Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What's Wrong With A.E. Stallings?

Perhaps the answer is nothing.

As evidenced by her two new poems in this month's issue of Poetry, "Sestina: Like" and "The Rosehead Nail," Stallings maintains my claim that she is the best American poet since Sylvia Plath. Her poems seem specifically calculated to make me swoon.

By "me" I mean anyone with a serious education (traditional or autodidact) in the classics, poetry, and poetics. If you're the kind of person who owns an OED and for whom "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" holds a dear place in your heart, you're going to love A.E. Stallings' poetry (if you don't already).

And yet I wonder.

Look at the vocabulary of both poems. "Sestina" uses "desuetude" and "Nail" "quincunx." While I love the challenge of both finding and providing unfamiliar words (especially ones that sound so lovely: see "indehiscent" in her poem "Olives") I know from experience both reading and teaching that vocabulary can be a huge turn-off for some folks.

And that's sort of the crux of the question. In a world with a triple division of poetry: popular, traditional, and obfuscatory, I would like to know what the uninitate thinks of the average Stallings poem. Is she merely a "poet's poet"? Worse, is she merely this "poet's poet"? Most of me doesn't think so, though in reading contemporary poetry with my students I've gotten a lot more traction with the poems of Jill Alexander Essbaum or Joshua Mehigan or Brian McGackin than I have with Stallings' poems.

Maybe it's not her it's me?

Perhaps I see Stallings' poems and see exemplars for what I have tried to write. Lord knows reading her "Three Poems to Psyche" so soon after the publication of With Rough Gods was incredibly unsettling. But I don't think I'm unrealistic about the potential audience for poetry. That is, I know big words scare people. Someone once told me that I was writing poetry for the intellectual crowd as well. Somehow I didn't see this (like seriously, my first book is about Greek Mythology--who ELSE was I writing for?) and was taken a bit aback.

Artists always need to balance their desire to communicate with the ability of the audience to comprehend. While I agree with both Dante and Eliot that the experience trumps the understanding, the possibility of comprehension must exist. It clearly does in Stallings' work--so is there a problem?

Maybe it's everyone else?

I am unsettled still when I read her work and am concerned about its reach to a broader audience. As I count her among my favorite poets and among our best poets, that concern bleeds into a more general concern for poetry.

Why is it that difficulty in poetry should stop an audience cold when this is not the case for other forms of art? Folks loved Inception. LOVED IT. Lost, too. I hear both students and adults debate the complexity of this song, that lyric--the complexity of some puzzling video game.

Why have they lost the ability to appreciate such puzzles in poetry?

There are plenty of answers but I think I am more interested in this question: what do we as poets do if we acknowledge this disparity?

Is it a compromise of art to acknowledge and adjust your work to accommodate the limitations of your broader audience or do you accept that your art--by its nature--limits its own audience?

A.E. Stallings work thus far gives her a solid claim to be the best poet of our age. But will she be our age's favorite poet? What value is there in either honorific? In any honorific? Laurels are just leaves, after all.