The Poetry of Nick Laird

A review of Feel Free

Stephen Yenser
The book cover Feel Free by Nick Laird.

American poets today often remind us of other American poets. Few stand apart, chiefly because for now the common ground on which they stood in the first place has shrunk. The traditional commonality is a matter of form and technique, the mainstay of which is prosody, and today meter has given way to free verse, which, though it encourages idiosyncratic lineation, undermines uniqueness. In lieu of attention to form and technique, we have—what we have always had, but in addition—attention to content, determined in large part by point of view or sociopolitical orientation. The points of view are many, in proportion to the practitioners of poetry, the number of whom is surely at a historical high, exiguous though the professional rewards might be. The MFA programs that fructified in the last half of the twentieth century are hardly withering on the vine, hélas and hooray, and there are more kinds of poetry than ever before. That is perhaps the point in small. When all stand apart, none do.

But that is all hypothesis and generalization. And to generalize is to be an idiot, as Blake declared–albeit in a blatant generalization.

Whether or not it is significant that Nick Laird is not American but Northern Irish, Feel Free, his fourth volume, sounds like nothing by any of his American contemporaries, although a few American poets of his generation are of comparable independence. While there are established American poets not long deceased who similarly elude categorization and whose work Laird’s calls to mind, the emulation of eminent predecessors without embarrassment is itself a distinguishing strength. Feel Free stands out today partly because of its formal and technical command and partly because of its conflicting desiderata: its poems want to be at once economical and impulsive, controlled yet digressive. His verse, his sensibility, itself thrives on contrariness. “I like to feel the work I am exerting being changed,” he offers in his title poem—at the same time that the poem asserts its own agency, an element in the contrariness—and “I like a steady disruption.” It is characteristic that the preceding phrase undercuts itself. What can one make of a principle of dependable upset?

Laird makes an inspiring abundance of it. Along the way he flirts with venerable forms. A number of the poems here are sonnet length, but none executes a complete traditional scheme, and while tercets and quatrains are frequent, end rhyme is scarce. At arm’s length, the poems are conventionally shapely, with lines (like the stanzas and sections) of more or less the same length. The meter is flexible within those rough visual limits, however, and a strict formalist Laird is not. True, he gives us “Parenthesis,” which opens with a notably unpromising stanza—

I lie here like the closing bracket on the ledger of the mattress.
Asleep between us the children are hyphens–one hyphen, one underscore–
and it takes a few moments at five a.m. to get it quite straight that
what I thought was my name being called is the dog at my feet snoring—

but turns out to be a fetchingly ingenious pantoum, a form as difficult to handle as a batch of clothes hangers. But for the most part, Laird’s means of getting along, his modus operandi, involves a nonce structure, the purpose of which is to accommodate diverse subjects and perspectives—a structure or framework amenable to extravagance, in that term’s root sense. As he puts it vividly in “Crunch,” “I say poetry is weather for the mind, not an umbrella.”

It is perhaps suggestive that the poet who gets the most exposure in Feel Free is Cinna. Made famous for many a reader by the small role Shakespeare gave him in Julius Caesar, which lets him figure here as an object of political wrath, he was known in his day in Rome as one of the neoteric poets, members of an avant-garde that reacted to the Homeric influence by emphasizing technical innovation and developing genres lighter, more ludic, and ironic, along with subjects that seem at first blush superficial or banal. In any case, Laird’s work can put the reader in mind of what Whitman, a poetic mutineer himself, envisioned in Democratic Vistas for the future, now come to pass, of American literature:

New law-forces of spoken and written language–not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct regular, familiar with precedents … –but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects … and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it… . Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem … the text furnishing the hints, the start or frame-work.

Sometimes Laird’s “frame-work” is plainly vagarious, sometimes it is expansible, sometimes dilatory, sometimes analytical, and like these terms, the M.O.s might overlap in a given poem. He feels free to take the time to let possibilities open up before him, which is to say he pursues and abets the tendency of language, one of whose inescapable qualities is to lead us astray even as we need it to lead us on.

Wayward as he can be, Laird is also the close writer that Whitman’s call for the close reader presupposes, since his ideal “text” must furnish “hints” and facilitate or require the “gymnast’s struggle.” Here Whitman’s poetics intersects unexpectedly with that of the Symbolistes, who sought “rien que la nuance” (Verlaine) and believed that suggesting rather than naming a thing is ever the object (Mallarmé). For his part, Laird bears down so consistently, often with an eye to multivalence, that at his most adept he gives the impression of someone surrounded by an air so heavy with verse that all he must do is distill the lines. Needless to add, that is but a hard-earned illusion.

