that lyricism is defined by an economy of language, in favor of a discursive and at times outright conversational mode. Whatever Goldbarth’s many pleasures, there’s an awareness too that the work itself is long-winded, exclamatory, even at times ranting. But his metaphoric control is so enviable, as in “The salmon drags across/the final miles of migration and it dwindles/in its task, like an eraser,” that his extended comparisons remain both artful and inevitably precise.
In “A Great Volume,” a four-page riff on Darwin’s interest in seaweed, Goldbarth wanders perhaps farthest afield, pausing to begin a new section of the poem with an almost prosaic transition, “One of those nights with good wine and companionship/where the high-minded bullshit accumulates.” It’s the perfect example of how Goldbarth uses levity to deflect the most frequent criticism of his work, that his poems don’t offer the intense and sustained control of those small lyrics. It’s an argument that he’s heard before, and not only is he aware of it, at first blush he appears to agree with the assertion. Take these lines from “A Story,” a poem that begins with an epigraph from Goldbarth’s late colleague Margaret Rabb.
implies sequential happenstance—a story—although
we “know” this is in part our human need to read causation
into our serendipity-finds of homo erectus bones,
and the backroom plotting of timber and oil barons,
and the marriages and sunderings that mark dynastic lines
like the knows on a quipu, “I walked through the rubble
and glitz of the latter twentieth century, and I saw X,
which was flabbergastingly horrid, then Y, then Z,
these left me beaming out a living light
like an angel pricked with breathing holes.”
Indeed that poem may be the best synecdoche not only for Goldbarth’s work in this book, but for his career. He’s acknowledging that the catalog of metaphors in such highly referential poetry—including his own—can be overwhelming. After all, this is a man who called his most recent volume of selected poems The Kitchen Sink. Buried within “A Story” however is a poet with a confident worldview, one that manages a biting criticism of other, less ambitious contemporary work: the poetry of reportage has evolved to such a dominant state that its movements, even when they dissolve into finely wrought metaphor, are cliché. In essence, he’s written a type of poem that he never wants to write again.
If Goldbarth belongs to a school, he is surely its sole member; he’s not as interested in the colloquial as his contemporaries, those poets that Mark Halliday and David Graham label as purveyors of “ultra-talk,” and Goldbarth almost religiously shuns the ephemeral or deliberately obtuse qualities of what Stephen Burt calls “elliptical poetry.” Yet to discuss Goldbarth using expressed or implied comparisons to other poets is a poor choice. If metaphors about the Beatles have dominated popular music criticism for the past 45 years, then so too has the urge to define poets solely in terms of their antecedents and contemporaries. What’s more striking about Everyday People is that the catalog of proper nouns that populate the Goldbarthian poem never threaten to subsume the lives of the people who live there; “Our Heroine Ellen, and Three Pals” demonstrates Goldbarth’s prodigious gift, the ability to distill from all of that emotional Wagnerism a sense of empathy for each character he sees. Yes, he’s more interested in the other rather than the self, but Goldbarth wants to make sure that the reader sees us all as equals, including Short George, one of Ellen’s titular pals, who makes the following cameo:
At home tonight Short George is making up,
online, the rules and shoes and musics and peninsulas
of an entire cosmos. Why not? Someone hurt him
once, and here, he heals. Someone grabbed him
by the smitten-bone, grabbed him by the spigot
where the juice of infatuation enters the blood, and he was severely
pummeled, and never the same, but here he’s the master
of clouds and swords and fishing fleets and mass migrations
and here he can sorcer into existence a cure for the thing
that eats it way through Ellen’s shoulder and Keats’s lungs,
and here Short George can manfully declare his love for Dora,
which he’d never do in the bruises and blades of the “real world,”
Goldbarth prefers to write from his comfortable perspective, a voice that time and again pulls off the nearly impossible trick of being didactic and inviting both. It’s no accident that so many of his poems have at their center a pleasant and domestic scene, say drinking wine on a porch, or the dinner party from “A Great Volume.” Often, the voice conjures Goldbarth himself, doing the observational work of a poet: reading the Fortean Times, a magazine of strange phenomena, in a library chair, or eavesdropping on a public conversation. The openness of that voice, and our willingness to listen to it (sometimes at great length) is Goldbarth’s greatest accomplishment. He’s an intellectual omnivore, but his interpretation never comes at the expense of the reader’s own. He’s simply, along with David Kirby, one of our most generous working poets, and that generosity extends to a type of thank you found in the book’s concluding poem, which ends, “In my time I wrote this very thing./In your time you read it.” And that’s ultimately the idea that binds Everyday People, and Goldbarth’s oeuvre, together, that beyond reportage lies one more important fact: we did these things together.