iterary journals reassure us that we live in a golden age of poetry, but “postmodern” poetry exhausted most of its energy and ideas decades ago. Our top-selling poet in English is Canadian Rupi Kaur, whose brilliantly marketed book of Instagrammish banalities topped the New York Times best-sellers list. MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner Ben Lerner has written three books of well-reviewed but incomprehensible poems—followed up with a widely praised, but abysmally written, pamphlet that whined about average people not appreciating unreadable poetry. (Apparently he meets such people on planes.) Juvenilely transgressive Patricia Lockwood and Hera Lindsay Bird are recent darlings of the better journals. Last and least, our leading “conceptual poet,” Kenneth Goldsmith, evangelizes for poetry as plagiarism, a mission akin to defining public health as community cannibalism.
Critics who believe ours is a golden age invariably ignore the many strong poets looking to succeed the original “New Formalists.” Alicia Stallings, with three remarkable books of poetry, a lively translation of Lucretius’s monumental De rerum natura, and an expanding role as an advocate for refugees in Europe, is the only formal poet of this generation who receives significant mainstream attention. She is also her generation’s only poet certain to be a fixture in anthologies and dissertations fifty years from now.
Stallings’ choice of Aaron Poochigian’s Manhattanite for the 2016 Able Muse Book Award is not at all surprising given their shared sensibilities:
That the poet’s “day job” is a Classical translator (Poochigian is probably best known for his Sappho), an exacting calling that paradoxically demands compromise at every turn, the fitting of sound to an extant and sometimes alien sense, may account for the sensation of freedom—the hooky or holiday giddiness—of Poochigian in his own poetry.
Despite being a respected classical translator (his version of Jason and the Argonauts is as superb as his Sappho), Poochigian’s outstanding first book of original poetry, The Cosmic Purr, received little critical attention. Earlier this month Etruscan Press released his extraordinary verse novel, Mr Either/Or, which may be the catalyst for the critical attention he deserves.
If you have preconceptions about classicists who write formal poetry, shed them—there isn’t a classically themed poem in Manhattanite and only one classical reference. Poochigian takes us on a jaunty ride between the “high” and the “low.” His subjects range from pro wrestling to art films:
the vagueness of it all
coheres at times as a crowd
that roars when he roars from the wings
in flame-embroidered tights,
the hush when the fight bell rings,
the actual rage that grows
from bogus body blows… (“The Rajah of Rout”)
the Guide, the God, the One,
in top hat and opera cape,
his pointer finger jerking
through three hundred sixty degrees
of black-and-white desertscape,
and a hero stuck astraddle
an ostrich without reins—
halves of a warring whole
ungalloping the gains
they make toward no fixed goal… (“Cinéma pur”)
What makes this book cohere is Poochigian’s dogged pursuit of the transcendent within the transient—put bluntly in “The Next Epiphany” as “What revelation can exalt this mess?”
Poochigian rejects John Ashbery’s elitist superficiality and Anne Carson’s oracular pomposity. Instead, he gives his poems a sense of intimacy and urgency by using Frostian techniques to make them feel conversational. For instance, in “Blizzard Bird” he uses the third-person plural and italicized profanity to bring unnamed others—and perhaps the reader—into the action with the phrase “when we say goddamn nor’easters blow.” In “Obituary” he uses the same technique when he tacks on the phrase “that sort of thing” to a litany of low-brow foods.
Poochigian’s conversational tone makes it impossible for him to create long descriptions in the manner of Elizabeth Bishop or logjams of metaphors of the kind that crowd most contemporary lyric poems. He does, however, make the most of his opportunities with such unexpected phrases as “the stutter of a trail” in “Galapagos Now.” He also uses wit so dry that it is easily overlooked. For instance, in “Turf,” a phrase before a semicolon ends with “like déjà vu,” and the following phrase starts with “like déjà vu.”
The unexpected repetition of phrases is a favorite technique of Poochigian, who often uses repetition to create an incantatory mood. For example, in “Take It to the Roof” the opening stanza rhymes “they do, they do” with “We knew (we knew)”; the phrase that ends the intervening line is “ecstatic state.”
When it comes to inventive yet apt rhyme, Poochigian has few rivals—maybe only James Merrill in his prime. A signature Poochigian technique enhances the opening line’s musicality with an internal rhyme, sometimes pairing it with intensifying alliteration:
This brilliant blight that built up overnight,
Light rain; an ultramodern train
(“A Memory, Perhaps”)
Light is ending; dark ascending:
(“Round the World”)
Poochigian’s debt to Merrill is particularly clear in the second stanza of “872 Fowler Street,” where he skillfully uses Merrill’s trick of rhyming by keeping the initial consonant and changing only the vowel or final syllable of the word: rage/garage, heap/hoop, comes/cams, tube/tub, miss/mess, grass/grace. Some of his more traditional rhymes are jaw-dropping—I particularly admired the ingenious “stubble/ungatherable” in “Divertimento” as well as the comic rhymes “joie de vivre/reefer” in “Song: Go and Do It” and “hate him/verbatim” in “The Only Way.”
Poochigian’s skillfully modulated iambic meters are never monotonous because he tends to vary his line lengths and enjamb his lines in lively, sometimes careening, language. Occasionally he will loosen his lines with anapests. He can also control trimeter stanzas so that they reinforce a poem’s quiet and stately sense, as he does in “Where I Am.”
Poochigian uses his impressive armament of tools to record the transience of the world around him like an anthropologist—one freed of social science jargon. Poems such as “The Drive” capture a quintessentially American restlessness that becomes less romanticized with its “little lime-green Ford.” Similarly, “My Political Poem” immediately undercuts the reader’s expectations of pious rhetoric with its gritty and surprising setting (“Election Night. A Walmart parking lot./A green fog off the half-drained reservoir…”).
One of Poochigian’s most successful poems, “Him,” follows and expands upon the book’s opening poem, “Take It to the Roof.” The poem begins with a bleak vision of Manhattan at night:
The roof at 2 a.m.; a plastic chair
beside a low brick ledge: terrestrial cars
will not stop bleating on the thoroughfare;
that shimmer overhead is not the stars
but too much city, too much city light.
After even the stars fail to provide transcendence, the scene becomes sweatier and more colloquial:
Eight days the heat wave has refused to break.
My antique fan has broke down out of spite;
my shower: broke. Way more than I can take,
and now, this…wow: a breeze, a taste of rain.
The unexpected relief provokes an unexpected religious meditation. The final stanza ends in an epiphany:
Was I a long time wrong? Was I the fraud?
Big drops are falling, and the atheist
that did his best is melting. Oh my God,
my God, this weather feels like you exist.
These closing lines are ones that few contemporary poets would risk.
The last two sections of Manhattanite shift in tone and focus. The section entitled “Characters” is a series of profiles—some are sober and some offer Poochigian a chance to flash his jaunty satirical streak. The book’s concluding section, the aptly titled “Defiantly of Love,” reveals Poochigian’s personal and literary daring, as he embraces a romanticism few poets embrace, and even fewer embrace publicly. His best poems of this kind, such as “Song: Post Mortem,” “The Only Way,” and “One Too Many,” are the ones in which he meditates—often self-deprecatingly—about a lost love.
Aaron Poochigian is a risk-taker. He is betting that there remains an audience for poetry that innovates within traditional techniques, tells stories with energy, pursues spiritual epiphanies, and celebrates an out-of-favor romanticism. You should be a risk-taker too—try Poochigian’s poetry.