Can we blame the difficulty of contemporary verse on the example set by Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot, two of modernist poetry's most distinctive voices?
Their harmful influence endures today, having already resulted in lesser movements like the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry of the 1970s, when experimentalism supplanted what bards had long cherished--meaning, beauty, form. Reading today's poetry--an arena where ideas are reduced to a game of language--taxes one's patience. However, you still hear college students with no real interest in elaborate wordplay respond to a Stein passage, or an Eliot poem, with a statement like: "Wow, that was pretty wild."
Such comments offer thin hope to poorly paid English instructors (a group to which I occasionally belong) that legendary writers' words still wield power a century later. The most high-minded verse still punches you in the gut if a poet does her job well. If the poet performs empty exercises for the sake of looking smart, readers detect that, too. Fortunately, empty exercises are a snare Tucson poet Morgan Lucas Schuldt largely avoids.
Schuldt takes little interest in intellectual chess matches; instead, he has a great deal of respect for the canon of American letters. As editor of the literary journal CUE, he demonstrates a genuine passion for poetry with each and every lovingly prepared issue. That said, his debut volume Verge, recently published by Purdue professor David Blakesley's Parlor Press, makes more demands on the reader than his magazine does. Verge borders on utter gibberish, but Schuldt always includes a meaty, hard word or three to keep you from experiencing the painful sensation that you're wasting your time. One such poem is "Eros":
So god-bent. So sin
tactical. All brutal
bewilder-blissed by untentions.
a delight per
suasion. The third of three
distances (I, you,__),
each alike in pulse.
Sure, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But the rich, hearty language brew Schuldt concocts is at once sensual and polysyllabic. He smashes words together (note "bewilder-blissed" and "overtakelessness") with Shakespearean-like daring, and his line breaks are playful and fun enough that you begin to recall just how erotic good poetry can be when it eschews grim, alienating postures. Indeed, Verge is a positive book about carnal ideas and actions, and Schuldt is unafraid to lure the reader into the glorious mess that is human sexuality.
Another spicy poem is "Adjacent to Kiss":
My dream bateau,
my lickspoon darkling--
even in this botch of body
I depend most from,
needs must, and must heeds--
-Ologies be damned!
I'm a twice-and-thrice-a-day
in a one-a-day none-a-day world.
As presto my want is saga.
Incidental. But underway.
Again, I'm not going to pretend I know what any of this means, but I'm confident in saying that Schuldt works hard to push the phonetics of language into new carnal territory. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the individual reader but, for what it's worth, I think he largely triumphs in Verge. Words like "lickspoon," "body" and "needs" suggest the speaker is wrestling with the lust that burns in all of us, and the use of couplets here--a nod to Pablo Neruda, perhaps?--underscores the idea of coupling, whether intellectual, emotional or physical.
Interestingly, Schuldt isn't the first or last Tucson writer to be published by Parlor Press. Parlor is now the publisher of a slew of UA professors and alumni, and anyone interested in local verse would do well to check out Parlor's new and forthcoming titles. Schuldt's Verge is as good a place to start as any. It risks everything and settles for nothing in its hunger for experimentation and new forms. Thought it won't change your regard for Eliot or Stein, Verge reminds us that good poetry doesn't always have to redefine the genre. Instead, it can simmer in its own unique broth of language.
Who knows? Maybe Schuldt's poetry will, at some point, cause you to mutter under your breath: "Wow, that was pretty wild."