What distinguishes most contemporary poetry from prose isn't meter or rhyme or even line breaks, but a self-conscious spareness and a slightly arch or elevated diction. These are the hallmarks of the poet laboring to achieve intensity, the byproducts of the "language distillation" process.
An Albert Goldbarth poem, by contrast, is wacky, talky, and fat.
That, anyway, is what Eric McHenry had to say about Albert Goldbarth's poetry back in 2002, in an article commemorating Goldbarth's second National Book Critics' Circle Award. While I wouldn't bet the mortgage money on the universal validity of McHenry's distinction between poetry and prose, he's dead right about the talkiness of Goldbarth's poetry. I've been a fan of this talkiness ever since I was tapped to review one of Goldbarth's books and, being the obsessive-compulsive book geek that I am, set out to read the whole Goldbarth ouevre (I gave up after seven of his twenty or more books, but only out of human frailty and a looming deadline). So I was looking forward to some fantastic, wide-ranging talk during Goldbarth's visit to Lake Forest earlier this month. Man, did he deliver.
Favorite topics, as I squired Goldbarth around campus, drank coffee with him in the student center, or sat next to him in Lake Forest's best-because-only bar, included:
Goldbarth also talked about his reticence to talk publicly, which struck me as odd at first, until I remembered a quote in an old Another Chicago Magazine interview I'd read, in which he complained about the expectation that poets would speak on panels, take part in Q&A sessions, and be endlessly interviewed about their work. He dismissed all of this as "breadloafing" that detracts from the appreciation of the work itself. I've gotta say, this made me nervous, seeing as how I'd booked Goldbarth onto a panel and as the speaker for a faculty luncheon event. But my fear was for naught. Though I couldn't make the panel (I was running around campus like a super-caffinated bigfoot, trying to find a missing poet who shall remain nameless), Goldbarth's talk for the faculty was prime stuff.
Playing to the mixed-specialization group of faculty (graybearded humanists, hipster-dufus social scientists, chino-wearing science guys), Goldbarth talked about the relation of poetry to scientific knowlege, speaking of a time, a kind of lost Eden, when such knowledge and poetic methods were not mutually exclusive (an Eden already lost when John Donne wrote his famous lines about the "trepidation of the spheres" in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning"). One sad moment in the history of the divorce of poetry from scientific forms of knowledge, said Goldbarth, is encapsulated in Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astonomer," in which the poet-speaker walks out of a scientific lecture:
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
"Enough with objective and abstract knowledge!" we can imagine Whitman yawping, "Give me experience! Give me subjectivity, proved on the pulses, not this objective dreariness!" For Goldbarth this is a lamentable moment: the poet is walking out on a boundless source of inspiration (Goldbarth mentioned Stephanie Strickland as a poet who has gotten some serious mileage out of science and mathematics; I thought of Randolph Healy).
The faculty kicked all this around for a while, with Dave Park unfurling the banner of his communication-theory erudition and making some good points about how this Whitmanic emphasis on subjective experience has contributed to a climate where poetry is granted almost no authority in public discourse (as opposed to science and social science).
If, with Whitman, poetry storms out of the astronomer's lecture hall, Goldbarth grabs it by the arm and steers it back in. I don't just say this because I saw an issue of Scientific American poking out of Goldbarth's bag: his poetry is always based on facts, information, and reports from out there in the objective, material world. If this doesn't exactly give him the authority of science, it certainly seems to provide people with something they hunger for in poetry: Goldbarth's reading to a packed house that evening may have been better-received than any I've seen at the college — certainly the applause thundered louder than it had at any reading since the late Michael Donaghy brought down the house during what turned out to be one of his last readings back in 2004. So here's to Albert Goldbarth, long may he keep talking about the world.