Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Selected Poems

By Keith Waldrop

Reviewed By Sean Pears

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Keith Waldrop includes a quote from Immanuel Kant as an epigraph to his long sequence, “Potential Random,” that captures much of how his poems think:

…in deep sleep, the mind may come closest to
perfecting rational thought. We have no reason for
asserting the opposite, except that when we wake we
do not remember our idea.

First, the notion that there is a “perfect rational thought” that is worthwhile or even meaningful to speak of—this is a fascination Waldrop shares with the German philosopher. But where Kant seems to be deriding the proposition that perfect thought might be attained in sleep, Waldrop indulges it. The poet is less interested in empirical evidence and systematic thinking than he is in dream, wandering, speculation—the spaces between sense, more than sense. “I build houses that I will not inhabit,” he writes in “Poet.”

Waldrop’s poems proceed with caution, pondering their own movement. In “Insisting Objects,” Waldrop writes:

I draw a
line in
the light between
infinite
and creatures

(the line I
drew was
like a description)
 
now what
is possible? and
what else?

This is a poetics of careful deliberation, aware that language is a container that experience will contort itself to fill. Waldrop has said in interviews that he spends little time writing but tons of time revising. This might be hard to believe when scanning the very long list of his publications, until you attend to the poems, which seem written in geologic time. The poet makes a mark, and then looks at it, hard. What have I done? “Now what / is possible?”

While Waldrop wends through a number of (often surprising, often energetic) poetic forms across his career, he seems to arrive at the guiding epistemology relatively early on. “Keith means ‘wind,’ according / to What to Name a Baby” he writes in “Conversion” in his first book, A Windmill Near Calvary (1968). After this moment in the Selected Poems, Waldrop’s own name and most identifying features are blown away. From the beginning, his poetry is interested in the unknown and unknowable, an active seeking that nonetheless preserves elusion. The only thing that is certain for Waldrop is that things won’t stay the same. “Reality is what does not change,” he writes later in the same poem, “i.e., reality, / is what does not exist, held desperately.”

More than three decades after A Windmill Near Calvary, the speaker of “Potential Random” looks to the sky for answers: “He had been told that the number of stars in the sky, whatever it is, is just the right number.” Soon we realize, though, that whatever that number is, it isn’t. “Hints reach him that stars of an earlier generation, crumbled to dust, haunt all the corridors,” he writes later in the poem. The number of stars in the universe—like the poem and like ourselves—exist in a state of constant change. At the end of a long career, stasis has not lost any of its seduction for Waldrop, who has kept up the endless, iterative process of its renunciation.

In an afterword to the Selected Poems, Ben Lerner summarizes Waldrop in an acute formulation: “a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet.” This surely describes the atmosphere of much of the work, which elevates quietude, slowness, and care to an aesthetic—and perhaps even ethical—ideal. “Those who roar most loudly rarely sing in time,” Waldrop cautions us in “Doctor Transom, Notes for a Memoir.” He eschews such reckless abandon. But the unique quality of Waldrop’s poetry is that it blends this quietude with humor and song. How refreshing that a poet who at times seems allergic to exuberance can also produce expert doggerel, as in “The Wind Is Laughing,” which opens:

My love and I sat down to lunch,
And while I was tucking in my bib
I heard time’s teeth come together crunch
And I felt a sharp pain in my rib.

At other times, Waldrop’s humor is subtler, an off-hand absurdity delivered into his collar. “What Herr Stimmung Admires”—a list poem about the protagonist of his book The House Seen From Nowhere (2002), a hapless foil for the poet—ends with goofy bathos; the final thing Herr Stimmung admires is “rolling hard-boiled eggs downhill.”

Emily Dickinson’s funniness and commitment to song are often overshadowed by attention to the mysteries of her abstract philosophical thinking; I worry something similar might happen to Waldrop. And it would seem, in his case, that the stakes are high. What kind of appetite is there among contemporary readers for poetry so committed to abstraction, elusion, and the unknown? “Note also, this poem is quite impersonal,” he writes in “Potential Random.” Not everyone can afford to be impersonal, the feeling is. Not everyone can afford to be quiet. Or to not know.

Will Waldrop, and poets like him, continue to be read? “Think of how many, by now, have escaped the world’s memory,” as he asks us to do in his poem “Tuning.” “To a person so little conscious, what would it mean to die?”

I can’t predict Waldrop’s future readership, though I can attempt to measure the loss were it not sustained. In his long career as a poet—not to mention the jaw-dropping list of his translations (mostly from French, but also from Chinese)—he has insisted on humility in an ongoing secular wandering. “I / would never give up anything I have, in / return for mere certainty,” he writes in Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, which won the 2009 National Book Award.

Yes, not everyone can afford to be quiet. But, in those who can, is it not surely a virtue? Waldrop’s work also reminds us, over and over, of the spiritual satisfaction of aesthetic pleasure. In an artist statement for an exhibition catalog A Grammar of Collage, he writes of his collage work, “To the extent that there is a purpose to what I do, its end is the ‘enjoyment of a composition.’” Omnidawn has given us a concise and consumable selection from a lifetime of deliberate, pleasurable making—deliberate, pleasurable wandering. Is that not something artists—any artists—ought to celebrate?

Sean Pears has lived in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. His writing and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, NOMAN’s Journal, and other places. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Poetics at SUNY Buffalo.