What’s the Big Idea?
Edited by Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011
The big idea was for a poem to be started on the East Coast
in the fall and sent poet by poet, state by state, around the country, criss-crossing all fifty states, before arriving at its
final destination in California on Robert Hass’s electronic doorstep sometime in the spring. Along the way, each poet
who received the slowly accreting mass of words would
look at the previous entry or entries and write a ten-line
poem in response, or in defiance, or in whatever manner
they could channel their inner Issa to carry them to whatever lonely peninsula or pine barren they were inclined to go.
They would have two days to complete their lines before sending the whole thing on to the next writer.
The editors of the resulting collection, Crossing State Lines, Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes, decided to subtitle the series of poems An American Renga, not to be confused with a Japanese renga (i.e. serious renga), or a haikai no renga (bawdy renga), or an exquisite corpse. The editors decided to ask “for two five line sequences from each poet,” and while the response could be to the poet directly preceding, it didn’t have to be, and in that manner “the entire renga was thrown around the country like a lasso….”
If the lasso tripped someone or inadvertently caught him or her around the neck, well, so be it; there were others to rescue the poem, to remove the rope and send the whole thing swinging dangerously on its way.
In traditional Japanese renga, the rules of engagement are much different. The first poet writes a line consisting of 17 syllables in the 5-7-5 pattern (called a hokku — the precursor to the modern haiku) then hands his or her work off to the next poet who writes one line of 14 syllables in the 7-7 pattern. The 5-7-5 and 7-7 patterns are then alternated until a predetermined number of lines has been reached (36 for a kasen.)
The pressure of having to write something at the moment was traditionally eased by the drinking of sake, and the convivial atmosphere — and, paradoxically enough — by rules. While there could be no second guessing, no revisions, no going back once the paper was passed, there was at least comfort in knowing that no new form needed to be invented; that in general the subject would fall within certain well-seasoned parameters. So the line was written and the poem passed along. One weak link hardly undermined the collective effort, though several weak links might be detrimental.
It’s understandable why many of the poets in Crossing State Lines chose not to be encumbered with the 5-7-5 / 7-7 syllable structure: it’s not easy to pack meaning that tightly in English. Certainly it can be done, but it takes practice and training to strip away the nonessentials; to use shorter, less Latinate, more Anglo-Saxon words.
Sophie Cabot Black manages to do it:
open enough for the goats
to wander in, to rip out
any trace of green
as if all along they knew
while city trains pass
with men who stare into news
papers meant to understand.
Crafting deft line breaks and packing in a fair amount of ambiguity, she simultaneously nods to the season and Robert Pinsky’s opening lines:
At times, however, when poets in Crossing State Lines did follow
the demands of strict syllable counts, odd orphans with missing
limbs or digits showed up, like J.D. McClatchy’s first line “The February” or Patricia Smith’s “I burn concrete, El train, the”. Others managed to pull it off better, such as singer/songwriter Paul Simon, who’s perhaps more used to working in abbreviated form, though you probably won’t see “artillery in moonlight” or “parking lot slash dressing room” hanging on poster board behind glass with his guitar on your next trip to Cleveland.
This follow the rules/dismantle the rules debate has been an ongoing source of contention within Western practitioners of renga for some time. And while I won’t lay out the particulars of the arguments here, or even take sides, I will say that composing a memorable line in renga is not solely about getting the number of syllables correct. It’s about creating ambiguity through skillful manipulation of the kana/kanji which allows for multiple meanings and/or interpretations; it’s about foregrounding the world and backgrounding the “I”; it’s about embracing those elusive concepts of wabi and sabi which, at their core, ask the maker to embrace a philosophy of transcience.
Wordly affairs or matters of state don’t often appear in haiku or renga. Those are the concerns of a different set of people — not of lowly ascetic-poets, banging their begging bowls for the strength to compose their daily verse. Haiku poets, at least those in the Bassho/Buson/Issa mold are not part of the fashionable, “floating” world. They are wanderers, mountain masters, duty-shirkers, cock-eyed heretics.
An interviewer once asked James Merrill why he so rarely wrote about social or political issues in his poetry. His reply: “when the tide of feeling goes out, the language begins to stink.” And while part of Crossing State Lines was expressly to comment on the state of the country, I find it hard to twist my definition of poetry hard enough to allow for naked rants against even the worst or most foolish president or dictator. Take this passage, for instance, from C.K. Williams, railing, I presume, against the Bush regime:
Arrogant evil iniquitous odious base
reprehensible wicked villainous vile
pernicious venomous criminal shameful
unforgivable unforgiven never forgiven
This not overly artful list punctuated by a rosey, refulgent Obama dawn, radiant with trumpeting angels:
—Then a crystalline autumn of apple air
and we breathed breathed again breathed
Yet it’s not just the tide stink that mars the overall effect in Crossing State Lines. For a lineup that includes so many big names, we get such regrettable retreads as “the great bruised heart of the South,” “This is Providence” (promotional brochure anyone?) “flowers on the moon,” “driv(ing) on at the speed of prayer,” or this confusingly forgettable line: “ahh unh ahh unh ahh”. We also get in the opening poem from Robert Pinsky “stealthily….he stole away”— and while these are actually Lincoln’s words (linking — Lincoln, get it?) and not Pinsky’s, the repetition of the stolen root, in combination with “a madman singing,” starts the renga off not a little awkwardly.
