To Be Read in Five Hundred Years

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

As a poet and an inquisitive citizen of the world, Albert Goldbarth has always shown himself to be excited about historical detail, about the curious anomalies that exist within every culture. He can be considered a collector both literally and figuratively. Since the 1970’s, he has produced one remarkable collection of poetry after another. His first collection, Coprolites, was published in 1973, and for more than thirty years he has produced a volume nearly every year. He has taught at several leading institutions, including Cornell University, Syracuse University, and the University of Texas at Austin. Since 1987, he has taught at Wichita State University, where he is currently the Adele Davis Distinguished Professor of Humanities.

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Goldbarth is fascinated by objects and is an avid collector of toys. He considers himself a gatherer, a hoarder, a poet who must work into the night at his table, piecing together everything that seems to fit into a whole. There must be debris all around, must be extra words and images that will be used next time. He seems to believe that much more fits together than any other poet would surmise. He gives his readers much to ponder during a long winter’s night. His poetry comprises many layers and many materials. There is room in it for images and tall tales. For all the padding employed, though, there is no excess. Few poets are good at this form of construction, but it all holds together in Goldbarth’s capable hands. Some lines may state the obvious, may seem unnecessary, but they work within a Goldbarth poem. He is willing to appear silly or to risk chaos. For his efforts to inject humor into his poetry, Goldbarth was awarded the 2008 Mark Twain Award for Humorous Poetry by the Poetry Foundation.

Goldbarth has not always been very helpful in shedding light into his approach to poetry, enabling others to interpret his work. He has stated that he does not “spend any time thinking about [his poems] in such terms as an aesthetic out of which I create, or an ideal toward which my body of work is heading.” What pleases him the most is that he has “poured the best of myself into the poems themselves.” Goldbarth is suspicious of critical commentary about a poem. He wishes for his poems to be independent “meaningful moments of power for a good reader.” If a poem works, it is primarily because of the skill of the poet and not because of its subject matter. Autobiographic “truth” serves no purpose for Goldbarth. A brilliant poem creates its own “truth.” The poetic worlds that he creates fit into his worldview. Goldbarth believes that “the universe is nothing but incomprehensible multilayers, and our lives are examples of that.” As he sees it, “we are all a thousand things at once.” Through his poetry, he grapples with the vast cosmos, and his poems “are mimetic of a layered, interconnective cosmos.”

After completing a poem, Goldbarth can be pleasantly surprised that he has referenced several disparate subjects. He may combine William Shakespeare with a comic book character. This process is not thought out in advance. The references that are seemingly poured into a poem are as large as the poet’s mind. In his long career, Goldbarth has not slowed down in his production of stimulating poetry volumes. He continues to believe “in the power of books to save some individual life out there.” The poet is not saying that a book will affect an entire culture, only that it is possible for the book to change one life. The talent that the poet brings to the reading, to the dance, to the equation can make all the difference in the world. The poet may not have read poets from centuries past, but each poet can examine what is personal and make a successful poem. Goldbarth has expressed the idea that “there are no rules in poetry.” He has continued to wrestle with the idea of “unity” in all of his work. In some way, he believes, everyone looks to “ignite something extraordinary inside of themselves.” This project encompasses many quests, including the spiritual, the scientific, and the poetic.

In his poetry, Goldbarth has shown a tendency to focus on saving “people or cultural moments that have otherwise passed away or are in danger of passing away.” His massive curiosity and enthusiasm is readily apparent in everything that he writes. For To Be Read in Five Hundred Years, Goldbarth finds himself returning to the sciences, the soul, the nature of what makes humans tick. Personal relationships may come and go, disease and death intrude at inopportune times, but there is still the desire to add to what humans possess both in understanding and in toys. The collection is divided into eight sections: “Love and Death on the Cosmic Odometer: 1,” “The Writing Life,” “God Gives Adam and Eve an Alphabet,” “Everything,” “Love and Death on the Cosmic Odometer: 2,” “Taboo, Counterfeiting, Theft, Obliteration, and Other Errancies,” “A Premise as Tough as Monogamy,” and “Toward (and Against) the Future.” The past is observed with fresh eyes, from a new perspective.

