The stream becomes the river, the river becomes the sea, and the sea…well, the sea is just fucking huge.
Let’s say for the moment that the above represents poetry, and that the skillful poet helps to navigate these changing waters; dallying with us in the stream, mingling our inner-rhythms with the faithless river's, until, finally adrift at sea, we drown.
Bad poets try to drown you in the stream. Or they just hit you over the head with a rock.
Thomas Graves is of the former type, and arguably the most important voice in American poetry today when you consider what he throws light on.
No one has skewered boring, careerist poetry-as-usual with more panache and common sense—see WHY POETRY SUCKS NOW as one example—while simultaneously promoting truly first-rate work: Mary Angela Douglas, Chumki Sharma, Ben Mazer (Graves says he's the best), the up and coming Indians, and others have reached many thousands of readers thanks to his influence.
Combative, amusing, rhetorically virtuosic, Graves makes a strong case for the real value of the sane critic, particularly in such eggheaded times. OK. But do we really need critics? We'll glance at some criticism today and you can decide for yourself, though for now we're most concerned with the poems. After all, they'll tell us if the criticism is worth considering. Let's have a look.
There's something deliciously intimate about this poem. Yes, it rhymes and speaks to you. It's a conversation; though the voice seems to come from a great distance. "Things change outside, but you don't change. You are/Not the light that flickers. The flickering light is not the star."
Graves' poems, at their best, nourish the soul. The message and the music wriggle through and out the brain.
You bump into a friend downtown who you haven't seen for years. It's late Spring. You both decide on lunch at a small Italian place with outdoor seating. Wine is ordered. Your waiter's name is Raoul. You notice your friend seems...different. He has an air of strange knowledge. A few glasses of red in, you just come out and ask what the hell is really going on. After swearing you to secrecy, he pulls out a small silk bag...
What's in it? Wait a minute, did he dye his hair? This is your friend, right? Does that bag even exist?
THE STUPID WANT TO KNOW
It's starting to come together for you, isn't it? Romanticism, alone in the corner, adjusts its scarf, revealing a bare, blushing neck. Don't stare. You've always been so polite. It's probably just the wine.
Listen, if poets can't deliver at the minimum beauty and romance, they deserve to weep away into oblivion. Here's a taste of the sort of common sense Graves puts forth—"Poetry is communication made sublimely physical. Love’s excitement and risks do not exist for us unless physically."
So the obvious question is, how do you make communication sublimely physical?
Graves again: "Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true. It often has heart, but no wit. Or wit, but no heart. The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed."
Wit (excellence of expression: cleverness/rhyme/musicality) and Heart (love and loss of, thereabouts) in the right combination, read by the right reader, has a measurable effect on the body, which, I would like to suggest, actually changes us. Perhaps not always in an immediately discernible way, but it changes us.
We went along with the stream-river-sea metaphor earlier, but in fact the majority of his poems have more than anything the touch of fire to them. Intensity lights the match.
THE REST I NEED
How refreshing to read a poem so clear and so unashamedly romantic! Of course, you have to be able to pull it off. But there you have it.
"You are a tall, crumbling cliff, a step away from the sky..." Ah. Then there's the refrain of "the rest" beginning the sentences in the middle of the poem, before the return of "the rest I need" in the final line. Just brilliant.
Many will say these poems are old-fashioned. By which they mean they rhyme, please the ear, and make sense. These are the same people who would keep poetry as their own private little club removed from music and accessibility, from the uninitiated and the "common" world. How obnoxious. But this poet knows "The known is what we know; And all that we have, we can have before we go, In the understanding of the going." (from I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW).
In reality, Graves is far more modern than these buffoons by dint of sheer class: embracing speech and song. Apart from writing beautifully, he can read his poems with skill. Several are on Youtube: (which I think we still barely understand the significance of. It seems more than possible that this format could, if it hasn't already, equal or surpass the Gutenberg press in terms of transformational effect. Poets, take note.)
Even composing and performing hi-quality lo-fi songs:
More poets might profit from tinkering with different media and expanding their creative tool kits. Profit from being code for enjoy.
Graves, a great admirer of Poe, can play in many registers, and like Poe is often most moving when he moves through sadness:
THE LOST CHILD
This is self-evidently a great poem.
Then back down to the sea where we can glimpse..."Only the darkness which runs/Like fish running, a million underwater suns." An astounding clarity and music shines throughout. Poe would love this.
We haven't even talked about Scarriet yet.
That's where this all goes down. Formed in 2009 under shall we say interesting circumstances, the site is closing in on a million views, a rather astonishing feat considering the type and quality of work on display. Graves doesn't yet have any books of poetry published which, while not surprising, is truly ludicrous; but what he does have is one of the largest readerships in poetry land. As usual the Europeans, in this case the Romanians, are ahead of us in recognizing artistic talent, Graves having been invited and flown out to their literary conference Discutia Secreta last summer.
Oh, by the way, all the poems we've looked at here were written in the past year. Graves is prolific, as most great poets seem to be. I'd estimate between a 100 and 150 poems a year get put up. One quibble with Scarriet is that the less-than-recent poems are cumbersome to get to. Something resembling a table of contents would be ideal.
Poetry may suck now in a lot of ways, sure. But a reasonable way forward has been laid out and some nagging questions answered, for those with ears to hear.
Finally, to end, the end of the poem, WHY DON'T YOU:
Here is the religion which washes up on shore,
Thomas Graves is at the vanguard. Many are grateful for that.