Reading Campbell McGrath's poem in the latest issue of The American Poetry Review, it struck me that most contemporary poems I read focus so intently on everyday truths (or the kind of stuff that passes for everyday in poetry: the smell of a woodlot, the sound of chickens roosting at the edge of the yard) that it was remarkable to read a poem taking a broad view of history. More than that: took a broad view of history by focusing on its Key Players and Big Names. McGrath name drops again and again and again, leaning more toward the bathetic ("Snoop Dogg is born") than the pathetic ("Mohammed Atta is three years old"). We're far from the intimate lyric voice.
It's the sort of thing one would read to friends of one's own generation. It elicits small laughter and small "ah" moments, and then it ends. It's a dinner piece. Its Sitz im Leben — setting in life — is a cocktail party.
Hmm.... It's kind of hard to imagine, actually. "Campbell, old boy, why don't you recite us one of your poems?"
Of course this doesn't happen anymore. The real Sitz im Leben of this poem—of any poem by an academic like McGrath—is the poetry reading. I'm no fan of poetry readings. Except in rare instances, they're dull and awkward and unsatisfying. Most writers of poetry are bad performers of poetry. It's a rare master who can read her poems as well as she writes them. Billy Collins, I've heard, is such a master. His reading voice and his writing voice are one. When he reads, he controls a room. Or so I've heard. I wonder how Campbell McGrath does in front of a crowd....
But is that correct either? Isn't the real Sitz im Leben of most contemporary poems the page? "I was born for the page." No matter how well McGrath may or may not perform his poems at readings, he certainly is a master of the-poem-on-the-page. I've read a couple of his poems here on the blog before: and . For my money, he's one of the best contemporary American poets. Maybe that's an unambitious bet, but so what?
Alright, that'll do it for this morning. I need to get ramblin' on to the rest of my day. But do go take a look at The American Poetry Review.