I like art that takes risks, which sounds ridiculous–like I need a mohawk and a septum piercing to say it. But it’s true…no sense in hiding from it. Whatever the risk is–usually it can easily draw me in. Maybe it’s dealing with obscene topics that always get ignored. Maybe it’s communicating through art in very untraditional ways to the point that the art risks not being understood. Whatever it is, usually I’m into it, or at least into the part that’s trying to push.
Max Garland, who is the Poet Laureate of the state I live in (Wisconsin), probably has not been labeled by many writers or critics as “a big risk taker.” His work is hyper-pastoral, very narrative, unabashedly confessional and formally uninventive. All red flags for me. All ingredients that make for a pretty uninspiring poetry experience usually, in my case. All ingredients, even, that I find in most mainstream poetry, much to my dismay. It’s discouraging. It bloweth the goats. These things–plus rhyme, maybe–practically define the popular American notion of what poetry is. And yet, again, for me anyways, they tend to be the very things that ruin poems more often than anything else. Things that make poems too painfully poemy.
The thing about Max that is amazing, though, is he manages to drag all of those elements of traditional poetry into his work–kicking and screaming, sometimes–and still make poems that I really really dig on. Like, Marvin-Gaye-and-Tammy-Terrell-style, dig on. The kind of dig on where you’re nodding your head by the end and you didn’t even realize it. I love his stuff. I’m crazy about it.
[Video: Max Garland Reading from his work]
When Max was announced as the new Wisco Po Laureate, I’d never heard of him. I approached his work with great suspicion and probably a chip on my shoulder–Let’s see what’s so great about this guy….. To be fair, I feel like I had decent reason to be suspicious, as I have not always been excited by the Poet Laureate decisions Wisconsin has made. But with each poem of his I read, the more my demeanor softened. I feel like he has a way of writing in all those very traditional modes without, usually, falling into too many of the typical pitfalls they come with. And this seems to be the risk of his poetic project–to write poems so unflinchingly beautiful and accessible, while still managing to compress them with a surprising economy of substance. He’s by no means the only American poet who fits this description. But I encounter SO many poets who are trying to do this and missing by miles that, at the end of the day, I have to assume it’s more risky–in some ways–than some of the most avant-garde ambitions. And, of course, Max sometimes hits what sounds to my ear like the wrong notes–but that’s, again, the fate of any artist taking risks; the necessity to go too far to learn where your limitations are. That’s true if you’re risking over-the-top grotesqueness or just the over-sentimentality of a georgic.
[No, seriously this time: Garland presenting his poetry at the BONK! series in Racine, WI]
What I love about Max’s work: he pays attention to words, not something all mainstream poets, shockingly, seem to do. He’s obviously paying attention to the sound, the diction and the connotation of his words, where the use of words for so many of his peers seems to end at their most surface meanings. In the poem Christmas Concert, he describes his grandmother playing piano–already a topic so potentially boring that, if you don’t think it’s risky, well, I don’t know…..go try to write an interesting poem about it and tell me how it goes? Garland’s, in the meantime, reads like this towards the middle:
“She’s playing for the church of herself./ The drapes of the sitting room are drawn,/ the couch covered in plastic, preserved/ for company who’s to say won’t come?// There’s a dish where the candy has merged/ all its sugars. If you lift one piece/ the whole house starts to rise.// The silence between notes is where/ she’s headed.”
The rhythm and syntax in these lines seem to be accomplishing exactly what he’s setting out for here. They’re glorious. And gorgeous. And still they’re describing a stereotypical American nightmare of a house, and the fact that his grandma is dying. Which immediately leads me to another reason why I love his work: half the time it’s haunted by death, death and more death, while the other half it’s haunted by a dispossessed God. In one poem he describes day lilies as “jagged and bright as blown apart kisses.” The very next poem in the same book begins: “The days break their backs on the wide brown water./ You can see the warped spine of the river/ between the girders of the Brookport Bridge.” And then the next poem in the succession starts: “God was the knife my grandfather used/ to slit the belly of the fish, scrape/ and finger the insides out.// God was the nail in the palm,/ sword in side, splintered light/ on morning grass.”
Whatever landscape he’s describing, he describes it with such reverence. But never a naive reverence, and never one that is turned too far away from the harshness that nature deserves, or demands. Though these lines are all either spiritual or pastoral in nature, certainly they’re all too ruined or gross to be pandering. It’s like a tease almost–dangling God or nature in front of the reader’s nose, but then not following through with any of the cliché promises a poem about God or nature tends to promise. Max makes beautiful poems just to ruin them, sometimes, and makes ruined poems just to prove to the reader they’re beautiful. That I like. That is the main thing that draws me to his work and that distinguishes him from so many poets that just seem to be opting into a tired–but safe and expected–trend in poetry, or subscription to what poetry is.
I often try to do writing exercises based off the writer or writers I’m taking in at any time. Write a poem like Melvin B Tolson, write a poem like Emily Dickinson, write a poem like Ol’ Dirty Bastard….whatever. But I didn’t write (or, at least, haven’t written) one emulating Max Garland because I just don’t feel like I could do it well. I’m really not crazy about poems that are hyper-aware of their poem-ness. As soon as a poem positions itself as a poem, it starts taking serious risks–the risk of annoying poem-voice, smarmy poem-sap, melodramatic poem-profundity…..usually these risks seem to be too much for the poem to bear with any kind of grace. Max Garland, though–Max God-forsaken-Garland–he does the dang thing and he comes out of it looking like a word ninja in this reader’s eyes.
It’s cheesy (this pun is intended), but I can weirdly and honestly say I am proud to be able to call Max Garland my laureate. At least for the next month still. So cheers to the Wisco Po Laur! He will be leaving big shoes with big anti-risk risks to be gambled on.