The new Prac Crit goes live in a week when a dark chapter in recent history draws to a close, with little hope that a brighter one lies in prospect. Among many other things, the campaign that led to Donald Trump’s election was a disaster for public language, with a toxic brew of slander, threat, misinformation and naked hate speech poisoning the already scummy well of political discourse. Even ‘post-truth’ – the term we’ve confected to cope with this situation, and to name it – has the ring of cant to it, barely a year after it first emerged as a useful idea. If poetry does anything good or useful then it must consist in the renewal of language, the questioning of dead, lazy or barbaric speech, and the effort to make words do justice to reality.
Now we write out of, and into, a world that might be summed up by two lines in Jorie Graham’s new poem ‘Cryo’, published for the first time in this issue: ‘You cannot close down meaning. / You close down meaning.’ Her interview with Sarah Howe is a clarion to vigilance and action, offering little in the way of comfort for what it feels like to exist in 2017, ‘living in this palpable lateness now’. Nevertheless, against the violent forces of environmental degradation and political demagoguery, Graham posits a vital, hard-won role for poetry, which may yet be able to ‘enact and, by enacting, question, the relationship of individual emotion to crowd emotion’. In a searching essay on ‘Honeycomb’ (another poem we preview from Graham’s forthcoming collection, Fast) Joey Connolly teases out ‘the consolations and the dangers of the desire to be understood’. Dangerous though this ‘need to be known’ may be, perhaps it’s all we have, for now.
As well as confronting the critical geopolitical traumas of our time, Graham’s new work offers an act of witness to her ‘father’s body moving from living to not’. This grief binds her to Gwyneth Lewis, who talks to us about a new poem, ‘Principalities, Dominions’, written in response to her own father’s death through a suggestive conversation with Emily Dickinson. Lewis speaks illuminatingly about metaphor, indirection, and ‘the degree of atmospheric pressure’ necessary to write a poem, as she negotiates the paradoxical instincts towards authenticity and artifice in the lyric act. Emily Hasler’s essay on an earlier Lewis poem, ‘Sunday Park’, reveals the ‘lacy tension’ that underlies even a poem of joy and (relative, deceptive) simplicity.
Emily Dickinson makes another cameo this issue, in Kathleen Ossip’s ‘To the Poet Who After My Reading Said “Your Poems Are Good. Eccentric, But Good.”’ In conversation with Amy Key for our second ever ‘Poem to Poem’ feature, Ossip discusses invasiveness, consent, male privilege, and the ‘micro-indignity’ that accumulates over the course of a woman’s life, resulting in levels of anger and shame that poetry might help to exorcise if not redeem. Key’s ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’ starts with an epigraph on shame from Maggie Nelson, and opens onto a series of fragments that defiantly court gendered accusations of fragility and insignificance. ‘I will share the petty and insecure ideas that occur to me,’ Key says to Ossip, affirming how poetry can (and must) challenge our understandings of valid experience, important experience, and the language that we use to address it. ‘Language is full of slipperiness,’ Ossip admits, ‘and so is life, and I can never forget that when I’m making a poem, so bald declarations must always be examined, qualified, waffled.’
This, of course, is not the slipperiness and waffle of Trump but an altogether healthier sense of limitation and struggle in our chosen medium. We’ll need that in the months and years to come, just as we’ll need to be courageous, inventive and joyful in the possibilities of language. Niall Campbell’s poem and Deep Note consider the necessity of courage and carrying on from the vantage of a new father. Looking out in the poem at an amateur athlete who runs home every night, reduced on the home stretch to ‘a pair of lungs / trusting they are on fire for the right goal’, Campbell draws a keen contrast in his essay with the parent who ‘having never had more of a reason to be healthy or fit, was never more unable to do it’. Maybe this sense of impossibility and paralysis will chime for those who are suffering from political depression right now. For Campbell the father, the courage came in realising that he was ‘already fully pledged to something’. I linger on this wonderful idea of being pledged, and take comfort in the many ways that the poetry community has shown itself to be similarly pledged in the time since November 8 – pledged to life, pledged to language, and pledged to take the fight for their survival.