Boat with Oars of Different Size
Carnegie-Mellon Press, 2000
me state it up front: Thom Ward's Small Boat with Oars of Different
Size, just out from Carnegie-Mellon Press, is an amiable book.
If that's the sort of thing you're looking for in a collection
of poems, you might find it an ideal book to have on your bedside
table, next to your Farmer's Almanac.
For myself, "amiable" doesn't suffice.
Remember when Adorno said that after Auschwitz lyric poetry is
impossible? Well, a lot of folks don't buy that; instead many,
in fact find Adorno's dogmatic claim a challenge. Lyric poetry
is possible as long as it takes its cue from a poetics that acknowledges,
or is at least aware of the worst that language can do. Sure poets
don't have to write about anything specific, and in fact the sky's
the limit about subject matter and content. However, it does sometimes
uncomfortable, even a little creepy, to read poems such as Ward's
which seem so relentlessly blithe.
Take for instance his poem "The End Won't
Be So Bad." I know, I know--we pray this is ironic. In some
sense it is, or at least I'll give Ward the benefit of the doubt,
but it isn't sufficiently so. The poem begins with "the dead
get away with most anything" such as "[leaving] the
knife in the
mustard" and "[feeding] quarters into the jukebox,"
and various other mundane activities. Let me interject that if
that's what it's like to be dead, to be caught in the same senses-dulling
existence that constitutes middle class American life, then maybe
the "End" won't be bad but it won't
be tolerable either. There's a moment near the end of the poem
where the irony is clear, for "the dead," the speaker
tells us, at some point "whisper a little lie about the dead
/ how they move through our bodies / like sleigh-runners through
Here we see that "the dead" are merely
a projection, a necessary fiction the living tell themselves in
order to provide their own consolation and solace. My problem
is that the ironic distance here seems to be gestural--a stance,
really, that, rather than critiquing efforts of consolation, seems
to verify it. With this poem, Ward doesn't disrupt that poetics
of solace, he merely circumambulates it.
The poem itself then buys into this comfort. What
did the poem risk? The last lines insist that the dead are "dead
set, just like us, / on getting away with most anything."
But the poem feels as if it's simply trying to get away from the
problematics of consolation. For me, this leaves the chalky taste
of the bourgeois in my mouth.
In fact, let me point to the opening poem, "Hunting
Skunk Cabbage," to further make my point. The dramatic situation
is that of the speaker of the poem out walking around with his
wife during very early spring. It is, as one might expect, replete
with portentous natural symbols and a poignant
intimacy that husband and wife feel, in this almost extra-historic
pastoral scene. The ending tells of the skunk cabbage "arriving
to remind us / it doesn't matter what is buried / compared to
what is pushing through." This is a deeply romantic line
that concerns me. What gets buried underfoot is
quite often crushed under the heels of something-or someone-else.
The speaker is too enamored with his own authority and his intent
to be profound that he isn't aware that he is the one who in the
poem anyway decides what matters. His attempts at a clear narrative,
free of any challenging syntax
or grammar, may be to speak in the language of common men, as
Wordsworth would have poets write, but it also directs the reader
down some pretty familiar paths. His narrative structure rhetorically
overwhelms the reader. That, my friends, is manipulation.
I don't want to get bogged down in moralistic hang-ups,
despite the stance I'm taking here. In fact, many of the problems
that I see in this work are problems Ward's inherited. It's just
that Ward is writing out of a particular aesthetic that I'd argue
is dated and quaint, finally. The poems
in Small Boat with Oars of Different Size operate in two modes:
they are invested in either a sort of wry wit or a moralistic,
self-congratulatory personal revelation jag. Both modes serve
only to re-establish the authority of the speaker. At no point
do the "small boats" trouble the waters of subjectivity.
What does that mean? It means that these poems never open up possibilities
for other stances, other experiences. In short, the poems really
have no room for the reader to move around in. The authorial voice
controls the vertical and the horizontal. So Ward has set up a
habitable purgatory in this book in which no movement can occur.
That's the danger of the collection's title: the boat turns in
circles and goes nowhere. "Anaphoric," "The End
Won't Be So Bad," "While We Rest," "The
Bar Beyond the World," all are poems that use tropes of Purgatory.
I'm not about to call for poetry to be instrumental or utilitarian
or even socially relevant. But this aesthetic Ward writes from
is based on a logic of sincerity-a willed profundity. With these
poems, there is and can be no
dynamism except for that which the author orchestrates.
Clearly I'm no fan of the subject-centered tepid
neo-Romantic style at work here. Be that as it may, I still think
that poetry, to matter, needs to be something more than the dramatic
of the "utterance overheard" as John Stuart Mill defined
poetry. These poems don't create a situation in which the
reader can do anything but assent: "yeah, I know what that's
like." After each final line you can hear an invisible audience
nodding and giving a sympathetic "ah." Some of these
poems seem written exactly to get that response. There are people
who need to feel "deep." But isn't this kind of intentional
sentimentality a rhetorical manipulation of emotions? There's
no possibility of empathy or discussion, thus there's no dialogue.
What does it matter to read about the poet's insight,
if the poet doesn't make possible the opportunities for my own
insights? The boat is moving but the reader can do nothing but
go where the oarsman goes. It's a strange but problematic formula
that this kind of sincerity which brooks no negotiation or self-doubt
leads to passivity in the reader.
And frankly, I've had enough of being told what
to think and do.
Maybe I'm guilty of using Ward as a strawdog to
complain about a particular aesthetic that dominates mainstream
poetry. I'll admit that I've seen worse cases than this as well
as better. Ward's collection, however, is so representative because
it's so safe in every regard. But more than that
it's the collection's varying degrees of smugness that are gets
me. I hate to say it but the centristic Clintonian liberalism
goes deep here in Small Boat with Oars of Different Size. I recommend
two copies of Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror and call
me in the morning.
Ian Schrank, a Londoner living in Des
Moines, is a poet/critic whose work has appeared in many magazines
overseas, and in Fence Post, TheRecycler: A Journal of Cultural
Commentary, Poetry Spasm and others in the States. He plays bass
for Velvet Jesus, a neo-punk band. To buy the band's tapes, contact
him at firstname.lastname@example.org.