Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

Ashland, Oregon:  Story Line Press, 1999 ($12.95
ISBN: 1-885266-78-2
review by
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi

It is hard to dislike An Honest Answer by Ginger Andrews, Story Line Press's latest poetry release and winner of the Nicholas Roerich Prize.  There are so many good things about these poems that one is tempted to forgive their faults, and those good things are overdue correctives to much that is wrong with current American free verse.  One can enjoy a book and even approve of it while ignoring or tolerating its rough spots and failings, just as one can love a scruffy friend while abstractly wishing that he were more genteel and sophisticated.

First off, An Honest Answer is eminently readable--I breezed through it in a comfortable half hour, with moments of real pleasure and genuine recognition. (When was the last time you did that with John Ashbery or A.R. Ammons?)  Second, Andrews writes in an American working-class idiom that is authentic, without the pretentious affectation and patronizing nostalgia of an upwardly mobile type who has said Goodbye To All That.  In this yuppified country, a great deal of self-styled "working-class" verse is as faked as a Clinton photo-op.  Andrews, however, is the genuine article.  She is a cleaning lady and janitor from North Bend, Oregon, who writes poetry in between her family committments and teaching Sunday School.  Third, her poems are clear and free from any self-referential postmodernist claptrap.  When Andrews writes, there is no doubt about who's who and what's what.  This poet's linguistic intentions are as straightforward and unmistakable as the number calls at a Bingo game.

Moreover, fashionable Angst and cocktail-party alienation are completely absent from An Honest Answer.  When Ginger Andrews is upset, it's over very ordinary but very real troubles: a pimple, a bunion, PMS, approaching menopause, weight gain, housekeeping chores, the sickness and death of relatives.  She handles these inevitabilities with patience, acceptance, and prayer.  Andrews doesn't run to an analyst or an empath or a support group of whining fellow-sufferers--her family and her religion constitute the rock-solid pavement of her life, and it is from them that she draws strength, not from the trendy therapeutics and New Age nostrums that are increasingly the opiates of Americans enamored of their victim status. God bless her for that.
But above all, what one sees in Ginger Andrews is a raw poetic talent that can crucially connect perceptions with linguistic expression.  Is that rare?  You bet it is.  The commonest disappointment that I experience when reading new poets is the absence of that vital link.  It's as if some trauma had cut the nerve that joins thought to speech, leaving them in a state of verbal paraplegia that deprives their poems of all vigor and interest.  Whatever caveats one may have about Andrews' work as a whole, her confidence and fluency show that she has never suffered that kind of debility.  In short, the free verse of Ginger Andrews is a free verse shorn of many of the tics, failures, and posturings that make reading mainstream poets such a purgatorial ordeal today.

There is, nevertheless, a larger objection to be made to these poems.  The problem with An Honest Answer is the whole esthetic ideology that underpins it and and almost all confessional free-verse lyrics in the American poetic mainstream. And make no mistake: this book, despite its overt religiosity and working-class loyalties, is squarely in the mainstream of contemporary free-verse poetic practice. It is this mainstream ideology, and the strictures on composition that are rooted in it, that keep An Honest Answer within a limited and predictable range of poetic achievement.  The confessional free-verse lyric cannot rise above that level to a higher, more sophisticated, and more literate poetry because its most fundamental esthetic assumptions forbid it.

Let's be brutally specific.  The poems in An Honest Answer have no recognizable metrical or rhythmic structure.  Hence they are indistinguishable from prose, except for the arbitrary imposition of line breaks.  The poems make no use of any diction or syntax beyond the plainest and most basic--even, one might say, the crudest.  All of the poems are relentlessly confessional, employing the first-person singular pronoun--when Andrews uses "we" or "you" it is almost always the narrator's "we" or the impersonal "you," which are just instances of the first-person singular in disguise.  There isn't the slightest indication that the author has read any literary text other than the Bible.  The book's horizons are limited to one small and rather uninviting corner of the Pacific Northwest lumber region.  Its subject matter is totally self-sequestered: Andrews writes of herself, her family, her friends, and their personal ups and downs.  She accomplishes this through minute but mundane description of the details of their lives, a little bit of introspection, a lot of complaining, and a number of meditations that are really camouflaged prayers.  Seen within this little cocoon of North Bend, Oregon, An Honest Answer is, in both the geographical and psychological sense, a highly provincial text.
There's no point in blaming Ginger Andrews for this.  Given the strictures of mainstream free-verse ideology, it was unlikely she would write in any other style.  It's not her fault that the established models for verse today are amorphous emotional effusions based solely on the poet's personal life.  In every little poetry workshop or tutorial, in every MFA program, in every graduate seminar on contemporary verse--in short, wherever academic vultures are making money off the creative impulses of young people--certain rules are laid down that effectively squelch the possibility of great poetry, and prevent the appreciation of great poetry from the past.  The dimensions of this pedagogic problem are colossal, and the chances for reform are slight.