Laird is a patient poet, and surely he is a poet who loves rewriting and then retouching as much as he does giving the poem its head. Not long ago someone provided me with a T-shirt proclaiming advice I think he would appreciate. “REVISE,” it says, “You Know You Want To.” Yeats, his Irish ancestor, understates the pertinent relationship I am worrying but frames it once and for all: “Patient pains and passionate impulse are not incompatible.” The master’s maxim has a wry edge, since patience and passion, far from inimical, are etymological cousins covertly disposed to compatibility, another close relative. Passion, the animating impulse, responsible for “a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead,” speaks for itself, but we can always be reminded of the modest merit of patience. Valéry reminds us beautifully in “Palme,” as he ponders the tree’s life beneath the clear azure sky: “Chaque atome de silence / Est la chance d’un fruit mûr!” Each atom of silence is the seed of a ripe fruit; and Rilke, who adored and translated Valéry, counsels a young correspondent that every germ of feeling matures in the dark, beyond the reach of intelligence, and “patience is everything.”

“The problem is / how / to keep shape and flow,” in A. R. Ammons’s pithy definition and resolution of the issue, and it manifests itself repeatedly in Laird’s work. Take “New York ElastiCity,” whose very title exemplifies extensibility and flow, and whose exact diction, along with a predilection for synecdoche, also recurs throughout this book. Laird breaks the initial scene down into components, each of which turns out on inspection to be as full of potential as the whole. It is an analytical approach en abyme that enables him to discover the world in small on every hand.

At the beginning of “New York ElastiCity,” one “hand” is admonitory, and Laird, proponent of “steady disruption,” begins by stopping:

When the hand is red
some of the walkers pause
& others continue,
Some of the vehicles pause
& others continue,
& I am no longer that
clerk to the heir of etc.
& something of this city’s
brute capacity for gathering
is like a shining in my head.

The language is so plain that dogs and cats can understand it, yet so disingenuously specific that its scene is almost unrecognizable. The speaker turned reader must also “pause,” “continue,” “pause” again, reflect, and “continue,” and in the course of doing so get taken out of “himself or herself,” as Whitman put it precociously, and “be no longer,” for example, a “clerk”—employed at a firm governed by the privileged “heir” to the family’s fortune-founding investment—now out for a stroll at lunch along with all the other clerks and shoppers and tourists.

The poem stresses by iteration the advantage of stopping to muse, with the result that we can see the words’ different facets. We can see “city” again in “capacity,” and we can suspect the full force latent in “brute” in the penultimate line. Nothing to speak of happens in this first of four ten-line stanzas. On the contrary, in one sense the lines stall our progress—yet there is an ominous “gathering” not only of people in the city but also of implications in the poem, even as the speaker incorporates the red light at the crosswalk in the “shining in [his] head.” This kind of concentration, by the poet and in his language, is scarce in any generation. It is one reason why Ezra Pound—something of a neoteric poet himself, yet a classicist–could scornfully summarize (a hundred years ago and a hundred years after Whitman’s birth) his era’s Futuristic aesthetics in terms pertinent to other periods, including ours. From “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

Laird writes explicitly “for the modern stage,” as we are soon to see, but his classical predecessors are always whispering in his ear, and they help to shape his second stanza in “New York ElastiCity,” which testifies to what he calls in another poem his liking for “radical formal shifts and tonal ambiguities”:

The valleys of glass & reset
stone have softer, smaller
forces pushing through them
with shopping bags like pollen
sacs attached to their bodies.

“Reset”: for just a second an intrusive imperative, à la Nabokov, that word transforms over the line-break into an adjective. The quarried stone, the valleys, and the honeybees overlay the metropolitan setting with images that might come from Virgil’s Georgics. The sense of urban anxiety vanishes:

Happiness is only a state
of utter absorption,
so why not take an island,
not large, & see the people
of the world live together there?

Why not “take an island” indeed? The nearest, underfoot, is a traffic island in a wide street, on another “island, / not large,” since we have not left Manhattan, a microcosm with pedestrians native to every part of the globe, but nonetheless the quasi-idyllic locus of the “happiness … of utter absorption”–which is the condition of the poet responsible for those metamorphoses back and forth of modern and ancient, urban and pastoral, large and small.

It strikes me that for an instant Laird’s traffic island might as well be that isolate, empty house in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The End of March,” another poem in which ambulation figures composition, her “crypto-dream-house,” an insular retreat, “set up on pilings” and “protected from spring tides by a palisade.” “I’d like to retire there and do nothing,” she dreams, “except read boring books, / and write down useless notes, talk to myself.”

