The Poetry of A.E. Stallings

A.E. Stallings recently published HAPAX, her latest book and published in 2006.

HapaxAmong contemporaries, Stallings makes for some of the most enjoyable reading. Her skill with language and form is foremost. Too few contemporary poets stick out their necks like Stallings, preferring the ease of free verse.

Stallings poetry is clever and that can be taken in its complimentary or pejorative way. Her poems can be compared to Wilbur’s and especially to Edna Saint Vincent Millay; in certain respects, Dorothy Parker. They are cogent, masterfully fitting theme to form. When Stallings is off, though, she only writes prettily. Her language feels studied and affected; and she can’t help remind readers of the Victorian poets in the thrall of Greek myth. Most of all, few of her poems exceed the sum of their parts. One wonders if there are not more profound or deeper emotional experiences she is not sharing or if the formality of her poetry is a kind of barrier. The risk in formal poetry is in letting the formality become the matter of the poem, intentionally or otherwise.

First, consider the poem “An ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro.” It begins:

“It is not the curled up bones, nor even the grave
“That stops me, but the blue beads on the collar…”

The first facet of Stallings’ writing is her easy and regrettable use of linguistic archaisms like “nor”. “Nor” just isn’t used in common parlance and I wonder why she felt compelled to use it except that she likes the archaic, literary sound of it. She could have written:

It is not the curled up bones, not even the grave…

Her usage is especially odd in a free verse poem. (One could not successfully argue that this poem is blank verse.) Formalist poets frequently resort to literary archaisms because they’re needed for metrical padding but they are a form of laziness.

Stallings imagines the dog’s wandering after death, making its way to the river Styx and crossing it. The poem is sensitive and touchingly asks why the owner put the collar on the dog. “A careful master/ Even now protects a favorite, just so./ But what evil could she suffer after death?” Stallings never ventures an answer. Instead, she’s emersed in the underworld walk of the dog that may or may not have something to do with the collar. The poem closes with a kind of cleverness.

A shake as she scrambles ashore sets the beads jingling.
And then, that last, tense moment–touching noses
Once, twice, three times, with unleashed Cerebus.

Is this the evil the dog might suffer? Was Stallings’ question only a rhetorical one? Touching as the poem may be, one wonders why anyone would read it to a friend. There is no psychological insight. The symbolism does not reach outside the poem. It does not offer anything beyond its own bemusement. It is one of those poems whose ‘whole’ fails to exceed the sum of its parts, charming and clever though it is. It sits like a still-life, justified by its own beauty. And for some readers this may be enough.

Alicia StallingsConsider the poem “Noir”. The reader is met with the following lines:

“Late at night,
“One of us sometimes has said,
“Watching a movie in black and white,
“Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen…”

Once again that word, which only belongs in fairy tales — upon — makes its appearance. It is the bane of formal poets. There is no reason for Stallings to use it except for iambic appeal. There is also the matter of the archaic diction. There is no reason for the grammatical inversion of “figures quick” (rather than “quick figures”) except to preserve the iambic patter. It is a form of laziness. Another example appears in the line “…lisping in tones antique…” One might argue that this “antique” diction is intended as a kind of joke except that it is a pattern that appears in other poems.

One of my favorite poems is the modest “Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks”. Almost every line offers up what’s best in Stallings, an elegance of language that rivals Richard Wilbur.

“A freight train between stations
“Shook you out of sleep with all
“Its lonely ululations.”

One couldn’t ask for a more effortless and prefect verse than this. The rhyme of station and ululation, two contrasting words, is inevitable and natural, perfectly suggesting the child or baby’s own crying. The final lines close with a lovely image:

“Here comes the freight train nosing west,
“Pulling the dawn behind her.”

This is Stallings at her best. Even if it does not carry the psychological complexity of a Frost poem she is a poet’s poet when she writes like this. There are no archaisms. She skillfully weaves rhyme and verse with meaning, such that the building of the poem appears inevitable. The formal poet is at his or her best when the formal structure of the poem isn’t noticed.

“Aftershocks”, a Spencerian Sonnet and justifiably the first poem of the book, also holds out Stalling at her best, while “Bad News Blues” plays on Stallings’ sly, sardonic humor.

