One of the things I run into surprisingly often is people saying to me, “I’ve never heard of you before”…Yet I’ve been publishing in “mainstream” journals and my book won that prize, so what is it that is making me invisible? It’s not the work and it’s not the publishing credits. — Gregory Pardlo in The Guardian.
“That prize” is the 2015 Pulitzer for poetry, and Pardlo’s question is a good one, one I hope we’ll wrestle with when 3 Poems by… kicks off its 2016 season.
If you’re new to Eleventh Stack you might not know that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh hosts a spirited poetry discussion on the second Thursday of most months. Pittsburgh’s poetry lovers include a wide cross-section of your friends and neighbors, from casually interested laypersons to (extremely modest) local celebrity poets. Normally the poets we discuss are chosen by a facilitator, but this year the group will be reading the work of writers who will also be reading at Poets on Tour. This reading series, a collaborative Library project with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, brings some of the best contemporary American poets to a Pittsburgh stage, and I’m more than a little psyched about being in the same room with a Pulitzer prize-winner.
But first, a look at his work.
Digest, the volume for which Pardlo won “that award,” is a tightly-knit collection of masterful code-switching. Highly structured poems that both mirror and mock academic rhetoric rest alongside the looser, more conversational rhythms of personal lyric pieces. The collection’s initial poem, “Written by Himself,” indicates which voice we are meant to accept as most truthful/genuine:
I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows… (3).
Don’t think for a second, though, that Pardlo is bluffing his way through academe. In some ways it is a mask he wears, and in other ways it’s a mask that wears him. Either way, though, it’s a highly conscious costuming that results in some gorgeous images and wicked wit, as in the following passage from “Corrective Lenses, Creative Reading, and (Recon)textual/ization”:
In this course we
will venerate the subjective mind, or rather, examine how subject/
object share the fuzzy circumference of a lone spotlight
beneath the proscenium arch. There is no reliable narrator. For example, tea
leaves or cloudbursts in the shape of ladybirds. (19).
If you’ve ever been anywhere near graduate school, the title alone is pure comedy gold. And yet, the deliberate use of academic language to cut through its own usual fog to a different level of awareness isn’t just amusing: it’s sensuous, gorgeous. Perhaps you can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools?
Having said all that, what really matters is what you think. If you’d like to read a smart, self-aware, dazzling collection of poetry, click here to reserve a copy of Digest for yourself. If you just can’t wait, click here to register for 3 Poems by…Gregory Pardlo and receive an e-mail with the three pieces the group will be discussing on January 14th at 7:30 p.m.. At the very least, leave a comment below and let me know your best answer to Pardlo’s question: How is it possible so many of us have never heard of him before now?