Poets and critics have long argued over the relation between writing and thinking. Are the processes of thought rendered by poetry actually representative of consciousness at its most unconstrained, or is the act of thinking in poetry more of a construction, the work of artifice, put-on, and representation? This implicit question is raised by two notable and exciting new books, Elizabeth Arnold’s Civilization and Peter Gizzi’s The Outernationale, that both present the element of thought in poetry not only as an activity but as an activity that gets you somewhere you want to go, either by opening up new territories in language, or by activating the senses themselves and thereby underwriting the activities of the body. What interests me most about this dichotomy is that in distinguishing between the lyric impulse to describe thinking and the imperative to use it, our demands on poetry become more clear. The truth is that we do demand of poetic thinking actual thought: having your wits about you in the space of a poem requires more than just intensity, or an emotionality that evokes the appearance of thinking, but the fact of something being at stake. And in order for a poem to have a stake in what it thinks, thought itself has to aim for something: it has to want.
One sign of contemporary poetry’s engagement with the processes of thought is the current predominance of the theme, or concept, book, particularly among younger poets. Many recent first books fall into this category, such as David Roderick’s Blue Colonial, on the (perhaps) more traditional side, and Karla Kelsey’s Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, on the more experimental side. Roderick’s book has a unity of content (many of the poems are about Plymouth, which happens to be the author’s hometown as well as America’s), and Kelsey’s a unity of form, a way of proceeding that all the poems seem to share. The pressure on young writers to compose highly coherent first books instead of volumes of single poems strung together has had at least one direct consequence: the architecture of the book has begun to feel deeply controlled and hyper-rational, even, in a sense, autistically single-minded. The commercial reasons for this development are obvious enough: it’s much easier to market a book about Plymouth than a book whose ostensible subject or thematic basis can’t be summed up as a solid nonfictional selling-point. But poems are ever about the Spring and ever not about Plymouth, and though poems may leap from their content, they yearn toward imaginative subjects that are difficult to define (which I think Roderick, in his fine book, understands). If I’m interested in history, I can read a history book, and if I’m interested in Audrey Hepburn, I’m sure that Joseph Campana would agree with me that I shouldn’t start with The Book of Faces, whose poems are written “from” Audrey movies but assuredly “about” American loneliness and emotional isolation in the broadest sense. Often, though, providing a book not only with a title but also a concept—historical, formal, or otherwise—gives it a thesis without requiring it to prove anything. Yet the question of thought still arises at the border between reader and text. Anything to declare? the contemporary reader asks. YES, the book-of-the-moment tells us, THIS IS WHAT I AM ABOUT. And what often follows is a kind of “how-to” for the reader, an origin myth about the book’s composition, or, more troubling, a statement of “poetics” either at the beginning of the book or embedded somewhere in the poetry itself.
In another sense, though, much contemporary poetry is deeply suspicious of the act of thinking, since there’s felt to be a compulsion toward the kind of high seriousness that the traditional modes of poetic thought often require. In a literary climate in which seriousness is often considered a mark of the stodgy and obselete, the poetic embodiment of thinking has become in many quarters a tainted activity, irrelevant and dull. (Marks of learnedness such as allusion and elevated diction have, of course, represented the mere appearance of thought too many times not to lend a sense of superficiality to much of what currently passes for “high-mindedness.”) Yet the sense of formal lyric thought, of raw, daring intellectual activity, can require a true seriousness about the project of writing lyric poetry that enacts what can only be called the “high style,” and can necessitate true thinking. Both Gizzi’s The Outernationale and Arnold’s Civilization find ways to apply a contemporary mode and outlook to the seriousness of poetic thought, rendering an atmosphere of gravitas without seeming overly weighty and evoking the possibility of meaning without sacrificing a sense that something authentic is at stake. Both books truly want.
