V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Ultra-talk poems in my definition are typically quite personal
in tone without being unaware of the absurdities inherent
in a self-presentational aesthetic; yet their ironies seem
different in spirit from what has been termed the "postmodern wink,"
that sometimes predictable deployment of language to undercut
its own rhetoric, thus denying readers many of the traditional
pleasures of poetry.  Many ultra-talk poems are very aware
of postmodern theory, and may toy with ideas and techniques
absorbed from that realm; but ultimately the emphasis
is on the poem as giving pleasure.

Mark Halliday, reviewing David Kirby's book The House of Blue Lights ("Gabfest," Parnassus 26.2), puts a name to a brand of poetry that many poets have been composing lately.  He calls it "ultra-talk," and associates this poetry with precedents in Swift, Byron, Koch and O'Hara, along with more recent voices such as Denise Duhamel, David Clewell, Albert Goldbarth, and Kirby's own wife, Barbara Hamby.  Halliday himself, of course, belongs squarely on such a list.  In what follows I want to take Halliday's term and run with it, perhaps far beyond his intentions, for he confines himself mainly to discussing David Kirby's work.  Nonetheless I believe the term identifies a real and interesting phenomenon in contemporary poetry that has as yet attracted little commentary.  And Halliday is one of its ablest practitioners.
    Whatever their important differences, poets of ultra-talk as I conceive it share a number of qualities.  The poems are highly discursive (Halliday terms Kirby "hyperjunctive," in contrast to the currently fashionable disjunctiveness of Ashbery and others); they are also garrulous to an extreme, quite often self-reflexive, determinedly associative, and frequently humorous.  As has become common in poems of several brands today, ultra-talk poems are often in love with pop culture, and freely mix "high" with "low" in good postmodern fashion. Perhaps above all, they are, to use a very loaded term, accessible. 
    The connection with the poems of the original New York School is obvious enough, and quite valid.  And it makes sense to draw parallels with certain veins in Swift and Byron, certainly, though I would want to add Coleridge's conversation poems to the mix, along with Whitman's many poems of daily notation.  In fact, you could easily assemble a whole rag-tag anthology full of interesting precursors, including figures such as Kenneth Fearing, Paul Blackburn, A. R. Ammons, and Allen Ginsberg, and add to them at least some poems by contemporaries as distinct from each other as Tim Seibles, Billy Collins, Marilyn Hacker, and Eileen Myles. 
    Without getting unduly hung up on taxonomy per se, let me offer a few samples of what I might consider ultra-talk poetry (which overlaps notably, I would say, with what Charles Harper Webb has termed Stand Up poetry).  Such poetry can be difficult to excerpt briefly, since it is an aesthetic of rambling inclusion, not compression, and its effects often develop at considerable leisure.  Still, see if the following snippets do not display more than a hint of family resemblance.  Here is Albert Goldbarth sketching a marital breakup with his typical tumble of raw detail:

        We've talked cosmology, cocaine, the skiing season,
        Elizabeth Bishop's poems, the flat stacking-up
        of Egyptian frieze. . .  Now G. just wants the sideboard.
        "That's all.  The rest he can have.  The dachshunds even."
        She went to the Judy Collins concert, alone, and wept
        at their favorite songs.  She's thinking of calling the lawyer.
        In the livingroom now it's 20's music; the fine, fine-tuned
        calibrations of intimacy are slow-danced cheek
        to cheek, each couple's various sweats from the cajun records
        drying into a single salt-based glaze.

        ["We're Just About to Observe the Edge of the Universe."  Arts
        & Sciences.
  Ontario Review Press, 1983:  9.]

    And here is Campbell McGrath, in his sprawling long piece "The Bob Hope Poem," indulging in a free-associative spate of writerly daydreaming:

        Look at our poor mailman, suffering the pangs of hypothermia
            or frostbite as he staggers up the street like Chaplin in The Gold Rush,
        like Jack London lugging his earthly possessions to the Yukon
            or some '49er crossing the Sierras
        or those picturesque Brazilians bearing ore-sacks and wicker baskets
            into the open pit at Serra Pelada,

        Dantean spectres from the deep mud of the dream.

