Of the handful of poems I’ve blogged about here, this one is the first that I can truly associate with. Brehm manages to appeal to an audience that is not often overtly marketed to: the aspiring writer. Christian Lander over at Stuff White People Like sums it up pretty well on his entry for writer’s workshops.
This market not only signs up for writer’s workshops, they also apply for MFA programs, purchase charming leather-bound journals, and have folders of abandoned creative writing on their computer desktops. I know these things because I am one of these people and because I am friends with a lot of these people.
Our reasons for keeping the “aspiring” moniker vary from lack of time, talent, or patience to fear of failure, risk, or exposure. Whatever each member’s reason for not pursuing the dream further, we are a curious sort in that we are categorized by our lack of production. In my case, reading a poem like this refreshes me and alleviates some of the aforementioned lacks and fears.
Somebody told me that poetry is about the poet, whereas novels are about other people. This generalization, albeit a broad stroke covering literature’s nuanced nooks, holds true for most cases. The poems discussed on this blog, with the exception of Auden’s “James Honeyman,” have been personal. They have grasped at explaining their inner thoughts to the reader, but have had to use complex metaphor to do so. Brehm’s poem, I hope, blows fresh air through these digital pages by calling on universal experience to explain himself. It is about him, but it is also about me, and some of you, and millions of others who carry the “aspiring” around with them.
The Poems I’ve Not Written – John Brehm
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.
And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing
and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice
speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,
make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.
The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: "Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.
please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections." Trees would
bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. "Take me,"
they would say, "and turn me
into your pages so that I
might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise."
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,
praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate
reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life
I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.
The opening line of this poem tickles me with its thought of being “wildly unprolific.” Since it denotes not producing much, “unprolific” is somewhat allergic to modifiers of degree, especially those that magnify, as “wildly” does. The most wildly unprolific you could possibly be is to write nothing, whereas the only limit to one’s proflicacy (it is a word—I just looked it up) is the length of the day. This nonsense winks at the reader at the outset, hinting at the fun he will have over the coming stanzas.
Brehm goes on with a list of jokes that describe his unwritten poetry in the format of playing the dozens, the originally African-American tradition of humor that entered popular culture through the wondrous world of “your mom” jokes. Brehm’s poem, by association, inherits a great deal of spontaneity despite being a poem, an art form notorious for its meticulous composition.
These jokes outline the structure of this poem, starting with the clichéd idea of something stretching over a large geographical distance (it is, by the way, a large distance, since Brehm resides in Brooklyn). From here, though, each new round of the dozens brings something new to the table. The Tower of Babel simile in round two operates first on the magnitude of unwritten poems, but Brehm refines his simile by adding the idea of the poems “saying nothing / and everything / in a thousand different tongues.”
Perhaps my favorite moment of the poem, Brehm’s third round opens with a delicious tricolon crescendo of participial phrases in which the hyperbolic ridiculousness of the poem becomes apparent. These poems are both “filled with” and then “emptied of” suffering, which I’m pretty sure does not make sense, but makes you think that they must be incredibly powerful poems. Then there’s the even more ridiculous final participial phrase, “so steeped in the music of a voice / speechless before the truth.” Something tells me that Brehm would win if I tried to unpack that one, that I’d be playing the lit crit game he is poking fun at.
Immediately afterwards, though, Brehm steers his poem back onto firmer, more literal ground with all his talk of breaking the hearts of his ex-lovers. Such a move reveals the control he has over this poem, because he satisfies a much broader audience with it. For instance, say I was to read this poem to my sixth grade students. Most of them would have no clue what was going on with those participial phrases mentioned in the previous paragraph on account of the metaphors and hyperbolic contradictions employed. However, once we arrived at the independent clause, they would be right there with me. They might not find it funny, but they would know what was going on in the poem.
Once we get into the hypothetical speech uttered by lesser poets and then trees, the volume has been pushed up to eleven. The use of trees, the material that is graced with the honor of holding the ink of Brehm’s unwritten masterpieces, takes the humor in a different direction, towards the likes of Calvino and other postmodernists. Poets have contemplated their audiences, lovers, and competitors for centuries, but drawing attention to the very materials of writing is a more recent innovation.
Then we come to the final round: the wind. The end of this poem reminds me of the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude. If Brehm was aiming to satirize such a style, then he excelled. But the ending also somewhat problematically floors me with its own elegance. Brehm says that he might have written eloquently about the wind, then he does write eloquently about the wind. In my enjoyment of the final stanzas, I fear I am falling into a trap of sorts.
Paradoxically, Brehm’s humor is both self-deprecating and self-assuring. With one full collection, I’d like to think that he has plenty of unwritten poems left in him. Unlike so many other poets that sink into themselves and rely on the reader to dig their way out, Brehm wants to play games with his reader. And, in the end, even if he can speak the voice of all those aspirings, he has dropped the moniker himself.
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