The Manifest Destiny of Language

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I have two observations.

First, that “Post-Modern” language is falling off the edge of the continent, perhaps dying. Of course, as with Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead,” such statements are not necessarily true, but can point toward something that is actually happening in the larger culture. We’ll pursue this in a moment.

Second, that there are a number of poets from the greater Monterey Bay region in California who are digging in at the Pacific edge and growing poems you can actually live on. So that the human, and human language, won’t fall off the edge, won’t die.

Of course, there is hubris in any conversation about not dying. All one must do is remember that our solar patron will blink off one day, relegating all that is language and human to the obscurities of deep space. Still, while we’re here, one wants to live. And talk about it well.

So first, a few words about the edge of the continent that poetry is teetering on. Then a nod to the debt owed Gary Snyder, as cultivator of a certain Pacific Rim sensibility: that of the human trying to live wildly and gracefully in body and language and environment, on the edge of it all. Finally, a discussion about four remarkable poets living in Santa Cruz, California, who have dug into this human landscape of poetry and are thriving: Ellen Bass, Joseph Stroud, Robert Sward, and Gary Young. While California may still carry the taint of “la-la land” or the “failed revolution,” this coastal enclave has continued to produce poets of earthy beauty whose work reflects, and is perhaps shaped by, the unique history of this state, its dreams of a bearable human life, the quiet grandeur of its sometimes haunting beauty.


Joshua Mehigan, in an essay entitled Make Make It New New, published in Poetry Magazine (March 2013), writes two concise, compelling pages about the hole modern poets have gotten stuck in, similar to the “skittery sky” of novelty and dissociation Tony Hoagland referred to in a previous essay on the trend in modern poetry.[1] A few of Mehigan’s thoughts:

As usual everything is all about a kind of unusualness. There’s ordinary sensationalism . . . but there is also a new, relentless infatuation with whimsical discontinuity. One tactic is obscurity, which may include nonsequential thinking, ellipsis, or dreamlike imagery. Obscurity can be wild (Breton), atmospheric (Bishop), or imitative of thought (Eliot) . . .  but the obscurity I’ve encountered recently is merely outlandish, and unyielding. It vibrates with the superficiality of fashion: there is nothing better for it to do but stand there being cute and empty.

He goes on to muse that much of this modern state of affairs in poetry is perhaps the reductio ad absurdum of Modernism, having crossed the great landscape of this new literary age in a kind of Manifest Destiny of increasingly obscurist associations carried forward by the brilliant Modernists, which often leave new poets stuck on the bluff of the west coast of the mind, staring at that wide sea and sky of endless, boundless dissociations, a bit lost.

Well, Mehigan did use the Latin reference to Modernism’s current dead end—but I threw in the rest, as a West Coast poet turning back to where the sun rises in the east, thinking perhaps it is time to deepen poetry rather than scatter its increasingly unrelated atoms of fragmented language to the air (as a kind of ash memorial). There are great gaggles of flighty poems honking and winging it, bumping up against the fact that there is no place else to go right now.

Now, whimsy is wonderful, as accent. But as primary substance it is too insubstantial to carry the weight of the human for long. Certainly, it is a delightful counterpoint to the great solemnity and formality of those great pre-Modern poets of the 1800s. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most celebrated and financially successful poet in America at one point, only to fall into current obscurity, due, perhaps, to his very lack of whimsy.) I am not arguing for a return to the former idealist language of the romantic that much of Europe and America fermented in like an Esalen hot tub. But I am suggesting that, teetering on the edge of this now Post-Modern Manifest Destiny of fragmented obscurist language, we should turn back toward the continent of language just traversed to build a country of poetry. To grow poems fit for humans, rather than staring mournfully out to sea, desperate only for another novel shore.

I am all for some of the exhilarating and perplexing experiments in Language Poetry and other Modernist/Post-Modern poetries. Truly. It’s like riding the wooden Giant Dipper roller-coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: you either hold on for dear life at the careening angles and dizzying descents, or throw your hands in the air and scream your head off. It can be wildly fun (if you like that sort of thing). But I wouldn’t want to go there every day.

