Peter Meinke Essay - Critical Essays


One quality that critics and reviewers have often praised in Peter Meinke’s poetry is its wisdom. PoetEdward Field applauds the “literary sanity” of Meinke’s voice, the poems spoken by “a lovable, beleaguered man trying to make sense of a difficult world.” For all the self-deprecating humor and technical flair, there is “a little of the Ancient Mariner in the tenacity and urgency with which Peter Meinke addresses his readers,” according to poet Ted Kooser. Meinke’s poems “get hold of us by the coat lapels and when they release us we are delighted, shaken, and considerably wiser.” He writes, says poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker, “beneath a banner of wisdom.”

Lines from Neuchatel

While many, if not most, writers use foreign travel to reinvigorate their work or to force themselves out of habitual perspectives, Meinke seems to have begun his career by such means. The poems in his chapbook Lines from Neuchatel focus on Swiss landscapes and the displacements in sensibility and language that come with being in a country not one’s own. The speaker in most of the poems—presumably Meinke himself—is often self-conscious about his literary vocation and his nationality. In “Café du Pont,” he is shamed by a cleaning woman’s comment, “La vie est difficile, monsieur” (life is difficult, sir), as she mops the floor around his desk while he sits “feeling stupid staring at my typewriter.” Later in the same poem, he catches a glimpse of himself as perhaps just one more “ugly American” in Europe (albeit on a writing fellowship) when Michel, whose wife has left him for a U.S. military man, observes that Americans always seem to have plenty of money. The speaker responds, “I try to look poor./ We are poor./ So why don’t I work, eh m’sieu?”

Elsewhere in Lines from Neuchatel, Meinke senses the estrangement from life that art can often inadvertently encourage. He puzzles, for example, over historical coincidences such as eating a gourmet meal in the room where the doomed journalist Jean-Paul Marat was born, and considers how in their Alpine hotel, he and his family can enjoy the scenery, almost forgetting “the brooding darkness of America,/ of all countries, the violence/ of which we formed a part.” These early free-verse poems, often unconventionally or inconsistently punctuated, tend toward surrealism; snatches of nursery rhyme and childlike sound effects (“ouah ouah ouah” and “boomboomboom”) mix effectively with Dadaist images: “where Freud forever sucks Napoleon’s fingers” and “the albino dwarf chewing on chicken bones.”

The Night Train and the Golden Bird

This surrealist tendency continues in somewhat muted form in Meinke’s first full-length collection, The Night Train and the Golden Bird, a title that itself indicates the poet’s interest in the subconscious and the often dreamlike qualities of poetic meaning. In “The Poet to His Tongue,” the protagonist—in this case decidedly not Meinke himself—remembers how from his cancerous tongue “words burned like houses” and “a sentence filled a room with dead birds.” He decides to keep the tongue in a bottle of Jim Beam on his desk and comes to believe he can hear a music coming from it, “a strain/ unnatural and familiar” that he finally admits might be merely drifting over from the beer joint across the street.

This juxtaposition of the strange with the commonplace continues through the volume. “Chicken Unlimited” recounts the ambitions of a fast-food carton; “The Monkey’s Paw” borrows the O. Henry short-story title to imagine reunions between battlefield dead and their loved ones. A love poem, “Surfaces,” concludes with lines reminiscent of the Zen poems of the 1960’s:

This is how I feel about you:supposeon the surface of a rippling poolthe moon shone clearly reflectedlike a yellow rosethenif a cloud floated over it I would hate the sky.

Even in this volume there are signs of Meinke’s growing interest in more traditional poetic forms. He arranges the poem “Because” in three stanzas of seven lines each, repeating the sentence pattern in each stanza as well. A hint of end rhyme appears early in the poem with such words as “lovely” and “tendency” and in the assonance of “possessed” and “breath.” Meinke concludes the poem with an exact rhyme—“pain” with “stain”—that acoustically sums up the poem’s argument about the false temptations death extends to the suffering, downtrodden, and vulnerable. “Elegy for a Diver” is the earliest example of strict form in Meinke’s work, using rime-royal stanzas in part 1 and rhymed tetrameter couplets in part 2. The prosody matches the late diver’s athletic precision, the opening line (“Jackknife swandive gainer twist”) reappearing in its entirety in subsequent stanzas.

Trying to Surprise God and Underneath the Lantern

The poems in Trying to Surprise God and Underneath the Lantern reveal Meinke gradually becoming more interested in the way poems can be formally shaped to express the most deeply felt experiences....

(The entire section is 2243 words.)