In 2007, I had the opportunity to review the collected poetry of James Emanuel. It was my first serious poetry review, and while I was cautious, my assessment is something I can stand behind to this day. I still enjoy Emanuel’s poetry for its range, deceptive simplicity and technical skill. Emanuel passed away in 2013.
Review: James Emanuel’s Whole Grain
The poetry of James Emanuel first presented itself to me on the website Cosmoetica, which featured his poems on its Neglected Poets page and discussed his work in several essays. Lines from poems like “For a Farmer” or “Sonnet for a Writer” slowly worked their way into my mind, lingering in my thoughts as a result of their images, word choice, or insight. Having been provided with a copy of his Whole Grain: Collected Poems 1958-1989, courtesy of Lotus Press, I have had the opportunity to study his work beyond just the few poems that can be found online. Reading through the span of his work, I have admired Emanuel’s technical mastery, as well as the depth and variety in his work. Whole Grain is something rare in contemporary poetry: a volume where individual poems don’t just serve to fill a book, but assert themselves as distinctive artworks.
Emanuel’s poetry is subtle when compared to some of his famous 20th century peers. Readers are not hit over the head with T.S. Eliot’s literary references, Sylvia Plath’s harsh sounds, or Hart Crane’s thick diction. Compared to Eliot in particular, Emanuel’s poetry offers a different vision of what greatness is, for a poem doesn’t require footnotes, obscure allusions, or an ostentatious display of vocabulary in order to make it great. Emanuel’s poetry is largely self-contained, and his use of simple language could make one think his poetry was effortless. Throughout his Collected, Emanuel displays versatility in terms of subject matter and form, and strong images and phrasing work in the service of the overall ideas contained in his poetry. The skilful combination of these elements is what makes a quality poem so impressive. Even those poems that Emanuel classifies as ‘doggerel’ at the end of the volume are better than the actual doggerel of most bad poets, not just technically but because Emanuel displays a sense of humour that most deadly verse doesn’t have.
Emanuel’s versatility with form is relevant at a time when there are still arguments over ‘formalism’ vs. ‘free verse.’ It is the lack of quality poetry being published today that perpetuates this argument, for great poems share certain basic things in common regardless of how they are categorized in terms of form. A poem’s existence is not justified merely by being written in a traditional form, and ‘free verse’ does not imply prose broken into lines. Mediocrity, regardless of form, provides the ammunition for detractors on either side, and thus keeps the argument going. James Emanuel is an excellent example of a poet who can smash down this false argument, as he has written quality poems in traditional forms, like the English sonnet, as well as free verse poems. Have a look at this Emanuel sonnet, which already feels like a ‘classic’ to readers of Cosmoetica:
For a Farmer
Something slow moves through him, watched by hills.
Something low within each rock receives
His noonday wish, then crumbles rich; so fills
Each furrow that the prairie year upheaves.
His arm has lain with boulders. His copper hand
Has mused on roots, uncaring of barbed wire.
His fist has closed on thistle, and dug the land
For corn October snows have whelmed entire.
Something flows with him in stubborn streams,
And in the parted foliage something lives
In upright green, stirred by the rhythmic gleams
Of his hoe and spade. From worn-out arms he gives;
The earth receives, turns all his pain to soil,
Where he believes, and testifies through toil.
This excellent poem uses a classical form without sounding archaic. Emanuel satisfies the rhyme scheme requirements without sounding forced; the poem does not rely solely on its end-rhymes for its musical effect, but is musical throughout, which allow the poem to flow naturally and not feel as though it is constrained by its form. Emanuel imbues the poem with fresh images and unexpected word juxtapositions, going beyond simply meeting formal requirements.
Let’s look at how Emanuel fares when he ventures out of predetermined forms:
The Broken Bowl
When she felt it slipping,
its green-gold splendor soapy in her hands,
the rainbow bubble
swelling from the faucet mouth
burst, spilled a loudness in her pulse
that blacked a space
where eighty years zigzagged far back, returned
in time to give her gasp a suddenness.
“Don’t cry”—her mother saying it so long ago,
the broken forehead of the creamy doll
not even caressable.
“Don’t cry”—her father pushing her away,
her mother helping, and then the shot,
the barnyard fence poles not even hiding his collapse,
fragments fitting in her ears about the gopher hole
they said he’d stumbled in before they killed him,
before she found it, filled it with the earth.
She had cried, and years had watched her:
breakage many-voiced as premonitions,
second chances, sharp reminders—
all ceremonious, collectors of payments due…
Like now: her gasp half bringing back
“Grandma, let me do the dishes”—
the smallest one, who could barely hold this bowl,
who must have heard but couldn’t know
its past, its green-gold splendor.
History and bowls, she thought,
perhaps go hand in hand,
and felt the parts give way,
start a ritual in the sink,
their settling proud.
“Grandma, you finished already?”
was just a way of passing through, to play,
the thought diminishing, continuing
that breakage and pride grow old together,
mislay their strength companionably.
Her fingers, drying, wet themselves again:
a hesitation seeming,
a portion of her blinking, turning,
the reach for her glasses.
A towel slowly wiped them all:
fingers, spectacles, and the thought
of some old splendid thing,
in its time.
“The Broken Bowl” does not appear to be in a traditional form; there is no discernable rhyme scheme or syllabic structure, and stanza breaks are made at appropriate points in the poem’s narrative. The importance of music is apparent when considering what keeps this poem together. Aside from the pleasurable effects that music provides, it also contributes to the structure of a poem, linking disparate images and ideas at the level of sound. As with “For A Farmer,” the musical effects in “The Broken Bowl” pull the words together with Emanuel’s subtle use of alliteration and assonance. In terms of the actual content, Emanuel’s narrative draws in the various impressions, memories, and images so that they are not random ideas thrown at the reader. Combined, the narrative and the music make this poem cohere.
