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Martha Treichler and the State of Poetry

Art is a big country. The United States is a big country—too big to have a culture you can get your mind around. When there were poetry anthologies that picked out, say, twenty poets who supposedly represented contemporary American poetry, there was a certain satisfaction in it. You could think you knew what was happening in American poetry. But, of course, the selection was wildly limited. An anthology I read with passionate attention in 1969 was one called Naked Poetry. It only claimed to represent "Recent American Poetry in Open Forms." OK—just recent, just open forms. Not the whole of contemporary American poetry. But it also claimed to contain "much of the best poetry written in America in the last two decades. " And, two of the poets represented were the editors themselves! As Howard Nemerov (not an open form poet—not in the anthology—wonderful poet) pointed out in his sharp review, the editors had written quite a high percentage of the best recent American poetry. Oh well, such are the vanities—of other people.

There were other problems as well. Of the nineteen poets, only two were women: Denise Levertov and Sylvia Plath. There were no black, Hispanic, Native American, or Asian American poets. The other seventeen were—you can see this coming—white men. And this was what seemed at the time to be a progressive anthology. Open forms. Rebellious. Rebellion against the tyranny of the iamb. What would have been called at that time "non-traditional," or maybe "anti-academic. " Allen Ginsberg was in it, and Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen. Still, what seemed to be radical, at least somewhat, was really very restricted. But, as I say, at least it gave you the impression that you could master the territory of contemporary American poetry. That you knew what was going on. I still have the book, and some of my favorite poets are in it.

Efforts were made to remedy some of these problems in a revised edition a few years later, The New Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry. Sixteen poets were added, among them Etheridge Knight, recently out of prison, emerging with a handful of indisputably powerful poems, out on the poetry circuit reading them in the deep tones of his magnificent voice, chuckling often, soon to disappear from the scene. Others added to the new edition included Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Koch, George Oppen, Charles Simic, Hayden Carruth—more variety. The editors' own work was subtracted, and they wrote a new foreword that pulled back the claims and modified the tone of original. The new foreword ended: "We have our doubts [….] we are not theoreticians. We write the stuff, and here, in order to make a little money, to enlarge the audience for poets we love, and to provide an interesting text for ourselves and other teachers, we have collected all these poems, all these genres, into a book."

It's an awfully big country (and an even bigger world). I had a poet friend, David Budbill, who was quite well-known in Vermont—you could almost say famous. He appreciated the recognition that came his way, but he also always felt neglected, and rejected by the academy—though some in the academy thought he was terrific, liked him for his anti-academic style, and invited him to read at their colleges. But, he would have liked to have a little more fame. He wanted to be nationally known. Who wouldn't? To make matters worse, he was a pretty serious student of Buddhism, attuned to the transience of all things, let alone fame and recognition. I said to him, "David, you're famous in Vermont. In most of human history, Vermont would have been a whole country—enough of a place to be known in. You're doing OK. " He agreed, but nevertheless wrote the following poem:


I want to be


so I can be


about being


What good is my


when I am


in this


With the passing of Mary Oliver, I guess that leaves only, perhaps, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and Billy Collins as living poets who approach a Robert Frost-like level of national recognition. W.S. Merwin is gone—a long and much honored career, though his work was always a little too obscure, hard to get a firm grip on, to be loved by a broader demographic than the hard-core poetry audience. Robert Bly is in his nineties and is suffering memory loss, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet he resembles in the scope of his contributions to American literature, and in other, more transcendental ways, did before him. There are Poet Laureates, and inaugural poets, but who now could fill the role that Frost did when he lent his geezerly great poet luster to Kennedy's inauguration? Maya Angelou gave a similar luster to Clinton's, though I've always thought it was her charisma and her voice more than the poem she read that carried the day. Donald Hall would have been a good choice for an inaugural poet. Obama did have him to the White House, in a different capacity, and they looked good together—the old poet, cultivating his dishevelledness; the young President, handsome and dignified—both of them notable for their care for language, their skills of articulation. But Hall is gone now too, and Obama is no longer in office. The inaugural poets he did choose, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco, both provided poems notable for flatness of phrasing and obligatory hopeful message.

