Figuring Out Why A Poem Doesn’t Work For Me

A book I’ve been making my way through this summer is Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar’s first full length collection. I say “making my way through” because, while there have been lines, phrases, stanzas, and occasionally entire poems that have made me catch my breath, no matter how hard I’ve tried, I just cannot muster the enthusiasm for the book, for the experience of reading it, that the hype surrounding it suggests I ought to feel. In part, this may be due to the fact that no work of art ever lives up to the hype surrounding it, but I’ve been reading and writing poetry for long enough to recognize the difference between a clearly not successful, or just plain bad, book that I’ve picked up because of the hype and a book that I really want to like as much as the hype says I should, because I can truly see from the work itself where the hype is coming from, but can’t. Calling A Wolf A Wolf is in the latter category.

Why two different people might have very different responses to whether a poem (or book of poems) is successful is a really interesting question, so I decided to go back through as much of the book as I’ve read, about 50 pages, to see if I could figure out what keeps getting in my way. This is what I discovered: In many of the poems—I did not count because I’m not interested in what that kind of quantification would signify, but in enough of them that a pattern of my reading experience presented itself to me—there were lines, phrases, sometimes whole sections, that took me out of the poem, or, to be more precise, out of what I will call the music of emotion that the poem had drawn me into. (I’m not exactly sure what I mean by “music of emotion,” but I wanted an expression that would include both the music of language, without which there is no poetry, and the flow of emotion—including the emotions connected with intellection—without which there is no point.)

When I looked more closely at these disruptive moments, I found that they almost always involved instances where the speaker starts explaining things, telling me what I am supposed to understand—saying, in essence, what the poem already says, but in plain and straightforward terms that ultimately undermine, for me, whatever power the poem had. By way of example, I want to talk about Akbar’s poem called “Prayer,” which is on page 40 of the book. (Please forgive errors in spacing.)

again i am thinking of self-love     filled with self-love     the stomach
of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair     they cut
it out when she died     it formed a mold of her stomach     reducing
a life to its most grotesque artifact     my gurgling internal devotion
to myself     a jaw half-formed     there are words
I will not say     the muscle of my face smeared
with clay     I am more than the worry I make     I choose
my words carefully     we now know some angels are more terrifying
than others     our enemies are replaceable     the stones behind their teeth
glow in moonlight     compared to even a small star
the moon is tiny     it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure

I want to start with the poem’s last sentence–“it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”–because this is one of those lines that made me sit back and take notice, not only for its meaning, about which more in a moment, but also for its economy of language and the way it is crafted. Two examples:

  • Leaving out before “I treasure” the relative pronoun that, the grammatical referent for which would have been flower. Had the phrase read “the flower behind God that I treasure,” in other words, the language would have directed the reader’s attention back to the flower as the object of the speaker’s adoration and away from where Akbar clearly wants it, on the speaker as the subject of the verb treasure, which calls back in an interesting way to the idea of self-love and self-involvement that the poem explores in its beginning lines.
  • The two spondees (two consecutive stressed syllables)–“not God” and “behind God”–are like stakes driven into the ground of the line, around which the rhythm of the rest of the line organizes itself. They also serve to emphasize the line’s negation or denial of, or at least the speaker’s desire to set aside the traditional notion of God in favor of the actual flower you find if you can see past that tradition. There is, in other words, a tension in the line between being a self that desires to get “behind God,” whatever that means, and the fact that, as long as this self remains a self, as long as it remains a consciousness that can treasure what is behind God, that is conscious of God, then God will always remain in the way.

This tension and the quest to resolve it—and I am guessing, since Akbar is Iranian-American, that this is no accident—in some ways defines Sufism, a way of practicing Islam that plays a central role in Iran’s history. Sufism is also central to the work of some of Iran’s, and the world’s, greatest poets, the most famous being Rumi, but there’s also Attar, Hafez, and Saadi.1 Indeed, Akbar’s reference to the flower behind God, alludes, whether he intended it or not, to a passage from what is generally cited as Saadi’s most important work, his Gulistan, or Rose Garden. The passage I am thinking about–this is my rendition of it–is this:

A man of God immersed himself in meditation. When he emerged from the vision that was granted him, a smiling companion welcomed him back, “What beautiful gift have you brought us from the garden in which you were walking?”

The holy man replied, “I walked until I reached the rosebush, where I gathered up the skirts of my robe to hold the roses so I could present them to my friends, but the scent of the petals so intoxicated me that I let everything fall from my hands.”

The “flower behind God,” in other words, can only be experienced directly, wordlessly, not shared, and not “treasured” as an object that you can possess.

Certainly, you don’t need to know about Sufism or Saadi’s Gulistan in order to appreciate the artistry in the line from “Prayer” that I’m talking about. I’ve laid all this out here, and tried to indicate some of its complexity, to underscore the fact that, whether Akbar consciously intended it or not, the line did not turn out the way it did by accident—if by “accident” we mean a completely random happenstance. On the other hand, if by “accident” we mean—and I am badly paraphrasing here something I read a long time ago in an essay I cannot now find by Hayden Carruth—the kind of thing that starts to happen “naturally,” without conscious forethought, after serious study, rigorous practice, and a deep immersion in craft and subject matter, then you start to see why I think this line (along with much else in Calling A Wolf A Wolf) is evidence of Akbar’s skill as a poet.

