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Minor Poet, Major Award

by Eugene Schlanger

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.”

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.

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