A Review of Peter Davis’s Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!
When I received my copy of Peter Davis’s new book Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! I sat and read it through, laughing the whole way. Then I shared some of the poems with my wife, and the next day told others about it. That doesn’t happen every day.
Davis is a writer who captures the reader’s attention immediately with a candor uncommon in contemporary poetry. And he has a rare quality: the ability to address the reader with a twinkle in his eye.
In “Poem Addressing Why I Choose to Write Poems When I Know It Is a Highly Unlikely Way to Receive the Approval I Crave” he writes:
My need for approval is such that even normal approval is not good enough. I only feel good about approval if I have earned it in the hardest way I can imagine. If you, by some amazing stroke of luck, find this poem and it impresses you so much that you feel very positive about me, and if you communicate that positive feeling to me, I will feel very good for a very short period of time (especially if you are well-respected and/or semi-famous). I wait for this rare and fleeting event because I can’t think of anything else worth waiting for. It’s sad.
Well, I’m sorry, but I just have to laugh, because that sad state of affairs is so true for so many writers of poetry. It’s humor that comes from recognizing the truth about one’s self, saying, “aren’t I pathetic?” and laughing, because the alternative would be to wallow in self-important misery.
One might object that Mr. Davis consistently takes the low road in his poems, as in, for example, “Poem Addressing Boys, Age 5”:
This poem can turn invisible and it can beat up bad guys! When people read this poem it is like a laser shooting bad guys right in the stomach! This poem knocks bad guys on their bottoms! And if you need a force field you can get one from Dr. Defense who lives in this poem and makes a number of bad-guy-fighting tools and weapons. Sometimes giant robot bad guys try to kill this poem by bopping it on the head, but this poem doesn’t allow that and sends ninjas and wizards out to reverse time and destroy the robots. Dr. Defense jumps up and kicks everyone in the face and he, like, flies through a window and then, like, this poem explodes!
I think if I was five I would find this poem pretty cool. “But five year-olds don’t read poetry.” True. Neither do the illiterate, yet Davis addresses a poem to them too, expressing the hope that whoever is helping them to read this poem will forge a bond that will open them up to all the wonderful things to read. And so, if Mr. Davis isn’t really addressing the people mentioned in the titles of the poems—if, that is, he is primarily addressing readers of poetry, then he does so from a base of primary needs and desires, stemming from hunger: hunger for companionship and recognition from one’s fellows in the greater world. I believe he does this from a cleverly unique angle that opens up the possibilities of contemporary poetry. I would argue that he throws the door open wide in a friendly invitation.
It would be cynical to think this is merely a joke, yet even an admirer of Mr. Davis might not think the poems are really addressed to the people they say they are. A blurb on the back of Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! states that the poems are addressed to imaginary audiences. Now here’s where it gets interesting. The poems, according to this argument, are really addressed to readers of poetry, who are asked to play the game of imagining they are addressed to groups of people who will never read them. That’s a fun game to play, but not nearly as fun—or as significant—as imagining that the poet is doing this in addition to really addressing those he says he is.
Davis has re-imagined the persona poem, as practiced by Rilke, John Berryman and others. Rilke was not a dwarf, but used his poetic voice to imagine what a dwarf might say were he a poet. Likewise, at no time was Berryman a little girl, but in the beautiful repeated line of “The Song of the Tortured Girl”: “Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy” he provides a poetic voice to the inchoate suffering of a child. Indeed, Rilke and Berryman called their persona poems “songs”: lyrical compositions that give a voice to the inarticulate. Davis’s approach is to address the dwarf or the little girl. He does this as the poet, but in a voice and a language that the addressee can identify with.
The dimension of the joke plays an important part in this approach, as in “Poem Addressing Kittens”:
Here kitty kitty. Here kitty kitty kitty
Here, in its most extreme form, the approach remains on the level of the joke, even though this is in fact how one addresses kittens. That very fact is bound up with the joke.
Some of the people addressed by Peter Davis poems (just try and imagine how they might go): lover of heavy metal, conspiracy theorist, Christian, baby, economist, editor, realtor, police officer, people who are tired, hungry, horny, injured, under water or on television. Each poem is either addressed to such a group, or to a thought process in association with the reading of the poem, and each title begins “POEM ADDRESSING”, all in caps, like a headline.
Davis expresses a keen awareness of the multifarious composition of contemporary culture—to the different languages and worldviews spoken by subcultures. Students in creative writing classes today are exposed to the idea (from French philosophers like Foucault and Derrida) that whatever they write will be modified depending upon who the reader is. This is a fact of our lives as speaking subjects. Peter Davis’s poetry brings this fact into sharp focus, and in doing so makes a very funny game of it. It is, in a sense, a single poem being written over and over again, shifting in the light of whoever the addressee happens to be.
Again, it would be cynical to think that this is merely a game played entirely within one of the niches of society by an academic elitist having a laugh at the world’s expense. But this is the conclusion that must be drawn if one does not recognize that the poems are also really what they appear to be. It’s not difficult to take the poems at face value. Mr. Davis is particularly interested in those readers who might want to write reviews of his work. No less than sixteen out of the ninety-nine poems address potential reviewers. If you think this is a joke, you can ask him. In “Poem Addressing Some of My Boring Wishes” he gives his email address. He wants to know what you think.
When I asked Mr. Davis to share some of his poems with us last December I put the complete title of this poem in my subject line: Poem Addressing People Who Would Like Me to Contribute to Their Really Cool Journal, in which he wrote, “just remind me of this poem. Surely showing your knowledge of my earlier work will feed my ravenous ego enough to get me to send you something.” It worked.
Purists of poetic form might object to such a straightforward approach of a contemporary poet. Aren’t we supposed to work a little bit for our poetry? Not only has Mr. Davis dispensed with meter and rhyme, but his prose also does away with alliteration, assonance, consonance, dissonance, euphony or any form of syllabic cadence that one might identify with prose poetry. This drastic deparature from the conventional might remind us of a great poet who once did the same, Walt Whitman.
Whitman declared he contained multitudes and addressed burgeoning America in his work. His poetry announced, listed, declaimed and celebrated Young America. Surely his work did not simply address the public, but was for it as well. America isn’t so young anymore. She has grown in a thousand ways, speaks in a thousand tongues. Davis has addressed some of these. He is one of our poets, first imagined by old Walt. I have shared his work with friends who don’t read poetry and their response has been laughter and delight.
Contemporary poetry has often been attacked for abandoning the public. Davis embraces the public without any loss of sophistication. His work is direct, frank, refreshing, thoughtful and funny. I recommend this book to readers who may think they don’t like poetry. Try this. It’s different.
Mark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.