“Utter absorption.” It leads Laird to “notice” things in the third stanza that lead him from his demi-pastoral back to “the people / of the world” and their “drama,” which he deftly produces and attends on the spot. His newly perceptive clerk infers the invisible hands of director and stage manager:

I notice first they put the brown
people in brown shirts
and made them stand behind
the counter in Starbucks as
the customers are played by whites
& east Asian girls.

After the “barista” carefully designated Ahmed “calls out your name,” the sound of “jackhammers” and “a rising siren,” signaled by the earlier brute potential and red hand, overwhelm briefly the bucolic interlude and then give way—the build here is virtually musical—to a marvelous synthesis of the lyrical and the minatory, as it begins to rain:

the fat splatter of the first ripe drops
on the hot sidewalk, its hiss,
its consistence, its soft-shoe-shuffle–
the grid clearing & darkening
as the Atlantic rolls in.

Again one can feel the poem “gathering,” as it precipitates its conclusion. While that primeval “hiss” and the semantic resonance in “the first ripe drops” recall the original Fall, the “soft-shoe-shuffle” hints at the American history of a bloody revelation, portended by the “fat splatter” of those “drops.” All our hands are red. (The ampersands, unusual in this volume, can comport with such tight linguistic knots.) When your workshop session on poetic closes takes up the contemporary apocalypse, you might want to make this conclusion the cynosure. The last lines echo Arnold’s in “Dover Beach,” and if Laird’s union of delicate phrasing with impending catastrophe recalls the end of Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” his shrewdly appropriate diction conjures that of Lowell’s fiercer “For the Union Dead.”

While Laird expands the city’s boundaries to coincide with the world’s, he also renders scene and mode fungible. His poem is one of the “vehicles” that pauses and continues, and his verse makes its own “soft-shoe-shuffle.” The same self-generating capability informs “The Folding,” a work of breathtaking finesse. The sequence divides its focus between experiences he had with his mother when he was a child and experiences he has with his children. One activity in common is the cutting out with “safety scissors” (Laird makes us wonder whether any sharp edge could be safe in the context he conjures) of snowflakes from folded paper. The two times in the poet’s life dovetail, while the making of the snowflakes merges with the making of the poems. (There are four of them, each with its “symmetries” and uniqueness. Each has fourteen lines broken into two seven-line parts, but each has its own feathery rhyme scheme.)

Feel Free stands out today partly because of its formal and technical command and partly because of its conflicting desiderata.

Unlike actual snowflakes, and unlike life’s moments, the poems are durable–but then, like the paper on which they are printed, they are not. (Almost nothing of Cinna’s work survives.) Over the course of the sequence, the title comes to apply to (among other things) the folding of the paper and the folding of the two experiences–and, in the most important deviation from the sketchy narrative, the folding of those experiences into that of writing about them. Here he is, moving from past to present to past—or staging the movement, as in the New York coffeehouse—and yet not moving at all, but pausing, as on the island, and staying “here,” discovering himself discovering:

        In the midst of this lifelike grief
       I am stood at the cutlery drawer,
            and keep on standing here as if
       I might remember what I came in for,
         but then I think of something else
         and head upstairs only to forget
            what that was and find myself

      eyeing the unmade bed, the bookshelves

Both the stanza break and the minutely varied line insets are subtly functional, the former representing visually the chronological gap that the syntax, serving the mental process, overcomes, and the latter suggesting the fineness of the snowflake. The passage intricately instances Faulkner’s axiom: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” The rest of the sequence lives up to this exquisitely turned opening.

Subject and technique meet in exemplary fashion again in “Getting Out the White Vote,” a sharply contrasting poem that marks the other end of Laird’s range. A canny lyrico-dramatic monologue that would impress a neoteric poet like Cinna or Catullus, it epitomizes our current American politics. Nearly every line is duplicitous. The speaker recounts a withdrawal from the political process—“Because of the unfairness I resigned”–but then immediately corrects and reverses the confession: “I mean I re-signed for another stint.” The speaker’s onerous gig is as an operative, and she enlisted again partly because it provided relief from itself, a chance for a “furlough” in Las Vegas from the “war” fought from campaign headquarters as from nuclear command posts. “Hell, I deserved it,” she tells us with some exasperation–and if we understand that she deserved the opportunity, we also know that by re-upping she merited damnation. The concluding quatrain is a tiny tour de force of tergiversation:

I couldn’t help myself so I helped myself,
and when I told you to replace it,
I meant put it back to what it was.
I never said that you could change it.

Neither party in our partisan politics ’scapes whipping. Does “Getting Out the White Vote” mean producing it at the ballot box—or removing it?

