A poet worth reading? Start believing!

By: on September 22, 2016 |

Taylor-Main

                                                                                                          (Image by: Theresa Johnson Herlihy)

We begin with an important public service announcement from the United States:

 

A Stern Warning to Canada

 

If you want peace,

withdraw your geese.

 

What should Canadians make of this alert? On closer inspection it’s actually a poem, not an official notice. But it’s neither long nor boring. The point is easily grasped. It rhymes. It’s topical, knowing and funny. Plus, there’s a satirical edge and subtle political undertone that should appeal to readers who’ve given up on – or were never interested in – the self-absorbed absurdities of formless modernist poetry. Scarcer than a goose-less park, this is contemporary poetry with appeal for the masses.

Our sardonic caution from the south comes courtesy of A.M. Juster, an acclaimed American poet with a fascinating resume and equally intriguing conservative political outlook. He’s also not afraid to explain a joke. “The whole notion of aggression from Canada is just inherently funny,” he observes in an interview from his home in Belmont, Massachusetts, a bedroom community of Boston. “I don’t like geese, but I do like Canadians. We Americans have an almost sentimental view of Canadians; you’re like us, but better people,” he says slowly and generously. On the other hand, and here the pace quickens a bit, “why are these birds – large rats with feathers really – a federally protected species? They’re everywhere, like pigeons, and don’t seem to be deserving of any sort of government protection. If you’re going to protect something, shouldn’t it be a bird that’s actually rare?” The poet pauses. “So I guess there’s a cranky Republican subterranean undercurrent to that poem.” Consider it the first of many hidden meanings.

“A Stern Warning to Canada” is among the numerous delights to be found in Juster’s latest book, a collection of new and previously-released comic poetry and translation covering two decades of work. Sleaze & Slander, like the rest of Juster’s output, also betrays a crafty right-wing sentiment at odds with most of what passes for poetry on either side of the border. These are poems for the conservative mind.

A highlight of the book is a laugh-out-loud funny “Supreme Court Drinking Song” which imagines the top court on a raucous all-night bender determinedly ignoring the wishes of an elected Congress and the entire democratic process. (Who cares what precedents they found?/Let’s buy another round!) As a satire of judge-made law, it accomplishes more in a few lines of verse than any number of earnest editorials decrying judicial interventionism. The same goes for his pithy social observations and epigrams.

 

  Long Strange Trip

         

  The flower children gone to seed

          Bake brownies for the PTA

          And give to liberals in need.

 

          Their ponytails display some gray

          And nothing tie-died ever fits

          Despite the tofu and sorbet.

 

          Now they are mocked as ‘hippie-crits’

          By free-range children who refuse

          To heed their parents’ tired views

          On love and peace and endless summer.

 

                                      What a bummer.

 

          Disclaimer

 

          Despite what’s promised when you marry,

          actual results may vary.

 

Sleaze & Slander is a pleasure to read whatever your politics. For conservatives, especially those who might find Ayn Rand’s doorstoppers a chore, it offers the additional fillip of a comfortable intellectual harbour to be enjoyed in small, delightful bites. “I’m generally dubious about institutions and the limitations of government, and that’s the raw material of political conservatism. It’s also pretty good fodder for light verse,” says Juster, pointing to Jonathan Swift, the famous 18th century Irish satirist and champion of liberty, as a source of inspiration.

Taylor - Inset

                   (Image: Measure Press)

Going back much farther than the 1700s, his book includes a surprisingly wide selection of translations from Ancient Latin and Middle Welsh, offering fresh takes on Roman poets such as Horace and Martial. Another warning to Canada: these translations aren’t the ones you slept through in English class.

 

   Sex with Sertorius is anticlimactic;

          rapid withdrawal is his typical tactic.

Translated from Martial (38-41 AD to 103 AD)

 

   Every friend of Lycoris has lost her life

          Fabianus, he should meet my wife

                             Translated from Martial

 

   On the Shyster Who Called his Whore “Grace”

 

   If his words could equal his penis,

          He’d be known as a legal genius.

          He is up half the night

          Missing laws he should cite

          While joined by his servant of Venus.

                             Translated from Luxorius (circa 600 AD)

 

Rather than rendered as one-for-one transpositions from ancient Latin, Juster’s humourous translations are filled with anachronistic words and phrases such as ‘chintzy,’ ‘geezer’ and ‘the family values bill.’ This gives modern readers a truer sense of what Martial, a sharp satirist of everyday Roman life, was really conveying to his audience. “I try to reflect the tone and tenor of the originals,” he says. “Martial was writing in a low vernacular, so you need to find slangy equivalents to what he was doing, otherwise it’ll put you to sleep.” As for Luxorius’ limerick, it’s another of Juster’s innovations; that naughty poetic form wasn’t invented until the 1800s.

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  (Image: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Juster is also capable of powerful sentiment, as this traditional sonnet from an earlier, more serious collection reveals.

 

   Cancer Prayer

 

   Dear Lord,

                           Please flood her nerves with sedatives

          and keep her strong enough to crack a smile

          so disbelieving friends and relatives

          can temporarily sustain denial.


          Please smite that intern in oncology

          who craves approval from department heads.

         

          Please ease her urge to vomit, let there be

          kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds.

         

           Given her hair, consider amnesty

          For sins of vanity; make mirrors vanish.

                  

           Surround her with forgiving family

          and nurses too numb to cry. Please banish

          trite consolations; take her in one swift

          and gentle motion as your final gift.

 

Such masterful skill with traditional poetic form, as well as his obvious love of rhyme, meter and narrative, marks Juster as a prominent member of the New Formalism school of American poetry, a movement in response to the intensely personal (read: indecipherable) lyric imagism that has dominated modern poetry since the start of the 20th century.

“Modernist poetry has gotten drearier and drearier,” laments Juster. Where once poets were celebrated as literary heroes of their age, today the average book lover is hard pressed to name a single extant professional poet. Chief to blame, he observes, is the guild mentality of contemporary poetry. Practitioners have largely retreated to universities, where it’s more lucrative to teach others how to also become academic poets rather than write something the public might wish to buy. Relentless demands to ‘make it new’ have pushed experimental poetry to the extremes of eccentricity.

Readers of C2C Journal might recall Juster’s byline on an article this summer about the poetic limitations and potential biological hazards of University of Calgary poet Christian Bök, who assigns letters to various amino acids and, by manipulating E. coli cells,  produces a petri dish of found poetry. The results, Juster points out, are poems absent of coherent meaning, but containing a “small but non-negligible risk” that may one day mutate into virulent superbugs.

Re-connecting poetry with the reading public, Juster and the New Formalists argue, requires a renewed focus on recognizable narratives and ear-pleasing traditions of rhyme and meter familiar in the works of the old masters, such as Kipling, Tennyson and Shakespeare. “The academy has worked very hard to cut their work off from a broader audience. And I think that’s a tragedy,” says Juster. “Poetry is a way to educate people, and get them to think about their lives.”

Like all counter-revolutions, New Formalism is a conservative act. And like all threatened revolutionaries, the modernists have fought back with teeth bared. Beginning in the 1980s, proponents of free verse claimed to find disturbing parallels between the traditional precepts of New Formalism and the resurgence of conservative values typified by the presidency of Ronald Reagan: both were trying to recapture lost glory by casting back to established values and rejecting Liberal modernity. Beat poet Diane Wakoski assailed a leading New Formalist as “Satan” and further claimed it was downright un-American to write in rhyme. Others fretted about the “literary fascism” of New Formalism’s adherence to popular pleasures of narrative, rhyme and meter.

One familiar slander thrown at New Formalists is that they’re mere ‘greeting card poets’ − opting for facile popularity over serious craft.  Determined to own the insult, Juster’s latest book includes the sly poem “Greeting Card Verse for Offbeat Occasions,” which offers responses to some decidedly unHallmark moments, such as being arrested for soliciting a prostitute, giving your dinner guests food poisoning or:

 

   Botched Intimate Tattoo

 

   Your tattoo artist was a jerk

          And sloppy in his spelling,

          But given where he put his work,

          Nobody will be telling.

 

“I figured if they’re going to be call me a Hallmark poet, I might as well write some greeting cards,” says Juster, relishing the tussle. His literary criticism is equally pointed; Juster’s recent review of a new book by modernist poet Ben Lerner begins with “[this] is the worst book about poetry I have ever read.” Another laments the fact that “relentless networking, prolific but generic free verse and safe ideology portrayed as radical courage have lifted a host of mediocre poets into what passes today for literary celebrity.”

For Canadians who might wonder, this country missed the drama of politically-inspired ‘poetry wars.’ It is the untamed wilderness, rather than the neo-conservative implications of rhyme and meter, that still occupies the Canadian poetic mind, as it has since Margaret Atwood and Al Purdy were youngsters. When British poet Alice Oswald was named a Griffin Prize judge earlier this year, The Globe and Mail asked her to characterize the state of Canadian poetry, “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” with “a strain of anxiety about land ownership” was the best she could conjure up.

“There is no school of New Formalism in Canada, and no figure in Canada quite like Juster,” says Carmine Starnino, a well-regarded poet, editor at The Walrus and contributor to Partisan, a Canadian online poetry magazine that features translations, epigrams and other formalist-style poetry. “He is keeping alive the idea of poetry as a forum to discuss contemporary issues with wit and clarity,” he says. “Why shouldn’t we be able to talk about society in rhyming verse?”

Then again, Juster isn’t merely unusual for Canada. He is unusual, period.

