Thursday, June 13, 2013

`I Try and Stay Away from Being Kooky'

“Too bad. You’re done. Go home.” 

I overheard my ten-year-old reveling after he had trounced a neighbor kid at some video game. The tone was mock-exultant. He was happy but knew enough not to sound too happy, as though he were gloating, so he instinctively undercut the sense with the sound. Without knowing the first thing about prosody, he also spoke in perfect iambs. Joshua Mehigan, who knows a lot about prosody, says in a video devoted to him and his work: “I hear it all day long.” All of us do. It’s as natural in English as a heartbeat. Mehigan says he overheard a guy, presumably not a poet, say in a Dunkin’ Donuts: “I come, I do my work, I leave, that’s it.” Most of our poets could learn from the Donut Man. When a poet writes prose in the guise of poetry, inert on the page or screen, and declares it a rejection of artificiality and an endorsement of the natural or spontaneous, he is not only writing bad poetry, he’s usually writing bad prose. 

In the video, Mehigan reads his poem "The Smokestack." Since he published his first collection, The Optimist, in 2004, his poems, without sacrificing form, have grown more relaxed and simultaneously more detailed, closer to their subjects. They’re also funnier, sometimes skirting light verse, as in “The Smokestack” when he describes the title edifice: 

“It came before Lincoln Steffens.
It survived Eric Blair.
It was older than stop signs.
It would always be there,
resembling a tuxedo ruffle,
or an elephant head,
or a balled-up blanket
on a hospital bed.” 

I like Mehigan’s modesty and sense of proportion. In the video he refers to himself as “fairly plain-spoken.” He says, “I try and stay away from just being kooky.” He avoids “far-out, dreamy ideas.” He is, in short, a grownup, an endangered sub-species among contemporary poets. He seldom resorts to the literal first-person, the default mode of American verse. His poems have a subject and the subject is not Joshua Mehigan. Like David Yezzi, he writes about the world beyond his skull. Normally, one avoids reading poems about mental illness not because the subject is unpleasant but because it’s customarily romanticized. Mehigan avoids the pitfall admirably in a poem published earlier this year, “The Orange Bottle”: 

“Each night he fell asleep,
and each morning he got up,
and he washed down his medicine
and squashed the paper cup, 

“feeling, in all, much better,
more in touch with common sense,
and also slightly bored
by the lack of consequence.” 

Mehigan’s second collection, Accepting the Disaster, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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