'Gradually the World'
A review of Burt Kimmelman’s new and selected poems
I was unfamiliar with the poetry of Burt Kimmelman when Jacket2 asked me to take up the assignment of writing about Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2013. Reading, rereading, pondering the volume — which is a life — has been an education for me in poetry’s use as engagement with writing as a means of being in the world. Why, after all, is anyone writing? Of necessity, I suppose, to figure out how to survive in — even appreciate — being alive temporarily in a world. Kimmelman’s poems surely serve that function for him and his readers. Here is a seriously committed poet who has felt through, thought through, and written into what and how a poem is — for a poem and for a life. In his important interview with Thomas Fink in Jacket in late 2010, Kimmelman cites John Taggart’s assessment of his work: that his poems “evince a quality infrequently encountered in contemporary American poetry: modesty, an attentive and forthright modesty. As such they are unassailable. They cannot be tarnished by our times’ endemic disease, the irony disease.” That’s exactly right: Kimmelman’s poems are intelligent, admirably well wrought, almost classically so. They reflect straightforwardly usually tiny moments of lived experience, but never without care and pressure for the writing moment, a moment of working in and through words — yet they are, as Taggart points out, modest in their claims and tone. It’s as if each poem were shaking hands warmly with life, each careful word making no claims whatever for any larger meaning or understanding, and reaching out to hold hands with the reader too, in the embrace of the words of the poems.
Although Kimmelman is impressively well read and astute about poems, poetry, culture, and art in general, his modesty seems genuine and deeply felt. He wants to be generous, true to the tradition in which he writes, truthful in his own productions, without posturing or imposing anything. Sounds simple enough, and is — on first reading — unspectacular enough. But ongoing reading (slowly, a difficult mode of reading these days) brings out this quality of modesty more strongly — and more and more impressively as one goes on. Because it turns out it isn’t easy simply to be a person in a world, and to write simply, quietly, and elegantly out of that. Kimmelman manages to do it.
However, Taggart’s comment about modesty and irony has another dimension. A serious and intense engagement with poetry now, it seems to me, may well confront the question of irony not necessarily as an attitude, a coolness, let’s say, or an avoidance mechanism — which irony generally is — but rather as a genuine sense of linguistic doubt. That is, what does a word say, where does it come from, what is — a word having been written — its implication? A lot of the difficulty of contemporary poetry stems from this felt sense of any word’s having been captured, maybe defeated, by the world’s various social pressures — if not from outside then from inside — as one’s constructed self. Irony that comes from this pressure may not be the opposite of sincerity or engagement: it may be a more contemporary form of sincerity. Kimmelman’s sense of language doesn’t directly reference this, though he must be aware of it. See “Poem for Jackson Mac Low” (162), which is a straightforward personal narrative about walking to attend Mac Low’s memorial. No one could have been more sincere in his work than Jackson, yet is his self-consciously un-self-centered writing ironic or unironic in its word-by-word distancing techniques?
There’s something particularly interesting about a “new and selected” that you don’t find in the original volumes. Every selection of poems is a new articulation of the work, much more than a mere repackaging. So, for instance, a poem that opens a volume or closes it has a particular meaning and flavor coming from that strategic placement. Any poet thinks about such placement; Kimmelman probably more than most, being so clearly thoughtful and careful in his writing. But this factor is completely altered in a new and selected, where the poems are ordered in more or less chronological batches, often missing poems between that might have had their functions in off-setting poems to their left and right, so to speak. So that the poems will inevitably read less for their aesthetic juxtapositions than for their sense of being a recording of a life. In such a selection you notice (particularly in Kimmelman’s work, where there is clear and coherent subject matter) the occupations, preoccupations, shapes of a life over time. Kimmelman writes about art and artworks; he writes about his family, his daughter Jane from birth to adolescence, his aging mother, his deceased brother, his wife; he writes about seeing, hearing, being in places as sun rises and sets, flowers bloom and fall. It appears from this volume — for this reader at least — that Kimmelman’s verse is getting clearer, simpler, more distilled, as it goes along the continuum of time.
The book opens with “New Poems 2011–2013.” These are mostly small, precise, understated works whose modesty can’t hide their shimmer:
After Rain, October
Purple asters fall
on the walk after
rain — wet leaves, too, have
dropped, bereft of home,
stuck to stone, to dirt.
This poem seems easy enough, but note the perfect five-syllable lines, the rhyme, the heft of “stone,” “home,” “dirt.” There’s a lot here that doesn’t need or want any further explanation.
Not so for the earlier work. After the initial suite of newest poems, we go back in time to the earliest work, “Poems 1982–1992,” which has many ekphrastic poems, reflections on visual artworks (Kimmelman, from New York, can easily spend time at major galleries and museum shows). I find this work far less engaging and more ponderous — difficult for me, since (as is the case with most of these poems) I don’t know the works being written about. This section ends with the birth of the poet’s daughter in several careful, sweet poems that skirt the edge of sentimentality, more or less successfully I think. (The urge to write conventional epiphanic poems without sliding into sentimentality is a problem — and a gift — Kimmelman is quite aware of, as expressed in the Jacket interview). Still, though: a tightrope act, sometimes more dangerous than one would want. (Although, on second thought, why not be sentimental? If you are sentimental knowingly, is this still sentimental? Or is it ironic?)
Among many others, Kimmelman reads Corman, Bronk, Oppen, and Heidegger — salient sources for his poems. In his piece on Oppen and Heidegger, he writes, “Oppen and Heidegger depend on tautological thinking, literally the contemplation of what is self-evident, and so for Oppen the things within the realized world become supremely relevant.” In Oppen’s work — as in Kimmelman’s — there is a terseness and a careful, respectful, almost courteous stance in relation to the world and the word that, for the poet, makes the world and one’s ability to stand in it. I find this notion of “tautological thinking” new and essential in understanding both Heidegger and Oppen, and Kimmelman. Things just are. There they are. They actually appear, shining. One stands in relation to them. There’s no interpretation, no commentary, no theorizing necessary — or, in fact, possible. Yet language, which is thought, can’t help confronting the fact and in such confrontation deeply entering it, appreciating it. This Zen-like approach to poetry or life (a kind of amazement that there is anything here at all) is what Heidegger, in his rather tortured but transcending way of expression, gropes toward, and what Oppen at his best reflects in the clarity of his words. As does Kimmelman.
1. Burt Kimmelman, “Burt Kimmelman in Conversation with Thomas Fink, 2010,” Jacket 40 (late 2010).
2. Burt Kimmelman, “George Oppen and Martin Heidegger: The Philosophy and Poetry of Gelassenheit, and the Language of Faith,” Jacket 37 (late 2009).