        Imagine what stamped benediction, what metered mark of grace
            he might be bringing me today:

        good word from Hollywood about my screenplay;
        a Guggenheim; a genius grant;
        an NEA!

        Any piece of parcel post could bear my silver slipper, my invitation
            to the ball and a dance with Ed McMahon.

        I can see me now, sharing a laugh with Letterman, hoking and
            joking with Arsenio or Conan, holding forth from the center square.

        [Spring Comes to Chicago.  Ecco Press, 1996:  45.]

    Then there is David Lehman, whose connections to the New York School are avowed and obvious, and who has recently been composing daily diary poems very much in the Frank O'Hara vein.  Lehman manages to sprawl even in short compass.  Here is how "March 6" opens:

        I love sitting in bars in the Village
        where the guy next to me says I love jazz
        because Jews wrote the songs and blacks
        sing them this time it's Ernie Andrews
        and "Our Love Is Here to Stay" outside
        it hasn't stopped raining, which makes
        me want to dance like Gene Kelly (who
        died last month) with Leslie Caron singing
        the same song in An American in Paris
        when I was an American in Paris
        myself walking under the green lime trees
        what a small city I could walk all the way . . . .

        [The Daily Mirror:  A Journal in Poetry.  Scribner, 2000:  32.]

    Denise Duhamel has been rapidly developing in the direction of ultra-talk, too, as can be seen in the opening lines of her "Mia and Darger, Ashbery and Gina," a humorously over-the-top, self-absorbed meander through the byways of poetic ambition and networking: 

        When Mia saw my Darger poster, she said, "Oh wow! Look Patrick, Darger,"
        and I couldn't believe she knew who he was. I thought I had discovered
        him in La Collection de L'Art Brut in Switzerland.
        But, of course, I couldn't have really discovered him
        since there was already a poster and an expensive French coffee-table book
        that I also bought at the Swiss museum and lugged home in my carry-on.
        "Ashbery's next book is all about Darger," Mia quipped.
        Mia worked at Farrar Straus & Giroux. I had known her for about one minute.
        She was visiting because she'd come along with Patrick,
        a friend of my husband's. I wished I hadn't cooked Mia pumpkin soup.
        For a minute I hated her – I'd wanted my next book to be about Darger.

        [Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems. U Pittsburgh, 2001: 89]

    Another poet with palpable connections to the original New York School poets is Bernadette Mayer.  Here in her conclusion to "Ode on Periods" she slips amiably into the sort of loose meta-poetic reflection frequently found in ultra-talk poems:

        now that poems've got everything in them
        even rhetoric and dailiness plus the names of things again
        including flowers like the spotted touch-me-not
        so inviting to hummingbirds
        and I'm writing one
        I'd like to mention or say blatantly
        I got my period today
        probably like nobody
        certainly in the nineteenth century ever did
        and if you really wanna know
        most of us you know
        all get ours on the same day no kidding
        and we talk about it frequently and peripatetically
        Alice with Peggy Peggy with Marion Marion with me me
            with Anne
        Anne with Alice Peggy with me Grace with Peggy Marion with Grace

        So Friends! Hold the bloody sponge up!
        For all to see!

        [Another Smashed Pinecone. United Artists Books,1998]

    Halliday cogently puts his finger both on the attractions and the limitations of this sub-genre; in the following he is discussing Kirby, though he could well be describing his own work and that of many others:

Some poets strive for the memorable phrase, or the marble stanza:  Kirby strives for the good chunk — maybe ten lines, maybe twenty — and not even every chunk has to be terrific as long as he feels he is plugged into his circuit. . . .  The phrasing is workaday, casually expository, patiently jogging along the associative path, not leaping to new images as in a poem by, say, Lorca, Crane, or Plath.  Kirby's is an anti-leap aesthetic; if he does hop occasionally, he announces it loudly and makes sure you can hop alongside him without spilling your drink.