Donald Trump did not include a poet in his inauguration ceremony. But neither has any other Republican, and the Democrats only took up the tradition with Kennedy. Having a poet read at the inauguration had the Kennedy touch, like "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Jimmy Carter had James Dickey, who was then riding his meteor of fame, but not at the ceremony itself, only at the gala. In any case, inaugural poets and poems are not a good measure of what's going on in poetry—though Robert Frost at Kennedy's inauguration on that sunny, wind-blown day did seem to signify something. I remember watching, thirteen years old, not yet interested in poetry, still years away from learning that Frost said that a poem is a "temporary stay against confusion, " and knowing what he meant. Even so, I was impressed by the drama of the event, and Frost's craggy presence.

Now Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Just as we suspected: song lyrics are literature, poems, and he was writing some great ones. The boundaries of poetry pushed back, or made harder to locate. I recently saw the new Martin Scorcese documentary about Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour in the 1970s, and was reconvinced, if I needed to be, of Dylan's greatness as a poet, watching him perform "Hard Rain" and "Hurricane." Seeing him perform those poems was a revelation all over again. A great poet in the full flight of his language and passion. Having a band behind you doesn't hurt—at least for a certain kind of poem. Of course, there are other kinds of peak experiences in poetry. Sitting in solitude and silence, say, reading Wallace Stevens—maybe "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm" or "The Plain Sense of Things"—the full meditative whammy. Or reading Pablo Neruda, one of his Odas Elementales, looking with my sketchy Spanish now and then at the original on the left-hand page, then going back to the gift of a good translation on the right.

But I'm getting off the track, which is the feeling that it's hard to think about American poetry on a national level with the sense of focus that once seemed possible. Always fierce disagreements about who had the correct focus—but possible.

Maybe I am just an old guy (72), beginning to feel the vastness of things more acutely, and missing the sense of being oriented, of having a clear picture of the landscape. Many things have changed. Publication has changed, accessible to everyone now, one way or another. The on-line universe has been birthed. Writing programs have proliferated. There used to be three or four university presses publishing poetry; now there are many. Small independent presses have proliferated. Invisible Publishing, Sagging Meniscus Press, Elixir Press, Augury Books, Empty Bowl Press—these are the names of a few that came via my e-mail advertisement from Small Press Distribution this morning. Poetry contests and prizes—proliferated. Billy Collins has called contemporary American poetry "overpopulated," though as far as I know he hasn't suggested a solution to the overpopulation situation. A vast, squirming, open-ended scene. It's always been so, but it is much more so now.

But one thing that seems clear to me, one principle that is required now more than ever, if you want to understand the situation of contemporary poetry, is that the local and the regional must be taken into account. Urban or rural, anywhere in the country there is a poetry scene. Literary eco-systems within the whole impossibly large national one, like the actual eco-systems that make up the geography and the biology of the continent. Poetry has to be considered through that lens—which is like the lens of a fly's eye—if you want to see what's happening. (I did a little quick research to check my metaphor, and I'm sticking with it. My impression that a fly's eye is multi-lensed was born out: "Compound eyes are made up of thousands of individual visual receptors, called ommatidia. Each ommatidium is a functioning eye in itself, and thousands of them together create a broad field of vision for the fly." Then I found, in the heading of the next section, the additional information: "Flies can't focus.") (https://animals.mom.me-insects)

