There is a cartoon that I see from time to time called “Pluggers,” a one-panel affair offering variations on a single theme: “You’re a plugger if. . . . ” One can qualify as a plugger by virtue of having stacked a woodpile taller than his house; loaded a freezer full of individual servings of delicious entrees; arranged all bills, canceled checks, and receipts in the exact order of Form 1040; and so on. It’s a variation on the tortoise and hare ethos: slow and steady wins the race. The repeated moral of “Pluggers” takes a clear slap at the procrastinator, the prodigy, the flash in the pan, and the one-hit wonder and serves as an anodyne to the persistent plodder, the commission-only man, and all those faced with seemingly endless tasks who have learned that mountains get reduced to molehills one pebble at a time.
Are most poets pluggers? Alas, no. Where are the Younger Poets of yesteryear? Gone for tenure, every one. In most cases it seems that the work ethic vanishes almost as quickly as inspiration, and most mid- and late-career collections seem content merely to reiterate old themes, in language and forms whose laxity reflects the sedentariness and safety of professional sinecures: the books keep coming, but they seem more attuned to the tastes of deans and promotion committees than to those of discriminating readers. For the poet who has published a volume of selected or collected poems and garnered a major prize or two, what incentive remains to equal or surpass one’s early standards? Pride would seem the obvious answer, but that seems a commodity in increasingly short supply these days. In such a climate, we should be doubly grateful for collections like these by X.J. Kennedy and Fred Chappell.
X.J. Kennedy’s Cross Ties: Selected Poems won the Los Angeles Times award for best book of poetry in 1985. Kennedy, who has spread his career over a hugely successful set of literature textbooks and other editorial chores, has never been a prolific poet, and I (like many others, I suspect) was pleased to see Dark Horses, a substantial collection of new poems. Kennedy’s accustomed stance—Irish-American Everyman, skeptical and cagey—and his established skill as a craftsman in whose work plainspoken idiom and the demands of rhyme and meter never seem at odds are both much in evidence here. He ranges from a choice sequence of epitaphs (Writer: “I who once dealt in words and set great store / On words have, in a word or two, no more”) to longer pieces like “Black Velvet Art,” which begins with this savory slice of American pie:
On a corner in rainriddled
Lewiston blooms a stand
Of giant paintings, guaranteed
made by hand:
Elvis with hairdo laced with bright
Jesus with heart aflame, arms wide
Your pickup truck, a leopard
crouched to leap
Upon a bathing beauty sound asleep,
And all resplendent on a
Ground of profoundly interstellar black.
Blacker than nearby space. . . .
Kennedy is perhaps best known as a social satirist whose barbs rarely wound, flung as they are with immense good will and humor. One poem in Dark Horses purports to be spoken by the answering machine at Emily Dickinson’s home (did the poet consider the additional irony that Ms. Dickinson was never out?); another, “On Being Accused of Wit,” begins, “No, I am witless.” Nevertheless, as the book’s title perhaps implies, here Kennedy’s vision has become more grimly urban and has taken on Hogarthian shadings: a beaten rat tossed from a jail window occasions an epiphany (“that urge to kill / And throw out and clean house”) in a cancer-ridden woman on her way to receive radiation therapy; an “Empty House Singing to Itself” is not likely to deter even “the dimmest-brained housebreaker”; we impotently watch “On the Square” as a “dealer in crack unjacknifes from a bench. / Twitches numb muscles, makes stiff fingers clench, / A switchblade gleam / In his right hand, to sway / Over a huge-eyed boy. . . . ” Even the mortgaged bastions of suburbia provide only “a safer place to die/Where privacies are clung to like beliefs / And separate houses wall in separate griefs.” But all is not downside. One of Kennedy’s more upbeat passages could serve as the credo of all true pluggers:
Blind chance not wit entices
words to stay
And recognizing luck is artifice
That comes unlearned. The rest
is taking pride
In daily labor. This and only this.
On keyboards sweat alone makes
In the same year that Kennedy was honored for his selected poems Fred Chappell won the Bollingen Prize, primarily on the strength of Midquest, an epic-length sequence of poems taking as their single point of departure the Dantaesque overtones of the poet’s 35th birthday. Because readers familiar with Chappell’s work will think of him, first, as the foremost (and perhaps funniest) literary spokesman for Appalachia and, second, as a poet-novelist who is most at home in the narrative genre, they may be surprised by C, a collection of a hundred numbered poems whose length rarely exceeds a score of lines. Well, as the poet (here, somewhat after Martial) saith, “Small is Beautiful”:
You’ve told me, Gaurus, I have little art
Because I make my teasing poems short.
But then am I to think your genius soars
Because you write twelve tomes of Priam’s wars?
To carve a statuette is my hard duty.
You heap a bloat colossus of Silly Putty.
As Chappell duly notes, epigrams are notoriously hit-or-miss propositions, but some may “Deliver intelligence / With such a sudden blaze / The shine can make us wince.” The misses are sometimes a bit musty: “LXVI Definition: The only animal that dares to play the bagpipes. LXVU Corollary: Or wants to.” The hits are tart and true: “LXXIX Upon an Amorous Old Couple / This coltish April weather / Has caused them to aspire / To rub dry sticks together / In hopes that they’ll catch fire.”
My personal favorite follows a Martial imitation cataloguing “the things that make life blest.” This one tells “what things make life a bore”:
Sappy girls who kiss and tell;
Televangelists’ threats of hell;
Whining chain saws, mating cats;
Republicans, and Democrats;
Expertly tearful on their knees,
Plushlined senators copping pleas.
Swearing by the Rock of Ages
That they did not molest their pages;
Insurance forms and tax reports;
Flabby jokes and lame retorts;
Do-gooders, jocks, and feminists;
Poems that are merely lists.
We might be tempted to add lazy book reviewers who are content merely to string together favorite lines and stanzas, but in a case like this the technique seems justified. Chappell’s “Apology,” quoted here in full, defines the appeal of C much better than I or any critic can:
If any line I’ve scribbled here
Has caused a politician shame
Or brought a quack a troubled night
Or given a critic a twinge of fear
Or made a poet’s flame appear
Transitory as a candle-flame.
Why then, I gladly sign my name:
Maybe I did something right.
This plugger’s incomparable work was awarded the 1993 T.S. Eliot Award.
[Dark Horses: New Poems, by X.J. Kennedy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press) 72 pp., $10.95]
[C, by Fred Chappell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 64 pp., $15.95]