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;
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.)