In the poetry world of upstate New York— extending, like the Erie Canal, from Albany to Buffalo—FootHills Publishing is a vital and venerable presence. Its headquarters are in Kanona, somewhere in the space between Rochester and Corning. Now in its thirty-fifth year, it has published close to five hundred titles, by a couple hundred poets. The editorial policy is animated by publisher Michael Czarnecki's fundamentally generous philosophy, expressed in the title of one of his own books: Never Stop Asking for Poems. The range of poets he chooses is wide. A back-to-the-lander himself, he leans toward the rural and the ecological, but he's open to all kinds of subjects, projects, and tones. Stylistically, he's open to poets writing Whitmanesque long poems or haiku; contemporary American vernacular free verse or sonnets and sestinas; nature poetry or political satire. All are represented in the FootHills stable, more like a large free-range flock of assorted species. The majority of the poets are from New York State, but by no means all. Czarnecki reaches out to other regions. He's responsible, for example, for the most recent collection by the Milwaukee poet Antler, Touch Each Other, being in print—Antler, probably the wildest imagination and lyrical voice of his generation, somewhat forgotten since his connections with New York City publishers went wrong. Another FootHills poet I am thinking of lives in a low rent apartment in an upstate city, making his living by yardwork and cleaning houses. His poetry is far more accessible and moving than that of the poet who occupies the endowed poetry chair at the university in the same city. Prestige, like fame, is a very unstable quality.

Besides books by individual poets, FootHills also publishes thematic anthologies on subjects ranging from birds to sexuality to U. S. Route 20—not an interstate, but a highway that runs coast to coast in the old fashioned way, not bypassing towns and local cultural features. It's a route which Czarnecki has traveled extensively in his explorations of what he calls "the poetic road." Many of the FootHills books are chapbooks, folded and slender, but there are also full-length collections, with spines, running to a hundred pages and more. All have FootHills' trademark hand-stitching, are printed on thick paper, and have an attractive simplicity of look and feel. Holding a FootHills book, you know you have stepped outside mainstream media and marketing. Czarnecki does the design, and the hand-stitching is done by his wife, Carolyn. Between the two of them, the Czarneckis represent the kind of dedicated workers for poetry who make it a grassroots phenomenon—who nurture the rich loam of poetry in contemporary America.

Out of the ocean, the crowd—out of the many books and poetry readings—out of the many leaves that are now our leaves of grass—the hope is still to hear a particular voice, one that delivers truth and delight repeatedly. This circling introduction/rumination has been leading to one such voice. The poet is Martha Treichler. She's the author of six books, all published by FootHills. Previously she had written essays, published mostly in The Crooked Lake Review, a local history journal she founded with her husband, in Hammondsport, in the Finger Lakes wine country, where she still lives. But she must have been writing poems too, and when she connected with Michael Czarnecki, the books came in rapid succession—small books quickly gathering to a substantial body of work. It would be a notable output at any age, but Treichler did it in her seventies and eighties. At the time of this writing, she has recently turned ninety.

I don't want to overemphasize her age. I don't want to put her in a category. It would be a small one: poets in their 80s and 90s. There's a lot of category thinking in our culture today. Identity group thinking, and it can be reductive, leading to clichés, to well-worn tracks. Sometimes it feels as if belonging to a certain group is considered more important than originality and inspiration. But, of course, your category, your vantage point, is part of what you have to offer. In Treichler's case, this is certainly true. That is, the vantage point of age. The long experience that got her there has seasoned her spirit and her imagination, and has led to one of the key characteristics of her poetry—what I want to call, wisdom.

I know that might be a risky thing to say. We might want wisdom from poetry, but at the same time, the phrase "wisdom poetry" rightfully makes us nervous. It should anyway. Didacticism hovers nearby. If it turns stuffy or pompous, it's the death of poetry. Who can deny that The Prophet has wonderful, on-the-money passages? But it can grow tiresome, predictable, with some loss of immediacy, of freshness.

An interesting phenomenon in recent decades in American poetry has been the popularity of Rumi, who has been the best-selling poet of that period. More recently Hafiz, who Emerson has been recommending since about 1850, has been gaining similar attention. It's a good thing that many people know about these great poets from another culture, both of them "world poets" of the first order. And yet sometimes, at least in some of translations we have, reading them can make you cry out—too much wisdom! Every poem, wise! Too grandiose, too starry-eyed.

Stop acting so small.

You are the universe

In ecstatic motion.

Well, OK. But I do not feel like the universe in ecstatic motion. Maybe now and then. That's my problem, not Rumi's, but still….

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,

There is a field.

I'll meet you there.

