Crossover poems are increasingly popular in Wisconsin’s thriving poetry community: a member of my online writing group is churning out a series of great science fiction poems, pithy vehicles for social comment; my own manuscript of occult-themed verse is making the rounds of the book contests; and at a recent writing conference a Milwaukee poet handed me his latest chapbook, Misadventures of the Paisley Cowboy.
Then there’s the hard-boiled crime genre being worked by Madison area poet John Lehman, who recently published a book of verse noir—Acting Lessons, Parallel Press, 2008. Filled with murky mazes and existential ambushes, the work is in a short form devised by Lehman a few years ago, called the Wisconsin justified poem.
Looking like cubes of newspaper column, the poems are defined not just by their form, but also by a noir-ish feel and tone. They usually explore Wisconsin topics, are often rural, and at heart “inspired” by Wisconsin winters.
Here’s a taste, from Closed Until Spring:
This is the season of Ed Gein
and Jeffrey Dahmer. Sleep days,
fish through ice, pry firewood
from frozen mounds of snow.
Buy wine at the gas station. Court
darkness. Speak to no one. This
is winter in Wisconsin. Write
horror stories. Embrace the cold.
John Lehman, Acting Lessons
“They give the impression of a rigid form,” Lehman explains, “so that the language within the poem can be casual and conversational…more Midwest, and yes, more Wisconsin. They resemble their larger cousin, the prose poem.”
Magic Lunch Box
If you’re unfamiliar with prose poems, here’s a quote by Louis Jenkins, an acknowledged master of the form:
“Think of the prose poem as a box, perhaps the lunch box dad brought home from work at night. What’s inside? Some waxed paper, a banana peel, and half a peanut butter-jelly sandwich. Not so much, a hint of how the day has gone perhaps, but magic for having made a mysterious journey and returned…the prose poem is a formal poem because of its limits. The box is made for travel, quick and light. Think of the prose rectangle as a small suitcase. One must pack carefully, only the essentials, too much and the reader won’t get off the ground. Too much and the poem becomes a story, a novel, an essay or worse…the trick in writing a prose poem is discovering how much is enough and how much is too much.” (Nice Fish: New & Selected Prose Poems, Holy Cow! Press 1995.)
The prose poem has a dual nature, as its name implies. “On the one hand, there’s the lyric’s wish to make the time stop around an image, and on the other hand, one wants to tell a little story,” comments Charles Simic, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. “It must dazzle, and it must also have a lightness of touch. I regard the comic spirit as its true Muse.” (The Poetry of Village Idiots, Verse 13, no. 1, 1996)
The God Of Flow
All of the above holds true for the Wisconsin justified poem. But John Lehman cites an additional element—flow. It’s what gives poetry its real dynamic, claimed Robert Frost.
“Most poets break lines by phrases or concepts,” says Lehman, “but Frost carries us with his flow from one line to the next, then stops us in our tracks. ‘His head carved out of granite O, / His hair a wayward drift of snow, / He worshipped the great God of Flow / By holding on and letting go.’ (These are lines about Frost by Robert Francis.)
“Frost believed we further enhance the dynamics of the poem’s flow by stretching the spoken sentence over the line of poetry,” Lehman explains. “Frost’s famous narrative poem The Death Of The Hired Man is a classic example.”
Pulled Around The Corner
The Wisconsin justified poem, unlike the standard prose poem, pays attention to line breaks and their relationship to sentences. It pulls the reader around the corner and only stops movement when the end of a line corresponds with the end of a sentence. In addition, the lines seldom end with prepositions or articles, but with nouns, adverbs and verbs.
As forms go, it’s a soft one. The rules are few and fluid: conversational style, noir tone and Wisconsin topic. Keep it short and justify the text.
“I think its informality seems particularly suited to the voice of a Wisconsin narrator who might romanticize a little more if the winters weren’t so long and so dark,” muses Lehman. “The mutterings of someone in a farmhouse kitchen alone, late at night listening to the wind.”
Film Noir’s Influence
Film noir’s a big influence on the poems. “In a way the noir films were not realistic,” observes Lehman, “but a kind of theatrical romanticizing of the forties. People enjoyed them partially because they were escapist.”
That escapism sometimes bleeds into a comic surrealism, as in The Nut Bread Murders:
A friend sends a loaf of nut bread that’s dense
as a kiln-dried brick. I tell my wife it reminds me
of something my first wife would bake. Is this
a mistake? No, because upon hearing it she
makes me a fluffy coffee cake with a brown-sugar
and chocolate-chip topping, and I deduce there
may be a lesson about women here (how one
can be played against another). So I call my
first wife who asks what the hell I want. Hmmm.
Later, I decide to put her in a novel I’m plotting
as a character out to poison everyone with her
goddamn nut bread while I, the hero, am saved by
a stripper named Brown Sugah. Writing comes fast.
It’s February in Wisconsin and I am going nuts.
John Lehman, Acting Lessons
Giving It A Try
As a poet who’s muttered his way through his share of Wisconsin winters, the first time I saw the form it intrigued me enough to try it. Eventually I had a short manuscript that won a nationwide book contest, demonstrating the form’s appeal even to non-cheese heads (though the judges were fellow Midwesterners, over in Indiana).
Here’s the title poem from that collection:
I just walk out of the Neon Toad
when this big guy grabs my shirt,
spins me around like a carnival
ride and slams me up against the
bricks. All I see is cartoon stars
but his voice cuts right through.
“Lie to yourself on your own time,
punk.” Then I’m on the sidewalk
sitting up and no one’s there. It
was my conscience. Bastard finds
Michael Kriesel, Soul Noir
Soon after I started writing in this form / genre, I came to understand that noir’s romanticism also can be viewed as starkly stripped-down realism. Its flavor is similar to the oddball existentialism running through Wisconsin’s landscape like a vein of smoky quartz. Maybe that’s why the two combine so well. I offer another of my own examples:
Waiting for the sheriff, Ed Gein forks
apple pie in Plainfield’s only diner.
Barns slump like slaughterhouse cows.
At the crystalline heart of the state, Rib
Mountain oscillates: quartz monadnock
tinting our dreams through winter nights.
In the end, spring arrives, green and gold.
The Packers win the Super Bowl.
Michael Kriesel, Soul Noir
The Wisconsin justified poem transcends regionalism by combining a specific form with a specific tone. The form’s uniquely suited to the tone of the material expressed. But it’s the tone most of all that gives the poems their distinct character—not unlike the dialogue in noir films.
These poems work the way haiku and watercolor do to capture the mood of a place, expressing the way our lives resonate with our state and sometimes finding In the Middle of Nothing, Greatness:
I pass a sign on Highway 26 that states
Juneau is 5 miles away, Oshkosh 53.
I saw the same sign just ten minutes ago,
but listen, when I check my gas gauge
(then, it had been a little below a quarter)
now, I swear, it shows half full. And there,
around a curve, against the steel November
sky, in a field of cornstalks far as a crow can
see—are you ready—rises an assemblage
of grain elevators more magnificent than
the Cathedral at Reims.
John Lehman, Acting Lessons
In Sprecher’s Tavern Lehman observes:
“Living in Wisconsin is a lot like the tavern that sells rifles and beer. It doesn’t make much sense but it feels right when you’re there.”
That’s how these poems work. But how well do they work? Does it feel right? That’s the final test…and something only poets and readers and time can decide. The best test of any form is whether the force it contains could manifest as well in any other shape.
Here’s hoping more Wisconsin poets add to this new genre—a form and tone unique to where we live.