I’m not very smart.
Experience has taught me that it’s best to just be upfront about this. Yes, at first glance, I may appear to possess a good vocabulary, but upon further inspection, it becomes painfully obvious that the bulk of my wordhoard consists of misused, mispronounced, or made up words. And yes, I am pretty good at quoting Nietzsche, but seldom do I have the slightest clue as to where these “Nietzsche Nuggets” come from. And yes, I do sometimes ask searching questions, but just as frequently I ask infuriatingly aloof questions like “is Thanksgiving always on a Thursday?” and “how does anyone really know that dogs smell fear?” And here’s the worst part: I’m okay with my notsmartness. Actually, I kinda prefer it. Being smart terrifies me. I’ll explain.
Like many schoolchildren, I was dogged by the constant specter of schoolyard bullying. At my school, noogies, wedgies, and swirlies were the least of anyone’s problems. What the bullies who hung around my school liked to do was grab kids, shove them behind a tree, and quiz them. Anyone who answered these questions correctly was deemed “too smart.” The punishment for such smartness was having a bottle of foul-smelling liquid poured over your head. (As an adult, I’ve come to realize that this foul-smelling liquid was cheap bourbon. In retrospect, I can’t help wondering who was buying all these wayward children Pappy van Winkle and why were they wasting so much of it?!)
Once such bullying occurred, your schoolday was ruined. Upon catching a whiff of you, your teacher would immediately send you to the Principal’s Office. The Principal would call your parents, and once they arrived, you would be asked to explain why you smelled like Boris Yeltsin. Of course, you couldn’t tell the truth! You had to make up some outrageous story involving a Big Gulp being thrown out of a window of a passing car, or a bucket falling off a ladder, or tripping into a giant puddle near the backdoor of Cheyenne’s. If your story was believable, you would only get a stern lecture on the evils of alcohol; if not, there was a good chance you’d end up in some creepy basement of some random Presbyterian Church attending an AA meeting, which is pretty darn confusing for a 5th grader.
Of course, none of this terrified me. What really terrified me was the thought of having to spend the rest of the day wearing wet socks. I HATE wearing wet socks: always have, always will. So whenever I found myself rudely thrust behind a tree, I showcased my notsmartness to its fullest extent:
Q: Who was William Shakespeare?
ME: Third baseman for the Yankees?
Q: Tell me something about Existentialism?
ME: It’s the name of a Tribe Called Quest album?
Q: What do you know about Bosnia Herzegovina?
ME: She plays tennis? No wait, isn’t she dating Ellen DeGeneres?
The result of such ridiculous answers was that my interlocutors look on me with not anger, but pity. To them, I was obviously short bus material. And hey, as long as my socks stayed gloriously dry, I was okay with that. An unintended consequence of such behavior was that my bond with serious intellectualism was severed irreparably. If pain is the greatest aid to mnemonics, as Nietzsche suggested in Atlas Shrugged (or was it The Fountainhead?), then the avoidance of pain is a pretty darn close second.
To cope with my notsmartness, I’ve learned how to magpie the opinions of unquestionably smart people. Whenever I need a quick opinion on – say – Shakespeare, I just magpie something from Harold Bloom. On politics: Ralph Nader. On Healthcare: Atul Gawande. And for everything else: I just repeat shit my dad says and/or things I’ve heard Charles Barkley say on Inside the NBA.
For poetry, I turn to David Baker. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? If not, here’s a quick list of his accomplishments: Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review, Guggenheim fellow, two-time winner of a National Endowment of the Arts award, Pushcart prizewinner, and winner of the 2007-08 Kia NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award. He also teaches at my alma mater.
Given my reverence for David Baker, it was no surprise that upon discovering the following quote affixed to Hannah Stephenson’s poetry collection In the Kettle, The Shriek, it took me approximately .002 seconds to slam the ADD TO CART button:
“Here is a poet of clarity and connective grace, full of good will and wily stories alike-funny, neighborly, amused, observant, she’s a storyteller with an aphorist’s flair for precision… Hannah Stephenson makes poetic testimony into a manner of lyric, laic testament.”
And yes, I had to look up the word ‘laic.’ (Thanks again, Dictionary.com!)
I just realized that quoting the country’s most insightful, intelligent poetry critic in your review of a poetry book is a pretty boneheaded thing to do! Baker’s quote definitely reinforces Nietzsche’s opinion that all quotes cry out: “I am precious metal and all around me is worthless lead.” (And by the way, if anyone knows where that quote comes from, please post it in the comments; seriously, I’ve been trying to find it for months!)
Okay, with this in mind, here comes some worthless lead:
Everyone demands something different from poetry. Some people demand erudition; others cleverness; others hokum. What I demand is livewithableness. No matter how many times Harold Bloom reiterates his love for Hart Crane, I am NOT rereading The Bridge. I want poetry that expresses a specific kind of casual elegance that enriches everyday existence. And this is exactly what I take away from Hannah Stephenson’s poems. Phrases like “Every type of hunger is biological./ Our bodies are babies,/ brats” (We Are Engineered To Want), “the chaos fairy” (Comfy), and “In winter, salt. In spring, mud” (In Silos) are extremely easy to incorporate into my everyday consciousness, as is the idea of someone twisting, “rotisserie-style” in bed, which is pretty much what my son and I do every night. (How to Sell A Mattress). But casual elegance shouldn’t be confused with whimsy or weightlessness. After all, confronting the unavoidable gravity of existence is something we all have to live with. And Stephenson doesn’t shy away from such a confrontation, as when, in my favorite poem from the collection (After After), she says:
Childhood trains us
to expect the great ocean
of time around us,
endless, and always more
of it rolling in and away.
A couple of decades
in, and we know scarcity
You don’t have to be a brainiac to know that such scarcity is inescapable. Why not try to combat it with beauty in abundance and daily doses of poetry?