'We want to live on it'
A review of 'We Used to Be Generals'
Sarah Campbell’s poems are funny, but so what? There’s no shortage of funny contemporary American poems. In fact, one could argue that a particular strain of humor has been the default setting for much American poetry, be it mainstream or avant-garde, since the poets of the New York School, tutored on Auden, shook off some of the high seriousness of Modernism mid-century. True wit is something else again and, while often funny, is not automatically so. If irony is still, despite counter-efforts, the spirit of the age, poetry of wit stands in an ironic relationship to it.
And Campbell is witty. She has, for instance, her own take on the one-liner:
Why I Needed an Enemy
Talk to me (40)
It’s the extra minute of reflection such poems necessitate — the thinking resulting — that sets the poetry of wit apart from the “merely” humorous. In fact, wit on the page often functions in the opposite manner to wit in speech: there, it is all about speed of apprehension and delivery, circumstance and opportunity taken; written wit, instead, can operate in a “depth charge” manner, setting off ripples of unease long after one might have assumed it to be dormant.
Wit cleaves to darkness, courting extremities of failure and compromise, ultimate scenarios for which death can stand as useful synecdoche. Rather than raising its voice to prophesize or confess, wit tends to drain abjection of its sublimity, edging it closer to bathos (there are poems — The Waste Land comes to mind, and the close of The Dunciad — that somehow manage to do both):
The World Is Getting Fatter
We want to live on it
“Fatter” is multivalent here: what does it refer to? Material wealth? Morbid obesity? Population growth? All of the above? While the idea that this increase is a struggle for increased signification — “Earning / Meaning” — is reassuring (don’t we all want more meaning, to mean more?), the last line, a common enough phrase used about a windfall, inheritance or pension, echoes oddly here. We might want to live literally “on” Earth, but if it is “We” who have been “Earning / Meaning” — over the sum total of human history? — that is not itself a resource: an expanding human “World” is not the same as the planet, Earth, that has to sustain it (or not). In this reading, the projected desire of “want” picks up a desperate edge: it may find itself frustrated. The poem, from this perspective, settles into a strange ecological lament.
Such antic presentation of apocalypse is refreshing, but requires a careful repositioning of the poet/speaker in relation to both subject matter and reader. A hard act to sustain, but Campbell’s work provides good examples of what can be gained by maintaining a faux-standoffish stance:
You are not my consolation
Other people’s lives look better than
Other people’s lives
The mind is an argument all its own (32)
The opening line suggests we’re about to get a bittersweet break-up poem, but this assumption is immediately belied by the more generic, abstract statements that follow. Are we to read lines two and three simply as a looping paradox or as an admission that all such outgoing comparisons are ultimately fruitless? The last line certainly suggests as much, replacing an outward-looking perspective with a turbulent solipsism. The title “Correction” might be assumed to follow the implied argument, moving from failed connection to accepted isolation, but the overall “correction” involved may be acknowledging that all these differing levels and desires — relationship as communication and comfort, social comparison as validation, ongoing internal debate — coexist and must be navigated. Wit allows for the ambiguity.
As this aphoristic (faux-aphoristic?) style suggests, there is something in poetry of wit that gravitates to concision and cleanliness. Again, Campbell steers this urge to brevity away from connotations of self-contained completeness into something more unsettling and surprising:
As Seen Watching TV
And nothing at all will happen again
What might have been another obvious attack on the nullifying effects of modern media — “nothing at all will happen” — is rendered strange. First, there is the title, which swaps out the more typical phrasing “As Seen On TV,” raising the question of whether this poem concerns something seen on TV or someone — the speaker? another? — observed while watching TV him- or herself (an unnerving idea, as we are rarely more vulnerable than when paying attention to our devices). “And nothing at all will happen again” could easily be a complete statement in and of itself, but “Then” extend
s it; without offering any tangible consequences, it implies “nothing” either as cause or as potentially cataclysmic effect, one we’ll be too busy watching TV to anticipate. As Campbell’s latest book demonstrates, even a small body of minimalist poems can take on bulk and weight in the reader’s memory and imagination out of proportion to word count. “As Seen Watching TV” shows how this aura of completeness can itself be used as weapon: the fragmented or unbalancing poem masquerading as self-enclosed pearl, leaving the reader feeling oddly implicated, trying to supply the missing resolution, rounding out the deliberately unfinished. Taking the place, in other words, of the oyster.
Such studied ambivalence is no mere deconstructive gesture. Instead, the appeal is that it allows us to occupy equivocation, to see from two (or more) perspectives at once (or, more realistically, to flit between them in rapid succession). Individuated though it tends to be, and we tend to be, poetry of wit intimates that we’re all in the same boat:
I hear you
The same puzzle as always
Disclaimer: in presenting Campbell here as a poet of wit, I realize I am placing her work in a somewhat distorting light. She is also a fierce poet of Eros, a singular magician of sound and phrasing, a near-conceptual manipulator of found material. She is making poems as poised and crafty — crafted — as any currently being written.