Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Nobel, the Zeitgeist, and the All-American Poem

Dear Lents, dear 82nd avenue, dear 92nd and Foster,
I am your strange son.
--Matthew Dickman, "Lents District"

When the Nobel Academy's permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl announced that U.S. literature is "too isolated, too insular," he wasn't so far from the truth as we'd like to believe. Sure, Slate Magazine is right to suggest that the Nobel committee has no clue what's going on in American literature—despite its enormous presence, especially among young writers, on the World Wide Web. But even then, what you find in American poetry, at least, as well as its fiction, is the pervasive influence of PoMo theory, self-referential language deconstruction, and the politics of Identity. Some of it is readable, some dull to the point of tears. I often find myself reading this stuff and saying, "So what?"

I recently finished reading Virgil's Aeneid and found it a kind of hack-job of Homer, nothing new in the world of criticism, but I found it out for myself. What is important is that I arrived at this conclusion only after a careful examination of Virgil's forebears—Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, and the rest of the Greeks—as well as his fellow Romans—Horace, Ovid, et al. Thus, I've learned for myself that the only way to approach literature is through a careful refinement of the sensibility, through being informed of the entire history of literature. Taste is something different, but even within its confines I realize that Virgil is important, but he doesn't suit me.

It is in this state of mind that I recently attended Portland's literary festival, Wordstock, solely to hear Matthew Dickman read from his APR-winning first book, All-American Poem. Dickman has all the elements of the current American zeitgeist: the humor, the French-styled imaginative flourishes, the stream-of-consciousness machine-gunning of images building and building upon one trope or another. Just look at his poems on the Boston Review.

But whereas other contemporary young poets offer detailed maps of their imagination, or contemplate their undependable self and voice, Dickman charges into his poems with an inherent sense of both hope and the human condition, as well as the desire to communicate. Rather than relying on self-referential feelings, Dickman looks outward to the neighborhoods he grew up in, to the people in his life who have suffered, and in this way he resembles Whitman. Still, he does look inward, but to his own faults, cruelties, and blindsides. Even in this self-regard, he rises above it to offer a vision, a kind of unity, no matter how unstable, and he's careful enough to say, as he says in the poem "Trouble", "I want to be good to myself."

The Nobel committee knows nothing about a poet like Dickman, of course. As Marvin Bell has said to students, "I don't care about the poems you're writing now, I care about the poems you'll be writing ten years from now." As Dickman says in his poem, "V": "maybe this is not a giant leap / into the science of compassion, but it's something." And so, it is exciting to think where Dickman will take this all, his sweeping themes, his adherence to tradition. If we're lucky, we may see a writer like Dickman wearing a ribbon in fifty years, rising as all good cream does to the top, singing the "all-American, broken in half and beautiful."

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