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poets in the lower case: Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry

Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry
Charles Potts, Editor
Walla Walla, WA: Tsunami, Inc., 1998
$20.00, paper

Our best young poets are writing in the voice of the status quo. Whether male, female, black, white, straight or gay, in this era of inclusiveness and cultural diversity, the American melting pot can still be found in the stylistic leanings of our poets. In a formula easier to address than apply, it often asks for an ironic, meditative tone, standard syntax and diction, a controlling metaphor or image, and, with luck, in closure, a momentary epiphany. Although the style has not yet reached its full maturity, the results have already been impressive. Some poems created by developing masters such as Jane Hirshfield are startling in their beauty and intelligence. Indeed, even when approaching subjects that might make some readers squeamish—a homosexual encounter in a public park (see Mark Doty's fine poem "Days of 1981" in My Alexandria)—a more primal response is subverted by rendering the scene in exquisitely tasteful, angelic language. One can hardly complain. Yet with all of its merits, it is also a poetry that can be too delicate, too gentile, and too self- satisfied. In the hands of the less accomplished, this subtle style can create schooled minstrels whose poems most resemble, perhaps, James Taylor's blues. The music ain't got no grit. That's why I read with interest Charles Potts' anthology, Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry. In it we find poets willing to let their cadences shake and their language rant in what often read like raw responses to a spiritual waste land.

Although the large number of poets represented makes generalizing difficult, many of them do share certain elements in common. For one thing, several have adopted lower casing the first person pronoun and eschewed normal punctuation. However, unlike in cummings where the results are often playful, these poets use such tricks to express both their political philosophy and psychological frailty. Lower casing the i isn't done so much to create an Everyman persona by deflating the ego as it is to divorce the poets from the middle class and the political agenda that supports it. Although they may have an affinity for the working class, in part, no doubt, because many have worked among them, it would be truer to say that they feel alienated from all forms of social hierarchy. mel buffington expresses this nicely in his poem "code of the west":

when I'm relaxing
under a full moon
w/ the stones singing sweet

across the cool night air

through the mysticism of
crickets in tall grass

& dancing worms
u have called the cops
on me, countless times

& i
have (not once) complained
about yr thick neck

yr poleyester clothes, yr
bestial children
yr materialism

i think it's time

for a showdown
(since we're neighbors)

In an angrier poem by d.a. levy, "I found it at the movies (or) hummmmed-off in a laundro-mat," we get this:
i will hate America for the rest
of my life
        because of some cheap
politician with his secret links
in the Kiwanas or Masons or
the Universities or The Knights of
Columbus or the Rosicrucians or some
other dream inquisition
disguised with the flag of humanity...
Curiously, by rejecting the American class system and what they see as its political agenda, the poets often appear superior to it and, thus, in antithesis, become annexed to the very thing they despise. Even more curious is that this rejection also expresses an ultimate extension of the democratic experience, where, as in a Dylan lyric, demotion and promotion become one. "This poetry," Bob Watt says, "is written to take you into excellence by the way of inferior poetry." In an absolute democracy, after all, shouldn't excellence be expressed in what itself is less than excellent?

Whether the poets in the volume downsize the i or not, many feel themselves, nonetheless, in a world beyond their control where the chaos, trifles, and emptiness of daily life make every act seem futile and small. In "Pound of Head," a poem crammed with frantic images, dan raphael complains,