Poems, of course, don’t have to be cerebral manifestations of the thought-cloud hovering over experience—and many good poems aren’t. Yet if poems are made of thoughts, the necessary risk that they take is how to enact actual thinking and actual ideas, rather than merely the semblance of thinking: how an attention paid to what thought does, to what it accomplishes, sheds light on the nature of experience. In order to give deliberate stakes, for example, to an exploration of the body’s relationship to the “stupid culture” that we’re all surrounded by (Gizzi’s book is peppered with comfortingly idiotic jargon, from the word “thingy” to a dramatically inserted “sure”), poetry, I think, has to do more than merely meditate on what thinking is: it has to use thinking for something, and thereby give a shape to thought.
In Poetry and Abstract Thought, Paul Valery tells a great story in which the painter Degas and the poet Mallarmé have the following exchange: “One day [Degas] said to Mallarmé: ‘Yours is a hellish craft. I can’t manage to say what I want, and yet I’m full of ideas . . .’ And Mallarmé answered: ‘My dear Degas, one does not make poetry with ideas, but with words.’ ” Only in the dynamism and unexpected twists and turns of form does thinking, in itself, become interesting in poetry—when a poet begins to think through and with the given words and images, as opposed to trying to render thought in a representative manner. But when a poet begins to think through words, with the unpredictable associative and affective energies we assign to poetry, it’s not as if the intelligence of what one wanted originally from the poem is somehow voided. What happens instead is that what one wanted becomes dynamic and dramatic—as subject to voice as to the mind. Consider what Peter Gizzi does in the wonderful “Bipolaroid”:
If you find the body a slow fuse
and aren’t content to smolder
in the tenebrosity of shadow
in starlessness. The intense pitch.
You want to say “It’s not fair”
but beginning there is useless.
Tho uselessness is a good thing
when imagining the body, right?
It just wants to sleep, move about
freely, nuzzle, eat, shit and not
always in that order. And not always
everything either all the time. Time?
That too is a piece of the body
its continuities, gaps, empty places
along with vast boredom and thirst
given to overcast, and the darkling.
I meant to say sparkling, studded,
you know, rainbow like, all lit up
and flashing totally photogenic.
For Gizzi, the quatrains control and guide a certain drift of the mind that fixes on the issue of human perishability. Within this exploration, the other side of “darkling” is “sparkling,” and the other side of the body is not the image, but the taking of the image, the moment of flashing in which the image is held. The poem enacts this idea through its music, as it drifts from a fear of the body’s demise to a rage against it, and from an evocation of the body’s actual existence to the existence of time itself and back again to the perishability of the body, seen differently at the end, through different eyes. The current of the poem is thought, but the principle is the changing of the mind, or thought going awry—“I meant to say sparkling.” This rumination takes Gizzi somewhere he actually wants to go: praise. But he has to think his way there. Everything from old English ballads to the poems of Emily Dickinson has taught us that the quatrain is the form of dynamic crossing, of two competing positions or persons coming into conflict. Gizzi’s poem pairs praise and lament, ode and elegy, body and image, and also pairs what Gizzi means to say and what he actually says—what he wants from language and what language is capable of.
Likewise, the first poem of Elizabeth Arnold’s Civilization, “Polis,” sees the activity of thought attracted not only to persons but also to bodies:
It’s alive in us, what you thought, what you made
happen in the mind, o precarious ones,
threading your life into us from the other end of time.
Arnold’s claim that thought is “alive in us” reveals a history beyond our control, making us not the heirs to thought but its living embodiments. Though less sonically charged than Gizzi’s combination of Latinate scientific-speak and casual diction, the force of Arnold’s lines is equally determined by the desire to work through a thought, and by doing so, change it—and be changed. Arnold achieves this in “Polis” by using the poem to define, then redefine, and then redefine again what the meaning of “polis” is, before ending with another redefinition in the final line. The poem’s classical title may feel a bit like a set piece, but the voice of the speaker snaps into a state of astonishment that’s completely present tense. Arnold has a gift for the unexpected word—with “precarious,” the ancients become products of the moment just as we are, and with “threading,” their fates constitute the same process that occurs for us. There’s a quality of attack in these characterizations of mental activity that’s like a series of quick plunges into the depths. In Arnold’s work, the single word or brief phrase often fixes an idea like a pinned butterfly; the certainty is only momentary, but it gives way with sharp dexterity to other certainties and obligations. This mental restlessness has its goal in self-discovery, in the kind of knowledge that requires an ever-vigilant stare into the self.