Satirical poets through the ages: Juvenal, Martial, Swift and Juster.

Satirical poets through the ages: Juvenal, Martial, Swift and Juster.

A.M. Juster is actually a pseudonym (and anagram) for M.J. Astrue. And as Michael Astrue, he’s served four U.S. presidents in a variety of significant political appointments, including as an associate counsel in the Reagan and Bush (Senior) White Houses, later moving to general counsel in the federal Health & Human Services department, and concluding as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, one of the most senior bureaucratic positions in Washington, from 2007 to 2013. Astrue has also headed three biotech firms, moving back and forth between public service and the business world with apparent ease.

During his time in various Republican administrations and corporate headquarters, Astrue kept his identity as New Formalist renegade Juster a carefully guarded secret. “The literary world is scornful of people who have serious careers,” he explains. “And the corporate world just thinks poetry is weird. It seemed like a sensible thing to seal myself off in this way.” So he would scribble with a pen at home as Juster, and lug a briefcase to the office as Astrue.

During his time at the head of the politically-sensitive and perpetually underfunded Social Security behemoth (equivalent to Canada’s CPP, Old Age Security and federal disability programs), Astrue kept a low profile on matters both political and poetic, focusing on the technocratic demands of the job such as reducing wait times for disability claimants. “You play the role you are given,” he explains. (He didn’t, however, completely submerge his literary concerns. A 2007 communique to Social Security staff from head office: “Commissioner Astrue has indicated on several occasions that the word ‘impact’ should not appear in Social Security Administration correspondence as a verb.” The same note explained the difference between affect and effect.)

Yet his day job and the political world eventually impacted had a significant effect on his poetic alter ego. In 2009, the union representing Social Security employees took out a full page ad in the Baltimore Sun calling for Astrue’s removal, as a Republican appointee at the dawn of Democrat Barack Obama’s first term. When that didn’t work (he’d been appointed by Congress rather than the White House), the union went looking for a scandal to oust him. “I’d led a pretty clean life,” he recalls. “So there wasn’t much they could latch onto.” In the absence of interns, cocaine or gambling debts, his foes were left with the slimmest of humiliations to reveal: outing Commissioner Michael Astrue as A.M. Juster, New Formalist poet. Devastation did not ensue. “Even though I’d been keen to avoid [the outing] it turned into a good thing for me. It certainly brought a lot more attention to my poetry,” he says wryly. “And at work, all of a sudden I was interesting in a way I wasn’t before.” A 2010 profile in the influential conservative online magazine First Things revealed his personal multitudes to a much wider audience.

Astrue remained at Social Security for the full length of his six-year term, and in 2012 was awarded the President’s Award from The ARC, a group that advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and development disabilities. He has since retired from Washington and the business world. At 60, constrained by severe rheumatoid arthritis, he concentrates on poetry, criticism and various charitable pursuits.

With Astrue in repose, translation now occupies the bulk of Juster’s attention. Last year he released a collection of medieval riddles by Anglo-Saxon bishop Saint Aldhelm, published by the University of Toronto Press. He has also dabbled in translating East African proverbs from the little-known Oromo language. “I assume my original poetry will be ephemeral,” he admits. “But I’d like to think some of my translations will make a long-term contribution.”

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(Image: University of Toronto Press)

Translation might, in fact, be the most conservative of all literary art forms, revealing as it does the timelessness of the human condition. The two apparently paradoxical components of Sleaze & Slander – contemporary satires on such things as judicial activism side-by-side with translations of Martial’s ancient epigrams − take on deeper significance when considered as halves of a unified theory of life. Linked in this way, the reader is left with a blinding flash of the obvious: nothing has really changed in the last 2,000 years. Juster’s “Disclaimer” and his translation of Martial’s epigram about Lycoris and Fabianus are near-identical contemplations on marital discord and the dark humour it inspires. We may set out to make life ‘new,’ but are relentlessly carried backwards to face the same familiar issues and foibles as our Latin ancestors. Sex, sleaze, even politics repeats on an endless loop. “When you read the literature from the decline of Rome, you start to see parallels to our current political and cultural situation,” Juster says, somewhat ominously.

“He recognizes a deep sense of tradition,” offers an admiring Paul Mariani, a fellow poet, professor emeritus at Boston College and University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of the First Things article that unveiled Juster/Astrue to a wider audience. “When I read Juster I find a true conservative perspective − what he says today is what Martial and Juvenal and Horace were saying in their day. We still have corruption. We still have slander. We still have the same emotions. It is a reflection of the natural politics and language of the human beast. And,” he adds, “it’s a little bit chilling.”

But what should we make of that limerick about the lawyer’s penis? Mariani waits a beat before answering. “Well,” he asks, “what else are you going to rhyme with Venus?”


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About Peter Shawn Taylor

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.