That sounds attractive, getting out there beyond ideas, beyond ethics. We do need some ecstasy of course. But most of us are still struggling to act ethically, to do the right thing in some kind of consistent manner. No disrespect intended to Rumi. But when I read his poems, or hear him quoted in sermons, or see one of his poems used as an epigraph in somebody else's book of poems, it feels like a claim to spiritual wisdom that we really aren't qualified to make.

I'm not suggesting a competition between Rumi and Martha Treichler, but mentioning them together does make a point of contrast. Her poetry is nothing like those high-flown translations. It contains a grounded sort of wisdom. It's firm, crisp, and modest, but—delicate balance—not too modest. She has a certain confidence, and it's an attractive, even bracing, quality. A self-confidence neither grandiose nor obnoxious, and never self-righteous. But more about that later.

Treichler was a student at Black Mountain College, the experimental school of the 1940s which gave its name in turn to a school of poetry. Her first book, Black Mountain to Crooked Lake, was mostly a memoir about her experience there. In another anthology that tried to map the territory of American poetry, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Black Mountain poets comprised one of the sections of the book, along with the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance. Treichler studied with Charles Olson, the influential leading figure in that group, who was a looming presence in American poetry, though perhaps he has somewhat receded into the mists at this point. Inheritor of Pound, Olson's poetry was arcane, with the difficulties of his own particular combination of ambition and erudition. In her remembrance of him, Treichler doesn't focus on his poetry, but rather testifies to his reputation as an excellent teacher, of both literature and writing. Of his literature classes, she remembers:

"…we worked hard for him. He expected us to read Melville, and I read

a lot of Melville. He asked us to read Ezra Pound, and I read The Cantos

and The ABC of Reading. He asked us to read the Richmond Lattimore

translation of The Odyssey, and I read every word. Olson's class talks on

the great literature we were reading were magnificent, and on The Odyssey

he surpassed himself. He kept us reading."

As a teacher of the writing of poetry:

He was specific. I remember a poem where I had said, "the song of the frog

is of ecstasy." He told me flatly that ecstasy was an over-used word, and

could mean anything, and so was meaningless. He told me to slash it from

my poem, but said he liked the phrase "streams and lanes" in the same poem,

because it was a fresh use of words.

Where are the classes of yesteryear—the great lectures, the good advice, the dynamic exchanges? They are alive and well somewhere, and they may bear fruit many years later.

In addition to the memoir about Black Mountain and Olson, Black Mountain to Crooked Lake contained a selection of her student poems, including translations she made of Villon, paired with Olson's remakes of her versions. Things of literary historical interest. But then the book closes with a small group of poems, four sonnets, written much later. They aren't dated, but the titles are "On Reaching Fifty," "On Reaching Eighty," and "On the Death of My Husband." A final poem is called "On Turning Three," a deft glance back at the other end of the life cycle. In "On Reaching Fifty," she's philosophical, a little detached. At that age, you are more aware that time is passing than you had been, you may be older and wiser, but you're not too old. Treichler goes so far as to say, "It's better to be old!"—quickly taking it back in the closing couplet: "And yet, for youthful grace and sparkling eye/ I would return these gifts. I will not lie." That couplet sounds like something that sometimes gets said at the end of a sonnet. A little too summarizing, the poet knowing she's supposed to make a turn and say something conclusive? It's not a lie, but the added thought is not exactly surprising. But in the next two poems she goes deeper, both in insight and emotion. There is more at stake. The sonnet form becomes more relaxed and firm—form not forcing itself, but doing what it ought to do: make the truth more, not less, forceful. And in both poems, the concluding couplet embodies an attitude that is characteristic of her work. In "On Reaching Eighty," she settles into the embrace of the physical world. The pleasures are quiet ones: "The night grows older and colder. I'm glad/ For my book, my cup, my couch, and warm plaid." There's both realism and satisfaction in it. Then comes "On the Death of My Husband." A grave, brave title, and the poem that follows is an extraordinary act of distillation of such a long and complex relationship. About the death of a spouse of over fifty years, what can be said? What to say in fourteen lines?