Gizzi’s The Outernationale is one of the least solipsistic books I’ve picked up in a long time. His preference for speaking from the position of “we” gives the poems an open, airy quality, and many of them come across like public songs sung at a pitch above thought. But Gizzi always goes back to the individual mind, the intimate inner world that frames his own life inside the “outer” world. In this way, the book’s title predicts not only a set of concerns that link the political and the personal, but also the notion that an inner life quickly becomes an outer life. The poem “Stung” begins, “A child I became a question / sitting on the grass. / To be told how lucky I am. / An open field.” With minimalist lines and a monosyllabic vocabulary—but with a maximally awkward syntax—Gizzi makes the poetic voice a supple vessel for the concept-making that any language used by more than one person requires. There’s something both uplifting and dehumanizing about becoming a question, and the reminder that we take shape as language and through language seems less about the lyric use of language than about language itself. It seems useful here to recall Whitman’s child who asks what the grass is, keeping in mind that he’s just about the only individual Whitman allows to speak besides himself. Gizzi’s child, on the other hand, evokes thought as a terrain of permission and privacy, “I ran / away. Above everything / I held one true thing. / This scene moved through me, / a seesaw. A picture / inside a question inside / the coming night.” “Stung” celebrates the pleasures and dangers of such keeping, of being a vessel for thought, of the human capacity for making up such pictures in the mind. The poem gracefully reminds us how our ideas of memory and consciousness have been remade by the common metaphors of film, with its short lines of dialogue and brief images.
Yet Gizzi’s highly contemporary book isn’t a series of childhood reveries about aloneness; the best thinking the poems do occurs for us and with us, attempting to lead a kind of social chorus. Though it is easy to be fooled by the urban settings, most of the poems in the book are “Beautiful Spring” poems a la William Carlos Williams of Spring and All, ruminations on regeneration that hinge on the body’s interaction with the seasons, inhabiting landscapes in which nature and culture are mashed together. Thought, in The Outernationale, is no mere melancholy solipsism, but propulsive, concept-making creativity. Stevensian titles often enact arguments in and of themselves—“Human Memory is Organic,” for example, or “Aubade and Beyond”—requiring of the poems that follow a similarly charged, and sometimes even aggressive, energy. As points of entry, they direct by provocation; they center the reading experience not by prescribing a technique for reading them, but by claiming some element in thought, by going out on a limb and taking a position (in body and in mind), not merely a posture. “Aubade and Beyond” opens:
Are there not words to visit the body?
The hips, nipples, the ass. Sounds to repair
the bent fender, flat tire?
O, the sun opens the material ache
and the bed is again on fire.
Gizzi continues the project of poets like Oppen of looking for meaning in language instead of simply commenting on how and why meaning is absent. Like Oppen, he’s attracted to the fragmentary phrase, the broken-off question, and the implication of syntax without its complete delivery. Gizzi’s fragments often seem to be on the verge of reconfiguring themselves: they almost germinate into something whole as opposed to further breaking apart. The combination of eros and junk in “Aubade and Beyond” is not only meant to elicit the strangeness of the juxtaposition, but also the impulse toward actually answering the questions being asked, and thereby discovering meaning within the words themselves. The answers for Gizzi lie in his own experience, and so however idea-driven and abstract his questions begin, they inevitably expand into the extensive detail of his life. In a certain way, this releases his control over the poem—and Gizzi always prefers to leave his thought-experiments open rather than closed—and renders his poems highly dramatic, since they insist on tonal change as a guiding principle of composition. Yet they also insist on the wholeness of their ideas, and keep returning to their original questions: “Is this what we mean when we say it’s spring / and is this our ambition to stay true to the sky / to one another in early sun?” The poems of The Outernationale allow for this kind of open-ended thought by the nature of their composition, their continual dramatizing of the poem’s original question as a route whose destination lies outside the poem itself. Like many other poems in the volume, “Aubade and Beyond” ends with an open set of images and a desire for happiness that is honestly inconclusive.
