Matthew Buckley Smith
Not every hour calls for a poem, not every sensation, every mood. Some want only a walk in the cold, or a bourbon, or another hour’s sleep. But for a poet, as for any writer, there is always the fear of failing to produce. What a good poem does, nothing else can do, and it’s easy to get addicted making that happen. So certain obligations nag. Coming up with material. Getting oneself writing. Being a poet.
I wanted to stop writing
and the poem said
it’s a beautiful blue night
Thus ends Joshua Beckman’s third book, Your Time Has Come. It’s a little book, no thicker than a DVD case and half the height. Not a poem inside it comes to more than four lines. And four lines are plenty.
I don’t love many living poets. The ones I do I treat warily, reading them only on occasion and then with stomach-sloshing envy. These days I read poetry mostly to teach or review it. When I do go to it for comfort––which is what it’s best for––I generally go to the dead. This is not out of distaste for the prolix and prolific living. I turn to the dead because they are dead and I can hear them anyway. Death is, after all, what one needs comforting about. So there aren’t many living poets whose work I read on a regular basis. Now that Hughes and Heaney and Carruth are dead, Beckman might be only one. But there’s a problem with Beckman. I love his poetry, I just can’t tell if it’s good.
There is someone in her life that stops her
from loving me and no one in the vice versa
of my life.
See? Those lines are from his second book, Something I Expected to Be Different, which is sausage-packed with chatty, distracted, lackadaisical, heart-wrecking pages. One of the reasons I chose to write this review was that it would require me to say clearly what I like about Beckman’s poetry. It isn’t that his poems are difficult or that pleasure in them comes gradually. The ones I like I’ve liked more or less intuitively and right away. The trouble is in identifying this more-or-less-intuitive-and-right-away liking.
Beckman’s poems are not memorable––at least not word-for-word, which is the way that counts. Their subject matter is often some variety of navel-gazery. They’re sloppy, self-indulgent, and not infrequently nonsensical. Though they rarely feel like prose, they can’t claim anything like line integrity. And yet. I come back to parts of them again and again. They’re funny, they’re moving, they bring back memories. This last distinction––the mnemoniferous quality––has been a source of anxiety in preparing this essay. It’s easy to fall in love with a bad pop song because it comes on the radio while one is losing one’s virginity. I wasn’t a virgin when I first read Joshua Beckman’s poetry, but like Jarrell’s housewife I was young and miserable and pretty and poor. Would I now love anything that I’d read first at that moment? Could Beckman just as easily have been Lyn Hejinian?
Memory is a cake you cannot have and eat it too. A joke that each successive telling leaves less funny. A unfixed photograph that bruises black when brought to light. Over time it isn’t incidents we remember, but routines. So the tense of memory, rather than being the simple past, is mostly the habitual aspect. Not ‘We left work early once,’ but ‘We used to leave work early all the time.’ Not ‘I got drunk with our waitress once,’ but ‘I used to get drunk with our waitress all the time.’ Not ‘He almost died there once,’ but ‘He used to almost die there all the time.’
When I quit smoking, the strangest side effect of withdrawal was the stream of memories set free by my returning sense of smell. Ordinarily, one uses up one’s virgin memories at roughly the same rate at which one produces them, but through all the years of smoking, I’d been stocking up sense-linked impressions I never had occasion to recall. These were the ones that broke out in a cluster from my hippocampus the summer I quit. For a few weeks the nostalgia was unbearable, then gradually all the bubbles in the bubble-wrap got popped, and I went back to just wishing I could have a cigarette.
We lose the past. And as our memories are released, we also lose this loss, till we have little to remind us but a dim suspicion of our former habits. And it’s the pastness of the past that gives poetry its reason for being. Poetry floats against the current of time. It gains, rather than loses, potency on every reading. It leaps the synapse between your skull and mine. It does not die. And it does all of this by drawing on the faculty it supersedes, that of memory. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” The one to whom the poet spoke is long dead and has long in all particulars been forgotten, but the “thee” to whom the poem speaks is given life with each new reader.