In Treichler's case, the bedrock feelings are gratitude and affection. As Adrienne Rich said, "The more I live, the more I think, two people together is a miracle." Probably everyone, no matter what their marital history, would agree with that. But the miracle of long marriage does happen, whether through sheer perseverance or some miraculous chemistry and good fortune. In Treichler's case, apparently, important basic things went well. She mentions good memories, home-building, children who "thrived." So, good fortune. Even her husband's death she is able to call a "good, right death." But she also acknowledges her "rage and guilt and grief and pain/ That I shall not ever see him again." She vows to "learn the gratitude that's/ Owed to him for every happy moment/ Of shared love, and pain, or secret guilty/ Pride of offspring, garden, discovery."

Expressing gratitude is one of the fundamental functions of poetry. Praise and lament; gratitude and complaint. To begin, we can say that Treichler is a poet of gratitude. But it's an unusual move on Treichler's part, there at the end of the poem, not just to admit to good fortune, but also to admit to feeling a certain pride in it—and then, beyond that, admitting to also feeling guilty in feeling proud. That's the kind of clear and nuanced awareness she has. She's honest. She's a celebrant, she has some ideas about what's important in living a life, but she's not a moralizer. She's a tough, grounded woman saying what she thinks. With simplicity, a simple eloquence, in a strong, recognizable voice. She reminds me of Lucille Clifton in this way.

Stylistically, these sonnets are not representative of the poetry she would write from that point on. While not abandoning the sonnet or rhyme, she became less formal, more conversational—she adopted a contemporary free verse style. But I'm viewing the sonnets as a sort of gateway to what would follow. Of these sonnets she said: "The sonnet, it seems to me, urges introspection. The gentle restrictions sober me, and seem a companionable form for my elderly reflections. I call these poems the Old Woman's Sonnets." But beyond this gateway, out of the gate, she wrote differently. She kept the embrace of the physical world, and the thoughtful, nuanced perspective of long experience. But for her work going forward, sober is not the first word that comes to mind. Far from it. She's not drunk, but she's not overly sober either. The poems may be those of an elderly person—they definitely are—but one with plenty of energy, and that certain confident tone I've tried to describe—not pride exactly, but not apology either. No self-righteousness. A voice of experience that has not lost its strength or zest.

The title of Treichler's second book was Living on a Dirt Road, announcing the fact that her perspective is fundamentally rural, or better to say, influenced by rural living. It's a good, straightforward title. The tone is right. The book begins with a poem of the same title:

I have always lived on an old dirt road.

I was born on an old dirt road.

Kicked up dust on our old road

That turned to lovely mud, on our old road.

On a dirt road I met the boy I wed.

We were married on an old dirt road.

We have always lived on a dirt road.

What happens within the dirt road lifestyle? For one thing, not all the neighbors are human.

A Walk with the Possum

On a chill morning in early Spring,

I chanced to take a walk at the same time

as the possum.

We peer at each other askance, curious, wary, tolerant.

Both of us have scruffy, worn coats,

and noses pink from the cold.

I look with contempt and admiration at the possum.

How far we have come since our ancestors

first took a walk with his!

But his family's hardly changed since they walked

with dinosaurs.

Opossums are not a charismatic species, and most people don't exactly feel warm toward them—scuttling around in the dark, low to the ground; pointy primitive snout; that "scruffy, worn" coat, a dingy looking gray; and a naked tail never helps. What I like here is the way Treichler owns a feeling of contempt for them, but it's a contempt balanced with admiration. What makes a successful species? We base our anthropocentric pride largely on what a dynamic, changing species we are. Look at all those innovations— the world transformed and glowing. We are deep now into a messianic sense with technology. While all those other species, especially one as lowly as an opossum, have been doing basically—nothing! And we forget, or don't see, the success of a species that has found a niche that works on earth for spans of time unimaginably longer than our human arc has lasted. Whose technology will save its species, ours or the opossums'? "…askance, wary, curious, tolerant," is a string of words as vivid and right as Hopkins' "counter, original, spare, and strange." The poem is simple, and it effortlessly converts contempt and arrogance into a proper humility, a crucial element of wisdom.

