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.


stu said...


Nice essay, great questions...

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.

I'll take "uninitate" as my cue.

Like you, I have mixed feelings. I have a large reading vocabulary, and so don't often encounter unfamiliar words, technical contexts excepted. But of course, you don't get to the point of having a large reading vocabulary without a willingness—even eagerness—to expand your own vocabulary. I'm not going to be put off by new word, if it seems useful, natural, and right.

That said... I've already expressed a tentative theory of poetry as an idealization of spoken language. Therein lies my reservation. The vocabulary of spoken language is a good deal smaller than the vocabulary of written language. I'd expect the vocabulary of poetry to track the vocabulary of spoken language, with the occasional exception for an unusual word, however unlikely to recommend itself in the heat of initial composition, which nevertheless perfects nuance, rhythm, or rhyme. Let me put it this way: I'm known to go grifting through thesauruses and online rhyming dictionaries in search of a word that meets a particular need. But I tend to limit this to reminding me of words that would occur naturally in my mouth, words that will seem credible in context, and won't call attention to themselves as ringers.

So where does this leave us with "desuetude," "quincunx," and "indehiscent?" Do these seem like credible Stallings words, based on any sort of remotely plausible model of Stallings? I'm deeply skeptical. I can imagine "indehiscent" being used in the technical language of botany -- but is there another plausible context? It's a stretch. "Quincunx?" Perhaps, just perhaps, in the technical language of design, of fabrics and buttons. "Desuetude?" This might recommend itself to someone who speaks French, where it might be a more common word. But the totality feels like she's been grifting through the OED, and so has the scent of the hypocritical idiocy of "I'm eruditer than you."

I think here a poet wants to be careful—she wants her poems to be perceived as centered on her readers, either speaking to or for them. If the poems end up perceived as speaking over their heads for the purpose of establishing some sort of linguistic superiority, especially when they seem so unlikely to be a part of any plausible, useful vocabulary, folks are going to say "fuck this shit," and move on to alternatives that are more respectful of them.

But let me bring this back into context of Stallings oeuvre, and your question about the average Stallings poem. These liguistic preenings, while not rare, aren't the usual case either. There are 41 poems in Olives (by a quick count). The only poem I can remember that had me running for the dictionary was the first. It's almost as if she used the word "indehiscent" in that first poem as a guard, as a marker for the kind of effort she wanted her readers to put into her poems. It reminded me of that first hard quiz in a college class that's too big for the professor's comfort (not that I do this, but I certainly had this done to me as a student). This sort of thing can actually form a productive understanding between student and prof—this is going to be a serious class, and we're not going to let unworthy students diminish it for either of us. You, worthy survivors, will get the best I have to offer.

I suppose on balance I'm willing to cut Stallings a bit of slack on this one. There's a concern that's noted, but perhaps she has a generous purpose.

G. M. Palmer said...

It's hard to quantify how much I love this comment.

As you say, these are really the only three Stallings poems at least after Olives that use such language. (We're not counting her book Hapax Legomenon) Though there is "anhedonia" in three poems to psyche (but that's a place so. . .)

I would argue for a large vocabulary for AES. Her degree, IIRC is in classics or at least with a heavy concentration therein.

But yeah--sometimes it seems thesaurusy--but I did insist on including the word "absquatulate" in a fairy tale I wrote because it was such a hilariously appropriate word.

At any rate, she is excellent. I just wonder what is the best way to go about introducing folks to her work.

stu said...

At any rate, she is excellent. I just wonder what is the best way to go about introducing folks to her work.

She is excellent. But she sets a high bar for her readers.

I have two potential answers to your question. My remarks will leave little doubt about how I judge the merits of each.

The cheap approach is to introduce her through poems that don't present unusual challenges of vocabulary, but are still excellent individually. E.g., from Olives, "Four Fibs," which is inventive in meter, but has an accessible vocabulary, familiar story, and a fairly traditional structure of rhymes. Or "The Argument," which is breathtaking in the desolation of its insight.

The problem I have with this is that it misses something about Stalling's collection. It is not unstructured collections of poems. Olives is a meta-poem comprised of poems, on the theme of love's disillusions and tensions and alienations and imperative. Each of the poems provides a somewhat different view of this, but in aggregate, the effect is not unlike the structure of Hebrew poetry, but one taxon higher. Those "hard word" poems may be important milestone in a higher level of organization that we haven't yet sussed out with any clarity, but dimly, dimly perceive.

So I'll come around to what I think is the better introduction, which is the introduction you gave me. An introduction through more accessible poets, and more accessible poetry, including your own. By doing this, you built yourself up in my mind as someone who understands poetry deeply, who wants to share the ecstatic aesthetic experience you have in poetry, and as someone I can trust along my journey. Only once that trust is built, and the novice has demonstrated promise and perseverance, do you send them to Stallings. And with trust in you, and the confidence that comes from having worked through easier, but by no means easy poems and collections, they'll get past the stumbling block in that first poem (which is so beautiful and impressive), and be the worthy survivors.

Elise Hempel said...

I'm a formalist poet, and I like several poems by A.E. Stallings, for instance, the lovely "Momentary," published in Poetry a little while back. But something's missing from her poems overall, for me. It has nothing to do with vocabulary; or maybe it does? Or has she has chosen form over feeling? There's no urgency. There's no HER there. That is, I don't have a sense of her as a person -- I don't know who she is -- after I read her poems. There's a certain detachment in her writing. Though his poems are highly crafted, I know who Philip Larkin is after I read his poems.

Elise Hempel said...

Or perhaps it is the same problem I have with Dana Gioia. That static iambic, exact rhymes that clunk too firmly into place. I want to say -- Loosen up! Have a beer or two, a shot of whiskey.

Elise Hempel said...

Okay, one more comment.... About the poem "Pull-Toy," which appeared, I believe, in the journal Five Points. Nice to see a personal poem from Stallings. But if I'd submitted that poem, it would have been rejected.

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Shea Kang said...

Difficult roads often leads to beautiful destinations. :)