Coleridge wasn’t wrong when he called poetry “the best words in their best order,” but he did leave dangerously unsettled the matter of bestness. When one reads a poem, the first thing one hears is neither the words nor their order. Instead, one hears the voice that speaks them. By ‘voice’ I don’t mean the sound breath makes when passing through the organ of the larynx. I mean the sound language makes when passing through the organ of the memory.
However well English may be preserved in the print of usage guides and dictionaries, it only ever exists as a language in the mind of any one living speaker. Each of us learns English––lexicon, idiom, grammar––in a slightly different version, at a slightly different rate, to a slightly different extent. Different favorite words, different first words, different last words. What this means, among other things, is that the English each of us uses is distinguished by frequencies of words and orders derived from his own cumulative, personal experience. The English each of us uses is deployed in sentences one can define as examples and determinants of ‘the kind of thing that he would say.’ We’ve all heard a character in a TV show utter a line that just sounded wrong, that didn’t sound like the kind of thing that character would say. Even a fictional character’s lines and actions can indicate a history not only emotional but linguistic. This is, obviously, true of each of us as well. My English is a living record of my life. Every syllable of it had to be acquired in some specific moment of living. Those speakers I’ve listened to, those I’ve loved, those I’ve despised––all are audible in the patterns, inclusions, and omissions of my speech.
Like every person, every voice is unique. But also like every person, not by much. Our voices are linked in clusters by region, craft, and creed. My wife and I were both born in the South, and for this reason we share a number of vocal tendencies: the use of the word ‘pocketbook,’ a reliance on mannerly conventions elsewhere considered antiquated (‘Ma’am,’ ‘Sir,’ ‘Shall I?’ ‘Pardon’), and a guilty fondness for double modals (‘We might should go now if we ever want to get there’).
Such frequencies of words and orders define each of our voices, which then vary with individual aptitude and experience. I noted before that ‘voice’ as I’m defining it is not restricted to the real, factual lives of real, factual human beings. Although it is implied history, it need not be actual history. Nor need a poet write in his ‘own’ voice. Nor need he ‘find’ his voice in order to write ‘authentic’ poetry. Voice is simply a quality of speech. It can be affected, distorted, or wholly and persuasively invented. And the value of voice in poetry does not comprise a bundle of anthropological markers. Colloquialisms, aspirational usages, dialects, malapropisms, and politically sensitive revisions are fine things to talk about, but the purpose of voice in poetry is first and most importantly to pass a kind of Turing test.
Thanks to Philip K. Dick and CAPTCHA (“Completely Automated Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” an acronym of breath-catching badness, vulgar yet esoteric, confusing yet redundant) many of us are familiar with the notion of a Turing test. Alan Turing famously proposed that a machine be considered intelligent if and when the text it generates can be mistaken for human speech. This is not so different from good poetry. It, too, can be mistaken for human speech.
Not that a poem should be slack, incoherent, or hamstrung by imprecision, as is most actual human speech. Passing the Turing Test just means the reader would never suspect the poem to be the work of a machine (with apologies to Kenneth Goldsmith). Speech in a poem, furthermore, must be more than simply human. It must be true. And since language is a region where beauty is truth, it must be beautiful (with apologies to Michael Robbins). True, not factual. Beautiful, not pretty. Poetic truth is the recognition in a stranger’s voice of one’s own living history. Poetic beauty is the concomitant knowledge that one is not alone. (When what we hope for seems to be the case, we see beauty, whether or not it’s there. And what we hope for most is company, hence our appetite for poetic truth.) A poem may tell me things I’ve never heard before, but it must tell them to me in a voice that my own English makes me trust.
