Thursday, May 28, 2009


My first reaction on reading this article in the New Yorker, was, "oh, great, gimmick poets." They're twins! And they write poems! And they're twins! Then, a few weeks later, I was at this festival and it turned out that Michael Dickman was going to be on a panel, first, and then reading. The panel, which was decorously called "the audience of the future" seemed designed for mostly uninteresting responses from poets about how the internet has changed everything, and no one knows what to do... but Dickman did a neat thing -- he asked some of the grade-school students he teaches (in Portland?) how people would read poems in the future, and then simply read out the list of answers ("on iphones, on the moon, on iphones"). It was funny, and broke up the sententious mood that seems to naturally draw itself up around both Princeton and any academic poetry event. I liked him.

The next day I heard him read. The NY'er had printed some excerpts of both Matthew and Michael's poems, and neither had much impressed me. But this is the problem with my reading poems most of the time: it feels like "good poetry" is a moving target. Is it innovative? Is it satisfying? Is it world-changing? Does it comfort my afflictions? Does it afflict my comforts? Does it surprise me? It's always easy to dismiss a poem, especially a new poem.

But hearing Michael read gave me a sense -- a sonic sense -- of what he was after. And the poems, which seemed empty and unsurprising, became instead sparse, and filled with an austere reverence. They are not sonic boom boom fireworks, but they are sprinkled with a few words that surprise more than it even seems they should. For instance this, the first section of a poem titled Into the Earth:

The best time was the first time, on the floor of her living room
people walking past the apartment outside
talking loudly

Almost naked
on the carpet

If you take me
into the bedroom
you know
you could fuck me

Streetlight beginning to pile up outside her windows, along the
couch, pooling into her
sunken hips


... what begins as a very typical love poem, or first-sex poem, is turned by those last two words. The image of White Cathedrals seems out of place, and then strangely resonant of the reverence and the grandeur and the beauty of the "best, first time" of making love.

Talking with a friend, he noted that Dickman thanks Franz Wright for his support and friendship, and these poems seem to be heavily influenced by Wright's sparse style (and possibly also subject matter: both poets recount harrowing experiences with violence and drugs). I hadn't read Wright much before, and I've only read a little since. It might be that Dickman is cribbing everything from his mentor. But these poems are not Wright's poems. And to me, at this moment, they feel fresh, and personal, and most importantly, enjoyable to read.

All too often, as a writer reading poetry, I get caught up in the evaluating of another writer's poems. I think about that shifting target of what poems do, and all the many different (sometimes opposite) things I want my own poems to do. I lose sight of the idea that poems are meant to be read and enjoyed. And that, in a certain way, if they're not first and foremost enjoyable, exciting or interesting (even -gasp!- fun) then they're not doing what they need to be doing.

Dickman's first book isn't, maybe groundbreaking. I don't know the ground enough to tell one way or another. But it's lovely, and fun to read, and taken as a whole (not excerpted, as I have done) the poems build well on one-another, so that by the end you feel that you, as the reader, have changed a little, have begun to understand the world a little differently. That seems like enough to justify a book.