I was a Religious Studies major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where poring over obscure language was a gratifying obsession (if not occupation)—the more difficult, the more rewarding in its ultimate revelations. But poetry as textual scripture has its limitations. Poetry must ultimately be human in its aim. It wants to be alive.

But perhaps not just “alive,” as in the poetry of short-lived thrills. The exfoliation of clever “what the hell was that” kind of poems in the heady but thin atmosphere that surrounds this blue sphere will remain, well, kind of thrilling. They line my bookshelves like paperback Sanskrit scrolls or comic books. I read them regularly. I hope to always.

It’s a big country of poetry, here in America. But it is too immense to skitter across. It may be time to settle in again, hoe a few rows, plant a bit of alphabet, see what grows. When I want to read something human, I turn to the following poets.


On the West Coast, we owe much to Gary Snyder. And since much of America’s westward leaning into all things new and horizon-bound brings us, eventually, here—scrunched up against the immense, contrary tectonic plates of cultures smashing each other into the grand Sierra Nevadas of heart and geography—then it is to Gary we should at least bow.

Under the granite Rushmore gazes of T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and other (well-deserving) giants of poetry, Gary Snyder was perhaps the first to embody the odd combination of America’s two earlier (and so diverse) giants: Walt Whitman (and his accessible, earth-bound poetry of the human) and Emily Dickinson (tiny poems packed with Zen-like explosions of sentience). Snyder, who still lives (as of this writing) in his beloved California hills, was honored recently in the second issue of the Catamaran Literary Reader, a new literary journal housed in a refurbished tannery on the edge of Santa Cruz. Jack Shoemaker, Snyder’s publisher, described him in the essay in a way that epitomizes something of this West Coast influence of geography and the human on the Word: how Gary Snyder was an elder of sorts to the counterculture, an environmental activist, Zen student, revolutionary literary force. How his life, and his poems, were a transcendental mix of the exotic and mundane, filled with oil tankers and lumber camps, fathering, neighboring, husbandry.

Perhaps it is the broad, human sensibility embodied in this man and poet that best exemplifies what one, figuratively and literally, might do when confronted with the limits of geography and language: sit still, dig in, plant seed and word, grow a language (and a life) suitable for sustained living on this planet.


The greater Monterey Bay area is filled with poets who, like Snyder, embody a unique human sensibility, at once earthy and filled with a kind of light. For its size, Santa Cruz (just ninety miles south of San Francisco) has one of the richest fields of poets and writers in the country. South of us, of course, lived the great poet of nature Robinson Jeffers. (Some would say “poet of the inhuman,” but I think of him as being inclusive of the human as part of nature rather than set against it.) And of course there were the great San Francisco Renaissance poets and the Beats. Adrienne Rich settled in Santa Cruz and continued to write till the end. Poets who loomed large here before they died include William Everson, Morton Marcus, and Maude Meehan.

Everson, a former Catholic monk turned earthy poet almost failed me in his “Birth of a Poet” class at Kresge College Town Hall in the University of California, Santa Cruz, because, I think, at that time I thought too much as a psychologist rather than as a poet.  (This blended linguistics is an incorrigible voice I still strive for.) And with Marcus, I somehow skirted his larger-than-life presence in Santa Cruz by being busy raising two children, working as a therapist, and writing in private . . . though Marcus’s larger-than-life literary memoir, Striking Through the Masks, sits on my coffee table with the author’s face staring at all who enter my house. Both men, earthy and complex as poets and as human beings. Meehan, for her part,  exemplified the birth of a poet late in life, moving to Santa Cruz and beginning to write at age fifty-five. Her poetry and classes nurtured another generation of poets before her death nearly thirty years later.

But the four Santa Cruz poets writing today who exemplify for me aspects of what poetry can be when rooted in the body of the human are Ellen Bass, Joseph Stroud, Robert Sward, and Gary Young. By naming them, I leave out sprawling fields of other poets here, whom I read and imbibe regularly (just peruse the Poetry Santa Cruz website for an impressive listing of poets living and writing here). But these are the four who have most influenced me, and who exemplify something of this terrain we’re tilling.


