Guest post by poet Chris Buckley, whose chapbook BLUING is available from Finishing Line Press.
Nostalgia, though a potent marketing force, is deadly in art. It transforms rich, emotional imagery into one-dimensional kitsch. So much poetry is devoted to nostalgia, both in content, and style. American poetry, especially, seems to begin and end with Whitman. Whether it’s the hallowed verse of Robert Frost, the ballads of Guthrie and Dylan, the feminist emergence of the 1970s, and today’s poetics of diverse witness and identity, American poets continue our undying riff on Song of Myself. Today, poets broadcast from a studio that bills us as half confessional talk-show guest and half political talking head pundit. Identity defines audience, trauma shapes identity, and trauma is thrust on us from our past. Hence our inescapably backward gaze.
Ironically, this comes at a time when objective Truth is devalued on the cultural right and the left alike. While our poetics cry out to heaven about the sanctity of individual experience, the poet must never assert a belief in anything like the objective truth of it all. Every statement must be suggestive of mystery, of postmodern uncertainty, always open to personal interpretation. Now, even as we ape “What I assume, you shall assume” in form and style, in substance we must never stop asking, “But what do you think?” To me, in this cultural and political climate, that’s a luxury no one can afford. To not only say, “This is what I am thinking,” but also “Think like me, if only for a moment” is perhaps the poet’s deepest calling, yet it is the one unforgivable sin for any writer. As the late, controversial essayist Mark Fisher tragically wrote, “Remember: having convictions is oppressive, and might lead to gulags.”
There’s the fine line I try to walk in BLUING: to write observationally, but in a way that is open to meaning, and not just mystery. I hope you will check it out yourself. The poems in it are both old and new. When I wrote many of them, I was reading a lot of Robinson Jeffers, the great “Inhumanist” poet of Carmel, California. Lesser known today, his sparse verse was a fixture of American poetry between World Wars I and II, describing the harsh and astonishing beauty of the California Coast, letting the landscape speak the natural truth of itself in the absence of human values to interpret it. Now, as a resident of the Pacific Northwest, I recognize a lot of Jeffers in the ecological “poetry of place” we tend to write here. So much of it falls apologetically short of its subject matter, however, by daring less certainty than the rocks, waters, and trees it describes.
The poems in BLUING aim for Jeffers’ scandalous insistence that objective truth does not depend on humans to tell it, but with a pained consciousness that his wild coasts are now our suburbanized, gentrifying enclaves. We have no choice but to reinsert humanity into that rugged landscape today, and to write of ecology devoid of a human presence is to ignore the savage beauty where it lives. Perhaps I’ll mockingly say I’m starting a new “Rehumanist” school of poetry, looking for the meaning of moments captured from both human and natural worlds. Either way, I wrote BLUING as a balm for anyone battered by our post-truth culture. I’m glad if it holds meaning for you too.
A fourth generation West Coast native, C.W. Buckley lives and works in Seattle with his family. Corporate by day, Catholic by faith, his writing explores geek culture, conscience, faith, and fatherhood. Reading regularly at Easy Speak Seattle in that city’s northeast, his work is forthcoming in Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature and Raven Chronicles Journal, and has appeared in Rock & Sling | a journal of witness, Lummox Journal, POESY Magazine, and the Bay Area Poets Coalition Anthology 23. He is the author of BLUING, a chapbook from Finishing Line Press. You can follow him on Twitter as @ChrisBuckley
© 2018 Chris Buckley