This skill is also evident in the two primary images Akbar crafts to set up the resonance that leads to the final line: “the stomach/of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair” and “the stones behind [our enemies’] teeth/glow in moonlight.” In each of these images, an objectification of the self—the stomach filled with hair, the stones behind the enemies’ teeth—also represents, or symbolizes, how loving the self as an object ultimately destroys the self that is so loved. There is a progression in those two images as well, from an object that represents complete self-absorption, the hair, to one that starts to resemble “the flower behind God,” the stones behind the enemies’ teeth. This is how Akbar sets up the tension in the last line that I wrote about above, between the desire for direct experience of the flower behind God and the speaker’s inability to give up the desiring self.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, this is a poem I really want not simply to like, but to experience fully. I’m not a Sufi, or a mystic of any sort really, but there’s a lot in what I learned about Sufism from the translations I have worked on that resonates with me, and so it was disappointing to find myself taken out of the experience of the poem by some of the choices Akbar made in composing it. I’m going to discuss three examples.

Let’s start with the lines about the girl who ate only hair:

again i am thinking of self-love filled     with self-love     the stomach
of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair     they cut
it out when she died     it formed a mold of her stomach     reducing
a life to its most grotesque artifact

The last independent clause here, “it formed a mold of her stomach,” along with the subordinate clause that follows, “reducing/a life to its most grotesque artifact,” don’t really do anything but, first, indicate what the referent of it is in “they cut/it out when she died” and, second, tell us what we are supposed to think about the hair that “formed a mold of her stomach.” The speaker, in other words, is telling us precisely how he wants us to understand the image he has created, rather than letting the image—and the ambiguous pronoun reference (was the “it” that was cut out the stomach or the hair?)—do its own work. Indeed, allowing that it to remain ambiguous would have resulted, for me, in a far more powerful couple of lines, since it would have embedded in the language not only the image of the (un)digested hair, but also the relationship between that artifact and the organ of hunger, and the hunger, that created it.

Another line that takes me out of the experience of the poem as I read it is “I choose/my words carefully.” First, this is unambiguously a cliché. More than that, though, it’s not much more than a mundane restatement of meaning that is already contained in the line “there are words/I will not say,” which is far more interesting, especially in the context of the lines between which it appears:

a jaw half-formed     there are words
I will not say     the muscle of my face smeared
with clay

I recognize that those lines, which conjure the image of a partially sculpted face, are probably supposed to hearken back to the “sculpture” that the hair in the girl’s stomach became when they cut it out of her stomach, and I can see that this is/could have been a powerful associative move, and that looking into it more deeply might yield an interesting intellectual analysis. I’m not trying here to analyze the poem as published, however, the way I might ask students to do in a class I was teaching. Rather, I am trying to work through why the poem doesn’t work for me as a poem, why reading it is not a fulfilling emotional and aesthetic experience for me.

To take one last example: “compared to even a small star/the moon is tiny.” Not only is this such a patently obvious statement—one that makes me feel, frankly, not entirely trusted as a reader—I’m honestly not sure how it’s supposed to function in the poem, interrupting as it does the otherwise powerful juxtaposition between the stones behind the enemies’ teeth and the flower behind God:

our enemies are replaceable     the stones behind their teeth
glow in moonlight     compared to even a small star
the moon is tiny     it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure

Again, I can imagine a potentially interesting analysis that points out the relationships between and among the stones, the moon, the star, the enormity of God, and the even greater enormity of the idea that there is something behind, beyond, God. To focus here on that kind of analysis, however, is to skip over the fact that a poem is, first of all, a work of art, and that if it does not succeed on those grounds, as I am saying this poem does not succeed for me, then it does not succeed. To argue for that success on purely intellectual grounds is to turn the poem into an academic exercise.

The experience I have just tried to describe, of being taken repeatedly out of a poem by language in the poem, is why I’ve been having such a hard time finishing (and fully enjoying) Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Does this mean I think the book should not have been published? No. I’m pretty sure it’s Eavan Boland who has an essay somewhere in which she talks about the pleasures of following a poet’s career from the inevitable unevenness of their first book through the process by which they arrive at their later, more mature work; and I am looking forward to this pleasure in following Akbar’s work as it develops.2 I should also add my congratulations. As I was finishing this post, I learned that Calling A Wolf A Wolf has won this year’s Levis Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University. I discovered as well, through reading the press release, that the book has received a host of other honors I did not know about. My critique aside, there is much that is important, and much that does succeed as poetry, in this book, and I am glad it is getting this kind of recognition.

Cross-posted.

  1. A note to those who might be interested in looking up the work of some of these poets: While Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky have produced the most popular versions of Rumi and Hafez, respectively, in the United States, if not in English in general, I would not recommend those versions as entrees into understanding the place those two poets occupy in either Persian or world literature. I wrote a blog post about Barks and Rumi—and I would also recommend reading the article by Rozina Ali that I reference there—and Aria Fani wrote a post on the Ajam Media Collective’s blog about translating Hafez that contains a good critique of people who work like Ladinsky. Murat Nemet-Nejat also wrote a critique of Ladinsky that’s worth reading. Dick Davis’ translation of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds is the best known translation of Attar’s work into English, but there is also a new translation by Sholeh Wolpe, which I haven’t read yet. If you’re interested in getting a taste of something else that Attar wrote, I co-translated parts of Elahi Nameh, or The Book of God, one of which—along with an introductory essay—I published in Modern Language Studies. You can get a copy here. As for Saadi, while I refer above to my own version of passages from Gulistan, it’s worth knowing that there is a recent translation of the complete text—the first one in more than a century—by W. M. Thackston. As far as I know, though, my Selections from Saadi’s Bustan is the only recent, non-religious and literary translation of that text that is easily available, since you can get it directly from me. []
  2. Boland’s essay, if I remember it correctly—and if she is, in fact, it’s author—is actually a kind of eulogy for first books, in the sense that I mean here. She argues, I think, that because so many poets these days come through MFA programs, their first books are often the product of an extended vetting and honing process, designed to produce a manuscript that is not only ready for publication, but that has ostensibly been smoothed of all its rough edges and polished to a unified coherency, depriving readers of the experience of one stage in a poet’s development. []
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