blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | The Darker Fall, by Rick Barot
                   (Sarabande Books, 2002)

We have heard too often the grim warning that The Poetry Workshop—and its offspring, The Workshop Poem and Workshop Book—will ruin poetry forever. An aspect of this doomsday notion is the fear that studying creative writing in order to earn a degree will turn verse from an art into merely a series of academic requirements. The predicted result will be poets focused on résumés and university careers, and the popularity of Masters of Fine Arts programs will mean that poetry will only be written by MFA graduates and will only be published by university presses, and its readership will be limited to students enrolled in MFA programs. The doomsayers suggest that, once it is taken over by the academic world, poetry will—and might have already—become formulaic and over-intellectual. It will take as its subjects only highbrow concerns, the world of the mind, but not the world we live in and move through. In short, poetry will become too cerebral for the general public and will cease to matter to anyone other than poets. No more poets starving in the garret, churning out wild, visionary work from the margins of society. The poets will be left with an office, tenure, and boredom.

Visions of poetic ruin are nothing new. Edmund Wilson asked "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" in an essay published in 1934. But the debate about MFAs and poetry has been most recently and minutely detailed in "University Poetry, Inc.," an essay by Neal Bowers published in the July 02 issue of Poetry. In it Bowers writes that "the writing process has become an academic exercise designed more for the intellect than the heart, resulting in poems of remarkable sameness." Bowers envisions a nation of poets who have been through identical classroom exercises, read the same books, and who will graduate to publish generic, intellectual work for the poets taking their just-vacated seats in class. He goes on to say that "the academy (specifically, English departments within universities) co-opted poetry" and that poets are now only "mumbling to themselves amid the ruins of what was once regarded as literature."

We may be reminded of these fatalistic warnings when we open Rick Barot's first collection of poetry, The Darker Fall, and find that the title of the first poem is "Reading Plato." While that poem might appear to be headed straight for the lecture hall, it begins:

I think about the mornings it saved me
to look at the hearts penknifed on the windows
of the bus, or at the initials scratched

into the plastic partition . . .

There is nothing here that concerns the intellect and not the heart. The poem is a love poem for the city, celebrating the small details of fruit stands and faces reflected in the chrome of a coffee maker. Barot's speaker rides a bus and catalogues the ingenious details that cause a person to fall under the spell of landscape, achieving momentum until ending with a vision of love spreading its wings through the soul, the physicality of

. . . the back's skin cracking
to let each wing's nub break through,

the surprise of the first pain and the eventual
lightening, the blood on the feather's drying
as you begin to sense the use for them.

With titles like "Montale," "Wittgenstein," and "Miró's Notebook," Barot might seem to fulfill all those fears about the intellectualization of poetry. Certainly, his bio could give such worried readers pause: he has taught at Stanford, has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow, and has a degree from the workshop of all workshops, the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. But his focus is never on empty ideas, and the phrasing and emotion never linger in the stuffy classroom. Barot is a poet of the small, sacred world, the world of the minutiae of our lives, of a "pencil's curled shavings a litter / of questions on the floor." He locates the accurate image and builds towards epiphany, like any great poetry, rendering the experience and landscape of his personal world.

The unique and accurate phrasings consistently resonate throughout the book. In "Nearing Rome" a train shrieks through a curve, while "Outside, wheat / looked like the tousled hair / of someone’s childhood." And in "Phantasmal Cities," "improbable ravens, tearing at / butcher’s fatty scraps, fly back now to mind, / embedding themselves there like glass in masonry." Later, "each hour turns, grinding down bricks, metals."

The final poem is "Miró's Notebook," and being unaware of Miró's work as an abstract painter will probably not deter readers from the beauty of the following lines:

The pond begins

reflecting on astronomy.
The fruit wait.

The furniture
call back their atoms.

The tree asks for
its leaves.

A poem with such images can hardly be found offensively highbrow or academic. Perhaps Miró is a painter one may first encounter in a classroom or museum, but the poem is successful on a level that transcends any snootiness that could be associated with its source material. In these lines, imagination rules intellect.

Given some of his subjects, and the general debate about too-smart poetry, we must ask ourselves, "How academic (in the pejorative sense) is Barot?" And the answer, upon reading his work, is, "Not very." Foremost, he is a poet of his experience, the heart within the events, and the soul within the intellect. His poems communicate the self, transform it into art, and render it palpable on the page. Take, for example, a stanza from the final section of "Portishead Notebook":

In the small forest of the city park where we find ourselves
talking, sunlight's half a phenomenon of itself, half wind. One
shift of the leaves' canopy lights the wedge of your jawline. With
another, the glare of eyeglass. I think, I have to try to remember

Yes, we have read poems about Barot's subjects—twentieth-century art, Plato, Montale—but we have never before read Barot's music, his accurate details, his unerring sense of phrasing and image. These are the tools of the craftsman and artist. Barot is not interested in the merely intellectual, but the beautiful, often neglected world of body and soul.

Reading Barot we learn that what must exist beyond the reach or influence of the university in a poet's life is the self, the self of the poet, and if the academic world gives poets certain tools to express that self, and if those poems are as clear and resonant as Barot’s, then who are we to argue? If Rick Barot's work is any indication of the ruin of poetry, then bring on the apocalypse.  

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