poem index

Emerging Poet: On Joshua Weiner

Written by

Tom Sleigh
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Year

2003
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I've always been impressed by Joshua Weiner's formal intelligence and his sure knowledge of how to make a poem. He's learned as much from Mina Loy, Robert Duncan, and Tom McGrath as he has from Thom Gunn, Thomas Hardy, and George Herbert. His poems are open to many different kinds of aesthetic approaches, including those of jazz and the blues. Like the modernists, he's embraced the past, but unlike some of them, he's alert to the formal possibilities lurking in popular culture. Among the squares, he is hip; among the hip, he is wary. So watch out. His poems are tonal land mines.

For example, in his poem on Art Pepper, he combines an almost baroque diction with the oblique details of Pepper's appetite for music, heroin, and jail. He's also at home with the plain style, but capable of goosing it up with an early Lowell-like eloquence, as in the ending of his fine poem about his grandfather, "Who They Were." And he can do what's hardest to do in poetry, tell a good story full of psychological and ethical nuance as in "The Dog State." The tension between the traditional, allusive quality of his writing and the colloquial nature of his voice makes him a rarity among his contemporaries--jazzy verbal poets look a little frantic and overheated next to his cool, and the thought-driven ones sound a little pedantic and overly serious.

He also possesses a sure knowledge of how to find the poem's nerve. His poems delight in experience--the world is a fact for him, not a linguistic hypothesis. The pleasure a reader takes in his many-vectored engagement with his materials is for me one of the sure signs of his talent's oddball originality. That he doesn't quite fit anywhere is as much an aesthetic credo as it is a stance toward experience. Rather than "emerging," he seems perpetually emergent, to always be experimenting with different styles, to be unanxious about "finding his voice." The notion that a poet writes in a do-all, catch-all voice, or that a poet must have a settled style, is a bore. In his first book, forthcoming this spring from University of Chicago Press, The World's Room, a phrase lifted from an old Scots Border ballad, a reader will find a blues song, rhymed couplets, a prose poem, a contemporary riddle book, an epistle á la Horace--all of these dovetail with his talents.

Today's flashy rhetoric, heralded as original, is tomorrow's period style. The debate about self or selves, the referential or non-referentiality of language, has lost most of its fire as a source of inspiration. Indeterminacy and fragmentation are conventions now, and conventions are hazardous but necessary: Joshua Weiner delights in such hazards, and his poems take pleasure in jury-rigging pre-existing forms to new uses. His "originality" isn't the teeth-gritting kind: wasn't it Borges who said that if you came across a poetic effect that seemed wholly original, such an effort would inevitably feel strained, if not banal? And yet we are famished for a sense of newness--after all, no one way of writing will do for a lifetime.

Experiment and convention entail each other, though not in any neatly predictable way. Weiner seems to have realized this early and set about the task of laying a broad foundation for whatever demands his art will make on him. Integrity, ambition, talent--when these achieve just the right mixture, nothing could be flatter and more irrelevant than encomiums and predictions about a bright future: Weiner is doing his work today for today and doing it with artistry and verve.