April 2005

Jason Hensel

poetry

The Cuckoo by Peter Streckfus

I bought The Cuckoo by Peter Streckfus, not because it was selected for the Yale Younger Series Prize but because Louise Glück wrote the introduction. As a huge fan of Glück’s poetry, I figured that a collection endorsed by her would be a great find. However, in selecting Streckfus’s manuscript of experimental verse in her first year as the Yale Younger Series judge, Glück has shown a disposition to traverse the slippery slope of obscure allusion. Such high-minded, intellectual poetry can sometimes lose a reader.

Therein is the setback to this book. I don’t agree that every poem should be simple and easily grasped. However, I also don’t agree that every poem should be a puzzle, pored over for hours piecing together its lyrical locks. The best poems are the ones that connect with you upon first reading and then offer deeper and more universal connections upon further reading. A majority of the poems in The Cuckoo offer neither simplistic bliss nor connection with the reader.

Okay, let me back up. If you’re familiar with the texts and allusions that Streckfus incorporates into his work, then you’ll “get it.” However, I suspect that a majority of readers will just read the poems and leave confused. That’s because the poems are nonsense. Glück even says they’re nonsense poems in her introduction, while trying to convince the reader to let go and find the beauty of the words in the musical quality of the poems.

I admit there are some moments in the book when Streckfus ascends the high-brow and composes some truly remarkable work, such as “The Celery Cutters’ Song.”

We talked in the celery about the Russian
Jews with what little we knew, about the human
tendency to shtetls, our arms and hands dotted
with the yellow blotches, our boots, pants and nails dirtied.
Love and laziness singing at the periphery...

This one poem in the whole book makes me believe there is hope for Streckfus, because it expresses with dignity feelings with which most people can identify. The details in the poem and the straightforwardness, similar to William Stafford, make me want to read it again, happily discovering new things and new feelings. It challenges readers to connect with their feelings. On the other hand, a poem such as “Death and a Fig” lingers on the page to wallow in its own pretentiousness.

We’ll eat figs, dried, black figs,
while it rains outside, while it rains
through the doors and windows.
There will be very little speaking
during the meal, mostly tasting and forks
clinking, footsteps going from the table
to the kitchen for more. We’ll say
wasps

And when there’s some rice
on the mouth of a mouth-severed fig
we’ll say wasp eggs

Yes, there is a place in literature for the type of experimental writing that he practices; however, most experimental poems make the reader wonder about their purpose. If they’re written to challenge the concepts of “normal” poetry, pushing language and technique in order to expand the mind, then it can work. But if they’re written just to sound fancy or weird, then they come across as nothing more than spam haiku. When Streckfus writes, “I'll speak nonsense. You speak truth. We’ll see what comes of it,” he’s issuing an interesting challenge, a la Peter Streckfus vs. Ted Kooser. Who wins? Neither, because each style has its place in the poetry cannon; each has its pros and cons.

However, The Cuckoo is more con than pro because it really comes down to trying too hard. I read these poems and think to myself, “This is just someone writing ‘arty’ poems in order to be artful.” The genuineness of it is low. The pomposity of it is high. In the end, The Cuckoo more often than not will make a general reader feel stupid. And that’s the kind of truth the poetry world could have less of overall.

The Cuckoo by Peter Streckfus
Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300102720
80 Pages