Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jury's Out: Steve Gehrke is Brilliant

After a phone call to the disgruntled office of the Poetry Foundation, I finally got my July/August issue in the mail. I swear, the woman who runs the phones at that place has a beehive hairdo and butterfly glasses. She probably chainsmokes. She is not helpful at all (I've had to call a couple times), but I can deal with her if I think of her as being a poetic Marge Simpson or something.

Anyway, I'm not all the way through with it, being a slow reader, but let me put in a little plug for Poetry: if you don't subscribe, you should. It's a fantastic publication. It has something for everyone in almost every issue. Also the layout is fantastic, so even if you didn't think you liked modern poetry, the pure splendor of typface and expansive margins will spell love for you.

If you read nothing else, I'm going to put in my vote with Betsy and say that Steve Gehrke's "The New Self" is totally a must-read. It's phenomenal, and don't let its length put you off: the work's cadence and rhyme pulls you along the ripples in the spring rush of a river. You'll find yourself tapping your foot like a swimmer's strokes.

The poem's musicality--never overwhelming--belies its anguish. I won't tell you what it's about; that would spoil the fun, but this is introspection at it's best. (Speaking of introspection, have you read Wislawa Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself"? I'll paste it at the end of this. Consider this a teaser to get you to read the whole post.) The poem is about guilt, or as my pal Jung might say (I've been reading a lot of him this summer) "being at variance with oneself." Introspection easily implodes into self-pity, and the brilliance of this poem is the way Gehrke unmasks the games of blame and self-victimization with which we try to absolve ourselves from responsibility for this strange other which is none other than us. "And it is funny, isn't it," he writes--and here the poem turns itself inside out and exposes itself, leading to its phenomenal second half,
the way that which starts as confession ends
     in blame, this constant search
for the marionettist of your brain, the ghost
     who stole the controls to your soul.
I read once that the key to a great poem is a great line, that most of the celebrated poems in history have that one razor sharp edge that cuts all the way to the end of brilliance into the sublime. Okay, so I'm not going to get carried away with myself--I'm trying, really--but I will say that this poem is stuffed with great lines which are both aweful in their insight and masterful in their language. He writes, "...the self / I am keeps evading the curses of the self / I meant to be...." Darn you, Steve Gehrke. Why couldn't I have written that? How dare you.

Betsy, I think the "jeweler's bluff" bit at the end is precisely about the ways in which Gehrke tries to use language--really excuses--to veil his own culpability, and the words reveal his bad faith. I have no idea what a "jeweler's bluff," is, though. I tried to Google it (a word, by the way, which somehow--again I say curse, you Steve--actually pulls off). No go. The internet failed me. Back to the point, Betsy, I think what he's doing here is basically what Tony Hoagland is saying in "There Is No Word" a few pages before: "how there are some holes [language] will not cover up; / how it will move, if not inside, then / around the circumference of almost anything", etc.

At any rate, I started to scan and try to get a handle on the rhym scheme (if there is a scheme) to delve deeper into analysis and whatnot, and then I realized I'm not in college any more and I just sat back and read the thing again. I humbly suggest you, dear reader, do the same. I don't think you'll regret it.

P.S. I know some of you are also subscribers to Poetry. Can we please get a conversation about this going? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself

 by Wislawa Szymborska

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.


  1. Thanks for writing this. I think you really nailed what makes this poem so amazing, and I'm glad I'm not the only person who freaked the hell out about how good it is. It might be the best thing I've read in "Poetry" and I hope they run more stuff like this. Next project: stalking Steve Gehrke.

  2. Update: Looks like he lives in Reno (http://www.unr.edu/cla/engl/people/Biography/s.gehrke.asp) so the stalking bit will be a little tricky (BTW Dear Internet: By stalking, I mean "not actually stalking but just aggressively trying to befriend").

  3. Steve Gehrke totally has an attitude. Check out that bio pic.

  4. I agree this is an amazing poem. I just got my first issue of Poetry, and I am definitely in love!