Bookmarks | Formal Poetry is Alive and Well

Denis Donoghue once wrote that James Merrill’s poetry was “a net of loose talk tightening to verse.” This is also a good way to describe Spencer Reece’s new poetry collection, The Road to Emmaus (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). There is a pleasant, relaxed clarity to the verse even when Reece, who recently became a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church, talks about darkness—the darkness of the world (the neonatal ICU, where “newborns breathed, / blue, spider-delicate in nests of tubes”; a Puerto Rican mother who “weeps, her stabbed son intubated before us”) and the darkness of the soul (Reece’s struggles with vocation, with the call to remember the poor, with death and despair). These poems are delicate but rarely precious, serious but never sententious, religious but not dogmatic.

A prime example of Reece’s delicacy—and of his skill as a storyteller—comes in “Monaco,” one of the collection’s best poems. First, we meet an ill-matched, unnamed couple. She, a hardened, “handsome” Frenchwoman, “made her money in the drug trade” and now sells works of art—“a Matisse here, a Picasso there.” He, on the other hand, is a “tall, athletic, effeminate” American man who “looked as if he were being chased / by something no one could see.” We learn of their rapid courtship: “They met at a sales counter in Palm Beach / where the man was ringing up items at 75 percent off each. / She invited him on a trip, / after she gave him a sizeable tip.” We sense that each finds cover in the other: she for her illegal activities, he for his queerness. Reece sums up their peculiarities—and how their peculiarities, when paired off, become somehow less peculiar—in this way:

 

The couple exhibited variations

the world never embraced, but presented as a couple

the world embraced promptly,

for the world trusted what was coupled.

 

The couple takes a trip to Monaco, where they meet the “Baroness von Lindenhoffer,” an “androgynous” woman who is rumored to be a “lesbian, / but of this she never spoke.” Eccentric and rich, reticent yet wearing makeup “heavy / as a clown’s, and a red polka-dotted muumuu,” the baroness is mysterious and strangely alluring: “she exuded an isolation as if it were a scent. / Something inside her had ceased.”

The baroness buys a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec from the Frenchwoman; the couple and the baroness have tea together; a moment of intimacy is gestured toward but ultimately abandoned; the couple leaves Monaco and eventually separates. Somehow, this encounter with the baroness has meant a great deal to them: “Was it there they came to know danger, / how one could disappear into a beautiful lie?” The man and woman look back on their relationship with sadness but without rancor: “They lived on, / both aware the one had altered the other: / whether intended or not, / the act could not be undone.” All of this is sketched quickly, lightly, suggestively, and hauntingly. It really is as close to James Merrill’s work as anything I’ve read in a long time.

Many of Reece’s poems tread similar ground. “Gilgamesh,” for instance, is a beautiful autobiographical piece charting Reece’s five-year relationship with someone he calls Joseph O’Shaughnessy. (“‘You can’t use his real name,’ / a member from the Coming Out Group said. / ‘It’s cruel. He’s not out. He’s not dead.’”) We hear of their beginnings—“Joseph was fifty, Spencer thirty-nine— / somewhat late to begin a life together / for the first time”; of their years spent together, playing Scrabble, visiting family, caring for “a Lab mix named Butch”; and, finally, of their end: after they break up, Joseph wants to continue being friends but Spencer cannot. He can only write.

Balanced against these sketches of romance are re-imaginings of Reece’s journey toward the priesthood. This journey involves a different kind of love, surely, but one that is still marked by moments of delight and despair. “At Thomas Merton’s Grave” contains wonderful lines on anguish (“We can never be with loss too long”), on the Hopkins-like exuberance of nature (“the wood thrush calls to the monks, / pausing atop the stone crucifix, / singing: ‘I am marvelous alone!’”), and on how time—and God’s creation—can salve, if never cure, loss: “How kind time is, / altering space / so nothing stays wrong: and light, / more new light, always arrives.”

