A Wholesome Vanity

March 23, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: L.S. Klatt on “I Must Be a God” by Gregory Fraser

Is audacity essential for poetry? Does the composer have to vaunt herself in order to make herself heard?

Walt Whitman believed that the lyric impulse requires a self-aggrandizing gesture. What else are we to make of a “Song of Myself” that unashamedly woos the ego to the point of inflation? One walks away from Whitman as one leaves outsized performances by Gaga or Jagger: annoyed, charmed, conflicted, liberated.

Gregory Fraser’s “I Must Be a God” reminds us of the audacity that animates poems this side of “Song of Myself” (Think: Howl. Think: The Waste Land). The title erupts into a sudden apprehension. The speaker enthrones himself in the universe; he “must be” divine. But his conclusion is based upon flimsy evidence. The ocean waves surging at his feet supposedly give “kisses”; the birds jubilantly smashing into his window to render him devotion bring “offerings,” albeit a dubious sacrifice. The speaker’s self-exaltation, blatantly romanticized, is obvious delusion. Though true to the ecstasies that now and again steal upon us—Frank O’Hara’s “And here I am, the/ center of all beauty!” comes to mind—the poem expresses unrestrained vanity.

But it may be a wholesome vanity.

Over the centuries, writers have been divided about how to figure the self. What are we, worms or gods? Angels or insects? Abasement, apotheosis, both have had their turns in poetry; each corrects the other.

When the speaker posits that if not a god he is “at least” “a matador…/ sidestepping month after month/ charges of the two-horned moon,” he simultaneously acknowledges his overreach and his artistry. The marvelous cape which transforms the moon into a stampeding bull is the blazing silk of metaphor. With it, the poet exercises dominion over the illumination that seeks to impale him.

I purposefully use the word “dominion” here rather than domination. Though open to abuses, it seems to me that dominion, when rightly employed, draws out the potential of the earth, including natural byproducts like language. It expresses a generative, playful egotism without which we cannot invent or manufacture. Remember poor Prufrock who dares not disturb the universe, nor can he even summon the courage to eat a peach! The withering self, of which Eliot’s antihero is but one example, abdicates a role that is fundamentally human, a decisive (be it right or wrong) engagement with the world. In contrast to enfeebled Prufrock, the poet unabashedly makes her mark.

In the matador, Fraser maneuvers an image on the page and thereby recreates. He does so, beautifully. If by asserting himself the versifier is prone to magnificence, so be it; the power of verbal genesis is both dangerous and heady. The groveling characteristic of lukewarm desire is something poets—those robust souls—understandably recoil against. They are not “innocents torn from their beds like crabmeat from shells,” nor are they “pebble[s]” tapping at the “window” of unconsciousness while “bearing words of apologetic longing.”

There is room, of course, for poetries of ambivalence and misgiving, for the circumspect poet, yes, even for an abnegating one, but in the end if what we set out to do in speaking forth poems is to disquiet the cosmos then action is required; and if action, then vitality; and if vitality, then ego. With ego, there is always the chance of euphoria, which may be verbalized as either benediction or imperiousness. No amount of hand-wringing or concealment can disguise the naked self-empowerment involved in acts of creation. This is the joy, perhaps also the burden, of the poet.

L.S. Klatt grew up in Cincinnati. He is a graduate of Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and holds advanced degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Boston), St. John’s College (Annapolis), and the University of Georgia (Athens). Over the last ten years, he has taught literature and creative writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Klatt’s poems have appeared recently in Blackbird, Denver Quarterly, Harvard Review, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Colorado Review, and The Best American Poetry. His first collection, Interloper (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), won the Juniper Prize for Poetry, his second, Cloud of Ink (University of Iowa Press, 2011), won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and his new volume, Sunshine Wound, was just published by Free Verse Editions (Parlor Press).

Previous post:

Next post: