Although I am an avid reader of contemporary poetry, I understand why many people, predisposed to the art because of their appreciation of the great poems of the past, have chosen to ignore its current practitioners. Unless you stay up with theoretical or conceptual models, some contemporary poetry can seem impenetrable, or at least doesn’t appear to give enough compensation for the effort the reader must give it. Sometimes the language can seem completely flat, with none of the interesting sound patterns we expect from poems.
Sometimes, but not always: witness the delightful and provocative poetry of Cody Walker. Recently arrived in Ann Arbor from Seattle, where he was once elected Seattle Poet Populist, Walker published his first book, Shuffle and Breakdown, just a few months ago. In it, Walker shows that he can be smart without being pretentious, formal without being conservative, and funny without being slight. He has an ease, even a fascination with often dismissed forms, and plays with them in new ways. Here’s one simply called “Limerick”:
A new class of antidepressants
Is targeted at adolescents.
They lose track of time,
Of meter, of rhyme,
It’s really sad.
Of course that last line is funny–because it breaks our expectations of the jaunty rhythm of the limerick and because the completely colloquial phrase seems out of place. And, then, he’s right–it is really sad!
A few pages earlier Walker includes some short prose poems that he calls “The Cheney Correspondence (Selected).” There are surprising numbers of contemporary poems that deal in one way or another with the former vice president; I think poets could simply not believe he really said and did some of the things he did, so they tried to present some kind of sensitivity in the face of his callousness. Walker simply assumes that the vice president would be interested in a shared humanity. “Dear Dick Cheney,” he writes, “When I was younger I wanted to be a baseball player. But I can’t remember whether I loved baseball, or whether I just wanted everyone to love me. A confession, then: I still want everyone to love me–blindly, entirely, without sense or reason. Even you, whom I’ve regularly excoriated. Fondly, Cody Walker.” Of course the moment is funny precisely because we all know Cheney wouldn’t care in the least.
But I wouldn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that this poet is only funny. Shuffle and Breakdown ends with a series of poems written by Walt Whitman’s mythical grandson to the near-dead master. One poem, claiming to be written from Chicago in 1891, has these lines: “I wrote you a long letter last week,/then threw it in the lake. It ended/Your optimism is wrong. It alone/sustains me.”
Walker reads at Crazy Wisdom Book Store & Tea Room on Wednesday, November 11.