A Walk on the Formal Side: Kim Addonizio's Place in Contemporary American Poetry
by Barbara Crooker
im Addonizio's poems don't just get up off the page and dance, they go full-tilt boogie and take over the bar. They are truly the bad girls of modern poetry, and don't we just love them? She knows her forms inside and out, and uses them to inform her free verse, often utilizing their conventions in innovative ways. She expands the tension between non-traditional subject (often using taboo or transgressive themes) and object (the formal cage), giving her poems a jolt of electricity few other poets can provide. Often she explores the mind/body conflict, the juice of the body versus the dryness of the intellect.
Addonizio was born in Bethesda, MD in 1954, to a sports-loving family; her mother, Pauline Betz Addie was a U.S. tennis champion in the 1940s, and her father, Bob Addie, was a sportswriter for The Washington Post. Her roots, though, were working-class; her paternal grandfather emigrated from Italy with his wife, had eleven children, and was a butcher in New York City, while her maternal grandmother was a single mother who supported three children as a high school gym teacher. Initially, Addonizio wanted to be a musician, and studied classical voice at American University. But having grown up in a pop-culture and sports-oriented family, this was a real mismatch. She dropped out, moved to San Francisco in the late seventies, and took up the flute. There she worked a succession of odd jobs: secretary, waitress, office clerk, fry cook, tennis instructor. She fell in love with poetry in her late twenties after reading Sylvia Plath, and began to read her work at open mics around the city. She received her B.A. from San Francisco State University when she was 28, the same year her daughter, Aya Cash, was born, and in 1986, after four years of part-time classes, she received an MFA from the same institution. Addonizio is divorced; her daughter is now an actor, living in Brooklyn. In her mid-forties, she took up blues harmonica.
When she received her first National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1990, this gave her the economic freedom to escape from minimum wage jobs, and focus on her poetry. Her first full-length book of poems, The Philosopher's Club, was published when she was 40. She won a second NEA grant in 1995, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry in 2000, and was awarded the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
On her website, Addonizio says her favorite poets are Keats, Whitman, Bishop, Dickinson, Blake, Machado, Ovid, the ancient Japanese and Chinese writers, and C. K. Williams, Jack Gilbert, and Dean Young among her contemporaries. She also lists Adam Duntz, Patty Griffin, Sarah McLaughlin, Ani Di Franco, Tom Waitz, and Steve Earle as her favorite singer-songwriters, and lists her hobbies as "Weight lifing, tennis, ice skating, yoga, teaching, reading, listening to blues, playing my Mississippi saxophone, drinking wine, spending too much money eating out, watching TV and DVDs, feeling fucked up, feeling happy, feeling important, feeling stupid and inconsequential, obsessing over Iraq and other corporate misadventures." She teaches in her home in Oakland, CA and around the country at writers' conferences and festivals.
The Philosopher's Club brought her to national attention. A mixture of both formal and free verse, these are sensual poems that radiate sexuality. Her subjects are loss and love, filial feeling, the transience of life, the realization of mortality, and she doesn't flinch at taking a hard and edgy look at all of these.
Her second poetry collection, Jimmy & Rita, works like a novel, as it traces the lives of the protagonists as they struggle to survive life on the margins in roach-filled apartments in San Francisco while they deal with their various addictions (alcohol, heroin). The first and third-person narratives are grouped in three chronological sections, using both monologues and prose poems. Addonizio portrays her doomed lovers with sharp edged realism, while still finding moments of lyric beauty in their destitute lives.
Her third poetry collection, Tell Me, is told in a voice husky with whisky and smoke. The language is straightforward and plainspoken, and, just as in Jimmy and Rita, her subjects often have a strong self-destructive bent. There's a whole lot of drinking going on, and some of the poems ask the hard question of what happens when you risk being honest emotionally, and it doesn't work. Many of them take place in bars, where everyone seems to be singing the blues, but no one's drowning in self-pity, either. These are well-crafted hard-loving poems, broke hard and put away wet.
What Is This Thing Called Love also sings the blues; as Buddy Guy says, "The Blues is truth." In this book, Addonizio celebrates the pleasures of sex, the absence of a grown daughter and a dead father, empathy for friends in the throes of disease, while she remembers her wilder days from an older and wiser perspective. If Keith Richards were to turn to poems, they'd sound like these. She adapts a form Billy Collins invented, responds to a poem by Sharon Olds, writes with the candor of Molly Peacock, and lets the repetition-based form of the blues, most notably those of Robert Johnson, drive her rhythms. The imagery, though, his hers alone, gin bottles and stiletto heels, smoke rings and tattoos.
