The Measuring Muse


Peter Filkins

  The role of poet-critics is a special one in any literature. Practitioners of the art, they also reveal its underpinnings, an activity that involves more than a mere thumbs-up-or-down review. Instead, by shaping whom and how we read, their influence can be considerable. Randall Jarrell famously dissected poets in regards to their best, or most often, worst tendencies. T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, took the high road, gazing calmly over the centuries while situating poets amid a cultural landscape over which he sought to reign. Usually, however, the stakes are not that high, for most often the role of the poet-critic is neither to delineate nor disseminate, but rather to illuminate. In such manner the main subject of the poet-critic, versus that of the literary critic or reviewer, is poetry itself. Reviewers tell us what a book of poems is “about”; the poet-critic reminds us of what poetry is and can be.
  For this reason the work of the poet-critic often ends up self-reflexive. Reading Louise Glück’s incisive gem-like meditations or Seamus Heaney’s artful votives, we learn as much about their own poetry as we do about the poets they write about. Given that the publication of The Lyric Now and Forever marks, respectively, James Longenbach’s fifth collection of essays on poetry and sixth collection of poems (not to mention three extended works of scholarship published earlier in his career), this implies a shared project, one that does not see criticism as any less a calling than poetry, or poetry as inhabiting more rarefied air than criticism. Appropriately, the cover of The Lyric Now is a detail from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Progress of Love: Love Letters. Its eleven essays display the author’s passion for poetry, while his passion for life laces the plaintive title Forever. Read in tandem, these two books offer us a rare opportunity: a confluence of thought and feeling embodied in equal measures of discursive and evocative language that both explores and evidences the poetry of life and the life of poetry. The result is nothing less than the measure and complexity of the whole person, the premiere task at the heart of poetry.
  “The knowledge we derive from our repeated experience of a poem,” writes Longenbach in the title piece to his essay collection, “is ultimately the knowledge of our own mortality – the sense that not only we will be but also that we have been.” Meanwhile, in Forever, a tellingly prose passage of “In the Village” makes clear the pressing circumstances of the poet’s health in a matter-of-fact manner:

After a routine ultrasound revealed a fifteen-centimeter mass, my left kidney was removed robotically on February 12. Fifteen months later, nodules were discovered in my lungs and peritoneum. Two subsequent rounds of therapy failed to impede their growth, so I enrolled in a trial, a treatment not yet FDA approved.

Hence, “the knowledge of our own mortality” is no mere rhetorical gesture, just as the plainness of this diagnosis is no hysterical turn. Importantly, the latter is also not the central focus of these poems, but instead a kind of nagging distraction, a floater in the eye which, if ignored, allows the day’s wonders to still be seen, though slightly altered, made weightier by the implicit knowledge of their inevitable passing.
  Thus the description of the cancer diagnosis is followed by a section that reads in its entirety as follows:

Of ghosts pursued, forgotten, sought anew—
Everywhere I go
The trees are full of them.

From trees come books, that, when they open,
Lead you to expect a person
On the other side:

One hand having pulled
The doorknob
Toward him, the other

Held out, open,
You forward—

To describe the passage as “haunted” misses the mark, for that supposes a haunting by the dead, when instead the lines are much more powerfully possessed by the “living” presence of books, especially books of poetry, Longenbach going so far as to simply give a list of celebrated titles in the next section, including The Branch Will Not Break, The Story of Our Lives, and Water Street. Contemplating his own sentences, the poet says elsewhere in the poem, “what I hear / Is not so much nostalgia/ As a love of beginning,” and the same holds true for the reader. Our own “beginning” occurs each time we open a book, and here the poet makes us directly conscious of having opened this one, just as he again reminds us, “A book is the future./ You dream/ Of reading it, and once you’ve finished, it’s a miracle, you know the past.”
  Under the circumstances, the “past” is swiftly approaching for Longenbach, and it is as if he is in a race to shape it. In an essay from The Lyric Now titled “Disliking It,” he describes Carl Phillips’ poems as conjuring “a world in which experience and the loss of experience are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other,” and the same can be said for his world. “How do you imagine the shape of one lifetime? / A circle, a tangle of lines?” he asks in “Two People,” a poem that reflects back on a lifelong love first met at a party years ago, the gathering’s voices heard across the years, even though “the sound of the sea grew louder.” Similarly, the great cathedral of the past evinced in “Notre-Dame” becomes a different kind of past through its destruction. Since the poet’s own past also burns with it, the loss of experience becomes the same as experience, as he notes:

The forest is burning. Beneath it
Little flames of hope
Are burning, too.
Hope, desire, longing, fear—

This boy doesn’t know he has cancer. This boy
Doesn’t realize that, being
Who he is, he asks too much;
The people he loves need less of him.

This boy? He will live forever
In a little house by the sea.

Again that sea closing in, death’s undertow reaching out, as if the poet is beholden to the critic’s words when, in an essay on Frank Bidart titled “Very Rich Hours,” he writes, “To see ourselves in what we make… is to confront our mortality, and this happens in the poems, as it happens in life, over time. There is no other way to live.”
  Nor would we want there to be. Reviewing Patti Smith’s memoir M Train, Longenbach concludes, “This writing is moving because, like all writing we want to read more than once, it moves.” Meanwhile, in section 4 of “Song of the Sun,” we get the whole movement itself:

To imagine you’ve changed is to preserve
The person you once were.
Alternatively, to recognize you’ve
Never changed, that now you see yourself as then you
Didn’t, couldn’t
Even if you tried,
Is to feel
Viscerally a part
In the project of becoming, always
To have begun.