    That last jab (and Jab is the apt title of Halliday's own most recent collection of mostly ultra-talk poems) is, I think, a useful cautionary note.  Ultra-talk poems can certainly be charming, refreshing, pleasant in their unheated geniality.  But Halliday is well aware of the rhetorical risks run by such low intensity tactics; and several times in his generally complimentary review of Kirby he not only nods to those dangers but associates himself, rightly, as a fellow risk-taker:

Kirby's ultra-talk represents an experiment in the lowering of pressure.  (Something like this could be said about Swift, Byron, and O'Hara in their own periods.)  As a consequence, he gives up a lot:  the mighty line; the force of rhythm — not rhythm per se (since of course all talk has rhythm) but rhythm in felicitous conjunction with intensified or "heightened" phrasing; the force of compressed metaphor and rapid shifting between metaphors; and the sense of necessary structure, of a poem being the perfect crystallization of its concern.
.  .  .  .
     No matter how much fun it is to make audiences laugh, Kirby's experiment must have taken some courage.  He has heard the mutters:  "That's not poetry at all."  It's easy to imagine him going over well with a not-especially literary crowd at a reading.  (As a writer of quite accessible poems myself, I'm hostile to the view that this accessibility guarantees some crippling limitation.) 

    I would add several points to what Halliday writes.  Just as the dyspeptic jaggedness of early Eliot and Pound formed a useful corrective to late-Victorian mellifluous platitude and smug composure, the ultra-talk poem may perform a similar act in our times, an implicit swipe against theory-clotted verse, turgid political hectoring, and other varieties of aesthetic heavy-handedness.   Likewise, just as Kenneth Koch wrote his "Fresh Air" in 1955 as delightful antidote to an epidemic of rather buttoned-down poetry, it may well prove that the ultra-talk poem as practiced by Halliday and others is today's version of air-freshening.  The ultra-talk poem can be considered a welcome alternative to much current poetry that is oversolemn, willfully opaque, or radically atomized in thought or typography.  At the same time, in its cheery irony, many an ultra-talk poem also joins in the common suspicion that certain aspects of so-called confessional poetry have long since arrived at a dead end, though our readerly appetite for gossip has apparently not.
    Ultra-talk poems in my definition are typically quite personal in tone without being unaware of the absurdities inherent in a self-presentational aesthetic; yet their ironies seem different in spirit from what has been termed the "postmodern wink," that sometimes predictable deployment of language to undercut its own rhetoric, thus denying readers many of the traditional pleasures of poetry.  Many ultra-talk poems are very aware of postmodern theory, and may toy with ideas and techniques absorbed from that realm; but ultimately the emphasis is on the poem as giving pleasure.  As Halliday notes, an ultra-talk poet sees nothing necessarily crippling in accessibility.  An ultra-talk poem can thus employ narrative without ironic critique; enjoy lyric heightening without necessarily or merely seeking to highlight its problematic nature; and can even indulge in various sorts of personal or political sincerity without the obligatory undercutting.  An ultra-talk poet finds no contradiction between being intelligent and funny, and can be so without the poem seeming a weapon aimed against the long-suffering reader.  As the example of Kenneth Koch shows (not to mention Byron and many of today's so-called new formalists), the ultra-talk poem can also occur in conventional form as well as in free verse; examples might be found in Marilyn Hacker's chatty rhyming bulletins from France, or in Vikram Seth's verse novel The Golden Gate, for instance:

        It's Friday night. The unfettered city
        Resounds with hedonistic glee.
        John feels a cold cast of self-pity
        Envelop him. No family
        Cushions his solitude, or rather,
        His mother's dead, his English father,
        Retired in his native Kent,
        Rarely responds to letters sent
        (If rarely) by his transatlantic
        Offspring. In letters to The Times
        He rails against the nameless crimes. . . .

        [The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse.  Vintage, 1986]

    One large question lurking is whether or not the ultra-talk poem is anything more than an ephemeral entertainment for a jaded age.  Will future periods be reading any of these poets alongside Yeats or Dickinson?  Halliday, noting Kirby's "mature modesty," recognizes the problem and speaks sensibly of both the "benefits and costs" inherent in this talky and low-intensity style.  By way of proposing, not an answer to the question, but a possible range of response, I want to conclude with a look at three of Mark Halliday's own poems.  In them, I think we can begin to sort out, by example, some of the specific costs and benefits of the ultra-talk poem.
    In "Timberwolf," from his 1999 collection Selfwolf, Halliday faces from the outset some of the natural objections to his style:

