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I’ve always been fascinated (read: obsessed) with two things: language and memory. Or rather, more accurately, the utter and complete failings and imperfections of memory and language. Both are slippery beasts but we often treat them as bedrock.

It turns out Goldbarth is fascinated with these topics as well as everything else under “the humanly visible part / of shapelessness in endlessness.”

Goldbarth is most often described as “expansive” and his style as “conversational.” He also just picked up the Poetry Foundation’s oddly-named Mark Twain Poetry Award and its $25,000 prize for humorous poetry, so I guess “funny” should now be used as a descriptor too. This award, which he added to his mantle last week, joins a litany of awards, most notably two(!) National Book Critics Circle Awards.

I’ve never found poetry “funny” and really the form doesn’t readily lend itself to humor.  And poets who often try to be funny mostly come off annoying. Of course there are funny poems but they usually come from unlikely sources, like several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (especially the Nun’s Priest’s Tale) or several of Philip Larkin’s poems, for example “To My Wife.” These aren’t poets who set out to be funny but is a mode into which they sometimes slip. 

Most poems considered funny are generally amusing rather than humorous and style has a lot to do with that. Goldbarth has an amusing, diffuse style. Tony Hoagland (who also earned the Mark Twain Poetry Prize) has an amusing, detached voice too.  It’s almost unfair to label these poets as funny because their hooks are in deeper waters.

Did you find Goldbarth’s poem in the October 13, 2008, issue of the New Yorker funny? Neither did I. Did it have humorous intentions? 

Goldbarth’s style is diffuse, so it can be amusing to find yourself in the first stanza thinking about meaning and language and our continual desire to name and measure things–it’s how we make sense of the world (“in some ways it’s entirely what we do”)–to the correlation of creation and destruction on the grandest scale to the “incomprehensible fecund and dying subjects at a family picnic.” In the third stanza, Goldbarth further distills the eternal into the being–memory and breath. Memory gilds and rubricates and edits; we’re continually measuring and naming and sorting and modifying. And as a new father, the lovely “An infant’s gentle snoring, even, apportions / the eternal” can work on a couple levels (infant’s certainly apportion the midnight hours) but I take it to ask what is beyond our own breath and how do we come to understand it? (I also like how the parenthetical “even” apportions the line.) And then, from a baby’s breath we are suddenly with the Wordsworths in the Lake District: Dorothy with her perambulator measuring the distance to Crewkerne and William writing the poem “Daffodils.”

And while, we might be scratching our head, wondering how we got from the naming of sky to daffodils in the Lake District, Goldbarth is really working the same ground as Wordsworth and “Daffodils” is a fitting poem for Goldbarth to use to end his poem. Wordsworth compares the flowers to the cosmic when he recalls the host of daffodils as 

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way 

Wordsworth is concerned with memory too and the entire last stanza is devoted to the recollection of the wealth of daffodils the poet stumbled upon and how it fills his heart with pleasure at times of introspection. Goldbarth, though diffuse (sometimes I feel like this is taken as a criticism; it is not) is really working the trappings of memory and language and “The Way” does it beautifully.

And finally, I must admit, there is a bit of wry humor at the end of Goldbarth’s poem. It didn’t elicit a guffaw but there was a bit of a lip curl.

Further Reading

A Poetry Foundation interview with Goldbarth on his collection of toys.

A Slate review of Goldbarth’s award-winning Saving Lives.

A Los Angeles Times review of Kitchen Sink, Goldbarth’s new and selected poems collection.


The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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