The first lines of a few trustworthy voices bear this out. Stallings: “The house where we were happy, / Perhaps it’s standing still.” Shakespeare: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” Salter: “Even in death your radiance follows me.” Milton: “When I consider how my light is spent, / Ere half my days on this dark world and wide…” Larkin: “An April Sunday brings the snow / Making the blossom on the plum trees green, / Not white. An hour or two and it will go.” Kipling: “They shut the road through the woods / Seventy years ago. / Weather and rain have undone it again, / And now you would never know…” Hecht: “I have been wondering / What you are thinking about and by now suppose / It is certainly not me.” Byron: “So we’ll go no more a roving / So late into the night.” Bradstreet: “If ever two were one, then surely we.” Beckman: “Let my still dark soul / be music.” What each of these beginnings does––even before it raises a subject or makes an assertion––is to let the reader know that here was a human being. Here was a person, and here is the sort of thing he would say. A living mind passed through here once, and when it spoke, this is what it sounded like.
If prose is a public road, then poetry is a haunted house. Every word, every order, every voice carries with it all the ghosts that every reader who’s encountered it has ever been visited by. This is the reason poems in translation so frequently fail. They have no ghosts. No one has ever lived in them. No one has ever died in them.
I first heard Beckman read in 2002, when he and Matthew Rohrer were promoting their experimental collection Nice Hat. Thanks. They had improvised the whole book––title, poems, and (somewhat coherent) “note on process”––by taking turns speaking individual words into a recording device and transcribing the best of the results. During the tour, they demonstrated their process by composing new poems live at readings. Of those I heard composed at the reading in Athens, Georgia, I recall only a single one-liner: “I… feel… [unnervingly long pause punctuated by sigh of weary resignation]… horny.”
Even so, a fragile brilliance hovers around some of the poems in this collection. Though I’m reluctant to award aesthetic value to any work simply because of an interesting fact about its composition (see Tom Friedman’s 1,000 Hours of Staring, Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, or John Cage’s Music of Changes), there is a sly power in the shrugging, good-natured premise of Beckman and Rohrer’s improvisations. Perhaps because the voice of these poems is so patently guileless, so Mitch Hedbergian, the lines in which the uncoordinated fragments suddenly coalesce into statements of truth are all the more startling:
the wind blew the door open
and we lost everything
Though Beckman has worked in a few other collaborative media––translations, erasures––it may be the half-joking voice of his improvisations with Rohrer that most informs his own poetry. And ‘poetry,’ I think more and more, is the word for it, rather than ‘poems.’ Like Berryman, Blake, Dickinson, Pope, Whitman, and Wyatt before him, Beckman is an uneven writer who’s better in the passage than the individual poem. The rangy, untamed poems in his first two books are moving, like birdsong, only at irregular intervals. As in “My Story” here:
Arthur’s story is that he was killed at work, an okay
cash settlement turning the poorness of his family’s life
into a more complex and emotionally confusing poorness
and “Block Island” here:
a birthmark which I mistook for a drop of blood
on the body during an affair and proud
of myself for working you that hard
Beckman has a gift for such loving but unlabored observations. Even so, stretches of his first two books are repetitive, forgettable, or congenially vacant. When I return to these books for pleasure, I return not to favorite poems but to favorite parts of poems. There is a kind of winking frankness in the epigrammatic scale of his third book, Your Time Has Come. When I heard him read from it, he teased his editor, who had called it a book of short poems, by claiming that the whole book was in fact one long poem called “Your Time Has Come.” The joke was that this would have made a difference. Your Time Has Come is a book of nothing but parts of poems, of passages, neatly suited to Beckman’s natural stride.
These short poems with their laconic good humor and the long poems with their democratic sprawl and the improvisations with their winking, aw-shucks profundity still hold something meaningful in common. They share a voice: ingenuous, plainspoken, lovely but artless. And once Beckman has tricked us into believing he’s incapable of lying, anything he says acquires the killing force of truth:
He died so young,
I should tell him
It was after the publication of Your Time Has Come that I heard Beckman read for the second time. A once-in-a-decade blizzard shut down everything in town except the coffee shop where he was scheduled to appear, so even before it began, the event felt scripted for nostalgia. Beckman seemed taller and––if possible––more cheerfully piratical. Cracking jokes and chain-smoking and dressed for warmer weather, he didn’t appear to be presenting the fruits of his soul so much as sharing some funny notes he’d found on the ground somewhere that morning. He was sly and generous and self-deprecating, and it may have been the only poetry reading I’ve ever attended where everyone seemed genuinely to have a good time. That this good time might be the reason I feel fond of Beckman’s poetry to this day is a thought both obvious and embarrassing. Every lover of poetry knows this fondness and this embarrassment.
