To Be Read in Five Hundred Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1892 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

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