For those who have a just complaint against inaccessible, unpoetic, navel-gazing, hyper-academic l’art-pour-l’art postmodern poetry, I give you the poetry of Frederick Feirstein. Just knowing he edited the anthology Expansive Poetry: Essays on the New Narrative and the New Formalism gives one an idea of what kind of poet Feirstein is. His poems tend to be longer, more narrative in structure, always formal, and occasionally rhyme. He is strongest in his rhyming poetry, where he is more apt to give us something unexpected in the poem. In each poem we get a little story about people, characters we can recognize and relate to. These characters, always interesting, are heroic –- most often in defeat, or despite defeat. A fine example of this can be seen in the last four lines of his poem “The Hero”:
His business ventures always somehow failed
Either from moral niceties or luck.
Yet he died a hero when his train derailed.
His body cushioned someone when it struck.
Feirstein is Jewish and from New York, and his poems are very much reflective of these facts – but for that very reason are resonant even for those who are neither. His poems are the very image of being universal in the particular. Consider the following lines from “The Street”:
We’d be so bored, we’d learn to talk to ducks
—And they would say we were a pair of schmucks
To leave Manhattan Island as we know it.
Island? Thank God the concrete doesn’t show it.
Could anyone other than a Jewish New Yorker write lines such as these? And yet, who has not felt such boredom? Who has not felt that, if there were someone else out there who could talk to us about what we, as humans, do, that we would be called foolish? And who has not felt glad that reality is sometimes masked? The grayness of the world comes through in his images of New York, the endless images of concrete in his poems, the gray images, the constant concern with aging and death. There is a concern with dirt and cleanliness – images of washing and water abound. And no one in these poems are resigned to their fate. They are always on the move, legs are always moving. The city, for Feirstein, indeed never sleeps. But this is not a city of unknown and unknowable people. This is a city of individual characters, who love and hate, give birth to and raise children, who have parents themselves who are aging and dying. These are not soulless New Yorkers – these are New Yorkers who go to Temple or Church, who seek the infinite in the quite finite lives they live. His city imagery, the choices he makes, his ability to see the city as he does in “Mark Stern Wakes Up”:
My eye is like a child’s; the smog is pot.
Shining cratefuls of plum, peach, apricot
Are flung out of the fruit man’s tiny store.
Behind the supermarket glass next door:
Landslides of grapefruit, orange, tangerine,
Persimmon, boysenberry, nectarine.
The florist tilts his giant crayon box
Of yellow roses, daffodils, and phlox.
A Disney sun breaks through, makes toys of trucks
And waddling movers looks like Donald Ducks
And joke book captions out of storefront signs:
Café du Soir, Austrian Village, Wines.
Pedestrians in olive drabs and grays
Are startled by the sun’s kinetic rays,
Then mottled into pointillistic patches.
The light turns green, cars passing hurl out snatches
Of rock-and-roll and Mozart and the weather.
The light turns red. Why aren’t we together?
create a strong sense of New York that is nonetheless a new vision of the city. Yet it is also a city we all belong to, seen through the eyes of a narrator who is just like us.
I do not wish to suggest that Feirstein only writes narrative poetry, or that it is exclusively, even if it is, more often than not, formalist. Consider his poem “Artificial Light”:
I draw the blind
And with a flashlight
Once amused his soul.
After a while
On the ceiling.
On the other hand
Who sold coal
And has no energy
Except, I pray,
Lies in the
Like a fossil.
Here we have a free verse poem that is more reflective than narrative. But whether the poem is the rare free verse or the more usual formalist poem, the emotional power, the ability to create strong moods, is there.
And Feirstein is a master of imagery. Consider, for a moment, Feirstein’s use of water imagery. He gives us “the wet sun, the bluejay / Splashing among the branches.” (New and Selected Poems, 3) We get cold and yellow sweats, falling snow (lots of snow, apropos New York), sitting by the water’s edge, “The wind taking shape from my face / As water takes shape from a fish;” (12), “slush soaking his shoes” (15) –- here, the alliteration creating the sound -–, April rain, spraying water, swimming pools, water hoses, ponds, toy boats and rafts, etc. Water is exploded and made interesting and new throughout Feirstein’s collection of poems, as are the color gray, the images of the city, including concrete, and human relations, especially among family and lovers (past and present).
In his poems, Feirstein has brought new life to New York, to being Jewish, to family life, and to the art of poetry. By being a formalist poet, whether in blank verse or in rhyme, whether with his narrative or his lyric verse, Feirstein has renewed the art of poetry, given it back to the people by giving them something they can understand and relate to, without sacrificing in the least his intelligence. He does not insult his readers by being either too simplistic or too obtuse and hyper-academic. His poems have a beauty and depth to them that had been lost among the more well-known poets, whose poetry only leave you unsatisfied once you manage to figure out what simplistic ideas are hiding under the obscurity. Anybody can read and enjoy Feirstein’s poems. Those who do not typically study poetry can read and enjoy his poems and get a great deal out of them. And those who do study poetry can find an endless depth of meaning in the poems, rich as they are in imagery and connections.