Her fifth book, Lucifer at the Starlight, looks at life's dualities: good versus evil, dark versus light, suffering measured against unexpected joy. The title poem imagines Lucifer as CEO of the World, who thinks he can do better than God at being bad. She praises both the mundane and the daily, and a hard look at her complicated sexual self in ways that are both celebrative and self-deprecating. Her gaze is fixed both out at the world--the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Thailand--and inside herself, and she aims it straight at the heart, taking no prisoners.
Some critical attention has been previously paid to the formal elements in Addonizio's work, starting with Gerald Stern's introduction to The Philosopher's Club: "These are lovely poems. Some are in open form and some--especially the remarkable group of sonnets in the second section--are quite strict. They represent a significant achievement, and have in them the promise of more, of additional, fine work."
Leza Lowitz, writing in Poetry Flash also paid attention to Addonizio's use of form, commenting, " Talking about structure, you write a lot of poems in form: pantoums, sonnets, etc. Given your content, you don't strike me as a poet who would be attracted to formal poetry." Addonizio replied, "Well, maybe that's why it's attractive. There's a kind of tension between something that's got a formal structure and the content I'm working with. I'm very attracted to formal verse because it's a way to put the brakes on the material; it's very comforting and ordered." Later, in the same interview, Addonizio stated, ". . . I started out as a free verse poet, so when I learned about traditional form I got very interested, since I didn't know anything about it. It was really exciting. It changed my language some, and I like what it does to the imagination. It's actually very freeing, not constraining at all--for me, anyway."
I think the ideas in this interview (see link below for full text)--the tension between formal structure and trangressive content, the desire to shape chaos, to contain inchoate material
within a box, the freedom of constraints, the poem as a container for pain--are all fascinating aspects of Addonizio's work, and hold the keys as to why women formalists/semi-formalists are writing such interesting work today.
Let me stop for a moment and interject a further explanation for that last term. As I started to look at formal elements in Kim Addonizio's work, I went back to the essay I wrote for the Forgotten Women Formalists Seminar for the 2005 West Chester Poetry Conference. At that time, it occurred to me that a new category was emerging, one that I'd like to call "semi-formalist." Going back to the 1950s and 60 when a semi-formal meant the junior prom, cocktail dresses, wrist-length gloves, small corsages, this category might include women like Maxine Kumin, Kim Addonizio, Carolyn Kizer, and Marilyn Taylor, who mix formal poems with free verse in their books, as opposed to true formalists like Marilyn Hacker, Annie Finch, and A. E. Stallings, who write solely in form. Mingling poems like this creates tension and begins a dialogue with the reader, who is scanning along, engaged in either the narrative or the lyric imagery, then is caught up short, suddenly realizing, "Hold on, that's a villanelle (or pantoum or sonnet)," and goes back to read the poems one more time, paying more attention to form and how the poet worked in the formal elements.
With these semi-formalists, there is a greater element of surprise, such as when you encounter a tight sonnet like "So What" in What Is This Thing Called Love sandwiched between two free verse poems. Throughout Addonizio's books, there is much mixing up of the shape of the poems as well as the forms, again, which plays against expectations. I'm wondering, too, if
women semi-formalists, unlike their formalist sisters, because they are writing primarily in free verse, use form as a vessel for containment, rather than form as the object itself?
In a recent conversation/interview on formal poetry in Apalachee, Vona Groarke said, "I like to try on form once in a while, like getting dressed up for a wedding or a dinner dance, but I don't necessarily want to wear gold taffeta while going to buy butter or cheese." Again, this reinforces my notion of a writer choosing form as she chooses a dress, picking what fits the social situation, picking which form suits the poem.
