The Mode Not Taken

The wacky, talky, fat poetry of Albert Goldbarth.

Albert Goldbarth beat long odds when he won his second National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry a couple of months ago. For one thing, he already had one. For another, his little university-press paperback was up against a celebrated translation of Czeslaw Milosz’s A Treatise on Poetry. And Goldbarth is by no means a critic’s darling. Publisher’s Weekly, in a room-temperature review, called Saving Lives a collection of “lineated essays” that “do not offer the concentration, the once-and-for-all rightness, of most lyric.”

Try to set aside, for a moment, the rather startling suggestion that “once-and-for-all rightness” is something achieved by most lyric poetry, and simply consider this metaphor: “Cecil’s missing hand is unfinished business:/ His hook is a question mark that never relents.”

How much righter can writing get? And such moments abound in Goldbarth’s books. The fact is, Goldbarth delivers a great deal more than the once-and-for-all rightness of most lyric, and he does it by rejecting a fundamental assumption most lyric poets make.

By many accounts, American poetry is now enjoying a period of unprecedented diversity. The poetry scene is like one of those nature-show expanses of African savannah—all sorts of heterogeneous creatures successfully, if warily, coexisting:, and Nuyorican poets, and third-wave poets, and poets, and prose poets, and as-yet-unclassified poets thriving side by side.

But for all their superficial dissimilarity, most American poets do have an aesthetic principle in common: they believe poetry is “language distilled.” A Google search on the phrase “language distilled,” in fact, yields mostly poetry sites. Art demands intensity, poets reason, and intensity demands compression. There may not be a typical American poem, but the most popular model is definitely

the short-lined
often a single
sentence …
elliptical …
that drifts
down and
the page
like the winged
seed of a maple or
a mountain hemlock.

What distinguishes most contemporary poetry from prose isn’t meter or rhyme or even line breaks, but a self-conscious spareness and a slightly arch or elevated diction. These are the hallmarks of the poet laboring to achieve intensity, the byproducts of the “language distillation”process.

An Albert Goldbarth poem, by contrast, is wacky, talky, and fat. Here’s the final section of “Invisible,” a five-page poem in Saving Lives:

A train’s been traveling through this poem,
and a bird is threading its way through the train,
and a berry is journeying through the bird,
is carrying the DNA of berries in infinitude,
back to the soil. It rains. The smear of guano
liquefies and enters the earth,
the home-of-homes, the alpha and omega,
the transubstantiater of bones. One day
I visit Waldheim Cemetery: my parents are here,
a little above the dinosaurs, a little below
the last spilled tangerine light of this August dusk.
They’re here, with Uncle Lou, and Grandma Rosie, and everyone else
they were with on the surface, together again. It’s a regular
retirement community down there, and I wish we’d buried them
the way the dead of Egypt were, with meaningful objets,
so that a klatch of bones could meet on every Thursday night,
and play with a deck of bone poker cards for a pot
of bone nickels, and laugh again at the same stale jokes.
That’s all just fancifulness, I know: a way of saying things
that seems “poetic.” But the dead are down there,
freed from time. And we can’t see,
but they can of course,
the stilts
on which we walk through their cities.

Needless to say, this isn’t language distilled. But it isn’t language diluted, either. Goldbarth manages to chuck compression without compromising intensity. He has developed a style that’s effusive, sprawling, and instantly recognizable—an aesthetic that might best be characterized as “Why use one word when four will work just as well?” His poems do lack concentration in the most obvious sense of the word, but they make up for it with the other kind. Goldbarth pays rapt attention to the world around him, drawing one memorable connection after another: “From my notebook:/ Kids fall onto the lawn, and meet their own shadows/ like scissors closing.

Goldbarth is also uncommonly demonstrative. He makes rhetorical gestures few of his peers would even consider. Most poets use italics to denote a second speaker. Goldbarth uses them for good old-fashioned emphasis. Most poems are about themselves but never say so. Goldbarth’s are about bigger things but refer to themselves frequently. Most poets remember what they learned in high school: Show, don’t tell. Goldbarth remembers what he learned in grade school: Show and tell.

But he purchases each line of explanation with a dozen palpables: a smear of guano, a spill of tangerine light, a pot of bone nickels. Another poem in the collection brings Houdini, Stalin, Goldbarth’s Great-Auntie Yetta, the world’s smallest guitar, the “N’zele tribe,” Galway Kinnell, and the Audubon Society together under an epigraph from Appollonius of Rhodes. It’s as though Goldbarth can’t stand seeing anything or anyone excluded. Saving Lives was almost certainly the only NBCC Award finalist that featured praise for the poems of another finalist: “the tight work of Louise Glück, every word/ a further paper cut that shrinks beneath the sting / of antiseptic.”

But in spite of this omnivorousness, the poems aren’t just big maximalist messes. Synthesis is Goldbarth’s goal, and his gift. “If one decided to look at poetry in terms of physics,” he once told me in an interview, “I’m writing a poem that’s probably Newtonian. It believes in counterbalance. It believes in an energy that can neither be created nor destroyed, and in the recycling of that energy inside of a viable and holistic system.” Goldbarth’s willingness to risk obviousness helps keep his Newtonian poems from spinning into quantum chaos. He’s probably the only poet capable of writing “Do you see/ how mimetic it is?” or “But the point is, this was never about/ the geese to begin with”—lines that would be fatally gratuitous if the work weren’t so superabundant, so cheerfully excessive, in every other respect as well.

Of course, the conventions Goldbarth ignores exist for some good reasons. It would probably be best if the world were to go on thinking of poetry as “language distilled.” Most good poetry is. And most bad poets do have brevity going for them, if nothing else. Thom Gunn called Milton the “most disastrous influence,” but Goldbarth can’t be far behind; a young poet with his ambition but without his range and judgment would be awfully hard to love. One Albert Goldbarth is probably enough.

But who knows? Four might work just as well.