‘Tina’ by Peter Davis
The person who speaks in a lyric poem, the imagined speaker, could be you or me, though it could also be the poet herself; he or she or you or me could speak to himself or herself, or to strangers, or to an idealized human or divine listener (G. M. Hopkins’s “him who lives, alas, away!”). That poem can alleviate loneliness, or promise fame, or simply give the poet a shoulder to cry on, and it could do the same for us. Those are assumptions, or axioms, we bring to what we still call lyric poetry, and they are as useful now as they have ever been, though we may get self-conscious, or even ashamed, about them: in fact, they work even—they work in a new, shocking way—when a particular poet sets out to make fun of them, by making up a speaker and a listener who could be the butts of jokes, and by using a kind of language that seems (on first reading) as flat, or sarcastic, or tongue-in-cheek, as contemporary American English gets.
Let’s call that poet Peter Davis; as for his listener, the muse and beloved and middle-school ex-girlfriend and hypocrite reader whom he addresses, remembers, insults and resents, call her Tina. What can we do with his passionate, bummed-out, naive notes and speeches to her? If we take them seriously—if we find ourselves saying “That’s not funny!” or, better yet, “That’s funny because it’s true!”—then we may have to take everybody as seriously as we take ourselves; we may discover how to laugh at ourselves, and at others, without demeaning them, and we might think about how many other people—most of them without Davis’s capacity for irony, without his sneaky, double-reversed command of the language—have felt the same way.
Peter Davis is real, and so is his biting, hilarious, earlier book Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! (2010), whose poems (most of them in prose) spelled out the situations, audiences, and practical requirements behind one or another kind of verse: “Poem That Begs for Reassurance,” for example, and “Poem Addressing My Contemporaries, Many of Whom I Am Competing Against for Sweet Teaching Positions.” What Poetry! Poetry! Poetry rarely acknowledged was why we keep writing, beyond mere amusement, and why somebody like John Keats—perhaps like you—might want to write a poetry that would have only imaginary readers. Why is there poetry, instead of no poetry at all?
Tina, and Tina, turn out to be Davis’s answer. Not by coincidence, it’s all in verse; it’s just as funny as Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! but it acquires a new kind of seriousness too, since from the first poem, “Making Out,” it addresses the existential situation, the prison of the self, the persistent trap of desire: “First, Tina, there is some kind of talk/ or isolation or something that brings us together… Then, in some/ moment, we kiss.” And then we’re off, into the deadpan diction of Davis-land: “When I reach your bra, I will feel/ humbled and in awe so I will feel/ your bra some.”  Poetry, with its address to an imagined listener, its attempt to express the inward self, is ridiculous and urgent at the same time, and it keeps going on, gets continually renewed, even though in some sense it always fails. In all those respects lyric poems are like teenagers’ hookups; and lyric poetry keeps bringing up—as actual teen dating keeps bringing up—questions about how we know how other people feel and what they want. As Davis puts it, “This is very exciting. I will move my/ hand ever lower until I reach/ the top of your underwear.”
When I started reading Tina I thought I would hate it—I thought Davis wanted to sound superior, or blasé, to distance himself (the implied author) from the Tina-obsessed speaker he meant to create. A few pages in, I decided that he wanted something like the opposite of that effect. He resented, and cherished, Tina because he could not imagine any better reader, any reader closer to his heart. As with the great stand-up comics, Davis’s lines entice us, his actual readers (we are not Tina), to ask “Does he mean it?” The answer, I think, is almost always “yes”: that is why Tina seems to me so much better, and wiser, and more durable, than the many irony-drenched, meaning-repellent, intentionally humdrum first and second books by people of his generation, or people who moved to Brooklyn to turn 25. (Davis, if it matters, lives in Muncie.)
Davis’s characteristic language is not so much flat as positively concave: his lines—all of which would sound bad, or “bad,” in isolation—collectively end up rich in implication, evocative in their assemblies, by creating a kind of negative space. We realize what we want from life, and from language, because we see what’s missing here—though really it’s here, once we figure out how to look for it, in Tina as in life. “Most of my life I’ve been very confused,” Davis writes; “The amount of time that/ I’ve spent confused is equal to the cold strangeness of hunting/ very small animals. I know most of us know what I mean.”
Tina feels like a joke of a book, or even a joke book, read fast. Read it more slowly and what sound like slaps at the nervous self-pity of (a) straight teenage boys, and many teenage girls (b) middle-class Americans, especially white-collar dads or (c) poets are also affirmations that we have no way to dispel our own self-pity. “I am a failure./ The mirror always sees failure.” “When I achieve something, I have failed./ When I accomplish a goal, I fail.”  That’s ridiculous! It’s also Yeats (see his poem “What Then?”). And it’s an anxiety common to outwardly successful grown-up professionals, who can say, after each professional reward, either that it’s probably compromised (if it involves money) or that this reward and $1.50 will buy you a cup of coffee (if there’s no money directly involved). Where other poets working in similar registers (Alan Dugan, James Tate, Weldon Kees—are they all guys?) have used intentional flatness to represent depression, contemptus mundi, or anomie, Davis has figured out how to pursue anxiety: not the feeling that nothing is worth having, not that you’re worthless, but that nothing you do can prove your worth, and nothing you get is enough.
