The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 16, 2010

On Joshua Beckman

We asked our editorial team if they wanted to write about a particular poet they consider underrated. Today's guest post is written by Dan Piepenbring, editorial assistant for Sarah Crichton Books.

Joshua Beckman’s Take It, a slim and remarkably agile collection, was published last spring by Wave Books, where Beckman is an editor. His poems impress variously and enduringly, but it’s their range that astonishes foremost. In sixty-two pages—and with plenty of white space leftover—Beckman runs a dizzying gamut of images and motives. He’ll conjure his inner curmudgeon only to banish him in the next couplet. He’ll wax rhapsodic and then sardonic about love, children, the state of the nation, seventies cult classics, bananas. You want brio? He can do brio, but he’ll just as soon collapse under exhaustion. Beckman’s no schizoid; he’s just talented, is all.

It’s impossible to cite his formal dexterity in the course of a brief blog entry—better to demonstrate how wholly he inhabits the modes of his choosing. The collection’s twenty-first poem (all of them are untitled) has lines as good as any:

Desert stylists were convening on
Port Washington for a vacation and
in a hotel room one sat me down
and began to discuss his wristwatch
as if it had a fundamental and symbolic
existence, a pattern of unified time
as little 2’s march along or something.
I feel, no, I am certain, that right now
thieves are breaking into my apartment,
I must go. But this convinced him not.
[ . . . ]
God has made this hotel in his image.
The fluctuations of life. Yes. Yes,
I understand folly, we’re the creatures
he explained that to.

Reading only this selection, one might reasonably place Beckman in the tradition of, say, Robert Creeley. Certainly it displays some of that poet’s touchstones: an emphasis on terse rhythms; the commonplace tinctured with the absurd; a narrator whose relaxed, aloof sarcasm cedes to something forlorn and contemplative; and an expansive, abrupt hiccup of an ending.

Elsewhere, though, Beckman breathes the more rarefied air of a formal modernist: “I dream not of the tender head and leaf/ but of the spastic dismantling of spirit between/ the teeth of my enemy.” In these three lines, you’ll recognize another aesthetic—something of a classical pace, yes, with its inverted constructions and extended metaphor. This is a different brand of poetry. Trust me, though. It’s the same guy.

Beckman’s chameleonic poise has scored many a point with the critics. Writing in The Believer, Daniel Handler found this shape-shifting central to Beckman’s project: “It’s not even that he’s managed to weave together the experimental and the formal, the careful and the tossed-off, the heartbreaking and the silly. They were already woven together. Beckman just shines a light on the cloth.”

Right. What he said. It’s not every day that one is asked to recommend a poet. Even in New York—one of the few towns where folks speak of belles lettres or feuilletons without unctuous smirks, though it never hurts to try one on—I’ve never once been accosted by a stranger hankering for some verse. Do I know you? Do you hanker for verse? If you answered “no” and “yes,” respectively, then I recommend that you read Take It. If you answered otherwise, read it anyway.

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