Dzifa Benson’s reviews of Tracy K. Smith and August Kleinzahler appeared in The Poetry Review, Vol 108, No 4, Winter 2018.
When I was asked to do a poetry mixtape, it reminded me that I’d written about the joy of making mixtapes on my blog, Small Objects of Desire. What I hadn’t remembered was that it was the very first entry on the blog that I started seven years ago which in turn made me think about the kind of writer/person I have evolved into since then and how differently I would write up that blog post if I was to do it today. The following is how I might approach it. Impossible not to think of music when I think of a mixtape so my poetry mixtape is bookended by two songs that carry poetry in their souls.
I love songs that take me to the same place that poetry does. Most song lyrics on their own are simplistic, in comparison to poetry, relying greatly on the music to provide the emotional heft that is the modus operandus of poetry. Not so the lyrics to this one which does some heavy lifting of its own, aided by the stripped back compression (the chords of the guitar are exactly the same as chords of the bass) in the music:
Oh, we drift in and out
Oh, sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I’m just an animal looking for a home and
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I’m dead
Eyes that light up
Eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head ah ooh, ooh, ooh
It’s a song that I have to ‘rewind’ quite a few times when it pops up on my Spotify. The naïveté in the music suggests a sentimental love song on a skim listen but when you excavate the meaning in the lyric, you realise that this is a complex, darker love that traverses uncertainty (“This must be the place” not “this IS the place”), discovery, epiphany, wistfulness, loss. It’s dripping in melancholia. Ryan Gosling playing Lars in the film Lars and the Real Girl epitomises the ecstasy and the agony of the song in his clenched fist dance when he brings the life-size doll he’s been claiming is his girlfriend to a party.
Although I’m a big fan of how Anne Carson takes liberties with form and content, I’m not always a big fan of the results. The sheer audacity of this one, however, damn near took the top of my head off. I consumed it in one feverish, incredulous gulp that set me on fire. It gave me a new frame of reference for what poetry can be in how it links the ancient to the modern, how it frames love, sex and identity, how the form sits on the page which recalls a play script. It’s labelled A Novel in Verse but in a typical Carsonian paradox is neither quite verse or novel in form. It left me with the feeling of having read a novel and a poem as two separate entities. Go figure.
“It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters” – Chinese proverb.
This is a narrative poem I’ve returned to again and again recently. Sarah has said that her poem tells the story of the lost girls of female infanticide that have left Chinese gender-ratio demographics at 40,000,000 more men than women as of 2012. I am working on a manuscript about a lost girl at the moment myself so Sarah’s poem, with its superbly controlled torsion between narrative, content and wider sociopolitical meaning is part of my instruction tool-kit. I love that it bucks the trend against the current moment’s dominance of lyric poetry. It’s poetry as pure story. Sarah is compelling when she reads it off-book on stage but the beautiful words of this poem are vividly embodied in the dancer’s hands pressing into her bare back in Nathalie Teitler’s Dancing Words film.
Is there a poet writing today who is more warmly human than Smith? Is there a poet who is so determinedly, and, as I wrote in The Poetry Review, Vol. 108, No 4, Winter 2018, “more expansively empathetic across time and space”? A poet more clear-eyed in suffusing their work with compassion? More than anything, I think of her as a poet of connection. Here she is connecting her father’s death (he was an engineer who worked on the Hubble space telescope), to David Bowie to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey to history to humanity to the universe. Bowie died soon after I discovered this poem so I’ll always think of this as an elegy to him.
Her poetry is criminally overlooked these days and I have to admit that I only discovered her work in depth at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival as a consequence of my duties as one of participants of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics’ scheme. And what a discovery! During her lifetime she had a wide international following, greatly influencing Emily Dickinson (given more space Dickinson’s poetry would definitely have made it on to this mixtape!) and mentioned as a possible successor to the UK poet laureateship (how long it took from that suggestion to getting an actual female poet laureate!). Her literary reputation far surpassed that of her husband Robert Browning who is better remembered these days. Unlike many female poets of her day who limited themselves to the typically ‘female concerns’ of nature, domesticity and religion, many of her poems packed political punch. Not least this one, a dramatic monologue masquerading as a poem, which takes on layers beyond the superficial reading particularly when you consider details about her relationship with her father and the question mark about her ethnic heritage. Her life and work has me cooking up an idea for a play.
I’m convinced that the simmering luminosity of Shire’s poetry occupies a space that most poets would give their eye teeth for. It’s plainspoken and yet its imagery always crystallises into something terrible and beautiful that presses down on my lungs. Every. Time. Here another of Nathalie Teitler’s Dancing Words films refracts the meaning of female subjugation into something beyond words, into language that you feel and intuit rather than process through intellect.
Hayes’s book Hip Logic (2002) was one of the first poetry books that I read when I first started to actively write poetry and since then I’ve followed his career with keen interest. In it he treats poetry as a machine of language, where he experiments with content, form and meaning, trying to fit them smoothly into each other’s cogs, wheels and jagged spaces. ‘The Rose Has Teeth’, which he says is about the things he can’t do, is not from Hip Logic but it’s performing acrobatics with juxtapositions and negations. It’s giving the impression of letting language fall where it will to express feeling.
I am currently drafting a manuscript’s worth of poetry about Saartjie Baartmann, the Hottentot Venus. Curious about how other poets have tackled the same subject (most of them were a bit too on the nose for my liking), I did an internet search and that’s when I came across the work of Hong. This poem isn’t typical of Hong’s work, which tends to subvert, fracture and stretch language much more visibly and structurally than this. However, this spare poem is an exercise in brevity which is nonetheless imbued with an idiosyncrasy of the poet’s work, where the subject is pushed to the peripheries of meaning and all the world is contained in the gaps between stanzas. It does the very opposite of the circumlocution I’m trying to avoid in my own poetry about the same woman.
Poems that consciously interrogate and subvert how language shapes meaning will always get my attention. In her debut poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015), Lewis unfurls how captions relating to artworks in museums and galleries have contributed vastly and insidiously to the detrimental and stereotypical way that black women’s bodies are regarded. Much has been made of the title poem but it’s this gut-pummelling poem, ‘Verga’, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with the way that it breaks language down into absurdity to illustrate how women’s bodies have been the sites of violence. Naturally, I went on a hunt for the meaning of ‘verga’. It shouldn’t have surprised me but I wasn’t quite expecting that!
“Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm” is quite the poetic image of love, isn’t it? But this is a broken-hearted song, courtesy of one Mr Leonard Cohen, a poet himself. Many people have covered the song but this is by far my favourite version, taken from Flack’s debut album and an unexpected departure from the Flack that people are used to hearing on songs like ‘Killing Me Softly’.
Dzifa Benson is a poet, dramatist and performance artist based in London.