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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Kim Hjelmgaard reviews

A Poetry of Two Minds, by Sherod Santos

University of Georgia Press (August, 2000) 224pp./$40.00 ISBN: 082032244X

This piece is 1400 words or about four pages long

THE VARIOUS CAMPS of the poetry wars continue to recruit their respective new members unabated. As evidence for this, one need only to take a cursory look at the topography of the contemporary American poetic landscape. What stands out is the staggering amount of diversity on display, even if this diversity is not always matched by quality. Indeed:

From the Black Aesthetics of Askia Muhammad Touré to the Steinian poetics of Charles Bernstein, from the engagement of Adrienne Rich to the dégagement of John Ashbery, from the canonical authority of the Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century Native American Poetry to the defensive neoclassicism of the New Formalists, from Miguel Algarín’s Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Café to the Cowboy traditions of Howard "Jack" Thorp and Bruce Kiskaddon, from the hip-hop rhythms of rap to the haphazard rhythms of the poetry slam...

diversity, it seems, is poetry. Or so Sherod Santos’s accomplished new collection of essays, A Poetry of Two Minds, would have us believe, anyway. In terms of the diagnosis of poetic acts, though, Santos makes it clear that he is determined to pursue his own way. His is a critical art interested less in some overriding methodology than in the "development of certain ideas"; less in a "single, sustained critical perspective" than in a "handful of contending hypotheses"; less in answers, that is to say, than in questions.

    It is this very quality of "critical openness’ that arguably makes A Poetry of Two Minds such entertaining fare. Add to this the fact that it is everywhere recognizable as the work of someone who has thought long and hard about the idiosyncrasies of his craft. A poet/professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Santos has clearly dirtied his hands sifting through the innumerable influences, textual and otherwise, that find their way into the elusive soil that produces a poet. That he is quite capable of infusing his narratives with an eloquence of tone and directness of intention rarely encountered in the contemporary essay, is admirable. More admirable still, is that he glosses all 13 of the wide-ranging essays collected here with the weight and feel of a bildungsroman, poet-style.

"On the Memory of Stone," exemplifies this act of retrieval on Santos’s part. Deftly performing a free-hand sketch of Robinson Jeffers’s beloved Carmel River seascape - with its "scent of wild sage and dying kelp," "its ice-plant and seagrass" - Santos gets to the heart of the Jeffers myth as evinced in the images of that other well-known Carmel resident, Edward Weston. Never mind that the motivation for this unearthing can be traced back, at least in part, to a very specific moment: When, "after years of a rather nomadic life in the military" Santos’s family settled, in 1965, "in a hillside house a mile or so from the horseshoe inlet where the Carmel River empties into the sea." In other words, within walking distance of the Jeffers’s family home. Not yet knowing anything of Jeffers’s "literary standing" (or "anyone’s literary standing" for that matter), the young Santos nonetheless developed a strong connection to the elderly poet from an early age.

    Ultimately, many of the poetic life-lessons recounted here are fairly conventional: "It [Jeffers’s influence] turned me away from the insular fascinations of literary affairs, and turned me back... to the raw physical reality around us"; or, "he [Jeffers] encouraged me to see an essential faith in the work as work, independent of its relative value." This notwithstanding, Santos paints a very convincing picture of Jeffers’s comic vision as necessarily arising out of the wildness of the Californian coastline. Furthermore, he intuits how "Not since Wordsworth... has a poet placed such a high regard... or culled from a pile of ’unhewn stones’ such a legible record of human history." Which makes one realize just how oddly fitting Weston’s image of Jeffers’s "mildly bohemian flyaway collar" and weathered "bleak Irish features" really is. For such a grave visual catalogue seems only appropriate for a poet whose poems "can sound less spoken from the page than broadcast like oracles from the crumbling sea cliffs of the Western world."

    Elsewhere it becomes clear that what really interests Santos is "how poems come into being"; how "an idée fixe... submits itself to the shaping method of Hamlet’s 'words, words, words'. " How a poem becomes, this is Santos’s great project. And it can be no mere coincidence that he devotes considerable space to a discussion of the implications of Heidegger’s phrase: "We never come to thoughts. They come to us." Two essays in particular, "Subject Matters" and "A Poetics of Cannibalism," make this interest more explicit. Both of these pieces eschew received narrative continuity in favor of the "sidelong, overheard, and allusive." They are perhaps not quite aphoristic in a Nietzschean manner, but then they are not that far from it either. What they document is the peculiar germination period that accompanies a poem on its journey from the spiritual to the corporeal realm.

    Santos is careful, however, to provide a framework for such loftiness. Speaking of the "snippets of conversation, fleeting thoughts, fragments of mood and memory, perceptions and misperceptions," and "takes and double-takes" that constitute the working method of these two essays, he remarks: "It’s what I call a day-book. It’s not a diary, not quite a journal, not really a commonplace book either." He goes on to maintain that only "some of these extracts have actually found their way into poems." Whatever the case, one can’t help but be struck by the thought that here is the raw materiality of poesis itself, the imagination as imagination, before its eventual subjugation to the straight-jacket that is meter, rhyme, syntax, coherence, etc.

    Translation is another area of the poetic enterprise where Santos appears to be on comfortable ground. Relying on varying degrees of quotability (think Frost and what gets lost), he maneuvers around the discipline’s orthodoxies, past and present, in order to arrive at a position that is somewhat akin to the following remark by Robert Bly: "by trying to translate... the poems come deep inside you, the images come deep inside you... and your house is changed." Translation: Every good translation creates a new poem and not the cursed poetic doppelganger we’ve been trained to look for.

    Santos manages to move slightly beyond this notion, however, in his discussion of the "’afterlife’ that any ’original’ poem begins, and that any translation extends." Literary belatedness is another way of putting it and what this essentially means is that translation, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, "marks [a poem’s] stage of continued life," with all the unforeseen consequences, trivialities, coincidences, and mutations that this continuation suggests.

    As Santos remarks in "In a Glass, Darkly," the final essay selected for inclusion in A Poetry of Two Minds, there are some "assertions so commonplace [in contemporary poetry] it hardly seems necessary to attach them to any one person." These assertions are "clustered around four main points: (1) we have too many poets; (2) we have no great poets; (3) there is a sameness to all our poems; and (4) our poems are not sufficiently engaged in issues of political or social concern." To each of these complaints Santos injects a heavy dosage of sobering, Yankee reasonableness. For example, as a sort of ready-made retort to all four of these notions he offers up Philip Larkin’s savage wit: "supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn’t make Wimbledon." Similarly, to the objection that there are currently no great poets, Santos cites Donald Hall: "the great majority of poems, in any age, will always be bad or mediocre." If this doesn’t quite come across as a hands-down-victory for Santos’s camp, at least it’s a far cry from the I-refute-it-thus logic some of his detractors are prone to using.

    This is a fine book, gracefully written and gracefully argued. If the book lacks something, then it is a more detailed engagement with poetic form: specifically its usefulness, applicability, and relevance to the contemporary versifier. A more substantial flaw is the absence of any engagement with what Derek Mahon has called the poetry of "warm places": those bookshops, classrooms, lecture podiums, and clubrooms where our institutionally acknowledged poets workshop with the well fed, the moneyed, and the carefree.

Kim Hjelmgaard's writing has appeared in The Boston Book Review and he currently has work forthcoming from Verse.

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