To focus too heavily on differences in form is to miss the similarities between the poems; for what is happening in “For A Farmer” is also happening in “The Broken Bowl.” The quality of poetic diction is sustained throughout both, since the poetry is musical, avoids or reworks clichés, utilizes unique phrasing and images, and possesses intellectual depth. By avoiding trite and hackneyed expressions, Emanuel keeps his writing fresh; perhaps the only familiar line in “The Broken Bowl” would be the expression “go hand in hand,” and even then, history and bowls are not an expected juxtaposition. Emanuel shows that with an understanding of how to exploit the relationship between words and preserve quality throughout, a poet can utilize any traditional form, and can venture outside of them with confidence.
Beyond sustaining high artifice, Emanuel demonstrates that he knows how to shape his poems on the page so that they can have maximum impact. Reading through Whole Grain, one notices that Emanuel generally has good line breaks, something that is rare in much contemporary published poetry. Even excellent poets such as Robert Hayden or Sylvia Plath will have a bad line break in an otherwise strong poem (“The Diver,” “Thalidomide”). Emanuel’s consistently good enjambments don’t mean that all of his poems are equal in quality, but they do show that he understands the full implication of the term ‘form,’ and that his poems are not arbitrary in their composition. Since the poems in Whole Grain are accompanied by dates, it is clear that Emanuel achieved technical control early on in his career, and had the shaping tools necessary for his later explorations of different subjects & forms. Here is one example of Emanuel’s skill with enjambment, from “Ski Boots in Storage”:
One boot just right, a bit behind the other,
waiting for the muscled push,
the take-off bite into the mountain snow,
the downward slope leaping up,
loosing its white strands of passage
faster, faster, slicing the sunshine,
turning the air to its highest key,
till suddenly people, buildings,
swing quickly once, then STOP,
their shapes a vapor
In addition to some nice images & a musical momentum to match the action, the reader can observe that Emanuel has broken the lines in a way that allows each line to have a certain amount of independence, in context. To break inappropriately after an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ castrates the impact of the individual line, and gives the poem a bad overall architectural design. Dan & Jessica Schneider are the only contemporary poets I have observed who not only match but exceed Emanuel’s consistent skill with enjambments, for their poetry regularly uses the line break to bring out multiple ideas in a single strand of thought, pushing beyond structural soundness.
Elsewhere, Dan Schneider has included Emanuel in an essay on Masculine poetry, with the poem “For the 4th Grade, Prospect School: How I Became a Poet.” Even when not writing about subject matter that is specifically concerned with masculinity, as in that poem, Emanuel can have a masculine approach, such as in another poem about washing dishes, “Sarah at the Sink”:
Elbow-pistons smartly pound,
But all is quiet; just the sound
Of acrobatic bubbles swirled
Around a briefly shining world.
His “elbow-pistons smartly pound” is an unusual and memorable line in the context of the poem, where such aggressive phrasing is not expected. Of course, distinctive images & lines that lodge themselves in one’s memory are typical of great poets. Reading through Emanuel’s poems, certain lines draw the reader back, such as “water undulates like vertigo upon the stairs,” and “A man, hanging stiffly from the roadside tree,/smeared my eyes awake with sunlight dyes.”
Emanuel’s unconventional approach with his subject matter goes beyond his phrasings; race is a topic that Emanuel explores in his poetry, yet he does not assume that being concerned over social injustices equals good writing, as so many others do. Here is a poem where he directly addresses the issue of race & being an artist:
A Negro Author
I wrote something black today.
I wonder what Negroes will say
Tomorrow I’ll do something white
If I can hold my pen just right
I’d rather be devoutly me,
Do my writing in a tree,
Watch it seep up into leaves—
Whose beauty no one misconceives.
Yet, what will Negroes say (and whites)
About a man who only writes
Leaves—of a color hard to name?
I’m treed, in this peculiar game.
Race, gender, sexuality and the rest are all topics that a poet can grapple with poetically, if they choose. But the ability to shape one’s writing into a “beauty no one misconceives,” ie. unassailably great art, is the real test of a poet’s ability. This is what separates real artists from those who merely have good intentions. Emanuel’s poem gives art priority over politics both in its message and how it conveys that message.
A recent interview with Emanuel indicates that he may be better known in Europe than in his native USA. It is odd to consider that Emanuel would not be known in a country so full of academic institutions where writing programs proliferate. A student of poetry could benefit from studying Emanuel’s poetic accomplishments; currently, many Creative Writing graduates cannot manage a good line break or musical phrase, for all the stress on ‘craft.’ Through neglecting quality poets like Emanuel, as well as through encouraging mediocre and bad writers with creative writing programs, academia has directly participated in poetry’s decline. To step into the world of contemporary published poetry is to find oneself stuck in a swirl of pulp, trapped in a vat of indistinct scraps.
The notion of excellent writing being overlooked is not a new one, yet lessons from the past (Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins) have evidently not been learned. The legitimate recovery of neglected artistic excellence has given way to academic careerism, where political agendas retrieve mediocre writers and thinkers. So it is almost necessary, then, that my introduction to the poetry of James Emanuel happened independent of academe & the myopic world of contemporary poetry. It was not a political agenda that brought James Emanuel to my attention; it was good criticism. This, combined with the reach of the internet, is what will ultimately allow the best poems in Whole Grain to bolt from the page and reach readers worldwide, “against all logic, all despair.”
This essay previously appeared on Monsters and Critics and Cosmoetica under the pseudonym Anthony Zanetti.