PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing by Daniel Robinson
(University of Iowa press, Iowa City, 2014)
Scholarship by Joe Safdie
Blazevox, Buffalo, 2014
William Wordsworth ranks in the upper echelon upon the slopes of Parnassus. He’s generally considered to have written, along with his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the foundational texts of English Romanticism marking the shift towards Modernism, The Lyrical Ballads. The Preface for which, recognized to be primarily the work of Wordsworth, calls for a poetry written in the language of the working class (Wordsworth referred to the working man) and concerning matters with which everyday regular individual readers would be able to identify. It often sounds as if Walt Whitman stepped directly out from its pages as a poet fit-to-order.
Joe Safdie teaches English at a small community college down around San Diego. A former student of poet Ed Dorn, he’s steeped in the lineage of American poetry that runs directly from English Romanticism to Whitman and Dickinson on up through the Modernism of Pound, W.C. Williams, and H.D. continued by Black Mountain College figures such as Olson, Creeley, and Duncan onwards to its various manifestations in locales such as Buffalo (Blakean Jack Clarke) and Bolinas (the ever present Joanne Kyger and likewise mainstay Duncan McNaughton). Over the last forty years his poems have appeared in numerous small press publications, including several chapbooks, yet Scholarship is the first full collection of his work.
Daniel Robinson’s Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing looks at the composition of Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic poem The Prelude which spanned his entire writing life, undergoing three significant manuscript stages and was only published after his death. Wordsworth completed the first, much shorter two part version of the work now known as The Prelude in 1798-99 beginning his initial work on it nearly immediately after Coleridge’s prompting, who urged in 1796 that, despite any substantial work as yet to demonstrate it, Wordsworth see himself as “the best poet of the age.” In 1805 he finished a much expanded thirteen book version of the previously abandoned work. Wordsworth’s The Excursion published in 1814 serves as a kind of alter after-the-fact reverse-ur-text accompanying the ongoing composition of the other poem. The Prelude conceivably introduces the early life experience of the hermit-poet presented in The Excursion. Throughout his later years Wordsworth repeatedly came back again and again to The Prelude and composed a final fourteen book version published in 1850.
Robinson, a former student of poet James Dickey, utilizes his study of The Prelude to offer a supple biographical sketch diving into Wordsworth’s ambitions as a poet and his troubled relationship with Coleridge. He also takes the opportunity to discuss broader ramifications for the role of the poet as maker of the work of art, the interrelations between the poet’s life, his work, and his audience:
What the maker seeks to do is to find figures from his life that will correspond with similarly peculiar ones from his readers’ lives and then model for his readers what they can do with those figures, to produce creative fruits of their own and to repair imaginations that become impaired during the intercourse of everyday life.
Safdie is a poet straddling the hump between the 20th and the 21st century confronting the same desire, and accompanying problems, as faced Wordsworth two hundred years before. Safdie’s “Watching Sports on TV” describes his struggle with writing the poem at hand, “trying to make autobiography / into epic, like Wordsworth” while simultaneously following a basketball game on television. Humor is rampant in Safdie’s often lengthy digressively discursive poems wherein he bandies about the weighty inheritance of poetic practice to which he’s albeit an unacknowledged heir. He’s commonly found to be running through comparisons between himself and poets of old, reconciling (or not) likes and dislikes.
my first insight – I hate Virgil
because I’m too much like him,
channeling the heavens, surfing
the divine waves, seduced
by the Father God into thinking
there’s a plan instead of just
letting things flow, as Ovid did
(“Summer Reading (2011)”)
Safdie drafts his poems in clear dialogue not only with past poets, but also with readers he’s well aware do not as yet exist in any great number. Iowa is not knocking on his door offering him the next visiting poet slot. Not that he doesn't recognize his own lack of interest in attempting attain academic posts: “There was a job in Oregon I thought / I could get, but I forgot to apply / by the due date” (“Saturn Return (The Sequel)”) Yet similar to the Wordsworth who Robinson focuses upon—that is, the young, unproven Wordsworth who only has his own inhibited ambition and the backing of Coleridge to launch his grand poem The Prelude—Safdie embraces the larger questions of the act of writing itself in his work. Safdie proves himself the same sort of metaphysical thinking-through-the-writing poet Robinson describes Wordsworth of being.
Although he never became the philosophical poet that Coleridge wanted him to be, Wordsworth was interested in metaphysics. His thinking about such matters tends to focus on how they relate to identity and self. He comes up with a subjective metaphysics associated with poetics, with making, with creating – both poetry and identity. Wordsworth’s chief subject – even before Wordsworth himself – is the poem itself as a poem about the development of the writerly self.
Safdie is interested in this same exploration, pushing himself via his work to ask larger questions even as he understands that ultimately he’ll likely have to settle for accepting much less than the rewards of any sort of final summative answer: “What is poetry? I’ve been writing it for a long time and I have no idea.” (“Afterword: on Scholarship”) Despite the challenges not only of life but also the lackadaisical nature of the inspiration offered at times from the work itself, ways of courting poetry must be found.
later the Muse came less often
no longer hiding in the everyday
needing to be summoned by odd rituals
marijuana jazz the World Cup
(“Tribute to Jack Clarke”)
Safdie demonstrates the same stamina Robinson allocates Wordsworth to the dedication of a life practice in poetry: “If there’s one thing that Wordsworth’s poetry shows, it’s that the writing of one’s life may sustain the life writing it by giving a sense of purpose, of being, of belonging – and of becoming.” It is the spirited zeal to reach beyond one’s own self, to be guided by the Outside in practices which develop the inside life. A set of principles Safdie discovers his own examples of as every poet must.
…poetry which has to come from sources
outside the self as Spicer also said
still, it makes sense
to think of Jack as Romantic
counseling concrete life
(“Tribute to Jack Clarke”)
As much as Robinson’s book is an introduction to Wordsworth’s work, life, and poetics it is also a meditation upon the working life of any poet practicing today. We’re all still Romantics, after all, even those who would deny the Muse in their work. (Safdie: “We’re all romantic / and all equally screwed.” (“Against Romanticism”))
When working through drafts of poems, even those destined for recognition and study, there’s no fame that accompanies being a poet. Wordsworth’s Prelude went overlooked his entire life for lack of readers due to his own inert impulse to publish it. Robinson remarks, “William Blake should have read The Prelude instead of The Excursion, which gave him a bowel complaint.” Of course, “like everybody else, he didn’t know it existed.”
Robinson’s book relates an image of Wordsworth as the very practical-minded poet he no doubt brought himself into being as opposed to the rather socially lopsided, opium-addicted Coleridge. Safdie is somewhere between the two. While he maintains a steady source of income from teaching he’s no academic and not at all averse to recognizing the hazardous futility of the calling he’s willingly chosen. In the Poet Game, Safdie’s a lifer: Whatever the consequences he’s all in.
I want to meet William Blake.
Why not? When I was 21 I took acid
for the first time and he addressed me –
“Now that you’re here,” he said,
“what are you going to do about it?”
I didn’t know what to say,
much less what to do…
it’ll come to me or not,
before that chain rusts
(I’ve thrown away the key)
(“What I want”)
That a poet such as Safdie goes overlooked in our day and age doesn't bode well for him or anybody else interested in poetry. I don't know whether Safdie has his own Prelude lurking in a drawer or with suspended status of "in contemplation" somewhere between his imagination and the page but given the range and depth found in Scholarship I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover he did.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson library for the University of San Francisco. Many book reviews appear here and there. His most recent books are A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo 2011) and Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling 2013).