February

by Jeff Oaks

It never fails to seem miraculous that my checking account fills up with funds at the end of each month. I’ve had my present job for 13 years now, so you think I’d be less surprised, but some part of me, raised among people for whom the Depression was a living memory and always seemed to be threatening to return and wipe out everything, still expects to be fired any minute and wiped out. Maybe I’m not afraid of that really, but hoping for it. I have often mistaken grief for excitement, terror for love, boredom for love, anger for grief, and so on. My reaction to change is to hide out until things return to regular patterns. I like regular patterns. I like the end of January especially, and the W-9s that appear in my mailbox. Because I have the government take out extra money per paycheck, I usually get something back from the IRS. And it usually appears in my checking account just in time for the Associated Writing Programs’ yearly conference, just in time, in other words, to pay for my hotel room, my registration, my meals and travel, and the books of friends, idols, and total strangers.

I like writing out the month’s bills, which I did this morning. I like arranging them by importance–mortgage and car payment first, utilities next, credit cards last of all. It makes me feel as if things can be organized. As if I’m giving my money to companies, rather than having them taken out electronically from my account. Plus, I know that if a corporation makes a mistake and takes out too much money, it will take forever to get them to put it back (I’m currently going through exactly this with that evil corporation Verizon). I don’t feel like depending on corporate mercy unless I’m forced to.

And I love signing my name in cursive over and over again like a lovesick adolescent.

In other news, I’ve decided I’m going to talk about a book of contemporary poetry once a week. I’m going to try this for the month of February anyway. I don’t want to review them, honestly, but to use them as a way to think about contemporary aesthetics. So I’m going to choose a few books of poetry that seem to me to represent very different approaches to the art. I’ve chosen for this experiment a couple of books by poets I don’t know personally. I’ve purposely chosen books that I have trouble with, ones that present challenges to my own sense of The Poem and even The Point of Poetry. I’m hoping not to embarrass myself too badly in the process.

One of the great gifts of teaching has been choosing books from among the legions published every year. Especially in my Introduction to Poetry class, I try to choose a variety of poetic voices, approaches, contents. Sometimes I’ve chosen a book even though I didn’t particularly like it in order to represent some school of poetry for the students. Because I’m the teacher, I knew I had to be able to mount a defense of the poems in case none of the students could or wanted to. This is how I learned to first appreciate and then love poets as different as Carl Phillips, whose syntax I was thrown by until I had to figure out how to teach students to parse it, Mary Ruefle, whose disjunctions seemed completely capricious to me, and Amy Clampitt, whose poems seemed overwritten and lethargic.

My hope is that using this public blog will make me be more careful as a reader and might lead to some discussion.

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