The rules are simple but deadly.  Students are told to write only about what they know.  They are directed to use only plain, straightforward language.  They are exhorted to be sincere.  They are informed that poetry is nothing but the expression of one's deepest feelings.  They are warned that metrical forms are a straitjacket on creativity, and that tropes and figures are obsolete.  They are advised to issue no general statements, but only specific descriptions.  They are drilled to believe that emotion is always more trustworthy and commendable than sequential thought.  And above all, they are fed that most fatuous of modernist delusions, namely, that the poet should express "no ideas but in things."

Like all rank stupidities, these rules have a kind of specious consistency to them.  They seem to favor the genuine and authentic over the meretricious and contrived.  In fact, the rules are lethal to poetic sensibility and expression. Like most tyrannical edicts they are essentially negative, telling poets what they may not do, and thereby limiting the possibilities of language, and with language, the range of treatable subjects.  What is the result?  We have a woman of great poetic talent and promise in North Bend, Oregon, who might have produced something amazingly good, but who instead gives us poems on the proper abrasive powder for toilet tile, on how to cover the burnt crust of a pumpkin pie, and the delights of eating chili cheese nachos at the 7-Eleven.  Is poetry really about this sort of quotidian triviality?  I hardly think so, and I doubt that our ancestors did either.

I don't mean to be unfair.  Ginger Andrews has some notable and compelling proto-poems in An Honest Answer that touch on universal human concerns: physical pain, family conflict, blasted hopes, bereavement, sexual desire, the passage of time, the consolations of faith.  Especially worth mentioning are "Necessity," which is a précis of her life and circumstances; "Home Alone," which depicts her extended family in detail; and "Crazy 'Bout a Mercury," which deals with the conflict between spiritual faith and worldly desire.  "The Housewife" and "Divorce Poem" are also memorable, though a bit too glib in their irony and flippancy.  I call these pieces "proto-poems" because that is what I feel about most free verse: at its best it is merely the beginning, a kind of first draft for further work.  Such drafts can be energetic and exciting, but what is even more exciting about them is their potential to be something greater.  The proto- poems of Ginger Andrews are vigorous and gripping, and confirm that she has unquestionable talent as a free-verse poet.  But that doesn't mean that contemporary free verse isn't a delimited and starved art form, with a highly circumscribed range of poetic possibility.

It wasn't always this way.  The work of Eliot, Pound, Crane, and Stevens shows that free verse can be highly sophisticated and intelligent, with a suppleness and a nuance that match the best poetry of the past.  Early modernist free verse in English (which descends jointly from Henley's London Voluntaries and Eliot's absorption in Laforgue) was not solipsistic or simple-minded, as so much of it is now.   The person behind that development was William Carlos Williams--who, not coincidentally, is prominently mentioned in Mark Jarman's preface to An Honest Answer as the "presiding spirit" in Ginger Andrews' work. I can believe that.