Ellen Bass is a quintessential poet of the human. Her newest book, Like A Beggar, was published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press, which also published The Human Line. Her other books include Mules of Love from BOA Editions, and she is the winner of numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize. Bass lives in my neighborhood on the west side of Santa Cruz and can be seen walking her dog by the sea along Westcliff Drive—accompanied, it seems, by much of Santa Cruz, parts of San Jose, and on sunny days a mix of spoken languages ranging from French to Russian, Spanish to Japanese. Bass’s work—a poet among humans, a human among poets —is capable of direct and compassionate observations that perhaps stem, in part, from her early work as a counselor. But poetry is the body with which she moves through the world, whether writing about God and the G-spot, or sex at fifty-one, or a man’s penis, a lost dog, what she saw at Gate C-22 at the airport, or on a walk to the sea. One can feel simultaneously in awe, sad, and bewitched at what it is to be just a regular human being:

The World Has Need of You

  everything here / seems to need us


I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my own arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple. 

The title of the poem speaks directly to the theme of this essay: that the world has need of us, because it is indeed “a hard time to be human.” Without enumerating these personal and communal difficulties, Bass speaks to the part of our psyche that knows this to be true. Just look around. The poem does not sentimentalize the notion that if you try to do “even one good thing,” any part of nature really notices: “the ocean doesn’t care.” But Bass still muses: “What if you felt the invisible / tug between you and everything?” which is what poetry does. Is it only poetry, or gravity itself, that pulls one toward the world rather than away? This is what a good poem will do. This is what so many of Bass’s poems do, rippling with a kind of psychological muscle, acuity, quiet pathos. One can feel, as I do after reading her, that being human isn’t so bad after all. Even the random moments, even the darkest ones. Even the moments suffused with such surprising light.


Joseph Stroud has been, until recently, a quiet Santa Cruz literary wizard of sorts, living part time on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in a small cabin, descending each year to teach at Cabrillo College. Over the years, publishing little, but nurturing a vibrant coven of poetry students, young and old alike, who now populate the literary landscape in the region like frisky acolytes weaving their own poetry spells that emanate, like those of any good wizard, from the bones and hair and memory of the human.

I say until recently, because his poetry has begun earning national recognition, including these words from W. S. Merwin: “The plain authority of Joseph Stroud’s poetry is startling . . . it is the recurring revelation that poetry brings to us, the crystal of our ordinary days. Mr. Stroud’s poetry comes from the clear source.” He has also been awarded the Library of Congress’s Witter Bynner Fellowship and a Pushcart prize.

Stroud’s most recent collection, Of This World: New and Selected Poems, draws from two previous Copper Canyon press editions (Below Cold Mountain and Country of Light) as well as others. His poems include a variety of forms and styles (I admire this ability to move lithely between different voices), but each of them is adept at capturing something of the odd and perplexing mystery of life. Stroud’s brief, six-line poems are rare achievements, as illustrated by the following selection:

The First Law of Thermodynamics

He was a good ole boy, and when he died his friends carried out
his final wish—the body was cremated and the ashes stuffed
into shotgun shells. They walked through the woods he loved
and fired aimlessly into the trees—he came down everywhere
in a powdery rain, a pollen of ashes that once was the memory
of a boy walking under trees showering him with leaves.

There are only six lines in this poem, but by the end one can feel as though an entire story, a life, has been read and understood—and that it could be your own. But how it grabs you: a man cremated, ashes stuffed into shotgun shells. The image, true yet hauntingly poetic without trying to be, holds so much that is turbulent and final about life: that it comes to this. That friends might usher you through beloved woods, fire randomly into the sky what remains of a life, showering down in powder like rain. That ultimately the poetry of memory is what we have, what we are.

Joseph Stroud, retired now but still descending from the mountains each year to teach long-time fellow poets and students, keeps finding ways to mine the bone and ash of the human.