The collection’s opening poem, “Reseen in This New Context,” gives readers a glimpse of what is to come, what Goldbarth is up to in this collection. He admits that there are many angles that deserve their moment in the sun. He states, “Of course it’s also true that, sometimes, a recontext/ will allow an admission of new and unforeseeable wonder.” From every point of view, the past and the present are sniffed by a thorough bloodhound. The poet is restless, nervous in this contemporary world, where everything seems expendable. There must be something that can be preserved, can be dusted for prints. Goldbarth does not believe in throwing things away, in flushing away anything that does not fit into a neat pattern. He finds much to relish in the past, in what can be considered collectibles. He refuses to leave well enough alone. He wonders, for example if his marriage continuing to stay strong, to last beyond all statistical norms, is worrisome, since he does not know how it is possible. Friends and loved ones do not last forever. Illness will rear its ugly head and force poets and concerned citizens to cope with an untidy disease, an untimely death.

For Goldbarth, it is necessary to speak the truth as he knows it. He is willing to admit that he is “thinking about sex.” The poet is not the only one to have “sex” on the mind. In the poem “If We Were Honest,” Goldbarth reveals that it is not merely him who has carnal thoughts. Indeed, most people are concerned at any given moment with either sex or death. Most expressions stand in for either sex or death. The poem ends,

    This is my topictonight, and how the craft of poetry and the roleof the postmodern yes to bare knee like a beacon,like a skull beneath the face-skin, and a questionfrom the audience is yes in my mind, yes in yours, yessex and deaththe one thing.

This sort of honesty can be unnerving, can leave readers in denial. Taking his job as a poet seriously, Goldbarth will have none of such objections. Important poems, immortal poems always will instruct and interrupt. There is no easy way around a poem. If one reads for meaning, then meaning one shall receive.

Goldbarth focuses on such things in the poem “The Arc,” where he speaks of

      the epic poemthat over time, becomes a pillowwedged beneath a woman’s skull. She must have loved itardently; she must have loved this little, private magicinto taking place. And we’re all on the arc of a pilgrimage trail,molecule by molecule becoming something different.

For all readers’ rationalizations, for all their “calling the pot black,” no one can escape the truth, the conclusion that takes no prisoners. Goldbarth recognizes all too well that no one dies without leaving something behind. He asks, without mythology, without memory, and without passionate sex, what does humankind really contribute to the “cosmic odometer?” Goldbarth has always made the case that what humans wrestle with makes them tolerable, humorous, and almost remarkable. Humans must dig, must investigate, and must confirm what is true, what is eternal. Will love last, will gods prevail, will civilizations stand tall for eternity? Many will ask these questions, but poets endeavor to resolve the issues at hand. In the poem “Marble-Sized Song,” Goldbarth concludes, “yes in the shadows, yes in the radiance,/ yes we must go in and in.” To be involved in life entails not being satisfied with ignorance, being left in the wilderness.

The short poem “Birds,” which opens the section “The Writing Life,” professes that “It’s hunger and territory/ although we choose to call it song.” This is history at its most elemental. It is left to those who come after to remember, to sing the praises of what came before. Goldbarth likes to serve as the archaeologist who unearths what has long been buried in the hearts and minds of an absentminded culture. While “Birds” may be the shortest poem of the second section, “The Craft Lecture to the Creative Writers of the Low-Residency Program at Yadda Yadda University, with a Late Assist from Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, Sir Thomas Browne, and Allusion to the Title of an early book of Jorie Graham’s” is the longest, at seven pages. The poem opens with “The Earth was writing: the Earth had penmanship,” and ends with

    Last night my childhood knockedfor attention against the inside of my cranium,a ten-year-old boy and a hazy duo behind him lookingas if he could never grow up to fail or disappoint,I heard them say that memory is holy, and nothingnot the son or the Son or the sun overhead itselfis eternal.Keep a dream journal.

The idea of keeping a “dream journal” is mentioned several times in the poem. As with many Goldbarth poems, this one is one part real, one part imagined, and another part everything in-between. Readers are advised to “keep a dream journal” in order to keep what is essential for survival close at hand.

Goldbarth saves the collection’s title poem for its final section, “Toward (and Against) the Future.” In the poem, he ponders whether “the whizkid physicist thinktank guys” could be right when they suggest that “every acted-on decision of ours” can produce “two simultaneous independent futures.” With so much going on, so much to keep track of, relish, preserve, ponder, and maybe even worship, who is going to make the correct choice? How many mistakes have to be made before those who supposedly should know better will right the ship? For the poet, it is love that gives him purpose. He “freely” gives “her one grand opera rose/ and hiphop dove, she under my skin, she knife in my mind, this thing,/ oh this millennial and hallucinatory and radiant thing, she bring me,/ she life me, she take me, she bring me love/ love love love crazy love.” All the knowledge in the world, all the imagination, all the skills, tools, and dreams, lead to this realization, and this is good. This is what the poet has been trying to present to the ever-attentive readers of this stimulating collection.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 20 (May 18, 2009): 39.

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