On that magical, nicotinic snow day of memory, Beckman also read some poems that ended up in his next book, Shake. This fourth collection works his old vocal rope-a-dope in long, stichic compositions titled by section rather than poem. It’s a pleasure to read, though its surprises are few. They include a series of poems in which inert clauses gain force through repetition. Even in these, Beckman draws his power from the distance between the subject evoked and the voice that evokes it. Shrugging off the burden of expression, these poems let us infer the feeling that inspired them.
That’s the worst way. The thin tree. The
brick and its acceptance of light. The brick
and its continued darkness. Now, in the
wind, there’s no way to explain. The room.
It is comfortable. A quiet towel sits in the
windowsill. The hallway. Let me explain.
It’s the worst way. The hallway. Outside,
the light gives itself to the brick and the brick
accepts the light. The wind told me this.
I’m okay. A small towel flaps in the window.
The hallway. Yesterday, I’d say two days.
There is no way to explain. The brick’s
acceptance of light and light giving itself to
the brick. The wind. There’s no way to explain.
In such poems, what strikes at the heart is not something revealed or the voice that reveals it, but the unstated reason that what might be revealed by so frank and gentle a voice is not in fact revealed at all. This is the pain someone who won’t let on he’s in pain won’t let on he’s in. One finds similar devices in the work of Amy Hempel and Sarah Silverman.
The next book, and the one that directly precedes The Inside of an Apple (which is after all the occasion for this essay), tries out a few new tricks, or at least a few tricks new to Beckman. Take It is a series of untitled poems, which––as always––may or may not be parts of a greater poem. (I tend to think, in this case, not.) Combining and alternating parataxis, dramatic monologue, and mock heroic, Beckman sounds at times like George Saunders:
Dear Angry Mob,
Oak Wood Trail is closed to you. We
feel it unnecessary to defend our position,
for we have always thought of ourselves
(and rightly, I venture) as a haven for
those seeking a quiet and solitary
contemplation. We are truly sorry
for the inconvenience
at times like James Tate:
Now you can imagine how this felt.
Well, it felt far more like a declaration to me.
A note dripping with concern is
really a slap in the face, or at least
that’s how one can take such things.
But sense, if you will, the calmness of my tone
and only rarely like himself:
There are times when one’s attention
is taken by beautiful things
most fully, I imagine, in loss.
Beckman seems almost determined in the pages of Take It to stifle anything that might be taken for a lyric voice. In a certain context it’s a reasonable desire. That context is the belief that the highest goal of poetry is to defy expectations. Such was the belief of my writing professor who published Beckman’s second and third books. By his account, the having of a voice was an impediment to innovation. A tic to be got rid of, like an accent.
And he was right––insofar as a voice cultivated simply for the sake of authentic self-expression is of no use to anyone but the speaker, if even him. As Robert Penn Warren, patron saint of lettered grouches, once remarked, “The ‘authentic’ doing of one’s ‘thing’ may involve anything from cretinism to crime––neither of which provides an exclusively reliable index to the existence of an immortal soul.” And since it isn’t the one’s-own-ness of a poetic voice that matters, it isn’t Beckman’s avoidance of his ‘own’ voice that makes Take It––though impressive––a less-than-moving book. The voice of a good poem needn’t be its author’s, but it need be one the reader in some capacity recognizes––as true to life, to reason, to the ear. In the best of Beckman’s poetry, trim or slovenly, a voice so recognizable makes itself heard.
