POEMS THAT TOOK OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD #3: Poetry Failure

Poetry Failure
by Mark Halliday (from ‘Jab‘)

For example, I wrote my first poem in 1976 about being in the Vermont house
after my mother’s death; she died the year before;
she loved that house. My father said he kept having moments
of thinking she must have just stepped outside for a minute
to weed the garden or to walk just a little way
along Prospect Street, for a few minutes only and now
almost now she’d be coming back, we’d hear the screen door,
Bev would be back and saying something casual about—

about the cats, Daphne and Chloe, or about Mrs. Yamokofsky next door
or about the pear tree, “or a colored stone she found.”
That was the phrase that ended my poem in 1976:
“or a colored stone she found.” The phrase rang slightly false
but I wanted it—the “ound” and “one” sounds sounded profound
and in 1976 “stone” was still a word guaranteed poetic.
But did my mother ever pick up colorful stones?
Wasn’t that more something I did fifteen years earlier?
In the poem I was trying to turn my ironic mother into
an ideal figure certified sweet like a child.

But what could I make her say? Something very sly and wry?
The poetry would be in her voice, the way of her voice being
hers—voice of my mother—whether the words were about
the cats or Mrs. Yamokofsky or potatoes to peel for mashing.
Not your mother. My mother. Poetry of her
saying in her Bev way “those potatoes” or “Mrs. Yamokovsky”
or “Daphne’s gone down by the Black River
but if we feed Chloe I’m sure she’ll be back.”
And my father and Kimbo and me just going “Yeah” or “In a minute”
because this was all just life.

***

In another poem, Lunch With Big Steve, Halliday writes:

‘Already the theorist told me on a hot sidewalk
that my notion of telling the truth is charmingly naive.
Poems should be aggressively fictive
since fictivity is mandated anyway. I guess I dig.’

Halliday is obsessed with getting to the truth through his work, hyper-aware of omissions or exaggerations made during the creation of a poem. How can a poet tell the truth about their experiences in a form which is traditionally sentimental, where the urge to simplify for readerly satisfaction and relatability is so great? Many of his poems in the collection I read, Jab, are engaged in this struggle, including ‘Poetry Failure.’ This struggle – the constant self-awareness and questioning, can get somewhat torturous (I love the detail of the ‘hot sidewalk’ above; it makes you think of an arduous conversation with a street fundraiser when all you want to do is go back to your nice air-conditioned house) and obsesses Halliday to the point where it’s a wonder he ever gets anything written. (In other poems, the struggle to get the truth across through language intensifies to the extent that he makes up his own nonsense words).

He says of Jab:

In that book I did give free rein to my tendency to set up an argument between the speaker and an imagined reader. The effect is slightly paranoid, like ‘reader, you are going to think the wrong thing about me and I have to set you straight, I have to protect myself against what you are going to think.’ Maybe I did that in too many poems in Jab. – Interview in The North, Issue 36.

In fact, I’m quite surprised I like Halliday so much, as I normally don’t go in for poets engaged in this kind of intellectual self-questioning about the poetic process; why are you choosing to write poetry in the first place if all you want to do is show how clever and cynical you are? Why not just write an essay? The sheer knotty cleverness can get wearying. But I enjoyed this poem, for a few different reasons.

One is Halliday’s accessible conversational tone (he cites Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch as influences) the way he puts questions to the reader, how he opens the poem with For example… as though you’ve already been chatting about failures of poetry together for a while. There is vulnerability as he confesses the ways in which he previously described the life of his mother did not do her justice: In the poem I was trying to turn my ironic mother into /an ideal figure certified sweet like a child. There’s humour in this and all of his poems: The phrase rang slightly false / but I wanted it—the “ound” and “one” sounds sounded profound. I love ‘Not your mother. My mother’ – don’t we all make poems about someone else about ourselves, whether we’re reading or writing?

Those are the reasons I enjoyed ‘Poetry Failure.’ There are many poems I enjoy but don’t love, and I initially thought this one might go into that mental pile. But I do also lovePoetry Failure’, it is also one of the poems which took off the top of my head, and I think that’s for one reason and it’s this: the final lines of ‘Poetry Failure’ are harrowing.

He describes how the things his mother actually said and did were dismissed or ignored in the typical, everyday way things mothers say often are: ‘my father and Kimbo and me just going “Yeah” or “In a minute”/  because this was all just life.” The things she said were not ‘poemy’, not ‘sly and wry’, were in the end irreducible to poetic language. They cannot ‘belong’ to the present-day Halliday as he would like them to; he cannot twist them into the poem he would like to write (or has already written) without it being a failure. There is a sense in which they are stuck firmly in the past, and he has missed out on the opportunity to be truly attentive to them, because she is dead. He can’t describe his mother’s voice in a way which allows the reader to hear it: all we are left with is: The poetry would be in her voice, the way of her voice being hers.

In this way the poem is not only a big twisty thought experiment about poetry itself, but is also about the loneliness of grief and remembrance. It’s a great achievement, and I think Halliday should put his pen down now, and stop being so hard on himself.

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