In 1980, at the height of what might be called the Era of Confessional Poetry, a literary period characterized by its obsessive inward gaze, two young poets named Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell, with one book published between them, began a revolution. Weary of the meditative obscurity they saw in contemporary poetry, from fuzzy forest poems not quite sure of their trees but sure of their feelings about trees, to the bewildering, self-referential obfuscations of critical favorites like John Ashbery, the two upstarts set themselves on a mission to rescue American poetry from itself.
The two sought to wrest poetry from the grip of an effete good ol' poet network and return it to ordinary readers. In earlier generations, poets like Tennyson and Frost were popular in large part because they got the story rightthey knew a barge from a shallop, a birch from an oakand because they were precise. In the muddled world of contemporary poetry, however, telling an accurate, understandable story was often perceived as the telltale sign of an unsophisticated poet who hadn't yet broken free of such tired conventions as plot and character. Jarman and McDowell had had enough.
"We were mad," says Mark Jarman, laughing now from his office on the fourth floor of Benson Hall at Vanderbilt, where he is a professor of English. "They'd just had a big poetry conference in Washington, D.C., where people like Harold Bloom and Donald Davie and Marjorie Perloff gave talks about poetry.... And we decided to write an essay in which we took issue with everybody. Everybody. And we would publish it in a magazine."
For ambitious young poets, this was a dangerous game. In the claustrophobic world of big-time literary poetry, poets review each others' books and judge the contests entered by each others' students. They sit on the editorial boards that decide which poems should be published in literary magazines and which poetry books should win the big prizes every year. In the publish-or-perish world of academic poetry, biting the hand that feeds you can make you hungry in a hurry. Literally.
But with the inaugural issue of their new journal, The Reaper, Jarman and McDowell went for broke. The opening essay reads like a manifesto: "Navel gazers and mannerists, their time is running out. Their poems, too long even when they are short, full of embarrassing lines that 'context' is supposed to justify, confirm the suspicion that our poets just aren't listening to their language anymore. Editors and critics aren't listening much, either. Despite their best, red-faced efforts, their favorite godsinaccuracy, bathos, sentimentality, posturing, evasionwither at the sound of The Reaper's whetstone singing."
Kate Daniels, a fellow poet and Vanderbilt colleague of Jarman's, remembers those initial editions of The Reaper as marking a defining change in contemporary American poetry. "Was The Reaper witty? Yes. Was it sardonic? Absolutely. But they were deadly serious."
Ancient poems like the Iliad and the Aeneid had achieved immortality in part by telling a compelling story in memorable words. The way to save poetry from itself, The Reaper's young editors decided, was to return to writing narrative poems, and by Issue 4 the journal was detailing what made a narrative poem successful: "The poet must comprehend that the story is more important than his observations about it." By Issue 11, it was telling its readers in checklist form exactly how to write narrative poetry: "A character must be consistent; an act must logically follow acts preceding it. Even illogical acts must be logically constructed."
In 1989, however, The Reaper determined that its own story was done. Having begun as a lone cry in the wilderness, The Reaper's aim to bring the art of storytelling back into contemporary poetry had grown into a national movement. The movement had even earned a name: The New Narrative. The Reaper was joined by The New England Review, The Hudson Review and other, smaller journals at the forefront of this push toward poetic clarity. After 18 issues of polemical essays, brilliant poems and some of the funniest, most insightful criticism in America, The Reaper had led the call for a narrative poetry that above all paid attention to the general reader. As Meg Schoerke writes in her introduction to The Reaper Essays (Storyline, 1996), "Rather than assume that the readership of poetry is limited to an academic subculturean inbred community of professional poets or theory-oriented criticsThe Reaper's editors envisioned a broader audience attuned to poetry that explores not simply the nature and possibilities of poetry but of human experience."
That The Reaper was not wholly successful in bringing poetry back to the ordinary reader is at least partly a failure of the reader. Good poems free usfor at least the time we spend with themfrom the bondage of ourselves; they connect us with a vaster emotional, intellectual or spiritual realm. Reading a poem is an empathetic experience, and this connection to others allows for and maybe demands of us a sense of responsibility to each other that is difficult to reconcile with our fast-paced lives. It is, after all, resoundingly less demanding to watch Fear Factor than to read and think about even the clearest narrative poem. As Jarman himself says, "I'm not at all sure The Reaper can claim to have brought non-academic readers back to poetry. But it did make its contribution to a more accessible poetry, and that was an accomplishment."