William Carlos Williams was the typical American naif for whom infantile enthusiasm always took precedence over measured judgment.  His infamous remark that "Nothing is good save the new" is emblematic of his mindset, and one need not repeat the tale of how he labored for years to belittle and discredit any recognizable metrics in American verse.  He was a self-appointed man with a mission, and that mission was to wreck the English poetic tradition in preparation for the birth of a new American one based on the work of Whitman and himself.  It should be pointed out that a good deal of provincial Yankee chauvinism lay behind Williams and his monomania.  He hated Eliot and Pound for their preeminence in free verse, and was consumed with envy of their talent, learning, and cosmopolitan scope.  One can understand his rage--he was confined to a boring pediatric practice in northeastern New Jersey, while they were lionized in the salons of Europe.  Williams took his rage out by Americanizing their modernist revolution with a vengeance, insisting on a break so total with the European past that a new poetics would have to arise.  In an essay on Joyce ("A Point For American Criticism") published in 1929, Williams wrote "Every time American strength goes into a mould modelled after the English, it is wholly wasted."  This comment is not so much anti-English as anti-history, and comes out of the kind of self-absorbed amnesia one develops from living between two major oceans.  According to Williams we Americans are special, our land is special, and therefore our processes of thought, perception, and poetic composition have to be special too.  At root this is no different from the crackpot Nazi philosophy of Blut und Boden ("Blood and Earth"), but here grafted onto a vaporous American exceptionalism that demands its own esthetics.  The quintessentially ahistorical American, Williams did everything he could to turn free verse into the sophomoric slop that it is today.

Actually, Williams found his task rather easy, for he was able to appeal to American vanity and laziness simultaneously.  We would disdain all foreign models in verse, and we would skip the job of mastering prosody.  Henceforth American free verse would aspire to the condition of "The Red Wheelbarrow": a collage of impressionistic snippets held together by an air of mystification and avant-garde hauteur.

There's a story about "The Red Wheelbarrow" that I've never told before, but which seems apropos now.  It happened back in 1971, when I was attending a graduate seminar in modern poetry given by the late M.L. Rosenthal of New York University.  We were reading Williams that day, and of course we had to consider the by-then canonized wheelbarrow fragment.  There was some desultory discussion, and Rosenthal droned on (as he typically did) about its importance, its groundbreaking significance, and its absolute centrality in the canon of contemporary poetry.  This continued until one bored graduate student (no, it wasn't me) finally blurted out in sheer frustration: "Just why does so much depend on those damned chickens by the wheelbarrow?  Did Williams have a KFC franchise?"

There was an ice-cold hush.  Everyone looked in terror at the offending cynic, and then at Rosenthal, who had turned ashen with rage.  But suddenly and spontaneously, laughter started to ripple along the conference table--student after student began to see the humor of the quip, along with the overblown, absurd pomposity of Williams' poem.  I don't recall what happened for the rest of the semester, but I know that the sacral aura modernism had labored so mightily to create for itself was decisively shattered that day, at least for one group of graduate students.

But to get back to An Honest Answer, let me descant a bit on that title. It's taken from the Book of Proverbs, and seems to be an instance of Andrews' tendency to view things from a biblical perspective.  However, in the context of the modernist agenda of William Carlos Williams, it has a totally secular significance.  The title may come from Proverbs, but the honesty to which it really adverts is the esthetic ideal which Williams set up for modern poets (i.e. those who would follow in his groundbreaking footprints).  He always claimed that his kind of poetry was genuine and unvarnished, as opposed to metrical work that, by its intrinsic formalism, was fake and pretentious.  And still today in America the last line of defense for confessional free verse is to protest that it is honest and uncontrived.

Williams succeeded all too well in promoting his esthetic ideal.  Ever since his time there has been a persistent notion among poets in this country that a homespun, crackerbarrel plainness in the service of anti-intellectual emoting is the only viable approach to poetic composition.  This is a lethal idea, for it has effectively suffocated in many poets any impulse they may have had towards wit, brilliance, polish, elaboration, ornament, stylistic flourishes, or rhetorical fire. All these, which are the traditional and hereditary pomps of poetry, have been banished from acceptable poetic practice as fradulent, obsolete, and even anti-American.  Instead, poets are made to feel ashamed or passé if they don't produce a kind of bumpkinish hillbilly poetry--a poetry of drab flannel longjohns, the brown earthen jug, and twangy laconic utterance.  When one questions American poets about this tendency they look hurt and surprised, and then usually mumble out some lame excuse about the need to be "straightforward" and "honest"--as if poetry had to be judged by the same criteria as one's tax return.

This is the real problem with Ginger Andrews' poems: they seem to make a fetish out of being absolutely honest and uncontrived and self-revelatory, under the mistaken assumption that these things in themselves guarantee artistic quality. But why should they?  Esthetic success is based not on one's piety or moral integrity or endured suffering, but on one's capacity to manipulate language well. Only in this Puritan-ridden country could personal honesty be seriously considered as the foundation of esthetics.