Robert Sward is like a cat with nine lives, or (as one can cull from books such as Four Incarnations [Coffee House Press] and A Much Married Man) a man and poet with multiple incarnations, five wives, numbers of children, dogs everywhere, and poems poems poems. On the interior first pages of Sward’s New and Selected Poems: 1957–2011 (Black Moss Press) is a full page listing twenty-five books of poetry, three of fiction, two of nonfiction, two edited anthologies, and numerous CDs, DVDs, electronic broadsides and chapbooks. Raised in Chicago, Sward lived in various regions of the country and in Canada, and for many years now has resided in Santa Cruz. He has found a way to speak about the metaphysical, the spiritual, without having to utter a word himself. He does this by speaking of this tangible world through the voice of his comically earthy, podiatrist Rosicrucian father, who spouts outrageous wisdom and common-sense truths about feet and the afterlife in the same sentence. One of my favorites is this poem:

God Is in the Cracks

“Just a tiny crack separates this world
from the next, and you step over it
      every day.
God is in the cracks.”
Foot propped up, nurse hovering, phone ringing.
“Relax and breathe from your heels.
No, that’s breathing.
So, tell me, have you enrolled yet?”


“In the Illinois College of Podiatry.”

“Dad, I have a job. I teach.”

“Ha! Well, I’m a man of the lower extremities.”

“Dad, I’m forty-three.”

“So what? I’m eighty. I knew you
before you began wearing shoes.
Too good for feet?” he asks.
I, Me, Mind: 

      That’s all I get from your poetry.
Your words lack feet. Forget the mind.
Mind is all over the place. There’s no support.
You want me to be proud of you? Be a foot man. 

Here, son,” he says, handing me back my shoes,
“try walking in these.
Arch supports. Now there’s a subject.
Some day you’ll write about arch supports.” 

From the poem’s opening lines, Sward’s father waxes mystical in a way that could doom most poems. But suddenly, we’re concerned with the Illinois College of Podiatry, quickly learning that Sward’s father is a man “of the lower extremities,” who at eighty years of age is dying for his son to get grounded, “be a foot man,” forget the mind and the ephemeral nature of self-reflective poetry spouting “I, Me, Mind.” It is a good reminder for those of us on the West Coast, or anywhere, that much of life exists in the dialogue between the grounded and the mystical. It is in the dialectic that life exists, akin to William Blake’s “contraries.” Sward’s poems, particularly those inhabited by his Rosicrucian podiatrist father, engage the reader in this dialogue, too—and we are enlarged because of it.

God may indeed be found in the cracks of the human, and among Sward’s many books—the Robert Sward Papers being one of the largest and most diverse manuscript collections among the holdings of Washington University, St. Louis.


Finally we come to Gary Young, Santa Cruz County’s inaugural Poet Laureate and long-time lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz—as well as print master of Greenhouse Review Press after apprenticing under William Everson. Gary’s print work is represented in numerous collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Getty Center for the Arts. His archive is held at Brown University, and his many awards include a Pushcart Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the William Carlos Williams award from the Poetry Society of America.

Young is a master of the prose poem, a form he has honed with the precision and quiet beauty of the ancient Zen poets, yet brimming with the pathos of cancer scares mixing with skunks, sage and cedar, food and pleasures. Young’s book Even So: New and Selected Poems (White Pine Press) includes stunning poems from across his previous prose poem publications, as well as excerpts of lined verse. Some are so subtle, like haiku, that you can miss the cataclysm-of-being reverberating through each sentence unless you quiet your mind and let them enter your body. Others are such an obvious pleasure, like his book Pleasure (Heyday Books), as you let them swirl round your ear and into your belly like plum wine, intoxicating. His poems are filled with a poignant existentialism often rooted in the body, in the human:

I have long thought of the world as a huge begging bowl,
and in this small valley, I feel as if the earth itself has
become that bowl, and I am living in the middle of it,
alone with the gift of my own life.

There is also quiet ecstasy:

It’s a joy to be subtracted from the world. Holding my
son’s naked body against my own, all I feel is what he is.
I cannot feel my own skin. I cannot feel myself touching
him, but I can recognize his hair, the heft of his body, his
warmth, his weight. I cannot measure my own being, my
subtle boundaries, but I know my son’s arms, the drape of
his legs, smooth and warm in a shape I can measure. I
have become such a fine thing, the resting-place for a
body I can know.

Perhaps this is where poetry can bring us, living in the middle of things, the earth a begging bowl holding the mercurial gift of what it means to be human. A poetry edged against the horizon, forcing us to look back at a world begging for our engagement.

[1] See also Tony Hoagland, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Poetry (March 2006).