        So, you are feeling ironical about my sentimentality?
        Well I feel ironical about that. This kid may be small
        but he sure isn't fat. You start using the word "romantic"
        as a blowtorch I can leave the building. You won't miss me?
        Fine. I can go to San Francisco, or maybe baby go
        to some non-vicious milieu in the midwest. Pluralism
        cuts both ways, what?  Goodbye, thanks for the chat.
        Pat, this game isn't over yet!  That's right Tony,

        and this man plays ball right down to the final second
        regardless of the scoreboard and Tony, you can't ask
        for more than that.  That's right, Pat.  It has not been
        a precision type of game—let's get a word with Sedale
        during this timeout.  We made some mistakes but
        we kept on coming.  Thanks Sedale.  Mistakes, Tony,
        they come with the territory

        but this young man sits up very late with strong dark tea
        bombarded by photographs that keep announcing
        in shiny voices This is over while the carpet is
        obviously dirty as the carpet was in Providence
        twenty-two years back and the clock needs oil
        and so not to let it all make terrible sense takes
        a type of resistance.  Okay, he's not young, he was
        but now he's not, Pat.  The pile of cassettes topples over.
        It has not been a precision type of game.  But Tony,
        if he is 45 it is a twisty 45, though he loves the semicolons
        because they show respect he knows you don't want to get caught
        staring at those big electric numbers and he can cope
        with the commas, so many commas, are you saying
        a big hero then?  No, not that, Pat, but this guy
        is living minute by minute; he concedes nothing
        that's right Tony.  You might say self-absorbed
        like a character in Ann Beattie someone might say but

        oh, but oh when he squints in fluorescent 2 a.m.
        it's to slide past the grapple of what would be too plain
        for all of us, Pat, for every player in the league;
        admittedly the word "slide" he has used too often
        but as an ex-almost-priest said to me more than once
        we do what we can.  It's to live in
        the perpetual heart-smirch and heart-slice without
        just tanking and without denying that it is heart-life
        including indeed heartbreak.  Well, but
        you haven't earned that word "heartbreak"
        oh haven't I?  Who said I was through?
        Clock's tickin', dude.  This man is only 46, Tony,
        and when his plane touches down in San Francisco
        he grabs his Timberwolves tote bag so firmly.
        And here outside our studio there's an old man
        riding a brown bicycle past Verna Funeral Parlor
        and the big radio tied to the handlebars is playing
        "Duke of Earl."

        [U Chicago Press, 1999]

    This is precisely the sort of poem I can imagine would go over well at a reading in an academic setting — its farcical anguish over the notion of romantic selfhood both participates in and gently mocks postmodern truisms, as does its anxiety over authorial control.  Its range of diction, its mixture of highbrow with low-, its Woody-Allenish dithering over profound metaphysical concerns — all these traits mark it as a poem of our times.  Its employment of the sportscaster trope in particular is hilarious, though in a quite familiar manner.  There really is little one can say by way of critique of this poem that the poem hasn't already considered, which is both an aspect of its charm and an indication of its limitation, I think.  
    For is it not possible that the sportscaster trope is a bit too heavily underlined, thus undercutting the effectiveness of the poem's comedy?  Likewise, doesn't the knowing wink of this poem's literary stance mark it as no less of an ivory-tower production than the more solemn poems it wishes to spoof?  In fact, is this poem actually accessible outside the academy?  Ultimately, doesn't this poem simply go on rather too long, having made its point sufficiently at least by the time it alludes to Anne Beattie's stories of self-absorbed, hapless intellectuals?
    Well, tastes will differ, naturally.  I enjoyed this poem greatly on a first reading, and still relish many turns of phrase and thought, as in the following self-reflexive riff:

        admittedly the word "slide" he has used too often
        but as an ex-almost-priest said to me more than once
        we do what we can.  It's to live in
        the perpetual heart-smirch and heart-slice without
        just tanking and without denying that it is heart-life
        including indeed heartbreak.  Well, but
        you haven't earned that word "heartbreak"
        oh haven't I?  Who said I was through?

