Accepting the Disaster: Poems, by Joshua Mehigan

Accepting the Disaster: PoemsAccepting the Disaster: Poems by Joshua Mehigan
It seems to me the fundamental problem for any poet is the problem of poetic diction. Why do I think so?

1 – poetic diction has always been the problem. Not just for Wordsworth. It was for Eliot and it has been since Eliot. It was for Chaucer who broke away from the old poetic diction. It is what makes Elizabethans Elizabethans, what is the whole point of Milton. W.H. Auden can write formal verse and not sound like other ages because he has solved for himself the problem of poetic diction.

2 – because no poet speaks for himself, but for a people. Language is common property, and how we speak has to do not only with ourselves, but when we live. Because it is our common property we can fight to preserve things, and should, but we should also realize it is common property. These days writers call it voice, but it is what used to be called style. It is yours, but it is also common.

3 – and poets are the ones who understand how things are said, and renew the language, not by turning it back, but by speaking in the diction of our time, finding its possibilities, pouring into life the vital imagination of words and the language’s potential under present circumstances. Like any medium, you have to work with it. You can’t do with marble what you do with clay. The poet’s medium is the language of his time.

That is not easy. I think one of the reasons so many resort to free verse is that it seems more authentic. If you try to do formal verse you come face to face with the real problem. There is a discipline beneath the discipline. There is something you have to hear that is the music wrung out of living expression and is not added by artifice, but only enhanced. It is felt that simply using free verse solves the problem of poetic diction, but it does not. The problem is not too much discipline, but too little, because good free verse has its principles and I think depends for its vitality on the memory of formal verse. Formal verse brings you hard up against the problem because all the devices have to be mastered, and that’s how what you say is scrutinized. The devices will amplify your right choices about language or they will show up your shortcomings. Free verse is more muted about both, and that’s why I think you can get away with it longer. The devices of poetry can’t be brilliantly deployed unless you understand the medium you’re using them in.

When Joshua Mehigan uses formal verse, you understand that the point of a rhyme is a device by which you ring meaning from what you say. There are many things you can do with rhyme, but you have to do something with it other than just stick it onto your poem. And you notice it at this point because you know if he doesn’t use free verse everything will be questioned, and so each rhyme, each formal structure, everything must have a reason. But that is how good poetry has always been. In other ages perhaps looser use has been tolerated because nobody was suspicious (the way people are now about free verse), but good poetry though not flawless, always approximates a flawless ideal.

People now are going to read formal verse with suspicion. But that’s how formal verse has to be written, and that’s advantageous, and Joshua Mehigan surely knows it. Every device has to serve a purpose. And then after you understand the devices, the rhythms, the uses of rhyme, you still have to say it in ways that are genuine, how we speak, and not simply by cutting out thee’s and thou’s.

And that is what gives you the timeless, good product. You have to have at least that. Read Joshua Mehigan, watch how he speaks and what he does with his formal verse. He has been working nine years on this last book, and the effort is worth perusing.

I don’t agree with his beliefs, but you’d have to be a philistine not to enjoy his poetry. You don’t have to take my word for it either: Adam Kirsch reviews the second book… and Jeremy Telman reveiws the first….


37 thoughts on “Accepting the Disaster: Poems, by Joshua Mehigan

  1. Joel, Thanks for the review. I will be looking at the other reviews and adding this book to my reading list. I continue to write and scribble. Free verse isn’t something I think I have the mind for writing well, and part of it is, also, that I enjoy the sound and the meter of more traditional forms.

  2. Take a look at Christian Wiman too, if you haven’t. He’s a guy that says he wishes he could do more formal verse but can’t. He reads poetry tremendously, if you search for him on youtube. The incantatory way.

  3. “The poet’s medium is the language of his time.”

    All my feelings rebel against this maxim; don’t yours? Do you really feel this or do you accept it against your inclination?

      1. Of course. I didn’t mean to question your candor or belief. I was just wondering whether you had come to believe it with your feelings or against them. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you but I consider feeling to be an essential member of the aesthetic apparatus.

      2. With my feelings. I believe it. I have nothing in me that desires anything else, if that’s what you’re asking. This is how I feel it should be. And also how I understand it should be.

