Magazine | March 5, 2012, Issue

Minor Poet, Major Award

Head Off & Split: Poems, by Nikky Finney (Northwestern, 97 pp., $15.95)

Many volumes of poems are published every year that are both regrettable and unmemorable. Often prosaic and just as often obscure, they emote a near-constant deadening roar about social repression and inequality. Worse, though these poets loudly claim that they are identifying lingering injustices, they often appear as divisive and intolerant as anyone they condemn.

Nikky Finney’s fourth volume of poetry will not be quoted on the national or local news as an example of incendiary political rhetoric — her work arises from her experience, not her politics — but in other ways it is equally symptomatic of the malaise of contemporary American poetry. It is not profound, it is quite ordinary, but it deserves attention for what it tells us about the state of the art: It was awarded the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry.

The following selections are from “Red Velvet,” the first poem in the book, usually a position of consequence. Finney is writing at her cogent best, about the arrest of the seamstress Rosa Parks. The poem begins weakly, setting the scene as follows:

Montgomery, Alabama, 1955

The setting: A rolling box with wheels

The players: Mr. Joe Singleton, Rev. Scott,

Miss Louise Bennett, Mrs. Rosa Parks,

Jacob & Junie (fraternal twins, fourteen)

The game: Pay your Indian Head to the driver,

then get off the bus.

Then, walk to the door at the end of the bus.

Then, reboard the bus through the Black back door.

(Then, push repeat for fifty years.)

It recounts:

You are arrested on a Thursday. That night in

Montgomery, Dr. King led the chant, “There

comes a time when people just get tired.” (He

wasn’t quite right, but he was King.)             He asked

you to stand so your people can see you. You

stand. Veritas! You do not speak. The indelible

blue ink still on your thumb saying, Enough!

You think about the qualities of velvet: strength

& sway. How mighty it holds the thread and

won’t let go. You pull your purse in close,

the blue lights map out your thumb, blazing

the dark auditorium.

The poem concludes:

A fastened woman

can be messed with, one too many times.

With straight pins poised in the corner

of her slightly parted lips, waiting to mark

the stitch, her fingers tacking,

looping the blood red wale,

through her softly clenched teeth

she will tell you, without ever looking

your way,

You do what you need to do &

So will I.

The reader asks himself: Do these words suggest a meaning beyond their surface? Does the poem evoke some sense of social issues beyond the immediate speaker and event, something that busy ordinary Americans might recognize and respond to? Is the poem lyrical, or at all pleasing to read?

The answers to some of these questions depend not upon the artistry of the poem, but purely upon its subject matter: the Montgomery bus boycott and the history of racial discrimination, and its overthrow, in the 20th century. In other words, this is not writing that possesses innate poetic qualities that may endear it to the public’s memory or to the public lexicon. It is not very expressive. Instead, its appeal depends upon a reader’s memory of historical events that have been seared into the national consciousness. But does Finney write more imaginatively or importantly than others about this subject? Or would the account of a stylistically competent prose historian be equally compelling? What, if any, is the artistic value added by her work?

Finney evokes the misery and endurance of African-American women, and this is not necessarily a bad artistic purpose. She says as much exuberantly in her acknowledgements: “Black women are born to fly.” But Finney is also very angry. In “Left,” a poem about the “hurricane-soaked rooftops [where] Black people have been abandoned,” she denounces the inadequate response of “the richest country in the world” to Hurricane Katrina and its effect on “po’ New Orleans, / old bastard city of funny spellers.” She describes a roof “surrounded by broken-levee / water” where “the people are dark but not broken” and where one woman “with pom-pom [cheerleader’s] legs . . . waves / her uneven homemade sign” that reads “Pleas help    Pleas.”  The poet then condemns “regulations [that] require an e be at the end / of any Pleas e before any national response / can be taken.” Later in the same poem, not unexpectedly, she condemns the president in office at that time: “What else would you call it, / Mr. Every-Child-Left-Behind.”

#page#How effective and how lyrical is such rage after its initial effect has worn off? Greater works of satire make us aware of injustice or misconduct but do so in a way that inspires mnemonic recognition because the observation is tinged with clever and heightened wordplay. In contrast, Finney’s vocabulary and limited style seem one-dimensional. Ultimately, is she very different from the drunken bigot in a saloon or an anonymous online ranter?

In a ten-page sonnet sequence titled “Plunder,” Finney (or, more precisely, her enraged narrative voice) attempts to parody the “Viking” ex-president who, “on his way back to [Crawford, Texas] . . . with his billions in bubbling / black gold, will fly past the lost city of New / Orleans, the rapidly melting North Pole, and / the hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq” and who “knows another will / come behind him and pick up his mess.” This long poem imagines a “Dolly-Parton-State-Of-The-Union address” and includes appearances by many other federal officials. After 19 stanzas, a catalogue of clichés, a reader may easily conclude that this is a young person’s first attempt at provocative writing: a stew of Googled condemnation of the ex-president and things Texan.