Which is not to say that there are not movements within Crossing State Lines that aren’t masterful. There are. The sequence of poems from Rae Armantrout to Nicole Cooley to Peter Cook to Mark Doty to Carl Phillips is particularly arresting. Armantrout introduces a small, odd nativity in front of a craft shop:
Pick out the one
that doesn’t belong.
Cooley picks out the girl and transports her to a levee’s edge on the Gulf where “she waits, a stick in the dirt.” Cooley’s nice ambiguity here leads us to wonder if the girl is holding the stick, or if she perhaps by now resembles one. Cooley ends the poem with the girl growing smaller and smaller: “She lies on mud and leaves / tries not to disappear.”
Peter Cook expands on the leaves/levee imagery with his “Rising wild onion sun painting the Illinois prairie.” With its mythical or real buffalo and mythical or real American Indian becoming each other and the earth, his poem’s edge is the Rockies, in front of which the mythical man-beast leaps up and vanishes.
Mark Doty, in turn, skillfully absorbs this absence into his poem, showing us “deer tracks in the mud around the front porch” calling Cook’s American Indian ritual a “step-chart for a crazy dance” all the while managing to work in cuneiform and the iPhone, idiots and birdsong in ten lines.
Carl Phillips puts an allegorical exclamation point to this sequence, referring to Doty’s birdsong and cuneiform tablet/iPhone cracked:
Maybe you’ve seen how a sea-falcon,
hovering above its own reflection,
will at last strike through it to the silver
life flashing just beneath it, and thus
But whatever Bob Holman may say to the contrary, the rest of the collection hardly falls into Pound’s category of poetry being news that stays news. Much of it feels depressingly dated, like a two-year-old Twitter feed that suddenly starts rolling for no reason down your screen.
News that stays news could be war and I often hear that poets need to take a stand against it in their poetry. While I agree in principle that as thinking, feeling humans we should deplore injustice and barbarity in all of its forms, I’m just not convinced that poetry should be the weapon of choice, or that Lieutenant Colonels in the Army such as Edward Ledford should be the wielding that weapon if it must be raised.
…. But, like
slapping the moron beside the bully, we invade Babylon to
applause, which muted, a-hem, throats cleared for political
Most of the people who read poetry, after all, probably agree with the premise that we should stay the hell out of other countries. Somehow I doubt Dick Cheney is curled up in his Wyoming ranch in front of the fireplace with this book.
Along with the railing against mediocre presidents we also get an unfortunate Patchenesque diatribe against “science” by David Baker:
Let’s say physicists
know what they’re talking about
Here the poet feels it is necessary to keep heaping useless dirt on the mud wall that has been erected between poetry and science — not aware that just behind him hundreds of other scientists and poets have breached it from both sides and are streaming though, talking to each other about how well Newton’s laws seem to be working down here on earth.
My intention, however weak some of the individual links might be, was to like this book. No, I wanted to love this book. I loved the idea of a poem making a cross-country journey. I could see it laying on the back of a beat-up Volvo, it’s yellow lined pages flipping in the breeze, the whole thing sliding back and forth across the leather bench at every turn. That it was part of a larger project America: Now and Here initiated by the artist Eric Fischl only increased its appeal.
But I wanted the renga to read like a river in North Florida with me floating on its warm waters; with silent manatees gracefully moving Hindenburg-like beneath my dangling feet. I wanted the poem to grow sprouts leafing out in front of me to tickle my cheeks; I wanted panther eyes prowling along the banks in the deeper flora to test my resolve. In the end, I just wanted the Hindenburg to explode.
What I didn’t want were stone monuments with chiseled epitaphs to poets’ careers. But each poem in Crossing State Lines is entombed, walled off from every other by a deep well of white concrete — a named stamped on the bottom of each proclaiming loudly “I was here!”
(Someday, in a deeper, unfathomable future, some unwitting drunkard will stumble through this graveyard and collapse on the green grass that has grown up around the poems — and belch.)
So what went wrong? Was the idea simply too big? Vijay Seshadri seems to think so:
What’s the big idea? And then again
what idea was so big it couldn’t come through
the little door. It waited outside for us,
throwing pebbles at the window.
Finally it gave up and went away.
The poet does eventually give chase to the big idea to apologize — “Will we ever catch up to say how sorry we are?” — a line which the anchor, Robert Hass responds to by saying “Forgiveness is the blue sheen / of lupine on a windy hillside.”
And then the reader does enter into this act of forgiveness too. After all, poets are slow moving creatures. We agonize over single words for days or weeks. A whole notebook full of marks can be reduced through crossing outs and starting overs to a single poem over the course of weeks or months. Two days in poetland is an eye blink.
In the end, the collection reads more like an anthology of discrete poems than a renga. A renga is a contained unit, a poem in its own right. It has unity and consistency of treatment. It is an organism in the process of becoming itself.
Crossing States Lines does mirror America though: big and unwieldy and individualistic with a lot of talk about doing things together, but in the end an opinionated drunken free-for-all with the polite hosts having to clean up and apologize to the neighbors for their guests’ bad behavior.
Ed McFadden currently lives on the island of Shikoku in Japan. His poetry, translations, and reviews have most recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Cerise Press, and The Rumpus.