When I received my copy of Beckman’s new book, The Inside of an Apple, I paged through it greedily, waiting for the bittersweet swell of feeling that still comes when I read his old books––Something I Expected to Be Different, Your Time Has Come, Shake. Only it never came.
In poetry only the good news is newsworthy. Bad poetry is the status quo, and even the best poetry is little enough read that to discourage the public from reading some new book is a redundant act. It would be like protesting the use of mimeograph machines. If I read a collection, despise every poem in it, and then do absolutely nothing, I can still safely expect it to go all but unread. The only time a review is really warranted is when one wishes to rise against the overwhelming current of the age and suggest that a book of poems actually be opened by somebody not related to or sleeping with the poet. Had I not spent years admiring Beckman’s poetry, I can’t say I would have elected to write about The Inside of an Apple. But I have, and I did. So rather than merely lie and say I loved it right away or merely tell the truth and say I didn’t, I decided to identify what it was I’ve liked so much about his poems in the past, and then examine what might be happening in the absence of this virtue. The foregoing has been my attempt at the former task, the following is my effort at the latter.
The Inside of an Apple is a small, plain volume (Your Time Will Come being smaller if less plain). Some of the poems inside are loosely titled, some are untitled-or-titled-after-the-first-line, and some are untitled-or-titled-after-a-line-not-the-first. That this mildly confusing device is the first thing to strike one upon opening the book seems to augur ill for the poetry to come. It’s illustrated in the text by the (edgy?) use of underlining, as in “of Oregon,” which reads in its entirety:
on all myself
and having nosey
out of herbs
their purple mouths
The poem is a representative one. Spare, scattered on the page, lacking in punctuation, and often flaking into semi-grammatical semi-coherence, the work in this book resembles more than anything a collection of fragments from ancient poetry. Brief passages of glistening, f/64 description––such as the last four lines of the preceding poem––occasionally even earn the likeness.
Traditionally, line-breaks work to create music and complicate meaning: “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm.” In The Inside of an Apple, they seldom do either. Nor do they––like Yeats’ bad actors and legion free-versifiers––simply break up their lines to weep. Instead, what they do is delay the recognition of a voice. And a voice is indeed present in these pages, if not in all of them, or even most. It’s something like the voice of Beckman’s old books––charmingly inarticulate, self-deprecating, smitten––if somewhat slighter. But then, the whole book is slighter, so it’s not surprising if the good parts are slighter too. Still, it isn’t the word-count of the early poems for which one grows nostalgic. It’s the voice, and it does come back in fits and starts, often with the invocation of the second person. As in “a bit of / combed hair” when the ‘you’ returns with some knowledge not shared by the speaker:
came in from the
a sad sort of
fold in your eye
to former lovers come.
Or in “rain stones curved,” when the ‘you’ is discovered unexpectedly:
I leave my bed
and there you are
where the shirt’s balled up
in the lawn by the poppies
Or in “first snow,” when the ‘you’ is absent but painstakingly imagined:
are likely staying
warm and seeing
you’ve gone out
into it already,
and I was heading
home expecting apples
I don’t mean to imply that simply writing in the second person makes Beckman’s––or anyone’s––poems more sincere. It doesn’t. But it can clarify the process. A poem is written by one person to be read by another. When grammar makes this address explicit, it’s impossible for the poet to write without attending to the imagined comprehension of somebody other than himself. Initially I considered discussing only those poems from The Inside of an Apple that demonstrate this empathic imagination. Such a selection, though, would be not only misrepresentative but unjust. The thing Beckman succeeds at in the minority of poems does not appear to be the thing he is attempting in the majority. I expected Something I Expected to Be Different. This was different.
Stranding his words and phrases in white space, Beckman brings our noses down to the Planck scale of his language, sometimes going so far as to drop articles, throw in little-kiddish auxiliary verbs, or stop thoughts mid-clause in order to banish any whiff of the conversational. Often he seems to be entertaining private and impregnable soliloquies, not to be disturbed by the reader’s snooping presence. That or he’s just flinging shards of talk across the table like letters from a Scrabble bag and leaving us to sort them into speech.
