The Limits of Language

The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, / Something for the modern stage, / not, at any rate, an attic grace.” These famed lines from Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1919) suggest the tragic consequences of World War I-that “senseless slaughter,” as Ernest Hemingway called it. Pound’s challenge hinted at consequences for poets in particular, charting the difficult road that writers of lyric poems would be forced to travel ever after. Five decades later, Denise Levertov wrote in “Life at War” (1968) that “the same war / continues;” and later still, in her brilliant essay, “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival,” she focused on the moral and political responsibilities of the contemporary poet. “In this dangerous time,” Levertov asserted, “we can’t, I feel, rely solely on the subtle and delicate possibilities of change implicit in the giving and receiving of all art; we also need direct images in our art that will awaken, warn, stir their hearers to action; images that will both appall and empower.”

For two decades, Lawrence Joseph has been taking up this challenge, writing poems direct and indelicate enough to render both the beauty and the horror of the present age and its particular dangers. A critic, essayist, and law professor as well as prizewinning poet, Joseph has had a fascinatingly varied career. The Catholic, Lebanese son of a Depression-era auto worker in Detroit, he once described himself as “a Levantine nigger / in the city on the street between the great Lake Erie and St. Claire / which has a reputation for violence.” His family ran a corner grocery that was looted and burned during the race riots of 1967 and was later the scene of a robbery in which his father was shot. As an adult, Joseph has worked as a corporate lawyer and currently teaches law at St. John’s University. He lives in lower Manhattan, near the scene of 9/11’s devastation-a citizen of “Manhattan under siege,” he writes.

Joseph’s resumé suggests a more than passing acquaintance with gritty urban realities, and his sometimes shocking poems persistently refuse to turn away from the dark side of life. In his new collection, Into It, Joseph observes that “the poem is the dream, a dream technique;/ the primary soul-substance / on which our attention is fixed....” But the poem is also a reality technique in an age when, as he writes in “I Note in a Notebook,” “the technology to abolish truth is now available.” In “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down It,” a woman demands, “...why,/ in this time of so many claims to morality, / the weight of violence / is unparalleled in the history of the species....” To reestablish an abolished truth, Joseph insists, is to push poetry to embrace a range of emotions endured by people living “in a dark time,” as the title of Theodore Roethke’s great lyric suggests.

From the very beginning of his career, Joseph has written with an original and convincing sureness, as in the opening lines of “There Is a God That Hates Us So Much”: “I was pulled from the womb / into this city. / I learned words when my grandfather / lost both legs....I felt God’s anger / when my semen spilled into my hand. / I ate God’s body. / I promised to never sin.” In his early poems, Joseph called himself “the poet of my city”-first Detroit, later Manhattan-and assiduously transcribed the “howling voices” on the street that hurt him into poetry. These crowded, noisy environments clearly prepared the writer for a harshness that now extends to the larger world his poems increasingly inhabit. An urbane, globetrotting traveler (he has lectured on law in Egypt), Joseph strives to connect worlds small and large, committed to establishing a relationship “between our attention / to what is furthest from us / and what deepest in us.”

Reading Joseph, it’s interesting to measure his response to the emotional and linguistic demands of contemporary poetry-and of his era-against poets of a previous generation. In 1970, Stanley Kunitz wrote in “The Testing Tree” that “the heart breaks / and breaks / and lives by breaking / It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.” For his part, in “History for Another Time,” Joseph suggests that the present phase of history is more elusive still. “With its electronic and its nuclear-powered motors- the era of after, or postmodernism-has proven / more difficult to configure,” he writes. “You can no more describe the heart / of a computer than the heart of a multinational / corporation.”

Into It has its stronger and its weaker turns. The longer poems, such as “Why Not Say What Happens?”-a reconstruction of September 11 and a major achievement (published in Commonweal, November 5, 2004) are more successful, it seems to me, than the shorter ones. Although he quotes Wallace Stevens, Joseph’s ambition as a poet more clearly resembles Pound’s; and occasionally the poems falter, as do The Cantos, under the weight of rapid shifts in focus and cryptic references. But even then it is impressive to watch Joseph struggle with the limits of language and the integrity of the lyric in an effort to remain faithful to the truth. His goal is to express the immense confusion of the last ten years, to find proper words to pose against “the precious and the turgid language / of pseudoerudition (thugs, / thugs are what they are,/ false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down).” In “Unyielding Present,” he asks, “Is it that reality, disjointed, / cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, disjointed, cannot discern it.” And in “Rubaiyat”: “Is it even / farce?....The sniper who slides / a condom over the muzzle of his gun / to keep the sand out.”

More than his previous books, Into It radiates big ambitions, announcing Joseph’s intention “to make a large, serious / portrait of my time.” One applauds the aspiration, even while awaiting poems that provide a fully realized rendering of it. Pound’s image of postwar Europe, summarized famously by Eliot in “The Wasteland,” was of “an old bitch gone in the teeth...a botched civilization.” Allen Ginsberg’s even harsher image of the cold-war period, announced in “Howl” (1955), was of “a sexless hydrogen bomb.” Is it possible to communicate, in one image, a sense of our own violent and troubled decade? Joseph implies that at the moment we live in contingency, in possibility; our world is seldom fully realized, even as the poet works to fulfill his responsibility to communicate it precisely. Endeavoring to assimilate the wide disparities and sympathies of contemporary life, Lawrence Joseph’s achievement remains, in some ways, a work in progress. I say this not as a criticism, but as a way of suggesting that later poems may yet resolve the tensions informing these ambitious, skilled, and demanding works of art.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

Michael True, emeritus professor, Assumption College, is the author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (Syracuse University Press, 1995).

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