Politics is never far from Laird’s ken. His devotion to his art notwithstanding, he spends no time in an ivory tower. The digressive structure of “Cinna the Poet,” a traditional dramatic monologue, includes a scorching passage that also benefits from familiarity with the historical context, and here there is no question as to the poet’s side:

How they massed in the street for their Caesar,
that rapist, that racist, that fat
who found the crown responded best to flattery
and three-word phrases
framed as an imperative.

The description could fit dictators in many places and times. Laird turns to another one at the outset of “The Good Son” (the last of three poems with this title in Feel Free), where his subject is Argentinian tyranny. The doubly useful midline slash is Laird’s: “They disappeared. / They were disappeared.” “Argentina pioneered the passive use of active verbs,” he explains deadpan, “though the Stalinist regime had a similar irregular inflection.”

“Crunch” opens with a political gambit–“It’s clear that Schwarzenegger was the acceptable exploration of the Nazis”–but then abruptly changes the subject. Relying on an ingenious invention that Samuel Beckett could admire, the poem makes what it calls in its penultimate line an “argument,” but the claim is a tease. Although two voices alternate, an “I” and a “you,” they exchange non sequiturs, as in a caricature of a marital dispute. They “talk past each other,” as we say, but do it literally, often imparting incidentally useful information or raising randomly provocative questions. The effect is heuristic—and something like that of a catalogue in “Song of Myself,” in that it invites the reader to detect how the torch is being passed, if indeed it is. One voice’s contribution alone can make for stimulating coupling:

          I say if you miss the actual earth you should sink
your fingers in the soil of the rabbit foot fern I keep on my desk and water
almost never from my thermos of black tea. You say Nevada palominos
at a gallop hundreds strong draw the same subsiding trail of pinkish dust
across the monotheistic desert as when the Christians took back Spain
or Dylan went electric, and I say saying everything at once is not the same
as saying nothing.

"Only connect"? Well, at the bottom everything is connected, the verse implies, by virtue of language, but that doesn't mean it makes sense.

“Saying everything at once” less recklessly, “The Vehicle and the Tenor” takes its title from the brace of terms resurrected from eighteenth-century rhetoricians by I. A. Richards in the twentieth century. Tenor and vehicle, to put them in the customary order, are, respectively, the meaning and the means of the figure of speech, the freight and the conveyance, but Laird avoids mentioning “metaphor” until the last lines and meanwhile takes up “everything” else. Here, instead of walking, as in “New York ElastiCity,” the poet is driving, on the M1 highway that bisects the Ring of Gullion, the geological singularity rich in archaeological troves and redolent of mythology in Northern Ireland. This time the warning is also on the move: “it comes at me in the mirror with its meaning / ramping up until it passes and lowers in pitch.” “It” is “the ambulance,” one permutation of “the vehicle” of the title, and “its meaning” or tenor presently changes from emergency to “grief” and then to the death of the poet’s mother.

Comprising nineteen tercets plus a single concluding line, the poem pivots on this tight stanza:

I am either in the midst of it or on my own or both
things are true at the same time. I kill the radio.
Were the universe to finish, music would endure.

Of course “both / things” can be “true at the same time.” At this mathematical center of the poem (lines 28–30 of 58), Laird finds himself surrounded by the world’s grief, lacrimae rerum (“tears at the heart of things” is Seamus Heaney’s rendering of the crux from the Aeneid), but still alienated. If the poet connects everything by spinning a web of language, to be alive is nonetheless to be alone, as his deceased mother is at the poem’s end and as he remains after the funeral service, in one vehicle and serving as another, while “out there” and “in here” (adverbs often interchangeable in Feel Free) converge:

and I sat out there in my rental car in the car park
as you kept on lying in here, past all metaphor,

left by yourself on the closed stage like a real corpse.

The relationship between the “music [that] would endure” at the finish of the universe and the “soul” of his mother (to borrow from another poem about his mother, the third titled “The Good Son”) hangs in abeyance. Here the notion of the soul is tacit, as ghostly as the “rainbow arcing faintly out to the west” that “I keep … with everything I keep to myself.”

Now and again Laird adapts a distinctly contemporary template to his own extravagant ends. No framework or structural gimmick will guarantee even a passable poem, to be sure, though Laird can make you question that assertion–until you see that again the structure has simply elicited intense attention to writerly particulars. (See Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths” for an exemplary conjunction of framework and detail.) One arresting example is “Grenfell,” which commemorates the Grenfell Tower conflagration in the North Kensington sector of London in 2017. The worst residential fire since World War II, it killed seventy-two people and injured dozens, and it immediately sparked shoddy reporting and unscrupulous sensationalism in the social media. Laird’s satiric response takes the form of a questionnaire set by rumor managers for newsmongers in order to enhance the commercial product. The wicked counterfeit is impeccable:

Please rate your experience of your experience.
Overall, would you say you’re pleased; mostly
pleased; neutral; displeased; or not pleased at all?
Would you recommend our business to a friend?

As Laird’s reader has come to expect, his vehicle veers off the road presently, and midway through he enters rough terrain, grazing the subject of his own medium and plunging into that of the profuse and bewildering variety of human cells with their organelles that each of us hosts within:

If you can, please provide a detailed description
of the structure you were born in, the early drafts,
the texture, the facilities of selves who go about

their day in you, and if indicating age and race
and gender, a sexual preference, a religion,
educational attainment and household income,
I think we know each other well enough by now.

In one of those “radical formal shifts,” Laird contrives a fraying syntax and a faulty grammar as his questionnaire collapses in intimations of the unfathomable complexity of life and “what is the matter” and threatens to leave us there, before recovering to finish with the innocuous mode of the opening:

Any additional comments
should be left in the space at the foot of this page

and all of the following pages.

Transparent and yet coy to the end, the poet calculates even the invisible shift to the passive voice (“should be left”), some effects of which he addresses in the third “The Good Son.”

In “Extra Life,” the volume’s last poem except for the coda, a suspenseful computer game plays the structural role of the questionnaire. “Press esc and wait”—and we (“you”) are in the uncomfortable shoes of an avatar: a man with his family escaping an oppressive Sub-Saharan regime, dealing with a trafficker, crossing a desert. “Click here if you get robbed. / Click here if you get raped. / Click here if you get caught. / Click here if you’re sent back,” as of course we are, immediately. Then we can choose to endure a “‘processing facility,’” arrive in England, take an inflatable boat to a tanker about to depart for the United States, tumble into the ocean … “Click here to save.” The double-edged conclusion—in contrast to the events preceding, which could provide plot points for a film (and Laird writes screenplays as well as fiction)–flummoxes paraphrase. Like the end of “Grenfall,” though quite differently, “Extra Life” aims at teasing us out of thought.

While Laird sounds like none of his contemporaries, he occasionally has other poets in mind. “Horizontal Fall” will ring a bell for some readers. The last of its three vignettes, a grammatical fragment lacking a full stop at poem’s end, features what I take to be an instant of awakening, or insight, or muted ecstasy:

and now on the elevated line in Harlem,
the cold shallows of its bright streets beneath
and the light of the whole train shutting off
suddenly, all the lights shutting off suddenly,
serpentine breaks roused then ended in a creak
and silence–

and the assorted breathing bodies

about to start incorporating
coats and bags and phones–but something in us
wanting to remain sitting there at large
and almost unelaborated in the dark carriage

The phrasing summons up section III of “East Coker” in Four Quartets, “when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations / And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence / And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen.” Eliot’s dark night differs because briefly terrifying, but Laird’s darkness shares with it the sense of a profound spiritual event, the feeling of “something in” each of the “assorted breathing bodies” that wants “to remain” in that other world. We glimpse that desire elsewhere. The initial poem, “Glitch,” concerns an accident, a fall that has resulted in a near-death experience, which leaves the poet stunned in “the heated, moist robot I currently inhabit” and trying to explain “how taken” he was with “the place I’d been,” the “hours of being wanted somewhere else.” The “Glitch” is the snafu that kept him here.

A rarely glimpsed fugitive in contemporary verse, the soul is a spectral presence in “Glitch” and throughout Feel Free, so it is right for the volume to culminate with Laird’s version of Hadrian’s endlessly translated valedictory lyric “Animula vagula blandula.” Addressing that “something” within, “To His Soul” opens by splitting an Indo-European etym in two even as it ironically stresses the singularity so poignant throughout the book: “Old ghost, my one guest”—one of those seemingly inevitable paraphrases, once made. Suitably, in view of Hadrian’s soul’s restlessness, this “heckler, cajoler, soft-soaper” is “drifting like smoke down / the windowless corridor” in the opening quatrain, and in the balancing, concluding quatrain it is anticipating departure for “lodgings that lack color,” in which “no one will know / how to take your jokes.” Between these two stanzas, which follow Hadrian (at some distance), Laird inserts and sets off his single entirely original line: “the jailer is shaking his keys out.” Now, “how to take” that line? Is the jailer releasing the prisoner? Or is he about to lock him up? Is it somehow “both at once”? Is it a “joke”? Is the poem more lovely or more chilling? How does it all end up?

Stephen Yenser is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and the author or The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. With Langdon Hammer, he is the co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019


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