    I enjoy the comedy here, even the fussy particularity of "an ex-almost-priest"; and Halliday is especially good at enlivening the texture of his prosy ramblings with jewelled phrasings like that "perpetual heart-smirch and heart-slice."  But for me repeated readings have produced diminishing returns, for the reasons sketched above.  "Who said I was through?" strikes me as a good joke, but like many jokes the punch line loses something when encountered a second time.
    One problem with any "fresh air" poetics, of course, is that the joke can simply go on too long, as I think this one may do.  Another potential problem is that once the air is freshened, a poet is called on to do more than simply spritz the room again with the same old scent.  Halliday's limitations, I would say, do include a tendency to return, poem after poem and book after book, to the same small handful of themes, and to do so, often, in a similar tone and manner.  This is a limitation he shares with some very great poets, of course, but in the case of his type of metaphysical comedy, ripeness is all. 
    In hopes of beginning to illustrate the difference between ripe and overripe in ultra-talk, here is an earlier piece (from Tasker Street, 1992) that takes up some of the same concerns as "Timberwolf," to my mind a bit more succesfully:

        Sax's and Selves

        I saw you going into Sax's Steak Sandwiches
        but what were you thinking?
        It was a hot day, the downtown traffic
        smashed itself right thru, right thru.
        People wore their primary colors and
        touched the doors and parking meters
        and bottles and quarters and steering wheels
        and the hold-on bars in bouncing busses
        with tough hands, tools made of tough skin.
        The sun was some ten degrees hotter than
        anybody expected, this being not yet summer,
        people folded their jackets and went to deal.
        You must have been dealing too,
        but what were you dealing with?
        You came out of Sax's Steak Sandwiches
        with a large Coke to go,
        straw stuck thru plastic lid,
        but what were you contemplating?
        There was sweat in all armpits,
        three ten-year-old boys had a hardball,
        one of them shouted "Up your ass"
        and laughed.  Fifteen blocks away
        an enormous insurance building glittered
        with its violent impregnability in the hot sky.
        It was real, as real as the hot yellow gas truck,
        which was as real as the spice in Sax's chili,
        and so were you no doubt but

        what was your real point?
        I mean what did you add up to?
        You caught the Dudley bus
        and sat next to a blind young man
        whose fingers flickered every minute or so
        in something like a diffident farewell to
        someone important who might not return
        for a long time.  Staring
        at the fingernails of the rider across from you,
        you tapped your foot to a song called "Staying Alive"
        from a black girl's huge radio—
        and you may even have hummed along
        while sucking ice from your tall cup—
        however, the song's meaning for you
        is not apparent;
                        and I don't know
        why you got off where you did,
        chucking your drained cup in a dumpster,
        rolling up your sleeves as you passed the Purity Supreme. . .
        I know exactly where you got off
        and how hot the air was

        but damn you!  What were you thinking?
        I've tried, I've tried to figure it
        but it comes out different each time and
        I can't be bothered—really,
        if you have some hang-up about Being Mysterious
        it's not my problem.  So unless
        you're willing to give me a clue—
        just the general area, the basic subject,
        something to get started is all,
        you don't have to fork over your whole self—
        but if it's just going to be trivia,
        your shoes, your Coke, your moving lips,
        then forget it—I'm serious—
        just forget the whole thing.

        [U Massachusetts Press, 1992]

    I take it the mystery alluded to here is simply "what were you thinking?" — with the associated suggestion that the self asking the question is not the same one who could ever answer it.  Repeated several times, the issue bugging the poem's speaker is that he doesn't have access to his own prior self in any deep way.  He can remember stray bits of outward sensation and perception, trivia such as the soda and ice, even some of the feel of his own past, but not the deep core, the mystery of his own thoughts back then.  Hence, a poem — humorously hyperbolic with the typical Halliday tone of self-deprecation — about the inevitable decay of memory, and what that might imply about the notion of "a self" in the first place. 
    Thus the poem takes its place in the long line of contemporary poems wrestling with the legacy of Romanticism, but does so with a particularly light touch.  One could say that this poem manages to be "ironical about its sentimentality" without belaboring the issue quite so heavily as "Timberwolf" does; at the same time, the poem is genuinely entertaining, to this reader at least, in its O'Hara-like sketching of quotidiana, its lively alertness to the pleasures of drifting through an urban landscape.  This is a poem that resonates when read in an academic setting, but not merely so; Billy Collins has included it in his recent anthology Poetry 180, for instance, which is aimed at the common reader in high school and beyond.  Ultimately, for me the poem manages to be both funny and moving — recognizing the absurdity of its own plaint, in time-honored lyric fashion, even as it dramatizes things very vividly.  To put it in other terms, the themes addressed here are not simply keyed to current fashion or theory, but are as universal as those found in Heraclitus or the book of Ecclesiastes. 
    For a final example, here is "Against Realism," from Halliday's most recent and to my mind strongest collection, Jab.  In this book Halliday does expand his range some, and even experiments with some poems that clearly move beyond the ultra-talk mode.  "Against Realism," though, is certainly ultra-talk if any poem is.  As with "Sax's and Selves," Halliday takes up large-scale themes — in this case involving the mystery of otherness as well as the difficulty of maintaining "the vital electric bloomy comet leopard secret / symphony heart" within "the brown huge hum-hum of all that human decent pathos."  In typical fashion, this poem questions the conventional realist aesthetic even as it shows mastery of it, and the poem's satiric jabs are aimed, as usual, more at the poet than at anyone else.  And, as the phrases quoted above suggest, Halliday is more successful in this poem than in some others in maintaining verbal sparkle and juice as he rambles along in his mock-serious or seriously-mocking manner:

        She is over there, at the edge, just past
        what I can really notice.  She wears brown shoes
        and she has two jobs probably, like
        financial records work for small businesses and, evenings,
        behind-the-counter at a convenience store.
        Why the need for extra cash?  I don't like the dry way she says "cash"—
        maybe she has twin daughters age nine, or her husband got laid off,
        or both, who knows, she has this dry vibe of dismissal
        like "That seemed fun when I was nineteen
        but now I know there's only dust and being decent"
        anyway her life is pinched and it's not her fault okay
        and she deals with it bravely I suppose
        although "bravely" makes it sound interesting whereas I just feel
        it is so dreary I can't even focus on it
        and she herself realizes it's not heroic, it's just being an Adult
        and Coping.  Frankly I hate the way she uses the word "coping"
        and I would prefer never to hear the word again from anybody.
        In her voice there's this tone that says "A dreamer is a parasite,"
        not that she would ever explicitly say something that intense
        because she is thinking about daycare and the dinner.
        I know I should admire how she works and plans and keeps up
        with the laundry, whatever, and feeds the dog
        and visits her sick uncle, whatever,
        okay I do, in principle, but between you and me
        she is so boring in her, you know, her busy life of hardihood and pathos,
        God, when you have to pause and face it
        there is nothing more deadly than hardihood-and-pathos,
        I mean it really kills the secret thing—
        the non-dust thing—the vital electric bloomy comet leopard secret
        symphony heart.
        If I have to think admiringly one more minute on how
        she starts the pot roast at dawn and brushes Jenny's hair
        and how to her sex is mainly the problem of unwanted pregnancy
        which she counsels younger women about so helpfully
        and how she is supportive, she is so supportive
        I swear I will pass out and fall down and get a boredom-induced
        or else write only fantasy fiction disguised as bitter satire
        or else give up and become a decent concerned citizen
        and disappear into thc brown huge hum-hum of all that human decent
        that brown-shoe humanity always there, over there
        on the side at the edge where thank God I'm not looking

        [Jab.  U Chicago Press, 2002: 41-2.]

    Among other things, this is a ruefully funny poem about poetic limitation and lyrical self-absorption.  Yet as it wrestles anew with romantic agony, its focus is finally as much outward as inward.  The joke here — a quite serious one, I would say — lies in the way Halliday manages to sketch quite vividly the mundane world he professes not to be looking at. 
    To my mind, the freshness of the ultra-talk poem as a category lies in just such quirky generosity of spirit.  Such poetry resuscitates the beleaguered concept of accessibility in poetry, demonstrating by example how a poem may entertain without automatically becoming trivial; can move without being maudlin; and can be intelligent without being ponderous — all of which, I would argue, show a bedrock respect for the reader's capacities, both intellectual and emotional.  The term "ultra-talk" will probably not last, and future ages may or may not honor the poems of Mark Halliday or the other poets noted, of course.  But there are many moments, while perusing journals full of dissociative, self-erasing poems of linguistic display or humor-free lyrics of ham-fisted epiphany, that I long for exactly the sort of fresh air I find in Halliday's best poems.

© by David Graham


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