The formality of Gizzi’s diction comes, in part, from its ease in pairing different voices and ways of speaking. There’s an effortlessness in the range of language, even when the writing proceeds from muscular itemizing (“bent fender, flat tire”) toward an almost classical simplicity and intensity (“the bed is again on fire”). Arnold’s Civilization, on the other hand, is a more focused and private book, though its thematic and formal concerns are as large in their scope and ambition, with the personal tensions of the poems revealing historical mysteries. Whereas Gizzi’s writing seems to evoke the occurrence of thought as something we take up for ourselves in an outer covering of language, Arnold seems to render thought as something less intentional, more at the mercy of given processes—something that happens through us. Thought, for Arnold, is not a condition we choose, but one that exists inside us, beyond our control. And this is precisely how she represents “civilization,” not as something we live inside, but something that lives inside us, just as other people’s ideas live inside us. The speaker of Arnold’s poems continuously refers throughout the book to other thinkers and other people’s thoughts—from the testimony of a murderer to invocations of people ranging from Nijinsky to “the Romans” to “the biophysicists” to “the British journalist.” Thought means transaction, interaction, and intimacy, turning naturally toward acts of expression and communication, and toward synthesis.
Favoring the form of the couplet, sometimes in alternation with single lines, Arnold appears to use the silence between her stanzas as a way to account for both the gaps in her thinking and the presence of another person, the unknowable other who bestows knowledge on her. The use of the couplet has certainly become a contemporary fashion, and at its worst stages the semblance of deep thinking without requiring itself to synthesize or activate thought. As with the first couplet of “Polis” that opens the book, Arnold’s use of the form always announces her participation in a dialogue, often trying through the subject matter to join her consciousness with that of another. A central series of poems describes the speaker’s interactions with her dementia-stricken father, while the haunting poem “Halfway Through My Question” begins with an argument on the phone between the speaker and someone who may be a family member:
(outraged) “Why can’t we just—“
(she hangs up) “talk?”
And the door slams in my head: No way through that.
Or when the kitchen’s swinging door brushed
past and past its frame the mewing disapproval, distrust
unfaced-up-to, wordless—so that,
nothing to contain it,
throughout my being.
But if I call her on it,
The line between us axed: No way through that.
Arnold shows her extraordinary lyric instinct not only in the way the tension of the dramatic scene is enacted through the interior script, but also in the use of the script itself to reveal how a sequence of feelings becomes a pyschological strategy: “But if I call her on it, / nothing. Insist?” As the poem continues, we learn that what’s at stake is a family history of mental illness that often can’t be talked about and that leads both the speaker and her failed interlocutor to varying fits of repression and disclosure, while the potential illness remains, as the speaker says, “in us.”
This is Arnold’s true subject: the interiority of civilization, that which exists “in us” as an infrastructure of experience rather than a superstructure, shaped by our thoughts as well as our illnesses. Since we so commonly view ourselves in civilization rather than viewing civilization in ourselves, this becomes a fascinating approach for Arnold to take. Throughout the long first section of the book, the speaker writes about her father’s dementia under the sign of culture itself, calling his aging face “a civilization / falling out of its accustomed // stand amidst the world.” Readers might find this a taxingly simple metaphor—the aging father and our aging republic—but they would do well to look further. The speaker sees how her father, the two of them buried in the many layers of their relationship, persists through his demise and how his notable gestures—the way he holds a knife the wrong end up or the dreamy way he joins the other “ambulatory” patients on his floor—remind us that our wild embodiments persist through the “civilization” of hospitals and medicine. Arnold’s is a poetry of ideas fueled by a knowledge of the body, using the act of thinking to articulate transactions in the inner life sometimes only transmittable through physical gesture and facial expression.