Seth Landman’s poetry is not perfect. It’s digressive and recursive, rambling and at times even ranting. It feels raw, unedited, and more like a draft than most contemporary poetry – which is exactly why it is important.
There is little argument that over the past two decades, the writing, reading, and study of poetry has been systemized due to the increase in MFA programs and the academic reliance on the workshop model. Many also argue that just as the word “workshop” implies the manufacture of commodities for sale, the workshop model has commoditized poetry itself, resulting in the so-called “workshop poem.” In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry, Nikki Moustaki describes the workshop poem as “the McMuffin of poetry;” she urges her readers to instead strive to make each poem “fine cuisine.” In Moustaki’s definition, the writer of a workshop poem drives a mediocre, uncomplicated, direct route from beginning to “clean ending,” creating a poem “perfectly comprehensible at first reading, whose form is obvious and whose movements are predictable.”
There is, perhaps, no greater sign of the commoditization of poetry than the fact that The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry exists; nonetheless, Moustaki’s description shoots an arrow deep in the bull’s eye of problematically pat and perfect poetry. Even the editors of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics agree: the entry for “Cultural Studies and Poetry” notes that critics who read poetry through the lens of cultural studies often eschew the workshop poem “as a hegemonic genre, a formula, and a commodity.” Like Moustaki, the authors describe the workshop poem in terms of a formula: these poems contain “20-40 prosaic free-verse lines cast in a confessional, sometimes ironic mode, which is appreciated by magazine editors and classroom teachers for its concision, approachability, sincerity, and epiphanic wisdom.” The implication, again, is that this formula will result in a “perfect” poem – and that such a thing as the “perfect” poem exists.
Seth Landman’s work is far from workshop-perfect, as it follows few of the formulaic instructions provided above. Landman’s work shines light on a very important fact: by following the right formula, a poem may be friendly, clean, and concise – in other words, perfect – but perfection is far from human. To borrow from an oft-quoted Leonard Cohen song, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” In cracking apart the workshop’s formula, Landman creates poems that are unmistakably, beautifully human.
In Confidence, Landman’s second full-length collection of poetry, one can see these cracks appearing in the very table of contents. The collection is comprised of three long poems, ranging from 28 to 46 pages long. The poems are not punctuated, and, through his use of syntactic doubling – and sometimes tripling and quadrupling – Landman shatters the shell of predictability that hardens the shape of the workshop poem. In the opening of the third poem, “Breakwater,” Landman writes:
I hope I sound a little like hope
a living honey
I want you
to say how
Here, the language exists as a layered series of possibilities rather than as one clear through-line leading to a clean ending. In fact, Landman gives up control of the poem and forces the reader to participate in meaning making, as it is the reader’s duty to insert punctuation and therefore determine the meaning of the sentence. For example, one could read the above lines as:
“I hope I sound a little like hope, making out a living. Honey, I want you a little, to say how I feel.”
“I hope I sound a little like hope, making out a living, honey. I want you. A little to say how I feel.”
Just as Landman breaks open the mold of predictability, so too does he shatter the customs of the confessional mode. Rather than revealing transgressions, Landman lets the reader into his process of thinking and doubting and rethinking. This is not confession in the sense of Sharon Olds or Anne Sexton, who seek truth in exposed taboo; instead, it’s closer to Freud’s talking cure: through an unfettered, uncensored exploration of the mind, one can discover the truth.
A poem composed in the tradition of psychoanalysis must by necessity show a lack of composure and composition. Indeed, reading Landman’s work is at times like sitting in a bar with a friend late at night, listening as he talks his way towards a realization. What makes Landman’s work extraordinary is that he doesn’t privilege the realization itself over the process of realization. Whereas many contemporary poems present realization in terms of a sudden, striking epiphany, Landman presents it as the endpoint of a long and very important process – and he implies that even the endpoint is not necessarily an ending. By putting his thought process on the page, Landman is able to illustrate moments of confession that are far from clean and uncomplicated. In the first poem in the book, “Telling You I Love You,” Landman launches forward and far beyond predictability by complicating the reader’s expectations. There is very little “you” in this section; instead, Landman populates the poem with long and varied lists of loves, from fresh water monsters to clarifications to doubt and religion. “I love the sound / of the song,” Landman writes, implying that the speaker’s love is as much for his own experience of love – and his recitation and description of the experience — as it is for the unnamed recipient of his love. The process, again, is of foremost importance – and it’s the foremost example of hope, as it’s the process of trying to communicate, to reach another person. As Landman writes in “Breakwater,” the poem that closes the trilogy:
on behalf of everyone
who is here
whoever you are
me up and I am
here to say I am
always talking with you.
Emma Bolden is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013). She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry – How to Recognize a Lady (Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); This Is Our Hollywood (The Chapbook) – and one nonfiction chapbook – Geography V (Winged City Press). A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry and The Best Small Fictions and such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, and Copper Nickel.