our alphabets have gone multimedia,
a remote control imbedded in the thigh, a tv that knows your
and reminds you of what's coming up
attune your heart to the electronic pulpit,
the silicon pituitary, a million pieces of data
how many can you link to what clothes in what club
And at the end of "The Storm That Put the Phones on Hold," where office workers have left their desks to stand outside in a thunderstorm, David Memmott writes,
Such utter delight in a pure physical world!
Then the lights came on.
We straightened our ties, confessed our bodies
brushing the dark was simply coincidental.
Stop this staring off into space, my friends.
The phones, once more, are ringing.
In some poets this feeling of helplessness lends itself to fatalistic conclusions. The culprit in Stephen Thomas's " At the Metropolitan," however, is not contemporary culture but time:
Time is a disdainful portraitist
and doesn't love us much.
It sculpts away the finished marble,
finding the shape within.
True to its grieved and solitary genius,
what it shows us is ourselves alright,
senseless and dismembered
Finally, other poems sweep us into melancholia. "[A]t the end of History," Darrell Gray says, "there will be some shoe sales, crumbling/ apartments, and lots of robots/standing around in the haze." All of the last three examples illustrate, I believe, what Mr. Potts labels prophecy, one of his criteria for spiritual poetry. Rather than prediction, according to him prophecy means poems that strike an emotional cord and travel equally deep in all readers. But if the above lines are prophecy, the vision is standard literary fare, echoing, for one, Eliot's early thinking.

Not all of the writers are doom and gloom. Some are wonderfully comic. Others find salvation where they can and create meaning even when little seems apparent. Responding to her lover in "Photograph of the Two of Us," Sharon Doubiago writes,

as you say again
I only stay with you
because you fuck so well

and faith on my face like a mountain
I answer
that's as holy a reason as any
But such meager affirmation only further supports that for most poets in the volume any more deeply felt, traditional salvation is no longer possible. Eugene Lesser puts it well in his poem "Alchemy" where the poet, on Market Street in San Francisco, searches for "something to experience":
we share the bounty of a wilderness
that was maybe murdered maybe dead
of natural causes but I'm no hart
crane (nor ts eliot nor would I be
unless you paid me a lot of money)
the air glittered in my bronx but
I would trade it and all of my
             subject matter
if there were anything to trade it
Without the commitment that ought to be part of human touch, in a world where nature has departed and mysticism too often seems passe, the poets ask, like Denis Mair, "What can I do to be more alive?"

The majority of the poets in the volume came of age in the sixties. In many, Ginsberg's influence is apparent from the parallel structure of the poems and the long cluttered lines. Others twist syntax, play with space, use line breaks to stutter cadence, and strip punctuation bare. These techniques are more than stylistic tics. They help create a vision of the world both chaotic and irrelevant, a world that must be expressed, but also countered by the poet.

Readers are indebted to Mr. Potts for bringing these writers together in one book. Many have been writing for more than thirty years, and although the quality of the poems may waver, as a group they form a unique voice on the American scene. By including 370 pages of poetry by 63 poets, the editor took on a formidable task and handled it well. His hard work benefits in particular those interested in contemporary American letters.

Only the title and introduction suffer. They do the poets disservice by misdirecting the readers. First, readers at large are unlikely to recognize the poetry on spiritual terms, despite the introduction. Much of it is simply too nervous. Although the poets may be spiritually hungry, the poems themselves better express, as I have suggested, social, psychological concerns. Second, the editor's definition is circular. To say spiritual poems are songs "that will touch our emotions directly and, by stimulating the release of emotion, elevate our state..." is to say very little. What distinguishes that type of good poem from any other? What makes it spiritual? Mr. Potts would respond, "enlightenment." But abusing Buddhist philosophy is no help and borders on pretension.

Ultimately, of course, what Mr. Potts asks us to do is take his poets seriously. We should read them, to use E. M. Forster's term, with humility. To dismiss them as counterculture poets only is to misjudge their value. What may appear on first reading to be scattered ramblings, show, in reflection, both craft and consistent vision. These poets are not the status quo, but in them we hear what I suspect are its darknesses. That, I think, is their worth, and the worth of Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry. Most of us have come to accept the soul's relegation to minutia. We work daily to pay for our material trivialities, bowing down to the Dow and its corporate talisman. Some poets, though, have chosen to turn against the soul's diminishment and howl.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 1999 issue of CLR

Stephen Wallin

Stephen Wallin teaches writing and literature at Mt. Hood Community College and Clackamas Community College.

You can find Stephen Wallin on the web at:
—  Clackamas Community College


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