On Keith Waldrop.
Keith Waldrop is a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet. His accomplishment is difficult to describe because his work refuses, in Bartleby-like fashion, the twin traps of impassivity and affectation: “On my one hand, / stasis – on the / other, striving for effect.” In one of his very few interviews, Waldrop says: “I think the worst fault a poem can have is striving for effect.” Waldrop never strives; instead, he haunts—his presence is all the more powerful for barely being there, like a ghost you discover in a familiar photograph. There are plenty of direct statements, moments of humor and pathos, but we come to know Waldrop most through his subtle, exquisite compositional decisions: the way he breaks a line or collages found language. I think here of the perfectly balanced epigrammatic poem “Proposition II”:
Each grain of sand has its architecture, but
a desert displays the structure of the wind.
I read the poem as a tiny ars poetica: Waldrop has composed two lines of eleven syllables each—syllables of sound/sand whose arrangement displays the structure of Waldrop’s thinking just as a drift makes visible the activity of the wind. We intuit the author from the architecture, from the traces he has left.
Ghosts are everywhere in Waldrop’s work, but they’re not supernatural occurrences: a ghost for Waldrop is more a felt absence than a felt presence. As he wrote in his brilliant autobiographical novel, Light While There Is Light—recently reissued by Dalkey Archive—“my ghosts merely disappear. I never see them. They haunt me by not being there, by the table where no one eats, the empty window that lets the sun in without a shadow.” In his first published book of poems, A Windmill Near Calvary, Waldrop echoes this sentiment: “The terrible thing about / ghosts is that we know they are not there.” That’s a fine shorthand for Waldrop’s gentle but rigorous skepticism: his poems explore the desire for something beyond the visible, and confront the nothing that is there. But that’s not just a journey of despair; it’s also a recovery of wonder before the actual world—each grain of sand, and the relations between grains.
In a poem in Windfall Losses—only now do I see the “structure of the wind” in Waldrop’s titles—he calls for a “phenomenology of ignorance,” and in part that’s what this volume is: a beautiful, delicate, and various exploration of the endless (and so objectless) activities of thinking and feeling, the truth always just out of reach. Activity over stasis, but ignorance over false effects. It’s rather surprising that Waldrop—perhaps the most erudite writer I know—should so often avow his ignorance, but that position of unknowing has allowed him to see and sound what would escape the perception of the more egotistical poet. Sometimes reading Waldrop I feel like I’m attending a séance. No ghosts appear, but the mundane objects—both the things words are and the things words describe—start to stir a little, start to glow. “Loved houses are haunted,” ends the poem from A Windmill Near Calvary I quoted above. “And I have / no explanation.”
This essay appears as the afterword in Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems.
Ben Lerner’s most recent book is 10:04. He received the 2014 Terry Southern Prize for Humor and is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.