Overall, there is the impression that either there are very old and new poems mixed together, or Stallings is of a split person when she writes. Among the most individual and compelling poems are “Aftershocks”, “Bad News Blue”, “Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks”, “Alice, Grown-up, at the Cocktail Party” while other poems like “Acteon”, “Empty Icon Frame”, “Mint” and “The Modern Greek for ‘Nightmare’…” or “Noir” are too clever, frequently archaic in diction and contrived in their rhyming.

But she is among my favorite poets.

She fully takes to the various arts unique to poetry — rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, verse structure. She is a rarity. I’ll be buying her next book as soon as it comes out.

[Addendum: At my previous site (which I think has finally been deleted by the powers that be), readers vehemently objected to my assertion that nor was archaic.  Consult any dictionary, though, and part of the word’s definition will be “archaic”. Specifically, dictionary.com defines the usage of nor when used without neither, as an archaic usage. Definition no. 5:

  • Archaic. (used without a preceding neither, the negative force of which is understood): He nor I was there.

A more meaningful objection is in whether poets should hesitate to use archaic words or diction. I think they should, but others will disagree.]

5 responses

  1. I happen to agree with your objections to “nor” in the dog poem but wonder why in “Noir” you believe “tones antique” to be an inversion, inasmuch as the poet isn’t saying “antique tones” but rather continuing the phrase (…”lisping in tones antique as that style of pouting….”). Perhaps an additional “as” would have made this clearer (…”lisping in tones as antique as …”) but there is a strong precedent, I think, for omitting the first “as” in such constructions these days. It’s downright modern.

    Leaving aside the “upon” issue, “figures quick upon the screen” seems like a critical sort of inversion to me. The poet intends, I believe, to draw attention to the word quick in both its meanings: fast and alive. Quick on the racing celluloid, dead in real life: this is the poem’s umbrella idea. To have written quick figures would not have conveyed the double meaning as well, or at least I don’t think so! That being said, I might be persuaded that the first 4-5 lines of the poem employ an embroidered (and very Millay-like) syntax which seems at war with the more natural diction in the rest of the poem.

    Keep up the picayune critiquing. Poetry is grand art, and also a nitpicky one.

    • As concerns “lisping tones antique”. I think you’re right and I misread the line. Thanks!

      As a better example, I would offer up the following:

      As the sun reaches the height of absurdity,
      A tree let’s drop a single yellow leaf
      To the pavement like a used bus ticket.

      Exile: Picture Postcards p. 54

      The expression, let’s drop, fulfills the demands of meter but has an antiquated feel to it. It’s something one expects to read in the 19th century, but the 21rst? The line and imagery, by the way, is beautiful. I just question that little touch of lace, as it were.

      And as you say, an argument could be made for “figures quick upon the screen”. The line sounds archly literary to me, but your point is well taken. Thanks for your comment, Kate.

  2. Patrick, I came across the discussion of “nor” at your old blog (which is not deleted and which appears on the first page of searches for Alicia Stallings) because of her recent Guggenheim fellowship. I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the usage note at dictionary.com, which applies only when, as you quote above, ” used without a preceding neither, the negative force of which is understood.” In Stalling’s line, there is no understood negative force from a missing “neither” – the negative force is provided by “It’s not …” I don’t much like citing dictionaries at people, but look at this from from Merriam-Webster:
    “a function word to introduce the second or last member or the second and each following member of a series of items each of which is negated “

    • Thanks Mike. You’re right. I got it wrong.

      With some years experience between me and that post, I would write it much differently. (That was among the very first posts I wrote.) I would use better examples, and correct examples. Every time I read Stallings I’m struck by two contradictory feelings: admiration and exasperation.

      Her poetic skills are easily among the finest of any living poet and yet I always get fidgety reading her. There is an elevated (and not in a good way) prettiness to her verse that strikes me as literary and stilted. She reminds me of Edna St. Vincent Millay without the thee(s) and thou(s). There’s also the content of her poems. The water of her poetry shimmers, but doesn’t run deep. For all the loveliness of language and imagery, I often feel cheated by the time I finish her poems.

      These are very difficult facets to capture and explain.

      I didn’t do a good job with the first try. I would give Stallings a second go around but I don’t want to sound as though I’m gunning for her. I’m not. I just have a different take on her poetry than her many fans.

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