If Treichler is a nature mystic, she is one with a little reserve. In "Fireflies" she says:

All at once, one summer night

It is time

For hayfield and woodland

To host the mystery.

It must be warm

It must be still

For those who light

Their sacred fires.

They burn only for themselves

Not for the dazzled watchers

In the dark.

She lays it out there so simply, in utter flashing clarity, and within a spare music the big words "mystery" and "sacred," are OK, in fact exactly right. "Host the mystery." The "sacred fires"— but nothing more than fireflies. The flashing evening is perfectly beautiful, but the show is not put on for us.

Though she can say at the end of a brief poem about seeing a mother raccoon with her four kits coming along behind her, "I took it as a blessing," her attitude toward animals is not sanctimonious, and anything but sentimental. She calls them neighbors, and she calls them "my beautiful enemies." Looking at a doe with her two fawns, she says she "would take my last harvest/ if I were starving/ and I would kill her/ to protect it." She knows that "A House Needs Spiders," and that a fox is beautiful ("head held high/ he keeps his Mountain Pose"), but she battles the barn swallows who shit all over the porch. She strikes a truce with them, but draws a line: "I give them my lawn mower shed/ but fight for my porch.// In a desperate encounter/ five times one day I took down her nest// before she hauled her loads of mud/ to another wall under another roof."

So, she's good on animals, She's a nature poet, and a rural poet. If you want a poem about building a stack of firewood, she has a good one. If you want a description of how a house and barn and trees look on a morning after snowfall, she has a beauty. She is well versed in country things, but, like Frost, she knows as much or more about human relationships and psychology as about the countryside and country ways. Of the details of psychological dysfunction and difficulties she doesn't say a lot, but she's well aware of breakage and vulnerability. In a poem called "Sister," she says:

Pat had cancer.

Or, it had her.

A friend asked,

"Do you ever get depressed?"

Pat said,

"I tried it once, for a few days,

But it didn't work for me,

So I gave it up."

That's her sister, not Treichler—but they come from the same family. At the same time, in her poetry there's also steady acknowledgement of human frailty.

Some of her best poems are character sketches. In Living on a Dirt Road there is a group of them, under the heading "Family Reunion"—poems about relatives. Another section is called "Thoughts about Being Human," and one of its poems is "The Lesson," drawing on Treichler's twenty-five years of experience working as a dietician in a nursing home. She did not stay at home on the homestead all the time.

A nursing home is about as far from a natural setting and bucolic pleasures as you can get. "The Lesson" is a wonderful poem, one of the best I've ever read on the subject of nursing home reality—on aging, dementia, human decline. So what's the lesson to be taken from nursing home reality? She did use that word, 'lesson," in the title. Here again there's a directness that is one of Treichler's distinctive characteristics, and, I would say, strengths. The poem is a series of vignettes, thumbnail sketches of nursing home residents, three individual people. The final stanza answers the question of what she took from them, and it's not a moral, but a clear no nonsense no sentimentality no religious assurances plain existential statement:

So, I did learn something.

When the mind returns to infancy

You no longer need reason or justice.

They are useless to you.

You need understanding.

And a kind face smiling at you,

A cheerful voice agreeing with you.

There were more stories, more people she remembered, so Treichler dismantled "The Lesson" and turned it into a small collection, Garden of the Old. The original poem and the longer series version are equally good.

She did something similar with another kind of poem: found inspiration in a poem or two, discovered she had more to say along that line, and kept going. In this case, it wasn't a subject matter, but a format; you could say a new genre. These are her "conversations with the famous." Or the somewhat famous. One of the first of these poems was "For Freeman Dyson," whose statement in a review, "Information is independent of the meaning it expresses," she uses as an epigraph. The poem is her response to that big idea. "The famous" came to cover a wide range: Sam Abrams, Confucius, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Rene Descartes, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, W.B. Yeats, Sigmund Freud, Wislawa Szymborska, Aristotle, John Ashbery, Mark Twain…. The poems are always short. The nature of the form is: What do you want to say to these people, if you have about ten lines to do it? I've mentioned a certain quality of self-confidence in Treichler. Here she takes that up a notch. There's definitely some chutzpah in these poems. I notice that I have now used the words "confident," "modest," "humility," and "chutzpah" to describe her. That's appropriate; all are part of the equation. Whether the figures she addresses are from the current cultural moment or are firmly established in the pantheon, she's not intimidated. She often refers to them by their first name, sometimes in a shortened form. Alexander Pope is Alex. The poems are meant to be fun, and they are, seeing what such extreme compression will bring. But they're also serious. Her responses may be critical, or they may be the deepest kind of praise. Each of these condensed "conversations" is a nugget of thought, for thought. It's not that she's always right, though she often is. She puts herself out there. You decide.

