Genevieve Kaplan’s “In the Ice House” won the 2009 To The Lighthouse Prize, awarded yearly by the A Room Of Her Own Foundation to the best poetry manuscript by a woman. (Tangent for one second: I confess I’m not sure why there need to be women-only poetry prizes, considering the vast majority of people who write poetry, read poetry, enter poetry prizes, and apply to MFA programs in this country are currently women. I realize women are a marginalized demographic in other fields, but they already dominate in this one without any help—so thinking women need an artificial boost in poetry is kind of like thinking Jewish people need an artificial boost in stand-up comedy. Case in point: the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, with a feature article about the “MFA Nation,” has a cover photo that shows almost exclusively women, with no apparent explanation or sense that this is unusual.)
When I received Kaplan’s book, I was optimistic for two reasons. One, it’s the only recent volume of poetry I can think of besides my own that has a photo of a sexy woman on the cover (this may not sound unusual as far as other types of book are concerned, but the norm in poetry is for the cover art to be some sort of incomprehensible collage, and so the same sort of sexy-girl cover that would be pedestrian in other genres seems refreshingly unpretentious on a book of poetry). And two, “The Ice House” was once upon a time the nickname of my apartment in Iowa City, as it was always stocked with Icehouse beer and the bong was always filled with crushed ice. Kaplan was a year behind me in the program and I don’t remember her ever hanging out in the Ice House, but I thought perhaps the legend had persisted. If Kaplan wanted to associate herself with me, I was prepared to be gracious about it—certainly more gracious than certain people were about the fact that I use ampersands.
But it turns out the book just contains a surprisingly high number of poems about ice. About a quarter of the poems are entitled simply “The Ice Storm,” and another quarter are entitled simply “The Landscape,” so before you even get past the table of contents you know that Kaplan is doing some sort of thing. I realize that’s a bit vague, but if you’re used to academic poetry you know exactly the kind of thing I mean. It’s hard to explain, but suffice to say it’s unlikely that a book laid out that way will contain formalism or car chases.
The first poem looks like this:
1. Cruelty in the new west, like cruelty
in the old, begins at home (with the) misuse
of lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves. There’s no
County lines shift over time but we’re
not so fragile. Quaint enough we’re allowed
to be a part of it. Facing the musty window (fingerprints, creases,
barbarism)—how many miss it?
2. The mirror in my mouth, I hope, won’t betray a thing.
3. There’s a danger in beauty, a net in the sea, a kit in the sky, a bird in the tree.
Okay, I like this poem. The beginning reminds me of the opening of Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which I won’t quote, so you know you’re reading a smart blog that expects you to know it already and can feel all proud of yourself. As strings of objects go, I think “lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves” is a good one (maybe could have subbed out “lightbulbs,” since lightbulbs and microwaves are both appliancey and microwaves is better, but whatever). I think “there’s no / telling” is a great hard break and stop-short surprise, like expecting there to be one more step after you’ve reached the floor. And I think the last line is a fine mix of bold and reticent, and I like the surprise of a childlike rhyme at the end of a sparse, grownuppy poem.
But why the numbered sections in a short poem that would feel very much like one thing without them? Why the parentheses? (I have an odd relationship with parentheses: contemporary poets toss them around like confetti in theory-influenced poems, but Byron uses them to set off his tangential wisecracks within his hilariously long sentences, so if someone tells me a book of poetry has lots of parentheses in it, I’m probably going to either really like it or really not.) Why even the “cruelty” opening a poem that immediately stops feeling like it has anything to do with cruelty? All this seems, frankly, like stuff someone adds who has written a perfectly good poem but knows it’s being sent to a prize and thinks “I’d better academic it up a little bit.” A sharp move pragmatically, perhaps, but it’s too bad. I like this poem, but ditch the numbers, the parentheses, and the easy politics of vague shout-outs to “cruelty” and “barbarism” and I love it.
The next run of poems feels a bit like Bishop (whom I get, but don’t love), with their household objects and precious precision: “night goes on / unencountered / by the spatula, not squelched by a murmur”… “Inside the glass a pressed / leaf. / Like counting to zero”… And as with Bishop, this is, to me, nice but not great. I see why it takes talent to do, but don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I’ve hung out with Genevieve Kaplan a few times, and in person she’s funny and bold. So why aren’t these poems? Because umpresumtpive whispers are how you win a poetry prize for women? Okay, but what is the point of a prize designed to augment women’s voices if a woman has to whisper to win it?
The reason, it becomes clear, for having multiple poems called “The Ice Storm,” “The Landscape,” etc., is that none of those poems is exactly a poem by itself. They all feel like sections of a longer poem. Williams’s red wheelbarrow is all well and good, but as I see it, we only needed one poem like that, and that was it. And Stevens realized you need at least thirteen of those things—one way of looking at a blackbird wouldn’t be a poem; it would just be looking at a blackbird, which nobody needs a poem’s help to do.
I don’t think I’m simply faulting Kaplan for writing poetry that isn’t my kind of poetry. On the contrary, I can sometimes feel that these poems would like to be doing something a bit more exciting. Take this one:
Begin By Counting Sheep, White Buds On The Plant As They Appear
Small, white flowers will appear and so we wait for them.