In the beginning was the word
Mark Jarman is the son and grandson of preachers. He was born in Sterling, Ky., in 1952, but his family moved to California before he was school-age. They moved again, when Jarman was 6 years old and his younger sister Katie was 4, to the factory town of Kirkaldy, Scotland, where his father hoped to breathe life into the flagging sister churches of the Disciples of Christ. The Jarmans were poor and cold, but no more poor or cold than the rest of Kirkaldy.
By the time the family returned home in 1961, settling in the southern California coastal town of Redondo Beach, the 9-year-old Jarman had already experienced much of the subject matter that would later influence his poems. Living abroad had given him a sense of separation, of being a foreigner. As a consequence, he has struggled in his writing to reconcile difference, to connect seemingly unconnected elements. "I think that's the purpose of metaphor," he says. "Robert Frost expressed it perfectly when he said metaphor, even when it falls short, is an attempt to make the final unity of body and spirit, of matter and spirit. To make one what has been divided."
The religion of his early years, along with its deeply poetic, incantatory expression, are equally strong influences. Jarman's grandfather began preaching as a teenager. Ordained in 1912 at age 17, Ray Jarman quickly earned a large following for his charismatic style. He would impress his congregation by quoting long Bible passages without aid of a Bible or notes. Jarman has written many poems about his grandfather, as well as a brief biography in "Parts of a Life," the final piece in his second collection of essays, Body and Soul: Essays on Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2002). Jarman writes: "My grandfather had a phenomenal memoryone he had trained with a simple mnemonic technique that was taught to me by my father: He memorized by pacing back and forth, tracing and retracing his steps in a hall or in the backyard, sometimes extending his range and reversing direction, while adding passages as he established a physical rhythm."
But by the 1940s, Jarman's grandfather began to seek a different kind of enlightenment than that promised in the Bible. Jarman calls this period his grandfather's great pendulum swing: "At one point he was...really stepping outside the confines of orthodox Christianity into what we'd call nowadays New Age theology." Through the late '50s, Ray Jarman's theology included clinical dosages of LSD, among other forms of enlightenment. "He tried everything," says Jarman. "The lobby of his church, I remember, had bee products for sale and you could buy Autobiography of a Yogi. He had a huge congregation in that church he built, but he ended up getting way out there. When he was trying LSD, my father told him, 'Don't preach about this.' But he did. And somebody in the church had a bad trip and sued him. The shit hit the fan in Los Angeles."
And then Ray had a conversion experience, according to Jarman: "Jesus came to him in his office. He was born again and just swung all the way back even farther to the right of my father and spent the last 10 years of his life hanging out with Full Gospel businessmen and the Charismatic movement. And he had a great sermon to preach there because he had been a modernist and a drug taker and had been saved. So he could say he knew what young people were after."
Religion is a huge topic in Jarman's poetry, but he is ambivalent about his grandfather's conversion. In his poem "The Excitement," from his newest collection, To the Green Man (Sarabande, 2004), he writes of the encounter between Ray and Jesus:
Bare feet in a business suit, with familiar hands,
And the blood from the famous wounds printing the carpet
And spreading over the things on the glass topped desk.
The bleeding man in the dark suit looked familiar.
And his voice, too, sounded strange in the same way
As Grandfather's voice did when he played it back.
But the question that he asked as he stood there bleeding
Was not one Grandfather ever asked himself:
"Why are you wasting your time on all this
He saw a soul wounded by his existence
And told the world and us it was Jesus Christ.
In Redondo Beach, Jarman spent his youth surfing and beginning to become a poet. He wrote his first poem at 12 years old. "I remember even now the physical feeling of the rhythm as it took hold, and the welling up in my chest at what I thought was its sad beauty," he wrote in an essay for Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion called "The Voice of This Calling: Art as Vocation."
In high school, despite lettering in football and baseball, Jarman took both his religion and his poetry seriously. He planned to follow his father and grandfather into the ministry and write poetry on the side. But during his senior year, his English teacher permitted him to skip class in order to work on his verse. "When I finished a poem I would show it to him," Jarman writes in his Image essay. "He would point to a line, or part of a line, a single image, and make a check beside it, and advise me to save it, throw away the rest of the poem, and build a new poem with that little part." The importance of that hour each day, as Jarman would come to learn, was not to produce finished poems. Rather, "I learned a commitment to the practice and a fascination with the craft and its mystery, and I have never lost them."
By college, Jarman had come to realize that his calling was not to the ministry but to poetry, and he couldn't have chosen a better college to pursue that vocation. In the early 1970s, the University of California at Santa Cruz was a bastion of liberal creative thought. But while Jarman admits he was as liberal as anyone, his real thrill came from having access to all the other writers there, to faculty, visiting authors and his own friends and classmates. It was at Santa Cruz that Jarman met Robert McDowell, with whom he would later conspire to help change the course of American poetry. Also, "a young Ray Carver was teaching there. Peter Beagle was there. And of course the great poet George Hitchcock, who gave me my first opportunity in poetry."
That opportunity came via kayak, the vastly influential literary journal that Hitchcock edited, published and had founded in 1964. Famous for discovering and publishing a generation of poets (and infamous for, among other things, postcard rejection notices featuring Victorian-era prints of hangmen), kayak was exactly what Jarman was seeking, and Hitchcock was the ideal mentor. Jarman and McDowell became first readers on the manuscripts submitted to the journal, charged with pulling out the best of the lot for Hitchcock to read himself. Quickly Jarman learned that he and Hitchcock didn't agree on what constituted a good poem, but rather than attempt to convert his protégé, Hitchcock urged him to articulate his aesthetic as persuasively as possible. In Body and Soul's "Parts of a Life," Jarman remembered Hitchcock's influence: "When I tried to find common ground with him, he told me it was more interesting to talk about where and why we disagreed. I developed my own preferences and honed my critical skills in argument with George. Subsequently he published my first essays and book reviews in kayak."
Hitchcock's home served as the gathering place for poets and readers; it was known in town as The House of Poetry, Santa Cruz's artistic salon. At The House of Poetry, Jarman married Amy Kane, now his wife of 30 years, with whom he swears he fell in love at first sight. He wrote of this encounter in "Parts of a Life": "Not to put too fine a theological point on it, I believe when I met Amy that something greater than myself but also deep within me said, 'You have been given a gift.' "
After Jarman graduated, Amy dropped out of school, and the newlyweds moved to Iowa City, where Mark had been accepted into the Iowa Writer's Workshop. While Jarman worked on his poems, taught and completed his MFA, Amy supported them by waiting tables. She was also taking classical voice lessons, which paid off a few years later when she earned a scholarship to Indiana State at Evansville, where Jarman had gotten his first full-time teaching assignment. Amy Jarman has since gone on to her own successful career as an opera singer, performing throughout the United States and England. She is now assistant dean and senior lecturer in voice at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.
The Jarman's two daughtersClaire, now 24 and a stage manager in Nashville, and Zoê, 21, an aspiring actress in Chicagowere born during these early years. It couldn't have been easytwo artists struggling to define and hone their skills while raising a family and paying the bills. Jarman and those close to him fiercely protect the family's privacy, but from Jarman's poems and autobiographical sketches, a picture does emerge of a close-knit clan deeply attached to one another. Two things Claire Jarman will discuss, however, are her father's loyalty to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the family's countless Scrabble games around the dining room table. Says Claire, smiling, of the Scrabble games they still play: "Dad usually wins."
In 1977, Jarman won the first of his three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (the other two came in 1983 and 1992), and by 1980 he was at his second teaching job, this one at Murray State in Kentucky. He had published one book, North Sea (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1978), a collection concerned with his childhood years in Scotland, and was regularly publishing poems in journals. Robert McDowell was teaching nearby at Jarman's old employer in Evansville. Together, they became The Reaper.
Holy in an unholy world
The Reaper's unexpected, roaring success transformed Jarman and McDowell from angry young poets into cult heroes first, and then establishment figures of a new regime. Rather than going hungry, they earned promotions, with Jarman moving on to Vanderbilt in 1983. The duo's fierce intelligence and humor, combined with an unmatched commitment to the integrity of their craft, earned them the respect of many of those they initially railed against. Donald Davie, a poet The Reaper had taken aim at in its opening salvo, was there to welcome Jarman onto Vanderbilt's faculty. They later became close friends.
During The Reaper's nine-year run, Jarman also published two more books. In The Rote Walker (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1981) the poet confronts his religious faith, and in Far and Away (Carnegie Mellon, 1985) he returns to his adolescence in Redondo Beach. Far and Away is generally regarded as Jarman's breakout work, the collection that put a serious artistic distance between himself and most of his contemporaries. The book is in large part about memory. In a poem called "The Supremes," for example, the speaker contrasts his teenage lust for the Supremes, who were "Riding a float of chiffon as frothy / As the peeling curl of a wave," with his desire for a once untainted Los Angeles coastline. In both cases he comes to recognize how far from the truth the sugary sweetness of nostalgia can be. Flying as an adult over his boyhood home, the speaker remarks on both the lapping waves and the Supremes: "From that height they still look frail and frozen / Full of simple sweetness and repetition."
By 1991, when Jarman won the prestigious Poets' Prize for The Black Riviera (Wesleyan, 1990), he was at the top of his form, able to weave seamlessly through his narratives a theme he returns to again and again: the connection between private and public. "The Shrine and the Burning Wheel," for instance, is a poem about the random violence of boys lighting a bicycle tire on fire outside a convenience store:
Transcendence is not
To feel the texture of the past
Like the velvet nap of the loges
In the Shrine. It is wanting to be
Clearly, I don't understand.
The wheel spins. It is not hard to ignite
The hard lean tire with lighter fluid.
It flashes and a round of smiles
Breaks in the dismal circle
Of the boy pack
From the apartment complexes.
What transcendence is, by the last lines, is a
poetry of heaven and earth,
And meshed with it, hidden,
A wheel of history turns,
And the boys burn the wheel.
That our condition may feel meaningless, Jarman seems to be saying, does not mean it is meaningless. Each individual narrative is connected to the grand historical narrative.
If Jarman had settled after the success of The Black Riviera into the comfortable maintenance of his reputation and position, producing a new book of narrative poems every few years and teaching classes, few would have blamed him. He had been writing poems for 30 years, had founded and edited one of the more influential and unforgettable literary journals of this century and was tenured at one of the finest universities in the country.
But again Jarman went against the grain. This time he went alone. After releasing the book-length poem Iris (Story Line Press, 1996), in which a young woman comes to terms with her own humanity by confronting the anti-human philosophy of the poet Robinson Jeffers, Jarman put out an astonishing collection of poems called Questions for Ecclesiastes (Story Line, 1997). Although Jarman had certainly never shied away from meditations on a Supreme Being, in Questions he does a thing almost unthinkable in high contemporary literature: he addresses poems directly to his Christian God. But reader beware: like the Book of Ecclesiastes itself, many of these poems present human life and God as enigmatic, frustrating, opaque and futile, but nevertheless extant and possibly necessary. For those looking for Hallmark affirmations of faith, Jarman's House of Poetry is the wrong address. This is Sonnet 14:
After the praying, after the hymn-singing,
After the sermon's trenchant commentary
On the world's ills, which make ours secondary,
After communion, after the hand-wringing,
And after peace descends upon us, bringing
Our eyes up to regard the sanctuary
And how the light swords through it, and
In their sheer numbers, motes of dust ride, clinging
There is, as doctors say about some pain,
Discomfort knowing that despite your prayers,
Your listening and rejoicing, your small part
In this communal stab at coming clean,
There is one stubborn remnant of your cares
Intact. There is still murder in your heart.
Belief can be a difficult thing for an intellectual, and Jarman's got the poems to prove it. The book's title piece, a nine-stanza poem employing wording straight from the Book of Ecclesiastes, is a devastating examination of futility and grief. After a minister's inability with either his presence or his words to assuage a couple's pain after their daughter blows her own head off, the poem finishes:
[...] And God who shall bring
every work into judgment, with every secret thing,
whether it be good or whether it be evil, who could
have shared what he knew with people who needed
urgently to hear it, God kept a secret.
Jarman's colleague Kate Daniels adds, "It took a great deal of courage as an American poet of his stature, known for his intellectual erudition and learned mind, to have all of a sudden started writing poems to God." But critics responded: Questions for Ecclesiastes won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, awarded by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation magazine to the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States; it was also a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award.
But Jarman wasn't done with God. In his next book, Jarman took a 20-sonnet section of Questions that was a response to John Donne's Holy Sonnets and developed it into an entire collection, which he unabashedly titled Unholy Sonnets (Story Line, 2000). Whereas Donne, writing in the 17th century, could safely assume a Christian, and thus holy, audience, Jarman's contemporary work tackles the issue of having faith in a secular, and thus unholy, world. That, says Jarman, is why these poems are called "unholy." Sonnet 3, a fair example of the collection's brazen tone, begins: "Soften the blow, imagined God, and give / Me one good reason for this punishment."
The initial response among fellow poets was mixed. "I have to admit: at first I was like, 'What are these?' " says Jeff Hardin, a poet who teaches English and writing at Columbia State Community College. "I mean, How easy is that, to rip off John Donne?" But Hardin, like many of Jarman's readers, later came to regard the collection as a masterpiece. "After a while, you read the poems for what they are, not what you want them to be. And once you give in to them, the poems are like a seamless thought."
When asked what sets Jarman's poems apart from typical contemporary Christian fare, Daniels doesn't hesitate: "It's real poetry," she says. "There's no one writing at the level he's at." Jarman doesn't write religious poetry, she says; he writes poems whose subject happens to be faith.
Jarman seems almost amused by the reaction of most literary critics to his overtly Christian poetry: "It's interesting how people take it. I have frequently been invited to these little Christian colleges and...they understand what I'm doing. But I've had the Rushdie treatment from people who are not religious. I went to visit a class, and a woman was worried about my soul. She suggested I should be writing books more like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And I thought, good God, I have been with the most conservative evangelical Christians I can think of and no one has ever said they were worried for my soul."
In his just released follow-up to Unholy Sonnets, Jarman delves right back into rigorous theological and philosophical thought. While To the Green Man abandons the formality of the sonnet form and ventures into a freer verse, it doesn't back off an inch from the technical virtuosity Jarman's known for, nor from the hard questions of faith in an intemperate world. In this collection, there is fear and loss and sometimes an unbearable sadness. There is also a rich humor and a faith in the world's beauty, no matter (or maybe because of ) the paradoxes it throws up. Jarman includes lyric poems and narratives, free verse and formal structures in equal measure, yielding his most diverse collection. The most tender is the final poem, called "Prayer for Our Daughters":
May they never be lonely at parties
Or wait for mail from people they haven't written
Or still in middleage ask God for favors
Or forbid their children things they were never forbidden.
May hatred be like a habit they never developed
And can't see the point of, like gambling or heavy drinking.
If they forget themselves, may it be in music
Or the kind of prayer that makes a garden of thinking.
May they enter the coming century
Like swans under a bridge into enchantment
And take with them enough of this century
To assure their grandchildren it really happened.
May they find a place to love, without nostalgia
For some place else that they can never go back to.
And may they find themselves, as we have found them,
Complete at each stage of their lives, each part they add to.
May they be themselves, long after we've stopped watching.
May they return from every kind of suffering
(Except the last, which doesn't bear repeating)
And be themselves again, both blessed and blessing.
Whether Jarman is a Narrative poet, or a Christian poet, or a Narrative poet with a lyrical bent who allows God to roam through his work, one thing is for certain: he's playing for keeps. Since those days in high school when he skipped English class to write verse, he has always been writing a poem. To Jarman, writing poems has never been a pastime to be played at after the lawn is mowed and the kids are in bed. Nor is it to be undertaken only when the epiphanies fall like raindrops. It's a vocation.
When asked how he found time to write serious poetry amidst the myriad other demands and responsibilities that come with building a career and family, his answer is matter of fact: "Writing was a habit long before I had a job or children. Having to make a living and raising children simply made me fit my writing time into those demands." And that is that. One gets the sense that Jarman, stranded on an island, would be found on his hands and knees, writing stanzas in the sand.
Mark Jarman signs and reads from To the Green Man, 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
"We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster." (I know pop-culture maven…
I hope it doesn't make you wet and mess your Captain Kirk jammies, too! I…
What *sharp elbows* said. People are clearly voting with their feet that The Academies are…
So is the metro grave yard. The new area is trying to get better at…
Speaking of unoriginality....