“The Upper Room” describes -Reece’s time as a seminarian. “In search of the transcendent,” Reece moves to a third-floor apartment in New Haven, which he furnishes with “a Byzantine icon of Christ,” a well-thumbed Book of Common Prayer, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and Gregory of Nazianzus’s Orations. Reece isn’t above humor: he and his fellow seminarians, “grimly chewing our meals in the twilight,” “were made for any novel by Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym.” But he also gives us a sense of how this experience transformed him and how this transformation demanded a return to the world: in an echo of both St. John of the Cross and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he writes, “The way forward was the way out.” He closes with this meditation on the call to the religious life:

 

Had I chosen it?

Had I chosen it all?

The Benedictine cross around my neck,

given by a friend, was light,

a silver, tarnished, chipped Christ, on shiny onyx,

a man I now relied on—

paradoxically bound and free—

a childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine.

 

At times, Reece’s poetry seems downright prosy, as in the opening to the collection’s title poem: “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew. / I sat with Sister Ann, a Franciscan, / in her small office, at the Cenacle Retreat House, / right on South Dixie Highway in Lantana, Florida.” Or listen to these hesitant, self-correcting lines from later in the same poem: “but much I knew I would forget, or remember in a way my own, / which would not exactly be correct, no, not exactly.” But then, after stanzas of looseness, the language tightens and crystallizes, leading to moments of intense clarity. Again, from the same poem: “where there is estrangement there is little peace”; “We were aristocrats of time.”

Like Merrill, Reece describes the finer things in life with precision—good books and good art, “cashmere and shantung.” (Reece worked as a sales associate at Brooks Brothers; he once fitted the poet Donald Hall for a sport coat.) Like Merrill, Reece is a formalist but not a slavish one: he’s willing to use regular rhyme schemes and stanza structures but he’s not bound to them. Like Merrill, he writes about museums (“the Neue Galerie, the Whitney, the Frick, MoMA”) and the threat of nuclear annihilation (a short prose poem entitled “The Manhattan Project” describes Reece’s grandfather’s involvement in building the nuclear bomb). Like Merrill, he loves to include proper nouns in his work: the poet Richard Blanco, the critic Harold Bloom, and the reverend Peter Gomes all make short appearances in The Road to Emmaus.

This connection between these two poets is no accident: Reece struck up a correspondence with Merrill before his death, and he’s currently working on a book of prose meditations that will consider Merrill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and George Herbert. I suspect that Merrill would have loved The Road to Emmaus. All readers of contemporary poetry should, too.

***

Like The Road to Emmaus, Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s new collection, People on Sunday (Wave Books), resists the open-ended and, to my mind, often sloppy free-verse form of much contemporary poetry. He’s a formalist through and through: many of his poems employ crisp, clear tercets or quatrains, harking back, at least on their surface, more to someone like W. H. Auden than to someone like Charles Bernstein.

But beneath these seemingly placid forms, People on Sunday pulses with anger—at the exploitative effects of unfettered capitalism, at America’s seemingly endless wars, at our willingness to see everyone and everything turned into commodities to be sold and purchased. O’Brien, a supporter of the Occupy Movement who had his ribs broken at a peaceful protest in Berkeley in 2011, uses traditional verse to make a radical argument.

The beginning of “At the Edge of the Bed” puts this political and economic argument most clearly:

 

No one yet has ever chosen misery

Those that seem to have done so

Haven’t any more than they have

Chosen this mist or is it rain

 

We would first have to own ourselves

Then give up on them entirely

Every day rather than once

And for all...

 

O’Brien believes that we don’t own ourselves—or that we don’t believe that we do, or that by using the very language of ownership to describe our selves we are capitulating to the market’s dehumanizing logic. Work and capital seem to have tyrannized our very language: the weather is described as “76 degrees and money”; we believe that “the sun shines / Because the workweek desires it.”

In “Thanatopsis,” O’Brien writes that “we’re taught to imagine days / As reprieves from other days,” allowing the misery we feel at work to be eased by our holidays and weekends. This is the major argument of the poem “People on Sunday (1930),” which is loosely based on the 1930 German silent film Menschen am Sonntag. In this poem, O’Brien follows a group of city dwellers as they go about their lives on a Sunday. He deftly shifts pronouns throughout, sometimes writing from the first-person perspective and sometimes from the third, sometimes addressing a “you” and sometimes addressing a “them.” With this strategy, O’Brien simultaneously collapses and opens up the distance between poet and subject, the writer and the people he is writing about.