The sky is calm today, the air watchful.
It’s nobody’s business at all, they say.
We’ll keep silent what we want.
I’ve gotten rid of my old messages,
My old love letters flying through the air.
The road is never quiet.
It doesn’t matter no one stops by.
I think I would like something gaudy.
The second I turn away—
The moment I sit back down I must get up again.
I must sit down again.
The wind comes, there is never a time
We don’t hear the cars brushing past, the pushing air.
And you are tired. The upholstery comes up easily
In my hands, there is so much to replace.
There is no way to flaunt any of it.
It all comes in a run and I remember everything.
I know how this poem feels, because I would also like something gaudy. At least, more than I would like this. I get that it is a poem about not saying anything, but is it so passé to think poems that say something are more interesting than poems that don’t? Yes, I’ve been to grad school and heard people say things like “utterance is impossible.” You know what happened next? The people who say things like “utterance is impossible” read some of their poems and I fell asleep. Then when I woke up, those people had tenure. That was a good joke on me, but the fact is, there are actually a bunch of really cool ways to flaunt any of it if you just try a little. Fine, I get that “silence” is political. But why, as poets, do we have to make symbolic silence our problem, when all of the other art forms are free to be enjoyable? Nobody gives women directors a special prize for making movies where nothing happens as a political statement. Alright, maybe they do at some weird festival, but there is also such a thing as real movies, whereas all poetry has at this point is the weird festival. Yes, there’s also slam, but I don’t own a White Sox hat, and even if I did I wouldn’t wear it sideways.
I don’t dislike the above poem. I like it okay. I would just like it a lot more if it said and did the stuff it’s about not saying and doing instead of being about not saying or doing it. I don’t mean to pick on Kaplan. Lots of poetry pulls this move, and Kaplan’s book is better than many of them. But why does so much poetry pull this move?! If we’re silenced out there in the big mean rest of the world, and then create a space where it’s just us listening to one another, why continue to be silent as a gesture even when nobody’s here to make us? That’s like going all the way home to smoke weed in your apartment because you don’t want to get busted smoking on the street, but then when you get to your apartment you put a sign in the window that says “We’re smoking weed in here.”
There are a bunch of lines in these poems that have wit and guts and that made me jealous—“Hey, young love, I query, over here” for example, or “If anyone dares to go out, it is you, / the fantastic one. A glowing system to be admired”—but the rest of the book, and even the other parts of the poems in which they appear, seem to be apologizing for them. Why? The academic monkey on Kaplan’s back seems to be making her think she has to make up for every line with real blood in its veins by writing ten lifeless so-whats like “It is never the heat that remains” or “Float and lie and weave and have / no other contact than the wind” (that last one is an entire poem, by the way). These aren’t “bad” lines in the same way that a freshman’s posturing suicide-and-cigarettes bullshit is bad lines—in fact, they may have the opposite problem of being too fine and too mature. But the fact remains that when I think about them, they don’t mean anything. At least the posturing freshman is trying to excite people. But in our frantic escape from him, contemporary poets have started writing lines that are indistinguishable from someone who hates contemporary poetry making fun of it. Maybe I’m alone here, but I regard becoming indistinguishable from parody as a problem, and a rather big one.
I could, I suppose, have shrugged my shoulders here and simply echoed Abraham Lincoln’s immortal assessment “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” But I chose not to, because I believe that deep down, nobody actually likes this sort of thing, including the (many, many) people who are choosing to write it. Honestly half the poems in this book are three or four lines long and about a bird not doing anything. Granted, they are impeccably described birds-not-doing-anything, but what is the point of impeccably describing something utterly boring?
To be fair, here is a poem I really like:
Last Night, You Said, Wait Here
So that’s the danger, my day, and that’s my night and my tree.
Because what’s in the house, behind this tree? My measured
pace as I walk the sidewalk, leave the station, pack in hand.
So to be here, in the nighttime, not the daylight, admitting
there’s very little to be done, noticing that rain
will not fall here, tonight (but hoping), asking for nothing
but a piece of the next world, and where are the words for that?
Hold on, you said, wait wait. It was never,
will never be, the first time.
This is a charming poem, with lines in it I will remember. In another book, it would be one of the little ones that creep up on you. But in the context of “In The Ice House,” it can legitimately be described as action-packed. The presence of an actual human being who actually feels something is such a rarity here that it comes across as a fireworks display. So once and for all, why are we doing this to ourselves? I have every confidence that if Genevieve Kaplan wanted to write a book of poems that I would call awesome, she could do so. But she is choosing not to, and so are the majority of people who are currently writing poetry.
That’s it. I hereby order Genevieve Kaplan to put at least one poem in her second book about getting into a knife fight at a taxi-dance bar. If she wants there to be an ice-covered branch in the bar, fine, but somebody had better get stabbed. She probably should have saved the sexy naked-woman cover for that book.
You know, it didn’t occur to me at first, but the sexy naked woman on the cover of Kaplan’s book has her eyes closed. Isn’t that just like contemporary poetry? You go to all the trouble of getting naked, and then don’t even look at yourself. Probably because academia told you that looking at yourself is impossible. And maybe looking at all of yourself is. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see enough interesting parts to make it worth opening your eyes.