By Michael Earl Craig


Wave Books
April 2014

Reviewed by Mitchell McInnis


Surrealism has for decades been the minotaur at the center of contemporary American poetry. In a poetic culture dominated by the domestic lyric, surrealism has and has not been an outlaw. At the center of the contemporary outlaw poetics is Michael Earl Craig. His latest book, Talkativeness, is an ode to that outlaw ethic.

Both insider and outlier, Craig is a latter-day Yannis Ritsos. Like 'old Stathis' in Ritsos's "What Cannot Be Weighed," Craig "gazes off at the ocean chuckling to himself." Instead of the ocean, however, Craig stares off at the mountains surrounding his Montana home.

Craig's rapid-fire timing is worthy of the best comedians. In poems like "Tomatoes Disrespect Us," Craig's glorious and curious sense of humor shows him to be like Louis C.K.; that is, he's a poet's poet.

Taking this example further, Craig has the glorious audacity to offer the title "THE CINEMATOGRAPHER, A 42-YEAR OLD MAN NAMED MIYAGAWA, AIMED HIS CAMERA DIRECTLY AT THE SUN, WHICH AT FIRST PROBABLY SEEMED LIKE A BAD IDEA." In this two-stanza poem, Craig uses the title as fulcrum to the composition, the title dominating the text of the poem:

Last night Kurosawa's woodcutter
strode through the forest, his ax
on his shoulder. Intense sunlight
stabbed and sparkled and
was generally dazzling.

A few centuries later, in a hundred
different coffeehouses, another man
had his black art glasses on.
It almost looked like there were no
lenses in them.

However, while Craig is inheriting a long tradition of surrealistic inspiration (he's a student of James Tate), a line from J. H. Matthews's wonderful book Surrealist Poetry in France haunts me as I type this review. It's a line about the notion of "change, transformation, metamorphosis" within the poetry of Benjamin Peret. As Peret wrote:

Maintenant partons pour la maison des algues
ou nous verrons les elements couverts par leur ombre
s'avancer comme des criminels
pour detruire le passager de demain

If you didn't study at the Sorbonne, the thrust is this. Peret is saying, in a mode of Hegelian synthesis, that we must be willing to move on to the next stage. To change. To undergo the pupae-like metamorphosis necessary to progress.

Craig, while certainly one of the finest young poets writing today, seems to be suffering from a Charles Wright-ian dilemma of sorts; he's on the verge of becoming a 'shtick' poet. While his semiotics are astute, his act is at times fatigued. Somewhere in the dithyramb between domestic lyric and the "word salad" (to quote poet & professor Keith Kopka) is the Truth. And yes, that is a capital T.

The American poetic tradition is anchored by Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. That is to say, the intellectual tradition of American poetry lies with those fine poets, each of whom strove to balance their respective intellectual heft against their respective wits. Wit is essential to poetry, as it is to comedy, but intellectual insight, in the end, is more interesting and more enduring than cracking jokes at a cocktail party. Prufrock wouldn't be Prufrock if he'd merely been a prankster.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love Craig's writing. His books sit on my shelf, and they are dog-eared like the tomes of his predecessors, Tate, Simic, and Edson. However, as Craig ages and gains wisdom, this reader (and in full disclosure, friend) would like to see him grow wiser before he grows wizened. There's more to wisdom than being a wise guy.

Bringing it back to Yannis Ritsos, there's a big difference—one would hope—between the young Stathis and the old Stathis. That is to say, Ritsos leveraged his exile to write some of the most prescient poetry of the 20th Century, dwarfing most of his contemporaries. Craig mustn't let the relative comfort of his poetic post foster intellectual complacency.

Wittgenstein argued that a philosophical statement that has no meaning outside of a philosophical context has no meaning. Isn't this the central dilemma of American poetics? As practicing poets, we must constantly plumb the core algorithms of poetry. In the spirit of T. S. Eliot and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we must constantly strive to cohabit the worlds of language and philosophy.

I've no doubt Craig has it in him. And like a coach sending him back into the game, I say, "There's always the second half." While the surrealist tradition is endlessly entertaining and antic, the narrative-philosophic tradition in American poetry survives the Emersonian century test.

As writers, we must always strive for what American novelist Salvatore Scibona calls the "shelf of books" rather than just a few. I'm convinced when Craig's "shelf" is full, as it were, it'll earn him a wink from Eliot.