Leo Cookman on personal poetry and whether it is a good idea to invite comparisons with your influences.
Loren Kleinman, Stay With Me Awhile (Winter Goose, 2016) 61pp
A common misconception about poetry is that it is all confessional, or at least in part. The idea of ‘Confessional’ poetry is in fact a relatively new one that has been retro-actively applied to almost all poetry of the past. I say it is a misconception because whilst poetry undeniably is semi-autobiographical in some ways, it is rarely accurate and often not fully honest. So when I read poetry that so strongly associates with this idea of confessional poetry I find it difficult to read. After all, the important thing about all art is that your reading of it says more about you than it does about the author.
American poet and writer Loren Kleinman’s fourth collection of poetry is a frank and honest set of poems that it would be hard to describe as anything but confessional, though what they are confessing to to remains an unknown. The poems in the volume deal mainly with grief and love, love specifically for a man named Joseph. The explicit detail into which the poems discuss the relationship with Joseph is open and in many ways so graphic it almost made me wince to continue reading. You feel as if you are intruding on intimate moments not meant for the eyes of outsiders, making you a voyeur on an incredibly passionate or sad instance. In truth I did find this uncomfortable and difficult reading due to its almost brutal honesty and forensic detail which, as mentioned above, probably says more about me than the poems/the author themselves.
The imagery in the poetry is vivid, mainly concerning itself with nature and the outdoors (“In the garden, I hear the angels speaking near the clay pots and hibiscus. They dig up the potatoes with their wings”) and the human body/anatomy (“But what I would really like is to move through his hippocampus.”). Combined with the imagery and anecdotal references to sex throughout it creates a very organic (for want of a better word) sense to the collection, all worms and soil and bones and nerves, you can almost smell the spring breeze. It’s also nice to see a consistent style to a collection. The prose poem style is still relatively uncommon in modern poetry so to see solid block paragraphs without line breaks is a refreshing one. I am a fan of form in poetry and how it reflects the nature of the poem itself. The poems seem solid, concrete, on the page, reflected in the seemingly unwavering relationship depicted within. Buffeted by grief and melancholy the poems don’t bend and rarely even break, most of the poems remaining one paragraph throughout. For the visual style of a collection to immediately leap out is a welcome change and not something I commonly see in other poetry whereas most of the great poets of the past you can typically identify by their shape on the page before reading a single line. Whether intentional or not I was very happy to see this kind of individual visual expression of form and white space.
Unfortunately, for me, the language falls short. The vocabulary of the collection is somewhat limited and whilst this may have been a stylistic choice it does create a somewhat flat tonality within the poems. The reliance on imagery and juxtaposition that is so potent throughout is rather hobbled by a lack of unique, surprising or original word choices. I was more intrigued and/or shocked by the content than the language used to express it. As I say, this may have been a stylistic choice as it certainly creates a more confined atmosphere that is shared with the flat walls of the paragraphs themselves but it would have had more impact if more florid or unexpected word choices were used.
It is also hard to escape the long shadow cast over the collection by Emily Dickinson and the poets who followed her. The choice of the quote at the beginning sets the tone well but it does plant it firmly in the tradition of Dickinson/Plath and the type of poem that, like it or not, is read as biographical or confessional. A more contemporary reference point would have been Jo Shapcott whose Costa-winning Of Mutability has the most in common with this collection, with its plain speech and honest discussion of trauma and change. That said, there is an odd truth in the cliche that comparison is the thief of joy. While paying homage to influences is interesting, it opens the text up to a comparison which nine times out of ten isn’t fair one to either party.
Stay With Me Awhile is as personal as poetry gets; in its language, in its imagery, in its topics and even in its form. This has the accumulative effect of creating a unique collection from a poet with a distinct and deeply affecting style, but I do wish it had had the courage to stand by that.
Leo Cookman is a writer living in Brighton. His poetry has been published in Poetry of Sex (Penguin Books, 2014), The Best of Manchester Poets, Black Sheep Journal, LadybeardMagazine and BlankPages Magazine, among others.