The result is not just that we write a lot of bad poetry, but that we are also prevented from criticizing it vigorously.  Many times I have had commentators privately say to me something like the following: "I can't possibly attack this poet; she is so obviously good and honest and well-intentioned."  And so we have the protected circle of American free verse, wherein confessional lyrics take all the liberties they desire, while remaining immune to criticism on the totally non-esthetic grounds of their manifest sincerity.

It's time that we began judging poetry again on its intrinsic structural and linguistic merits, and not on its content or the character and identity of its author.  If we did this, we could get beyond all the claptrap about "authenticity" and start talking about art again.  And more important, we would not feel compelled to defend free-verse emoting on the grounds that the emotion is genuine.  With that kind of rigorous criticism waiting in the wings, perhaps more American poets would stop trying to imitate the saccharine plangency and emotional drippiness of Country Western music.

The issue is not Ginger Andrews or An Honest Answer.  The book is what it is, with the strengths and weaknesses I have mentioned.  The real question is the editorial policy of Story Line Press, and why it has shifted to what can only be called a politic accommodation with the mainstream Free Verse Establishment.  There are literally hundreds of presses in this country that are happy to publish free verse confessional lyrics of the sort that Ginger Andrews writes.  The skill of Andrews in her chosen style is such that she would certainly have no trouble finding a publisher among those presses--all of which exist to print effusions in the manner of Whitman and Williams.  Why is it, then, that Story Line Press--ostensibly devoted to countering that tendency--has chosen to publish her?  Since the people in charge at Story Line seem unwilling to issue either an explanation for some of their stranger publication choices, or a revised statement of the press's mission, it is legitimate to speculate on their motives.

Perhaps to win favor, respectability, and clout in the wider poetry world, they have decided to make some strategic friends therein by printing mainstream free verse.  If that is the case, Story Line Press has simply given up any special committment to New Formalism, and has thrown in its lot with the opposition.  It makes sense.  The Free Verse Establishment is still immensely powerful, and disposes of a vast amount of grant money and influence. Why not cozy up to the Superpowers? Small presses, like small nations, must face reality.

Another possibility is that Story Line may have come to the pragmatic, businesslike conclusion that the only significant market for poetry today lies in academia, and most especially in academia's captive audience of text-purchasers. Just a few book orders of an assigned title by a professor running a workshop can make a big difference in one's balance sheet.  Choosing a work by a woman who is perceived to be "strong" is shrewd--such a book is designer-made for a certain type of college poetry workshop instructor.  Actually, if that really was the motivation for publishing An Honest Answer, then the marketeers at Story Line are in for an unpleasant shock.  They haven't reckoned with the level of venom that exists in academia against white working-class Christians.  Gender feminists will gag at the book's foursquare family values and loyalties; its irrepressible affection for men, no matter how abusive or inadequate; its delight in the details of cosmetics and flirtation; and above all, its absolutely non-ironic religious devotion.  An Honest Answer will be a very hard sell to the harridans in Womens'  Studies, except perhaps as an example of false consciousness in the lumpenproletariat.

The third possibility is that Story Line Press has given in to the standard human urge, nearly irresistible in today's hype-conscious America, to be trendy and with-it.  A principled dissent from orthodoxy, especially in the world of letters, cuts one off from recognition, celebrity, or any chance of elite status.  That can be, humanly speaking, a difficult path to tread.  Publishers are no less susceptible than anyone else to the magnetism of fashion and fashionable dictates, and the chance to become more conformist may have been too tempting.

The people at Story Line Press can, of course, decline to make any comment at all about their editorial choices.  It's their press, and they can do whatever they see fit with it.  This is a free country, and they are under no obligation to explain their esthetic decisions.  In fact, I have always advised the small-press editors whom I know to trust their own judgment, and avoid consultation with outsiders.  But it is a fact that Story Line Press was supposed to nurture narrative, expansive, and new formalist poetry in a literary milieu that was actively hostile to those forms of writing.  In the light of that now questionable committment, they might give the rest of us the courtesy of some honest answers.

                                                        Joseph S. Salemi

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