The word "wanting" means both to desire and to lack. These related feelings are basic to life and to poetry. The lyric poem organizes the sounds of language so that the very cadences and patterns express wanting something.
Two very different poets address this most fundamental of subjects in their recent books. In The Green Stamp Book, Susan Wheeler is interested in the choppy, crazy images and motives in consumer culture; she loves to navigate through the hype to find the actual emotions that drive it all:
The Green Stamp Book
Child in the thick of yearning. Doll carted and pushed
like child. The aisles purport opportunities --
looking up, the women's chins, the straight rows
of peas and pretzels, Fizzies' foils, hermetic
boxes no one knows. I'll get it! What thing therein
-- bendy straws, powder blue pack Blackjack gum --
will this child fix upon? On TV, women with grocery carts
careen down aisles to find expensive stuff. Mostly,
this means meat. This, then, is a life. This, a life
that's woven wrong and, woven once, disbraided, sits
like Halloween before a child, disguised in its red
Santa suit, making its lap loom the poppy field
Dorothy wants to bed. Can I have and the song's begun.
O world spotted through more frugal legs. O world.
It is true that this examination of wanted junk and junk food comes close to cliche. But that closeness is part of the pleasure in phrases like "The aisles purport opportunities" or in the homely, authentic details like bendy straws and Blackjack, jumbled in with words like "hermetic" and "therein." That contrast or confusion, like the visual angles, works to create a child's perspective. I really like the explosive allusion where the red of the Santa costume on someone's lap gets associated with the red poppy field where Dorothy falls asleep in The Wizard of Oz. And "spotted" in the last line suggests two things: one, a child looking at the goods in a store, spotting the desirable items with a gaze interrupted by adult legs walking by; the other, a world that, like the store of our wants, is spotted, not immaculate.
Wheeler, in other words, is all nervous energy, singing her song of wants through those broken couplets. In contrast, Barry Spacks is interested in Buddhist thought and strives for a calmer focal energy -- but he does not preach to the reader. On the contrary:
I preach to myself on Red Hill Road
that I've had it all, all I could hope for:
the older and the younger Cambridge;
Paris . . . playing Hemingway;
mist on the mountains, blue-brilliant sky,
and just at the edge of a treeful hollow
a wonder: a fossil toe-print, one --
where some rare dancer
touched brilliantly down?
Below the Shrine House, courting his hen,
a peacock struts, flurries his fan
with its quivering purple eyes. The world
couldn't be more astonishing
if he were spitting gems.
Instead of Wheeler's many visual images and literal labels, Spacks takes on a few. The road, the celebrated urban centers, a fossil toe-print and the peacock. To preach to oneself that one has had enough is to acknowledge the persistence of wanting: In the old fashioned parlance once used to tease children about greed, we all tend to have "big eyes." Spacks lets the peacock embody that phrase literally: The spectacle of that display, quivering in courtship, is itself worth desiring.
These poets move through their subjects. They want more than a show. Young poets still at the stage of making word-salad should attend to these poems, how they acknowledge that we are after something: the poem itself more like a journey or a vehicle than a mere tasty blend of goodies, or a bright display. (Susan Wheeler's poem "The Green Stamp Book" is from her book "Ledger." Univ. of Iowa. Copyright © 2005 by Susan Wheeler. Barry Spacks's poem "A Peacock" is from his book "The Hope of Air." Michigan State Univ. Copyright © 2004 by Barry Spacks.)