Sholem Aleichem

He says,

"Life is

a dream for the wise

a game for the fool

a comedy for the rich

a tragedy for the poor."

I tell him he is wrong on all counts.

Life is

a comedy for the wise

a game for the poor

a dream for the fool

a tragedy for the rich.

Who among the famous does she concur with most deeply? It might be Thomas Hardy, who she places last in the collection:

Thomas, you have it right;

you have no villains,

only men and women

working, loving,

using what they have

to try to make a life,

and make a little happiness.

Some succeed,

some are poisoned

by what word or blow

they may not even know.

Some of these poems are pithy to a fault, but sometimes they are marvels of conciseness, totally sound in their truths. "Thomas, you have it right…."

The longest of Treichler's collections is We Have Reached Home. That title expresses one of the basic things I've been trying to say about her work. It makes a claim—neither proud nor apologetic, but it is a positive claim. She makes some positive claims, and she has a lot of positive energy. When I asked someone who knows Treichler's work well what he likes about her, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, "She's inspiring."

In addition to giving their books titles, poets often arrange them into sections. Sometimes they are identified just with numbers, maybe Roman numerals; sometimes the sections are given titles of their own. Do readers of poetry read books in sections, looking for the logic that the poet saw? Or do they dip in here and there? Sometimes the sectioning can seem pretentious, but sometimes it adds something integral or helpful or even poetic. One of my favorites of the latter kind was Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields, which had three sections: Eleven Poems of Solitude, Awakening, Silence on the Roads. I loved that, and I still do. It lent an extra touch of mystery to a book that was already knocking me out with its images and silences.

Treichler always arranges her books in sections, and she gives them titles that are not enigmatic. She wants meaning to come through. In We Have Reached Home, the thematic structure is as basic as you can get, and she's characteristically forthright in telling you what she's doing: Part I, Breaking the Cycle of Life into Bits; Part II, Putting It All Together. Finding meaning is the fundamental motion of all her work. These poems crackle. They are very conscious of the life cycle, and of the poet's age within it. At times they are aphoristic. But she always leaves the shadow of unknowability. I'll quote a poem that does that:

The Shift to an Old Mind

Young, I could not see why

joy and pain could be

so unevenly dispersed.

Why did neighbor Elmer

shoot himself in his own kitchen?

Why was he dealt the card of deep despair?

My family had no money

But always food and books aplenty

always time to read and play as well as work.

Why were we dealt the happy card?

Old, I know now a few

parts of the intricate answer.

One hesitates to step in and add a comment, but I think "a few parts" and "the intricate answer" create an eloquent balance, and express very well Treichler's stance, and her wisdom.

Who are the top twenty poets writing in America today, who have written "much of the best poetry written in America in the last two decades"? How about Forrest Gander? Frank Bidart? Tychimba Jess? Peter Balakian? Gregory Pardo? Vijay Seshadri? Sharon Olds? Tracy K. Smith? Kay Ryan? Rae Armantrout? Those are ten recent Pulitzer Prize winners, and I don't say they aren't, or haven't. Personally, I see two names there that I might put on the hypothetical short list. But… I am feeling a call to resign from the responsibility for making that list. Someone younger might want to do it. I take it back. If invited to make an anthology of twenty or thirty, I'd do it. But I'm left wrestling with the question: Where's the coherence in our poetry now? And one answer I come up with is: Some of it—a serious, grounded, practical, direct, emotionally trustworthy, lyrically smart, and therefore interesting and satisfying, part— is in the work of Martha Treichler.