  4. I think AR may balk because your maxim may be read to imply using the common language in an unadorned, unmediated, or second hand way. Which absolutely does not have to be the case.

    1. Thanks, D. Actually I balk because saying that the medium of art form A is B means that you don’t have A without B. You don’t have a painting if you applied chalk, you know? So it’s like saying that unless the poet wrote in the language of his time, his work is actually not poetry, even if, written 50 or 100 years earlier, it would have been poetry. My guess is that J has reasons for believing that but he doesn’t write on command, does he? We could probably find out if we read all his back posts.

    2. There’s also the question of future language – of the poet as language-former, that is. Does that fit into the definition of “the language of his time”?

      1. Ah, the question of future language. So problemantic for my theories of poetic diction. I didn’t even think about it and I see this is where the whole thing falls apart. Future language obviously makes the notion of language of one’s time untenable. There can be no such thing because the many many words the poet as language-former is busily creating cannot be used until the times change! Which as I now see is completely absurd since one only speaks the language of all times, after all, in poetry. Or the time one likes if one prefers. Or the one one thinks most people will prefer after consulting with persons in Canada with remarkable sweeping views of singular ignorance. Because when one uses the languge of another time one evokes nothing, one just uses it because it is handy, I see. Using deliberate archaisms doesn’t give anything an archaic sense because there is no intelligible way distinguish it from the language of our time anymore. Heck, it was probably the language of the future then, but nobody realized it. Now I see it’s all wadded into a ball of yarn, which is a better metaphor for where you get your poetry out of. Or you can use the diction you chose because people like it (strictly without reference to critiism (that is not a mistake, I think I just inadvertently brought it back from the future, thus refuting myself), you understand), which only means they prefer it with no special reason. There can be nothing about now in that choice other than these bewildering cycles that sweep through, where stuff is the rage and then not. Poetry is the unchanging and in fact incalculable language of eternity. The reason Joshua Mehigan has written some fine poetry (that only two known people like anyway) is that he has spoken only the language of eternity, with no dashed nonsense about the diction of his times which nobody (as we have been assured below) desires to begin with, and which has been proven logically contradictory.

        Look, if you don’t want to read his book, then don’t. If I didn’t interest you, fine. All I’m trying to do is persuade you that it is worthwhile, but if you aren’t persuaded then you can read something else.

      2. J, you are such a brat. I hope you and K got a big laugh out of that one.

        I like your poetry, always have (though I like your science fiction better) and I don’t dislike American diction, though I didn’t want to embarrass commonstories who was trying to back me up. And if I thought you were serious about not having even thought of the potential problems with your view before adopting it, I would be surprised. You are the most careful writer I have the privilege to (sort of) know. I like reading your thoughts precisely because you are different from me. It’s like opening a Christmas present – you hope to find something new and different that will bring your life some variety. If I discover that someone capable of real thought genuinely feels differently than I do about something important to both of us, that’s a sort of interesting surprise and I want to talk about it and sort of map the territory.

        Does it seem so impossible to you that I might actually want to draw you out, in a friendly way, and get you to explain your beliefs and why you believe them, and see how you meet various challenges that I might bring up? Or is explaining so irksome, perhaps, that it can only be done with sarcasm?

        I’d love to read the book you recommend. I think there is room for different kinds of diction within writing that can be legitimately defined as poetry, but even by that light, your beloved moderns have plenty to recommend them. All I’m trying to do is persuade you to talk to me about poetic theory, but if you aren’t interested then you can commune with your own spirit or talk to someone else.

  5. I’m with AR on this. I don’t know if “language of his time” is quite right. Sometimes people want to be spoken to in a language not of their time — hence the boom in classical Latin verse/forms during the Renaissance, the deliberate archaisms and medievalisms in 19th-century poetry, etc.

    Judging from the rage for Tolkien and Lewis in the last 10 years, I think we might be in one of those times. The fact that nobody reads contemporary poetry is evidence for that. Free-verse hiccupping, lyrical whining, & American diction are not what the people of our time really want.