I'd like to continue now by discussing three of Addonizio's poetry books, leaving out Jimmy & Rita, as it is a full-length narrative. Her first book, The Philosopher's Club, has a section (Section 2) made up entirely of Shakespearean sonnets. Section 1 contains "Pantoum: At Mount Hebron," "Sestina of the Alcoholic Daughter," and a concrete poem, "Ange de Morte," in the shape of half of a dark angelic wing (based on Christian Boltanski's "Lessons of Darkness," it is also ekphrastic). About the pantoum, Addonizio writes, "The compelling back-and-forth movement of a pantoum lends itself to obsessive subjects--the mind going over and over particular events. It's also a good vehicle for expressing conflict or ambivalence." In this poem, there is a particularly good marriage of form to subject. Addonizio also writes in her textbook, "We've seen much more radical variations, even to the point of simply repeating only one key word in what is supposed to be a repeated line." She follows her own dictum here, varying some of the repetends. She states, "the principle is one of repetition, of echo," and there's a sense of diminishment in this pantoum that her lines embody.
In the sonnet section of The Philosopher's Club, the inventions involve interesting slant rhymes, like "dress/sex" ("On Opening a Book of Photographs"), "antidote/like notes" ("Man on a Corner"), "cover-up/in Europe" ("February 14, 1989"), "uncertain/curtains," ("Address"), "sense/silence" ("Solace"), "here/air" ("Lullabye"). "First Poem for You" is a sexy sonnet on tattoos, with the muted rhymes "sure of/just above" and "where a serpent/until we're spent." Rhythmically, it's iambic, with enough variation and enjambment to keep it moving down the page. You can see the influence of these sonnets in "Cranes in August" (Section 3) a sonnet-like jewelcase, where form and subject (small folded origami birds) fit together perfectly.
Also in this book, we have the "Sestina of the Alcoholic Daughter," with "woman," "window," "old," " hands," "afternoon," and "home" as the end words. Using enjambment, Addonizio achieves a natural voice to the lines, and her tone is pitch-perfect. The use of the adjective "old" seems particularly apt, as it lends itself to casually hitching a ride with the noun on the line beneath it. Often the form of the sestina calls too much attention to itself; Addonizio's does not, partly because of the subject matter, partly because of its organic manner of unfolding.
In her third collection, Tell Me, Addonizio continues her dance between free verse and form. There are two pantoums, "A Childhood" and "Spill," a Shakespearean sonnet, "Therapy," and a number of poems in rhymed couplets and free verse poems with end rhymes. Both of the pantoums are on drinking and addiction (not many poems on childhood begin with "Our drinks
came with paper umbrellas")("Spill" has as one of the repetends, "We sat at a table, getting drunk."), and the sonnet is about a dysfunctional family (brother in the kitchen--"bottles, knives. He breaks the lock, / drags me by one arm across the floor. . . . my father's drinking--Christ, the whole sick / drama of my childhood's on display"); again, the tension between the strictures of form and the out-of-control behaviors of the subjects of the poem are what make them come alive.
Addonizio peppers her poems with sound devices, using enough to spike the palate, but not so much that the taste is dulled, the jolt predictable. "The Body in Extremis" begins with the speaker thinking of the body as a factory "where the foreman's passed out drunk. . . ./ and down below no one gives a shit / about pride in labor," then she corrects herself, says, no, "that's / mechanical and wrong". . . . "your body is a vase of flowers," but this is not the beauty factory: "their brown stalks slick in the fetid water, / the shrunken tissue of the petals." Outside this room "is the worst / section of the city" and the speaker tells us the subject of the poem is "railed-in and dying." This tight one page poem is unrhymed, until the last four lines:
your thin form beneath the covers, your face
I now bend close to kiss,
and whatever I make of the grief
that's coming, it won't change this, this.
which bring it to a close, partly because of the rhymes, like Yeats's well-made box.
Other sound devices like onomatopoeia, assonance ("vowel-rhyme," as Addonizio calls it in The Poet's Companion) and consonance abound. "Like I'm nothing but a broken bit of scratched glass," she writes in "For Desire," and it hurts our ears like fingernails on slate. "Target" zips off "rip / flick / switch / clip" in six short lines, and hits us with "kicks" a few lines later. "I want the good wine, the swirl in crystal / surrendering the bruised scent of blackberries, / or cherries, / the rich spurt in the back of the throat," she says in "For Desire," and the r and ur sounds make you purr and curl with desire yourself. "The Divorcee and Gin" employs internal rhyme and near rhyme: "bottles / chilled / shallow," "olives / scrawled," "cell / wall / curl / well." Rhythmically, this poem is as tight as any sonnet; all the excess is removed, even while it is speaking of excessive behavior ("I love the frosted pints you come in". . . "the tall bottles with their uniformed men" . . . "the taste of drowned olives" "the hand . . . / shaking a little from its need").