What are the top ten poetry experiences you've had in recent years? One of mine would be Jim Jarmusch's movie Paterson, with Adam Driver as a city bus driver in William Carlos Williams' old stomping grounds, who seemingly is not concerned with publishing; he only observes, muses, and writes. The poems he writes were actually written by Ron Padgett, veteran New York (City) School poet, much older than the character he wrote them for, but a good choice for the job. How great that a pretty major filmmaker would make a movie on the subject of poetry, and that it turned out to be funny, celebratory, and profound—though the one that he made next, a zombie movie, will probably do more business at the box office. A second peak would be the video creation "Whitman in Alabama," made by Jennifer Crandall on the occasion of Whitman's 200th birthday—a series of short segments with Alabamians of many stripes, in many settings, reading passages from "Song of Myself." A wide variety of people, none of them poets as far as we can tell, speaking Whitman's lines aloud, with astonishing results. A third would be the poetry of Martha Treichler— her lively authentic voice arriving in the installments of her six FootHills collections.

I am writing in the summer of 2019. Twenty candidates for the Democratic nomination for President are taking the stage, ten at a time. Another list, but one out of which only one can be chosen. One, plus a running mate. Much turbulent water lies ahead. If one of them manages to win the 2020 election, which poet, if any, will be chosen to read at the inauguration? (I hope the eventual nominee is reading this essay.) Martin Espada? Naomi Shihab Nye? Cyd Charisse Fulton? George Bilgere? Amit Majmudar? Michael Kiesow Moore? Duffie Taylor? Any of them could do a good job. No shortage of talent. But of the many possible poets, I'm suggesting that Martha Treichler would make an excellent choice. She would bring her own touch of sanity to the occasion, of confidence and humility, conversational lyricism, and sharp good sense. Her poem would be clear in its statement, crisp in its tone. She has many good poems to choose from. One of her conversations with the famous would be appropriate. She could give a brief explanation of who C.S. Holling is (Canadian ecologist, one of the conceptual founders of ecological economics and resilience theory), and then read her poem addressed to him, referring to him by his nickname, keeping the conversation informal. "Buzz, you are laying it on us heavy." The poem gets down to the basics of our social, cultural, and existential situation:

Buzz, you have warned us:

What is large, global, concentrated,

will not survive.

What is small, flexible, locally based

Will grow like lodgepole seedlings after a fire.

You may be right, Buzz,

but are there enough of us

who can give up the wondrous, convenient

waste and poison?

Too many of us want gas guzzlers,

want clean food portioned in plastic,

not a couple of pigs, a few chickens,

a milk cow on a grassy acre.

Too many of us don't know

don't want to know

about the cattle, sheep, swine

penned in feedlots for a lifetime,

choose thousands of acres of clear cut

over the family wood lot

managed and renewed generation

after generation for lumber and fuel.

Buzz, you are laying it on us heavy,

telling us to take responsibility,

to run co-ops, farmer's markets,

shop at the Salvation Army and rummage sales,

to learn to use our sun and wind,

to care for our own unlucky in our midst,

to be good neighbors.

The audience will listen, needing to decide about how that translates into their reality. She would be an incongruous presence. Maybe that poem is too old fashioned countercultural…though it's entirely relevant, and the turn Treichler gives it in the final stanza has a biblical sort of eloquence, the sun and the wind alternative energy sources, but also something more, eternal presences slipping into the poem at the end.

For some other occasion, I'd request one of her more personal poems, contemplating the life cycle, the passage of time and how to handle it with some grace, some wisdom. As I've said, she's willing to give advice.

One More Piece of Advice

For the old

Denial is more comfortable

And works well

Short term

Just keep believing you are forty

And still jiving

But when you lose two siblings in one year

And you have no friends left

That are your age

When technology has blown past you

Don't live in the past

But do bring it along with you.

A poem on the individual level, regarding the sheer fact of being alive, on the earth, for a certain period of time, that most basic occasion, in the state of poetry.

First published in The Hollins Critic (April 2020).

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