      1. I don’t think that Unk thinks archaisms are part of the language of our time. He asked me once why I was using “thee” and “thou” in a poem and said it was distracting because nobody used that language anymore. It’s a good point, and one I hadn’t thought of before that, which is why I’ve thought of it many times since.

        But of course, probably there’s a distinction to be drawn. (1) There’s the everyday language of the time — which doesn’t use “thee” and “thou” — and then (2) there’s the language of liturgy and the KJV, which are still used in our times, and Middle English and Shakespearean English, which many folks still read, and Latin, which a few folks still read and write in. My understanding of Unk’s maxim about writing “in the language of one’s own time” is that he meant it to refer to (1) and not (2). The poet should work with the everyday language. And it’s that maxim that I feel I rebel at in roughly the way I thought AR was feeling like rebelling.

      2. I like the folk music coming out of Canada. When I lived in Detroit the Canadian classical station came in just as clearly as the Detroit classical station and I listened to it about as often. It was great for a change. I have a fantasy of establishing a hospitality house somewhere in the wilds of Canada, on the outskirts of farming land, mainly for people like Unk who sometimes aren’t fit to consort with their fellow man, but other sorts, as well. I think it would be nice to have a Queen or King, also.

        Were “thee” and “thou” alive to you as language when you used them in the poem? I know they are, to me. They convey something which cannot be conveyed elsewise – the warm familiarity, the homeliness, the precision of address, the knowledge which the speaker has of the person so addressed, the expectation of being received. That thought lives in my mind, and of that thought, those words are the proper extension (in the sense of that word which has to do with musculature.)

        I dislike people’s using Elizabethan words to convey reverence or respect, but to me that is wrong because it is reflexive and thoughtless and merely associative, not because the mass of people in my time don’t use the words at all.

        As for “distracting” I never allow that as an excuse. People who are distracted aren’t attentive enough. And I doubt that is an honest reason anyhow. Some highly-regarded contemporary poets pride themselves on using contemporary words which 99.9% of their readers will have to look up in the dictionary. That certainly distracts but it enriches as well. Once you’ve got the gist of the word, it comes alive and joins itself to the rest of the language in the mind, and then you can go back and read the poem smoothly.

        I’m only getting started on why I rebel. I think I feel with you to some extent, but I simply don’t like to rule out American diction. I am an admirer of Robert Frost and what he did. (I certainly agree about the whining.)

        Reading old literature brings old language to life in the mind, especially if it is read in youth. So often the personality of someone who passed away long ago appears in the psyche while one reads their words, just as the personality of someone met in the flesh creates its mirror there. When the language of elder times lives in the mind but one isn’t allowed to speak it poetically, it’s like being forbidden to speak vast tracts of one’s own language, one’s native tongue. It’s a terrible dilemma – not being allowed to answer anyone in the “Great Conversation” except for one’s contemporaries. Because of course the ideas of a time only exist in the language of that time. Cut off from the language of another time, one is cut off from its ideas. That is why modern people routinely misunderstand old literature even after years of studying it. For instance, those people who read Jane Austen and the only thing they get out of it is how oppressed women used to be. (It’s not that I don’t want women to have more independence, but always reading that way is such a small-minded way to live.)

        Outlawing the poetic use of the living language of authors from long ago feels like a sort of reverse pretentiousness, doesn’t it? – “I’m pretending you don’t exist and that I’m not really one of you because my contemporaries happen to think you’re dead and I hate to disturb their materialistic complacency.” Or just as bad, “… because my contemporaries think you’ve already been satisfactorily answered and I’m intellectually cowed by that fact.”

        Plus, if someone really wants to defend this maxim, he will eventually be required to elucidate a theory of time that convinces me it really is like yarn laid out in a straight line rather than rolled up in a ball. I don’t see why time shouldn’t be rolled up in a ball. Things feel as if it is.

    1. cs, I might be inclined to believe your assertion

      “The fact that nobody reads contemporary poetry is evidence for that. Free-verse hiccupping, lyrical whining, & American diction are not what the people of our time really want.”

      if those who shun contemporary American poetry were also regular readers of yesteryear’s verse. Such is not the case. And I don’t think the Tolkein resurgence is so much evidence for any argument advanced here as it is an instance of an uncommonly good movie tie-in book.

      1. d4v34x, I think we may have different experiences of the audiences of poetry. I know plenty of academics outside English departments who like to read a bit of Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, Tennyson, etc., in their free time. If you ask them about modern poetry, they might say that they like T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, but it stops there. They make apologetic noises about not really getting into contemporary poetry, but the fact is that they don’t get into it.

        Can you imagine someone revolutionizing the world of poetry now the way Tolkien revolutionized fiction in the 20th century? In both cases, you start with a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals trying to write unconventionally for the sake of it. But then Tolkien (or Lewis) comes along and does something so great with traditional material that everyone loves it and starts trying to imitate it. Tolkien was popular long before the movies. My point is that the editors of poetry journals should have woken up to what was going on. The cravings of our age lie rather in the direction of the far past than in the direction of WWI and American suburbia, which is where contemporary poetry seems to want to stay.

      2. cs,

        It seems to me we may both have perspectives limited by our contexts. Additionally, I wonder if your are conflating two different things in the latter portion of your response.

        But first, an aside. I run the risk of embarrassing myself (and perhaps even losing a friendship) by admitting that I have never read Tolkien. And I do realize that he has had adherents since the book was published. However, the two times in my life (mid to late 1970s, then early 2000s and following) that I have found JRRT’s books in the hands of my friends coincides with the release of theatrical versions of the work. Anecdotal, but pertinent.

        Ok, back to the real conversation. I do not move in academic circles. I still move in fundamentalistic circles. Read: I move in anti-literary circles. At least as far as contemporary literature. No one in my church reads poetry. ANY poetry. Other than hymns and what’s assigned in lit class. But, can one be literary without being conversant in the contemporary literature? Nor can one be conversant without reading some of it. I submit that your academic fellows are to blame for being unable find contemporary poetry worthy of their consideration. There has always been slush for the reader to wade through. It is worse today with mass media and consumable journals. But there is serious poetry that must be truly reckoned with before it is rejected. And, I assert, some worth not rejecting. Poetry is not like fiction. It is harder. It has always been hard. I speculate that the difficulties of Milton, et al. are mitigated by the pre-digestion done by the academy up through which a thinker rises. Contemporary poetry lacks perhaps this critical apparatus to assist the reader, so one must do more for one’s self. Or take advantage of Joel’s blog posts when he attempts to engage these things.

        Secondly, I have a hard time accepting that JRRT revolutionized fiction. Or that Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Faulkner(?) were all writing unconventionally for the sake of it. Furthermore the serious writers of our day–MacCarthy, Robinson, Updike, Foster Wallace(?) seem to me to follow in the footsteps of these rather than in JRRT’s. It is the more popular writers who look to Tolkien, no?

        But, to the main question. Name a serious writer, poet or other, who did not write in what can be called the language of his time?

        Would not someone who wrote in Milton’s style (not his own style, heavily influenced by Milton) be rightly criticised as of sentimentality or nostalgia. Heck, Milton couldn’t get away with being Milton today.

      3. d4v34x,

        Ha, I think we have opposite viewpoints on the burdens of writers and their audiences. Just an aside about that before getting to the main question you ask: I think that people are not under an obligation to try to understand literature they don’t like (whether novels or poetry), because I think it is the poet who has an obligation to make his work likeable. The very first aim of poetry is to please. That is as fundamental as the fundamental tenets of fundamentalism. If a poet doesn’t please, he doesn’t deserve to be sweated through. This is a very traditional (*cough*, outmoded) take on literature, but it’s the one I have, and it’s the presupposition that stands behind my perspective on, say, Tolkien vs. Hemmingway, as well as on traditional poetry vs. contemporary.

        But let me get to the main question you asked. I’m still invoking my distinction between (1) everyday language and (2) other/higher registers of language, so my answer comes out like the following:

        – The classical Latin poets famously did not write in (1) – so much so that we’re not even sure of the grammar and vocabulary of Vulgar Latin, because not enough literati wrote it.

        – In the world of English poetry, it’s true that many poets have worked with the everyday vernacular. Chaucer and Shakespeare did so spectacularly, at least as far as they could in rhyme and meter. But eventually English lost the medieval 2nd/3rd person verb inflections and the familiar 2nd person pronouns. The curious thing is that all the poets kept using them regardless. So any serious poet after, say 1750, was no longer writing in the everyday language because he was writing in (2). And that is the case, as far as I can tell, up to WWI.

        – Naturally, any poet writing in rhyme and meter at all is not writing in (1) because people don’t speak in rhyme and meter.

        Now, maybe you or Unk (?) don’t intend “language of one’s time” to mean (1) instead of (2). But if that’s the case, I don’t know what we’re talking about. If we’re willing to include archaisms and elevated registers and rhyme and meter in “the language of one’s time,” then Unk’s claim just amounts to saying that a poet must write in a language his readers know. But that can’t be what Unk means. It presents no problem and no criterion for judging between poetic success and failure. (Readers of English know Milton’s English and Jane Austen’s English and Tennyson’s and can even follow those folks better than, e.g., James Joyce’s English or many of the poems published in Poetry Magazine these days.)

        So what are we really talking about?

      4. I would agree that the poet must please, but not firstly, rather, ultimately. Smaller pleasures along the way, surely, but the greater pleasures after at least a bit of sweat? Even Frost follows this model.

        I don’t have as much time today to address your every point. I do not take Joel to mean by the common language “no higher register than the prole vernacular”. And I think it is a mistake to believe he means we cannot use rhyme because no one speaks in rhyme (Mehigan rhymes much and well). Rhyme is not a medium. It is a technique. Like a certain type of brush stroke.

        See if this is helpful: For the serious reader, the language of our time contains the memory of the English of all times previous. The language of Milton’s time ends mid/late 17th century. So we can read him with understanding and delight. But his English would not serve us completely were we to use it today. We fail if we write in Milton’s style and vocabulary. We do no longer speak to the living. That day at that point in that river is far down the stream and to try to recreate it in order to step into it once again is a fool’s errand.

        So, to succeed, one must use the language of our time. (And really, Joel does little in saying this besides make a recognition; it surely is no demand from which a writer recoils) But this does not guarantee success, it merely makes success possible. The poet must still do the work.

        So do the poets appearing in this month’s Poetry magazine succeed? Likely some do. I’ve found pleasurable reading in those pages. I’ve also given up a few lines in on more than one occassion.

        Have a merry Christmas.

      5. Merry Christmas to you as well. We’re taking off today to a place without internet for the holidays. But it’s been very stimulating talking with you here at Joel’s place. Thank you.

        Here’s wishing for much good poetry (whether to my tastes or to yours) in the new year!

  6. I also don’t see why the language of our time shouldn’t use thee and thou. I welcome all words and wish to exclude none whatsoever.

    At all.

    But what I think is that each has its own effect (or range of effects), and that is a function of–to use a phrase rendered infamous in these comments–‘the language of our times’. It is not a statement about limiting vocabulary. It is a statement about introducing a criterion for one’s choice of words. I can understand if you think it will exclude words, because a criterion will function that way. I can’t help feeling it is perverse to think that’s all I intend by it.

    1. Well sure, but who thinks that? Why are we hanging around here, on your doorstep, being abused with comments like “sweeping ignorance” and “perverse” and having our words quoted ironically on the headline of your blog, if not to find out what you really think about all this, how you put it all together?

      In the essay the maxim was brought forth from a consideration of the commonality of poetry. Some property of poetry which renders it common as opposed to individual or private. I would like to know what that property is. Does this refer to the purpose of poetry as communication, perhaps? It must have a receiver of the message, if only an intended one?

      And if so, might the criterion you mention have to do with the intended audience – the literature and the language one has in common with them?

  7. Archaisms are not part of the language of our time except within that eponymous category, the use of which is sometimes helpful in various contexts, poetry being one of them. I am surprised Joel(which name now strikes me as falling in an interesting subcategory of archaisms)’s assertion was so controversial.

  8. Argh. I’ll try again.

    What artistic purpose might be served by striking an affective pose that is not conveyed to the reader in “the language of the writer’s time?”

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