Here the deft manner in which the syntax cuts back and forth across the page lives up to Longenbach’s own admiration for Marianne Moore’s “England”: “The syntax of the poem makes us participate in the act of argument’s construction, and, as a result, the poem feels like an ongoing act of thinking rather than a rehearsal of thought. The final sentence is a permanent surprise.” One only needs to consider the mercurial tentativeness felt in words like “to preserve"… "once were"…"now you"…"a part"… "always"… "begun,” as well as the way they counter the left margin of “To imagine"… "Never Changed"… "See yourself"… "Viscerally"… "Of time,” in order to experience a similar permanent surprise.
  The question at the heart of these two books is: What does it mean to love poetry? Taken further, the question at the heart of that question is: What does it mean to love? Poetry, in fact, reminds us that love is not restricted to romance or sex, but instead blossoms as well in the presence of wonder, particularly in regards to the small and fleeting. In the latter half of “Thursday,” a poem which describes nothing more than cooking risotto, Longenbach writes:

The miracle, it’s easy to miss, is the moment when the husks


Each grain releasing its tiny explosion of starch.

If you take it off the heat just then, let it sit
While you shave the parmesan into paper-thin curls,
It will be perfectly creamy,
But still have a bite.

There will be dishes to do,
The moon will rise,
And everyone you love will be safe.

Here, the poem risks descending into the sentimental while teetering on the brink of the maudlin. However, its opening lines do lay down a consequential gauntlet in announcing that “the most difficult part about making something, also the best, / Is existing in the middle, / Sustaining an act of radical imagination….” The trouble, perhaps, is that the poem’s prescription outweighs its moment, that rather than being subject to “an ongoing act of thinking,” we are witness to a set of actions that stands in for thinking, rather than performing “an act of radical imagination” in and of itself.
  The same risk occurs in regards to feeling throughout “Since February,” a short sequence of poems, each of which is addressed to several of the poet’s close friends, but whose emotional field likely resonates more among those friends than it does or can for the reader. True, the mortal circumstances that surround Forever help us to appreciate the importance of living in the moment while cooking Thursday night’s dinner, as well as the poignant need to say goodbye to friends. Yet absent genuine poetic lift, such poems can end up encompassed by the “elegiac sense of foreclosed possibility” that Longenbach cites in an essay titled “Home Thoughts” as having restricted the development of Ezra Pound. But this, too, is the other way that the poet-critic provides us with a rich immersion into what it means to write poetry. When his own poems fall short of the marvels he reveals in others, or if they risk their limitations, we are still privy to the workings of the poetic mind in pursuit of a condition we call “poetry” that remains ever elusive, always surprising, and recognizably fresh. Indeed, this is the immediate sense of “now” as a noun that Longenbach wishes to elicit in The Lyric Now, as well as being the lifeblood that pulses through the best of his poems.
  “The person I once was found himself / In the present, which is the only place he could be,” Longenbach writes at the start of “School Street.” The uncanny place of the in-between, of “existing in the middle,” is the richest vein tapped in Forever. Reflecting on and cataloguing the immediate world of the house, garden, people, and stars whirling about him, the poet realizes, “The things we made / Ourselves seemed permanent, / But like the stars invisible, even the things / We made from words.” This of course places us in the middle of the poem’s very creation, for it also is a thing made of words in the past that is now our present, ourselves aware of needing to navigate its slippery enjambments as we read. Hence, the questions posed at the end of the poem – “How did we afford this house? / Why, if it exists / In the present, / Am I speaking in the past?” – these remind us that, as readers, we also are immersed in contingencies, not knowing what will come next, not quite sure where we are or have been. In such moments, not only does the poem come alive, but we do as well, aware that we are present, and yet not present, having already become a part of the past the very moment we realize we are, as Elizabeth Bishop famously concluded, “historical, flowing, and flown.” It is then that we are in the presence of the “forever” of the lyric “now.”
  “A poem is the future, even if it exists in the past,” Longenbach writes in the preface to The Lyric Now. The poems of Forever not only embrace this tenet, they embody it through a deep awareness of the finality to which they are addressed. The poet, however, is not interested in self-pity, reminding us in “This Little Island” that “If I’ve employed too liberally the passive voice, / Remember it’s the thoughts, the feelings / That matter here, / Not the one who feels them.” As if fulfilling this commitment, the book’s final, titular poem lays out its thought and feeling in eighteen pared-down two-liners that reflect back on a life of love and love-making, where

Once, in a world no bigger than a bed,
You said we’d be lovers forever.


That was the first time.
The second was by the sea.

These are the poem’s closing lines, but the fact that the first of them repeats the poem’s opening line not only marks the semblance of eternal return felt in the moment, but also that opened by desire. Simultaneously, we are also taken back to “Two People,” the book’s first poem, which also reflects back on a lifelong love in the face of the sound of the sea growing louder. In providing such connections, Longenbach allows us to infer permanence in the face of impermanence. Thus, having set himself the task of charting “the way in which a particular poem’s language creates the repeatable event of itself” in The Lyric Now, the poet enacts that very same event in Forever. The result is not only the condition we call poetry, but a magical sense of life through the full embrace of what, in a poem titled “Barcarolle,” he describes as “Just being where you are, tasting things, just breathing the air.”
  In his poems, James Longenbach not only takes us to a place where the consequence of living is poetry’s consequence, but also the consequence of reading is not only to live more fully, but to feel more alive while reading. This is the “event” of Forever, one that allows itself to be repeated in our return to its pages.