Poetry, like all the arts, can be put into boxes, labeled, and then held up in the light as genius or foolery or something so old it is hoary with tradition. Still, the truth is that poetry is a multi-headed beast. Unlike Medusa with snakes hissing out of her hair, poets different heads can be glorious, beautiful, ugly, repellant, powerful, sad, enraged, dangerous, joyous, or any flavor in between all that is possible within the human spirit or mind.
I have to admit I am as guilty of constructing boxes for poems and labeling them as any other inveterate reader of verse. For every book of poetry I devour from Wendell Berry, or Mary Oliver, or Federick Turner, the epic poet, I purchase and read two or three books by more obscure poets. Still, I often have trouble appreciating what I call the poetry of a moment’s experience where a sunset or a minor incident is described inside feelings or ideas experience generates. I tend to subscribe to a more ancient definition of great poetry where the poem has to achieve a universality sense where Robert Lowell’s powerful details dredged from specific people and places are not the stuff of greatness.
Yet, I understand when I read Lowell or Sylvia Plath of any of the confessional poets, or John Berryman, a poet I struggled to appreciate for years, that my suspicion of the box of poetry as a moment’s experience does not hold water, not really. Poetry should not be put in a box labeled and shelved in the library of old dead poets. Not every poet who writes poetry has the ability to reach beyond self into significance, but sneering at any effort to write a poem is doomed to miss one of the beast-heads of poetry that grows, over time, into a meaning that is properly celebrated.
I suspect that those who see the title of John Looker’s new book, Poems for my Family (Bennison Books) will immediately begin constructing a poetry box. Oh no, how do you build any true poetry out of the sentimentality attached to our reactions to the specificity of our family members? Is that not a little trite? Just a little overworn?
Looker’s last book, The Human Hive (Bennison Books), as I pointed out in my review of the book, uses human labor as a theme while avoiding “the evolution of humanity toward the frenetic pace of the contemporary world, but instead shows the ley lines of relationship of humans over time.” It is a stunning book of poetry, original, ranging over the sweep of time into meanings about contemporary life and work that provide the ore of true poetry.
Poems for my Family has poems that achieve the same originality of purpose and song found in The Human Hive. “Marco Polo on the Silk Road” puts us “along Augean shores, Byzantine domes . . . even the Holy Land/where Christendom expires. . .” But more often the poems have a gentleness that wraps us into the blanket of Looker’s love for wife, children, grandchildren, and parents.
In the book’s first poem, “Bela’s Party,” we find ourselves in a much different place than we travel to when reading Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes”:
When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
The scene of “Bela’s Party” could be in the memory of almost any contemporary individual, man or woman:
A warm summer evening, as I recall,
and not a whisper of breeze.
There in the garden the party-goers
were talking and laughing, their voices rising,
there was music playing
and coloured lights in the trees.
The final stanza is even more universal than the first. It could apply to any time or place even though it is clearly addressed, perhaps a little like Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Sonnets from the Portuguese addressed Robert Browning, to a singular woman:
I know I abandoned those I had come with,
moving to you in a dream
and scarcely aware of the cancers parting.
There would have been shooting stars in the sky
and a nightingale
if I had directed the scene.
There is love woven into every poem in this slender volume, but inside love there is always: life shattering tragedy as expressed in “Old Age Becomes Him,” the wonder of new birth found in “Newborn,” or the blending of science, observation, and wisdom conveyed to a young man in “Galileo’s Telescope.” The prism of emotions ranges across the span of a life where poems rise up as if they were plants in fertile soils and sing, thrash, celebrate the poet that John Looker is.
Courage can be found in a poet that titles a book, Poems for my Family. There is mundaneness hinted at in the title, an everydayness, a specificity that seems like it could have existed inside millions of lives that have flowed through all the generations since humankind became sentient. This is poetry that could be put into a box and labeled and placed among the library of humans that have loved and written about their family over all generations.
But, of course, poetry is a multi-headed beast with a range greater than criticism can penetrate with any intelligence. Poems for my Family exists inside a box that is not contained by the box it would be so easy to construct around it, and in that sense, readers should drop pretensions and enjoy a gentle draught of poetry sure to touch into who they as individual human beings are.