In the preface to his new book, The Lyric Now (University of Chicago Press, 126 pp., $18), James Longenbach, a talented poet and critic, explicates his own title: “I mean the word now to function primarily as a noun, modified by an adjective—the lyric now: written in 1920 or 2020, a poem creates the moment as we enter it. The poem is happening now.”
Poems do many things. They help us to master loss (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”); they help us to hope (Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”); they help us to remember (Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” again). But, as Longenbach argues, the most distinctive and seemingly impossible feature of the poem is its ability to create a new kind of time. Contra Auden, poems do make things happen; the poem is itself the happening. In an essay from The Lyric Now, Longenbach argues that George Oppen’s poetry doesn’t give us “the sound of finished thought” but “makes us hear the poem as an ongoing act of thinking, a bringing forth.” In another piece, he describes Patti Smith’s “always on the move” memoirs: they work “not as narrated event...but as the by-product of her animating dialogue with the things that bear the lives of people she loves.” Not thought but thinking; not brought but bringing; not animated but animating: this is the grammar of the lyric now, in which description gives way to enactment.
Longenbach writes of the connection between criticism and creation: “Like anyone who writes poems, I learned to do so by reading them; but more precisely, I learned to write poems by writing about them.” His forthcoming book, Forever: Poems (W. W. Norton, 80 pp., $26.95), shows the fruit of both his critical work and his six previous collections of poetry. Longenbach the critic writes beautifully about syntax: Marianne Moore “is primarily a poet of argument, which is to say, a poet of syntax—long, charismatic sentences whose convolutions often seduce us into agreement long before we have time to consider the substance of the argument at stake.” Longenbach the poet can pull off the same kind of syntactic seduction:
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
Even if you’d tried,
Is to feel
Viscerally a part
Of time, to collaborate
In the project of becoming, always
To have begun.
The poem begins with a crisp, clear, two-line sentence. It follows and concludes with a long, unfolding ten-line sentence. Note the careful rhythms of that second sentence. The lines in the present tense, which describe what you recognize and see and feel and collaborate in, are all enjambed; one line flows into the next. The lines in the past tense, which describe what you didn’t and couldn’t see, are end-stopped; the flow gets jammed up. Longenbach matches the convolutions of thought (seeing what you couldn’t have once seen) with the convolutions of syntax.
Forever is an ironic title. The book’s speaker has been diagnosed with cancer. He knows that all he loves—the books he’s read; the places he’s visited; the body he’s lived in; the woman he’s spent a life with—can’t go on without end. Time begins to wobble and blur. “The person I once was found himself / In the present,” Longenbach writes, “which was the only place he could be.” Past romance comes to life again: