Thank you to Sue Carnahan for pointing out the following essay on elliptical poetry. Even though the term has been around--as I found out today--for nearly 10 years, I'd only vaguely registered its coinage until recently when it confronted me in a letter from a former professor of mine who labeled the work in Verge, my first manuscript, as such. For those of you who are smarter and more well-read than I, I hope you'll forgive this belated curiousity and, should you have any other leads in this direction, that you'll share them.
by Stephen Burt
Stephen Dobyns' best poem shows a man and dog staring into a refrigerator at dawn, looking for "answers to what comes next, and how to like it". Young American poets seeking such answers face an exciting, if a cluttered, field. James Merrill is no longer with us (though his followers are); John Ashbery is everywhere, and is perhaps now too prolific; and Jorie Graham has become an unavoidable presence in other people's styles, partly because she teaches at Iowa and gets lots of press, but mostly because her cinematic, intellective The End of Beauty (1987) established her as her generation's best poet. The most exciting younger poets have read Graham and do not imitate her; they share goals and tones and attitudes, and the best way to explain what they share is, I fear, to coin a term for a school. I therefore introduce the Elliptical Poets. I made up the school, but all the books are real; most still await UK publishers.
Elliptical Poets are always hinting, punning or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. Elliptics seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don't believe in, or seek, a judicious tone. Elliptical poets like insistent, bravura forms, and forms with repetends - sestinas, pantoums, or fantasias on single words, like Liam Rector's 'Saxophone':
You and I, our money. Their money.
Our pleasure and fist full of money.
Laughter over money, serious money,
over money. Too much, too little,
fluid money. The saxophone, color of wheat,
purchased through Hock Shop money, saxophone
splitting the night, our air, blowing money.
Rector's The Sorrow of Architecture (1984) may be the first Elliptical book. Rector's anger stems from his Brechtian interest in work, debt and wages, in "the ongoing circulation / Of art and money... the hunger, // The hunt, the eat". He may have invented the fractured sestina forms that pervade poems like 'Driving November', a three-page work with the proportionate strength of a crime-spree film:
We are driving November we turned
October several towns back. We applaud
the passing of all that is innocent we inherit
the road as it is here. You speak of habit
as if things do not change I speak
of sweet repetition. We are driving November, from harm.
Ellipticals love poems that declare "I am X, I am Y, I am Z", where X, Y and Z are incompatible things. Mark Levine, who specializes in such poems, also shares Rector's interests in money, locality and work. Levine's debut Debt (1993) is Ellipticism at its most aggressive, rife with allusion and disillusion. His punky 'Work Song' proves him Berryman's legatee:
I am Henri, mouth full of soda crackers.
I live in Toulouse, which is a piece of cardboard.
Summers the Mayor paints it blue, we fish in it.
Winters we skate on it. Children are always
drowning or fallling through cracks. Parents are distraught
but get over it. It's easy to replace a child.
Like my parents' child, Henri.
Elliptical poets create inversions, homages, takeoffs on old or "classic" poems; they also adapt old subgenres - aubade, elegy, verse-letter, and especially ode. Almost all write good prose poems. Lucie Brock-Broido is the most ambitious, most tradition- conscious Elliptical. Her The Master Letters (1995) quarries Dickinson, Donne, Romeo and Juliet; exclaims "I am angel, addict, catherine wheel - a piece of work / On fire"; specifies, "At your feet I am a shoemaker's apprentice, / Toxic in a long day of fumes"; entitles a poem 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', and opens it with backtalk from Lolita: "Light of your loins - I have been to the ruins & come back with art". Her prose poems boast menageries of similes - "senseless as crates of fish stacked glimmering, one-eyed & blank, one atop the other of them"; the best of her many personae may be Anne Boleyn, in a poem called (after Wyatt) 'And Wylde for to Hold':
Lack of water, lack of light,
Lack of heat, lack of bedding, I should goOn this way forever; it is
my wont to go.
Tonight - the wind will
be high in its scaffolding,On the strength. I will
listen for its habit
the throat like an
Elizabethan cuffAt the crude nest of the
mouth. Our bed
Will be lined with shred-
ded bark from sycamore
& hair.Let them lie broad awake
in their nest, scissoring.
None will fly.
Ellipticals caress the technical; there is, as Rebecca Reynolds puts it, "less / she can touch now / that isn't technical and reluctant". They mix their affections with alienations. Susan Wheeler's Smokes (1998) presents her sometimes as a movie star, sometimes as a "hapless stand-in scripter" with an "impedimented personality", fleeing or seeking love or fame. She makes leaps from low to high diction; likes to interrupt herself; writes "I am X, I am Y" poems; and mixes up old high allusions with TV and Barbies. Her talent lies in her kidnapping of familiar forms, as in 'Shanked on the Red Bed' (an update, perhaps, of MacNeice's 'Bagpipe Music'):
The century was breaking and the blame was on default,
The smallest mammal redolent of what was in the vault,
The screeches shrill, the ink-lines full of interbred regret -
When I walked out to look for you the toad had left his net.The discourse flamed, the jurors sang, the lapdog strained his leash -
When I went forth to have you found the tenured took the beach
With dolloped hair and jangled nerves, without a jacking clue,
While all around the clacking sound of polished woodblocks blew.
August Kleinzahler is Elliptical in his all-inclusiveness, his casual refusals of authority, his jarring jumps from elevation to slang. Kleinzahler's wry, Californian cadences can encompass anything he sees or hears - the sun from a plane, headlines, Thom Gunn, dogwoods, crisps, DTs. A ballet he watches prompts 'Sapphics in Traffic', which begins, "Festinating rhythm's bothered her axis"; where Larkin wrote 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album', Kleinzahler writes the semi-rhymed, half-nostalgic quatrains of 'Ruined Histories':
Ah, Little Girl Destiny, it's sprung a leak
and the margins are bleeding themselves away.
You and I and the vase and stars won't stay still.
Wild, wild, wild - kudzu's choked the topiary.Looks like your history is about to turn
random and brutal, much as an inch of soil or duchy.
Not at all that curious hybrid you had in mind.
Jane Austen, high-tech and a measure of Mom.
Like the Eliot of 'Prufrock', or the Berryman of The Dream Songs, the Ellipticals delete their transitions: one thought, one impression, tailgates another. C. D. Wright is expert at laying down a series of hints, or residues, of experience, making readers discover what happened. Wright began publishing in the late 1970s, but her best books are recent: her first fully Elliptical work is String Light (1991), full of detailed tenderness for, and scorched regret about, her native Arkansas. She, too, has a rebellious "I" poem, 'Personals':
In this humidity I make repairs by night. I'm not one
among many who saw Monroe's face
in the moon. I go blank looking at that face.
If I could afford it I'd live in hotels. I won awards
in spelling and the Australian crawl. Long long ago.
Grandmother married a man named Ivan. The men called him
Eve. Stranger, to tell the truth, in
dog years I am up there.
Wright's technique of hinting allows her in Tremble (1996) to make terse, radiant sketches of bodily, erotic histories, 'Key Episodes from an Earthly Life': the poem of that name begins "As surely as there are crumbs on the lips / of the blind I came for a reason". It ends:
Around this time of year especially evening
I love everything I sold enough eggsTo buy a new dress I watched him drink the juice
Of our beets And render the light liquidI came to talk you into physical splendor
I do not wish to speak to your machine
Thylias Moss is Ellipticism at its most tonally risky, and socially conscious: her registers include Blakean outrage, African-American preaching cadences, and the disarming backtalk of kids. Moss swerves between wisecracks and credos: her uneasy speakers, girls and adults, ground their defiance in local events, as in 'When I Was 'Bout Ten We Didn't Play Baseball':
It's hot. We might
sleep on the porch. Next year we really will have it
screened so we won't ever have to respect mosquitos
again. I listen to all the emergencies,
sirens of course, the Cadillac horns of the wedding, a mother
new to the area calling home her children
forgetting not to call the names of the ones who don't
come home anymore on nights like these when all it has to be
is summer and they're cared for better. The heat does hug.
It isn't shy and proper. My mother wouldn't want me
to play with it.
Moss favors jangly linebreaks and swift tonal shifts, Kleinzahler his slang-slinging, Brock-Broido her extravagance, because these poets want to make poems as volatile as real life. So do their peers. Most Ellipticals are between 30 and 50, and found their real styles after 1986. If they have a geographical center, it's New York City (though several have taught, or studied, at the University of Michigan). Ellipticals invoke, as precedents, Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, sometimes Auden; they read New American Writing, Denver Quarterly, Conjunctions, Parnassus, Boston Review. All want to convey both metaphysical challenge, and recognizable, seen or tasted, detail. Ellipticism rejects: poems written in order to demonstrate theories; prettiness as its own end; slogans; mysticism; and straight-up narrative. Ellipticals are uneasy about (less often, hostile to) inherited elites and privileges, but they are not populists, and won't write down to, or connect the dots for, their readers; their difficulty conveys respect.
Time will find and polish the best Elliptical verse, as it has with prevailing styles from the Tribe of Ben to the allies of Auden. I wish I had space to quote from the bedazzled, lyrical prose poet Killarney Clary; Forrest Gander's careful sequences; Karen Volkman's exceptional, varied debut Crash's Law; April Bernard's jittery Blackbird Bye Bye; Rebecca Reynolds' first book, Daughter of the Hangnail; the comic, tender, botanizings of Alice Fulton; and the Ellipticals' overseas counterparts, Australia's John Tranter, who often visits the USA, and Britain's Mark Ford. For now, these uneasy, echt contemporary, difficult American poets have written a heap of at-least-pretty-good poems. Vaunting or angry, precise but not pedantic, hip but rarely jaded, they are in all the best (and a few worse) senses, what comes next.