In some poems, the speaker seems to have had too much to drink:
that form from bells
planes that act
palette of early
over the yard
it is a branch.
In others, he seems high or sleepy or preoccupied:
Like the world,
the love of my late life
was a moss,
bright as heaven’s maybe home
it gets all puffed up teary
and when the sun comes out
it feels different different
And in more than a few, the speaker sounds to my ear like a poet trying very hard to sound goofily, effortlessly, dithyramblingly brilliant. A poetry trying, in other words, to sound like Joshua Beckman:
Did you ever notice how leaves when speaking of
where they’re from glare and pout?
I’m going to call this poem windows,
repeat as strange song in head
until bus comes.
God’s cabin’s a jungle
ain’t no fear of lions there.
Green greenery shootin like arrows
from the ground
and plant oils rollin down
if you rot you’re a log
if you run you’re a river
Intoxication, preoccupation, self-consciousness: all of these states of mind are actual, but not all of them are equally in need of evocation. Distraction––literally being drawn apart––is free for the taking in the modern world, even if one never lays eyes on a book of poetry. Likewise irritation, titillation, vague discomfort, itchy need. Like mediocrity, these are conditions no sooner sought after than attained. If it is the task of poetry to give us these things, then poetry hasn’t become obsolete, it always was. In The Inside of an Apple, though, one is reminded from time to time that while Beckman’s phrases rarely dazzle in isolation, the history they suggest, the voice they carry, can make one ache with longing. One cringingly amateurish poem:
Lofted cold falls
of earth still on
a bird under
an outward rock
and pooled as pooled
in cloud above
the shallow swells
ends with the crisp sobriety of this juxtaposition:
Later that year
a baby and later still
the massive rock
formation in the
One moment he’s Bruce McCulloch in a sleeveless denim jacket and the next he’s Ezra Pound. Though Beckman’s truest voice comes through at times, he does his best to break it into fragments––or to disfigure it with stingy-hearted syntax––and in doing so he exorcises much of the spirit from the lines. Left behind are just the words, and the trouble with words is that they’re not worth anything by themselves. Without a voice to link them, mere words are hardly evidence of consciousness, let alone art. Painters can compose tiny figures in isolation––a bell say, or a branch. But the words ‘bell’ and ‘branch’ require no art to place on a page, and without a voice to hold them in a living breath, they’re just idle equipment. The art is not in picking words but in composing them into a convincing human phrase.
In fairness, Beckman does not seem to be after this sort of convincing in The Inside of an Apple, so the absence of it isn’t necessarily a failure. But just because the poetry he’s written is the poetry he meant to write doesn’t mean it was poetry worth writing. For the sake of unexpectedness, he’s traded most of the beauty away.
But even a little beauty is a lot for any book. The same professor who introduced me to Beckman’s work once remarked that a handful of good poems can make a collection. The collection that includes a few poems you love is a great collection. The poet who’s written a few collections you love is your favorite poet. How poets many have gained immortality by the greatness of a single poem? How many have failed to gain it despite the very-goodness of a thousand? Beckman, probably, is neither kind. And yet this latest, late collection is not unlike the earth that it describes, “where beauty is found / in things at times.”
Filled as I’ve been with misgiving about The Inside of an Apple, I keep returning to the––increasingly ragged––copy I carry around with me everywhere now. It’s like a parking lot on the site of an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. I pace it continually. Because really, I loved Joshua Beckman’s poetry once. No, that’s not right. I used to love it all the time.
Matthew Buckley Smith earned an MFA in playwriting at Catholic University and an MFA in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. His plays have been produced in Baltimore, London, New York, and Washington, DC. His essays have appeared in 32 Poems Blog, The Journal, and Verse. His poems have been featured in Best American Poetry and Verse Daily, and his collection, Dirge for an Imaginary World, won the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and daughter.