And this is appropriate since the poem is precisely about the longing for, and frustration of, community. In O’Brien’s vision, the weekend seems to be the one time that allows us to escape the tyranny of capitalism: as he writes in “Hesiod,” “When the markets close / You feel time flows differently inside.” We might think that this new kind of time will allow us to be cooperative instead of competitive, play instead of work. But this isn’t the case. For O’Brien, the weekends are a modern-day bread and circus, meant to distract us from the horror that is our workaday life. The pleasures that O’Brien’s characters find on Sunday—swimming, walking—are primarily private pleasures.

It’s true that there are moments of community: “One man breaks his cigarette in two to celebrate, / Gives half to the other man”; a hat is thrown into a tree and “This precipitates a whole other serious game / Of cooperation—at least three will be required / To spend time getting back the hat of only one.” But these moments are fleeting. The retrieval of the hat is “an inefficiency permitted on Sunday,” and Sunday alone. Sunday may be “full and orchestral” but it’s also “about to burn”—about to end, leading to Monday and work once again.

All this may make People on Sunday sound dreary, and its argument is dreary, for the most part. O’Brien hopes for communal action, but he acknowledges that it will be hard, if not impossible, to change things as fundamentally as he’d like. But the collection isn’t all about political economy. There are excellent poems about Strauss’s “Beim Schlafengehen” (“The sound was like picking sad battles, / The red that white imagines yellow is”) and about the history of language itself (“Spenser coined blatant to show us the scandal / Of truth can only be invented”). O’Brien’s poetry shows that political radicalism and formal conservatism are not incompatible with each other.

***

If you need more convincing that traditional verse forms don’t belong in the dustbin of history, then Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry (Harvard University Press) might persuade you. On Poetry is really a Poetry-101-type manual, very much in the line of older, venerable texts like Sound and Sense and John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason. Maxwell begins by claiming that his “is a book for anyone,” but it’s aimed at two primary audiences: those who want to write poetry and those readers of poetry who want to understand the craft from the inside. (I’ve assigned the book for my own Introduction to Lyric Poetry course this semester.)

Maxwell structures his book idiosyncratically. Instead of a chapter on meter, a chapter on rhyme, and so on, he has a chapter on “Whiteness,” a chapter on “Black,” a chapter on “Pulse,” etc. Sometimes, this is really just a matter of nomenclature. He begins “Pulse,” for instance, by declaring that he doesn’t teach “prosody. Iambs, dactyls, spondees, trochees,” but “pulse” is really just “prosody” or “meter” by another name. But at other times, Maxwell’s peculiar terminology gets at something peculiar—and revealing—about his own understanding of how poetry works.

Take “whiteness,” for example. As Maxwell rightly notes, poems begin in silence and they end in silence, and the thing that separates poetry from prose is the line-break—whiteness, in other words. He compares a poem to a song: both have lyrics (words), but that’s not all that they have. A song also has music, and the poet also has “silence, the space, the whiteness.” As he succinctly puts it, “Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence.” And it is this play of sound and silence, text and whiteness, that constitutes the task of the poet.

Maxwell’s book is studded with sharp, confident claims about poetry: “You master form you master time”; “In every poem I admire, and every poem that’s still around say fifty, a hundred, a thousand years after its maker is gone, what’s signaled by the black shapes is a human presence”; “Formlessness says time is broken”; “Poetry is creaturely. What survives in it echoes corporeal phenomena: the heartbeat and the pulse, the footstep and the breath.” Throughout, there’s a deep commitment to form. Maxwell believes that much free verse is laziness masking itself as daring. When you write free verse, he claims, you have to be extremely intelligent about the whiteness, and too few poets are. There is a reason that traditional forms have become traditional: in some deep sense, they work.

Maxwell’s book is an invigorating tonic: passionate, learned, fun, and infuriating at the same time. On Poetry theorizes what The Road to Emmaus and People on Sunday demonstrate: that formal poetry—poetry that patterns its play of blackness and whiteness, sound and silence—is alive and well.

Published in the June 1, 2014 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

Also by this author
Writing Atrocity

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections
Collections