In the last poem in a series titled “The Condoleezza Suite,” the former secretary of state, though admired for her intelligence, devotion, and work ethic, is also derided:

I knew from Inauguration #1

she was not the kind to trade places

(even in her mind) with anyone held hostage

on a roof by good old army corps levee water.

Her exquisite Saint John suits shouting into

the television screen: “Stranded bodies &

hard-headed water are not my department!”

The more personal poems in the latter two-thirds of this book trace a young black woman’s emergence towards self-consciousness and selfhood in the South. These later poems demonstrate that Finney, though not the most talented or versatile of poets, does possess some understanding of a higher literary standard than supercilious contempt. The volume also contains the requisite poem about sex organs (“The Clitoris”), a long poem without any punctuation marks, and many redundant last or penultimate stanzas. Finney’s last words of the book are representative: “I have spoken the best I know how.”

Yes, we do need written contemporaneous records of native life in South Carolina so that future anthropologists can analyze, understand, and improve people’s behavior. But poetry ought to have higher ambitions. Regrettably, contemporary American poetry, in its efforts to be meaningful to a broader audience, appears to have settled for accessibility, accompanied by leaden (often commonplace and repetitive) wording and routine rage. Poets are thus insulting their rapidly diminishing audience and future generations of potential readers who, in the age of tweets, might actually respond to incisive, lyrical expression.

Most Americans recognize that great artists, like great leaders and great scientists, are few and far between. Thus we need not be too concerned about the towering awards bestowed annually on minor artisans like Finney. She is certainly not the best or the worst that this nation now has to offer, though the National Book Award and her limited talent and poetic range will only confirm most Americans’ justified indifference to poetry. Rosa Parks and all those who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott deserve a better poem than “Red Velvet”; and America in general deserves better poetry.

– Mr. Schlanger, who writes as “the Wall Street Poet,” is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets (2006). He also practices law.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

How Rick Runs

Rick Santorum has lost only one race in his long political career, and the loss made him a better candidate. The conservative movement has not definitively won a single race ...
Politics & Policy

The Central Plan

Conservatives recoiled when Barack Obama declared his desire to “spread the wealth,” the phrase being redolent of Johnsonian welfare-statism, and many on the right promptly denounced him as a “socialist.” ...
Politics & Policy

God Save Her

February marks a truly historic moment in Britain: the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It’s only the second diamond jubilee in ...

Features

Politics & Policy

The Church of Big Government

Discussing the constitutionality of Obamacare’s “preventive health” measures on MSNBC, Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post told Chris Matthews that she reasons thus with her liberal friends: “Maybe the Founders ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Why Like Ike?

At the end of this new biography of Dwight Eisenhower, the author quotes Ike’s grandson David asking Mamie Eisenhower whether she had really known her husband. “I’m not sure anyone ...
Politics & Policy

Facing History

David Satter has written two books that uneasily coexist under the same cover. The first is a welcome, if inadequately balanced, account of the failure of post-Communist Russia to come ...
Politics & Policy

Evident Truths

‘Faith is a very, very important part of my life,” said Rick Santorum in a recent Republican presidential debate in Florida, “but it’s a very, very important part of this ...
Politics & Policy

Pale Shadows

Last issue, I sang the praises of Contraband, an unassuming but well-crafted piece of genre entertainment. I was hoping to do the same this time with The Woman in Black, ...
The Straggler

O Valiant Hearts

Here is a story from World War II. The place is the island of Crete; the date, May 1941. The Wehrmacht was busily occupying Greece. The British expeditionary force in ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

On Thatcher’s ‘Defeat’ Near the end of John O’Sullivan’s review of the new Margaret Thatcher biopic (“The Lioness in Winter,” January 23), I was struck by the reference to “her defeat ...
The Bent Pin

Something Ere the End

As a believer in writing a good lede, I should begin this column with a light-hearted description of the so-called farewell concerts of Sir Harry Lauder and Anna Russell that ...
Athwart

Disease Progress

A previously respected blogger who now specializes in turning mush into froth warned of a “misogynist” plot by the GOP, bent on returning women to the “Dark Ages.” Chastity belts? ...
The Long View

Memorandum

TO:  All Romney 2012 Campaign Volunteers FROM:  Campaign Communications RE:  Guidelines for Telephone Canvassing Dear Volunteers: Thanks to all for your hard work these past few weeks! We’re in the home stretch, and it’s ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

ROOFING Lapping each course in record two-four time, The three-tab shingles overran the roof Above, as hammer blows rained down hard rhyme To render what was overhead sure proof Against the elements. Three workers struck, Their ...

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Religion

Billy Graham: Neither Prophet nor Theologian

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some and there are many "miracles around us today, including television and airplanes." Graham was no theologian. Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said "a prophet hath no honor in his own country." Prophets take adversarial ... Read More
Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More