Wit and playfulness are two areas where contemporary women formalists in general, and Addonizio in particular, shine. In her fourth book, What Is This Thing Called Love, Addonizio has Fun with Form, especially when she takes on the paradelle, which was invented by Billy Collins. Where Collins' work dissolves into silliness (his last line reads, "Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.")("Paradelle for Susan"), as he parodies the über-seriousness with which workshop teachers teach form, Addonizio makes a sly reference to Collins' note at the end of her poem, while going on to write a real one ("Ever After") within its constraints.
In "Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton," Addonizio makes up a similarly pretentious footnote ("The sonnenizio was invented in Florence in the thirteenth century by Vanni Fucci as an irreverent form whose subject was usually the impossibility of everlasting love. Dante retaliated by putting Fucci into the seventh chasm of the Inferno as a thief. Originally composed in hendecasyllabics, the sonnenizio gradually moved away from metrical constraints and begain to tackle a wider variety of subject matter. The sonnenizio is fourteen lines long. It opens with a line from someone else's sonnet, repeats a word from that line in each succeeding line of the
poem, and closes with a rhymed couplet."), but her tongue is firmly in her cheek. She has a great deal of fun with the word "part" (one of the words in the first line), first as separation, then as an action, ("the kissing part," "the parting part") a noun, "that part," a verb, "we part our lips," an adverb, ("our bodes partway / to making love") and then as various parts of clauses: "part of me," "the wrong part," "the bad part," "remember that part," "part of you," and the nonce expansions, "party" and "partisan," until it reaches the final "we'll kiss and part forever." She has clearly had a good time writing this one.
Other uses of formal elements in this collection include five blues poems, utilizing an American song form, several sonnets with quirky rhymes ("Stolen Moments," with "best/wedge," "orange/ fridge," and "So What" (the title referencing a Miles Davis jazz piece), with "chemistry/smoky" and "molecule/until," and a number of free verse poems that read as if constructed in the House of Form: "You Don't Know What Love Is," "Death Poem," "Eating Together," "Dear Reader," "Proverbial," "Miniatures," and "Fuck." Another Addonizio quirk is the use of memorable descriptive language, such as "it's as black in there / as an entire case of Freixenet bottles" ("This Poem Is in Recovery"), and "She's a car wreck in a silk dress" ("Round Midnight" (another jazz classic referencing Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker), but one title seems to sum up the joy and the energy found within all of Addonizio's work, "This Poem Wants to Be a Rock and Roll Song So Bad" (in which she rhymes "in a song" with "Erica Jong"). And to my way of thinking, she succeeds, merging popular culture and American music, drinking and drugging, tattoos and reckless behavior, focusing the lens of her attention and using all the crayons in her formal tool kit, to end up with truly original work, poems that are as unforgettable as she is.
The Divorcee and Gin
I love the frosted pints you come in,
and the tall bottles with their uniformed men;
the bars where you're poured chilled
into shallow glasses, the taste of drowned olives,
and the scrawled benches where I see you
passed impatiently from one mouth
to another, the bag twisted tight around
your neck, the hand that holds you
shaking a little from its need
which is the true source of desire; God, I love
what you do to me at night when we're alone,
how you wait for me to take you into me
until I'm so confused with you I can't
stand up anymore. I know you want me
helpless, each cell whimpering, and I give
you that, letting you have me just the way
you like it. And when you're finished
you turn your face to the wall while I curl
around you again, and enter another morning
with aspirin and the useless ache
that comes from loving, too well,
those who, under the guise of pleasure,
destroy everything they touch.
"The Divorcee and Gin" is from Tell Me, copyright 2000, Kim Addonizio. Permission to reproduce the poems here granted by the author and BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
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finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/USA West Award (Tell Me)
Best Book of the Month by Book of the Month Club (Little Beauties)
Target "Breakout Author" Selection (Little Beauties)
a Guggenheim Fellowship
two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships
the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award
the Mississippi Review Fiction Prize
the Pushcart Prize
the James Dickey Poetry Award
a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal
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 ibid 163-164