Robert Dana (who died just days before the publication of his New & Selected Poems 1955-2010) insisted that he sought a jazzy, improvisational style. But he also agreed that his work embodied many of the formalist principles dominating the poetic fashion of his formative years as a writer. He just hadn’t been as sure of himself as those formalists seemed to be, he once said, and remained so, and liked it that way.
To me, he’s a poet of classical sensibility, if anything, even at his most veering and whacky. Classical in his formal rigor and sense of proportion, his learnedness worn lightly, his unwillingness to offer a poetic persona that glories in autobiographical detail at the expense of rendering what is common to our shared predicament.
In a language enviably direct, he made songs against the churned-earth policy of contemporary life, and he identified with what is genuine in the broken, the vulgar, the orphaned—all that is vulnerable and trying to endure. He was a first-rate evoker of beaches and fields, and small town ferocity and splendor—a complex arcadia of glorious summers beneath which lie the chipped winters, late springs and falls of the self.
Those who now come to know him through the poems will discover, I believe, a personable, eloquent companion, extraordinary in his reluctance to condescend to the ordinary, an exile making a home of his art. There is much to admire, love and keep close. For instance, his superb villanelle, “Going Back,” is one of a late surge of traditionally formal poems, and it goes on my list of the Dana Dozen—pieces you email to those who haven’t been apprised of his work and must be won over. I’d add to that list, “Words for My Wife,” another beautiful, formal piece, and “The Stone Cutter,” “Starting Out For the Difficult World,” “Black Angel,” “I’m Lucky,” “To a Cockroach,” “Notre Dame de Paris, 1974,” “Watching the Night Hawk’s Dive,” “Hello, Stranger,” “How to Make A Good Green Soup,” “Summer,” “Chimes” and “The Other.”
I’d like to talk just a little about one of these poems, “I’m Lucky,” from the 1980’s and why I think it so remarkable.
And the birds have lost their talent
for the air.
blank with snow. Drifted.
The breath of trees
My neighbor’s blue Maverick
deafens, blind and hub-deep,
on exactly the same spot
he parked it last September.
This wind could cut glass,
freeze your finger to your cheek.
My life is not important.
I understand that.
In some ways the poem is Dana’s version of “Dejection: An Ode” or his “Desert Places”. A poem of the “be wilderness”–of stasis . . . and of resistance to the overwhelming fact that is the case. An apparent loss of poetic zest out of which poetry is made.
It treats the weather, like many of Dana’s poems, as both outer and inner landscape—one of the oldest tricks around. But for Dana (especially in his later work) I think this approach became a kind of existential ritual, almost a game—the challenge of saying something new about the oldest something around, a form of mastering the ordinary.
The talentless, flightless birds. The trampled snow. The breath of stripped trees. The blue maverick, deafening in the snow . . . but also—and this is a brilliant insight—already abandoned long before the first intimation of winter.
How much this poet respects us, his readers! How much he leaves for us! And how daringly.
For me, the poem hinges on what “important” really means—what is important in life, what is an important life—and on the distinction that it’s his “life,” not him, that is the point of revelation/assertion. (So easy—and perhaps revealing—to misread the line as “I am not important.”)
Of course, he’s important, at least in the poem; his imagination has assembled this landscape; he is the one in now-delectable crisis, having the recognition with which we, in the end, want desperately, gratefully to disagree or concur—in solidarity.
So. My life is not an important—notable—life? Or: My life is not important in the larger scheme of things? Or: My life is not important but other things are? Or: Even in this beleaguered place, there are many lives and mine is not important to them, to theirs?
I understand that. (Me with my finger to my cheek . . . with the wind that will not get through the glass, just now.)
I understand that much?
I understand that, but . . .?
I’m lucky I understand.
I’m lucky I understand that.
I’m lucky, I understand that.
His gaze remains direct, this poet. His work embodies the belief that the mystery of the particular cries out to be recorded, and that this labor is unending and, as such, a blessing. It prizes, as he says elsewhere, “gigantic intelligence masquerading as simplicity.”
That rare, sweet power, in poems like “I’m Lucky,” is what we can take forward into this moment, the one and only, the everything.