Lyric poetry tells us something we recognize as true in our own lives, but also something new. That is another contradiction in the way we already read serious poems: Davis’s comic poetry brings it out, by telling Tina, on the one hand, secrets of his (or “his”) innermost self, and on the other, stuff she must already know: “A person has a car, Tina, and they use it to drive places… One person buys another person dinner!… People know about mysteries, or they don’t.” “There/ are people who are actors and people who are manual/ laborers and other people who are other things!” Occasionally Davis inverts, or parodies, a famous poem, though often the bits he torques began as parody themselves: Philip Larkin’s “Sad Steps,” for example, reappears in Tina as “Through the Blinds, As I’m Peeing, I Can See Tina in the Moon.” “Seriously, Tina, grow up! We’re all/ tired of your histrionics!”  comes very close to Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”
Davis does not deny that we ought to have poetry, not even when riffing on “the word ‘poultry,’ or/ ‘poetry,’” but he denies that scintillatingly durable poems are different in kind from While-You-Were-Out notes and AOL IM, not because the poems are less important than you think, but because the ephemera are far more so. The meeting of I and thou, of self and other, of Astrophel and Stella, or Peter and Tina, that generates genuine poetry is a special case of the general truth that “arranging meetings is part of life and must/ be attended to… You have hopes!/ You make phone calls!” Poetic vocation isn’t so different from having to go to the office: “I’ve got to do work. I mean, I’ve just/ got to do it.” As for originality, should poets bother? Not directly, no: “the point is how impossible it is to say anything/ worth listening to and how easy it is to try.”
It follows that if you find something you like a lot, you should feel free to exult in it, even if authorities think it sucks: skateboarding, e.g., or Eddie Van Halen. “Let’s skate! We yell that shit, Tina./ We fucking yell it!” “Everyone knows that/ Eddie Van Halen is the greatest// guitar player to ever live.” Tina wants us, not exactly to agree with such assessments, but to challenge the part of us that disagrees. Either every enthusiasm is real and worth defending, every love is real love—even for Eddie Van Halen, even in middle school (“I know what the girls from/ my middle school felt like”)—or else nothing is. That does not mean that all lovers should get what they want, and it doesn’t mean you have to like Van Halen, but it does mean that you can’t dismiss somebody’s enthusiasm, or their delight, or their grief, because you think it’s vulgar, or discreditable, or something they ought to outgrow.
What would a poetry in defense of awkwardness, of naivete, of middle school failure and weirdness and bad taste, sound and look like? It would make fun of itself; it would invite us to make fun of it (wondering how, and in what spirit, readers would take up the invitation). It would sound like Tina.
But Davis writes to Tina—he writes poetry—not just because he feels awkward, or anxious, or frustrated, or strangely close to his middle school self. He also—like other, more dignified poets (say, Juliana Spahr) who notice some problems with capitalism— feels crushingly guilty. If it were not funny, the affect of Tina would be a grimace, or a scream: “Saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving,’” Davis muses, “is/ like saying ‘Swim in pig blood.’” Thanksgiving sucks not just because family gatherings can baffle us but because it celebrates the Native American genocide and the continuing slaughter of poultry (a.k.a. poetry): “turkeys/ feel like genocide brings them together.” But the problem extends beyond Thanksgiving. How can you celebrate any day, how can you pay $1.50 for coffee, when genocide—and not only of turkeys—goes on elsewhere? Chew on that, Tina. Davis has chewed for a while: “I feel spooky, Tina./ I feel deadly and flat.” “How I hate hating my world.”
But he doesn’t hate language; he doesn’t (though he resents her, and once broke up with her) hate Tina. Nor does, as a grown adult father, does he hate his kids: Davis’s can-you-believe-it-me-neither register makes him a perfect, ridiculous avatar of parental ambivalence:
I just love my kids. I mean what does love even mean
when you’ve got my kids involved. I’m so glad when it’s
a snow day and they get to stay home from school. I think
it’s fucking great when there’s a snow day. I think it’s great
when they’re home. And in this moment when they’re
not here and I’m alone in this house I start writing
and what do I start writing I start writing how
I love my kids. I am amazed at myself, really. I mean what
can I do, as a human? I can love my kids.
Davis entitles this poem, which does not mention Tina, “The Egyptian Revolution of 2011”; he places it last in his book. He does not love his kids any more than Egyptian revolutionaries love theirs; his love will not save theirs, nor will it save poetry. Nor will it save him.
A few paragraphs back I compared Davis to James Tate: though they don’t really have similar poetic goals, the three share a kind of situation comedy, a comedy of persona and tone, that has become more important in American poetry in the exact proportion that the poise and point of traditionally, formally deft light verse has become impossible, since we aren’t brought up to recognize form in that way. (Impossible in America, I mean: the British still have it, in Sophie Hannah, e.g.) To be awkward in poetry is not necessarily to be American, but to be American in poetry, for Davis, might be to be awkward, overbearing, always showing too much, or not enough, of your intent; that’s part of what it means, for Davis, to “fail.” He—his persona—constantly feels that he has failed, and he has made his style from the phrases and sounds of poetry, and of ordinary conversation, that can be heard to fail: he has also made Tina (the book, not the character) a strange and unguarded, not-actually-sarcastic, dare-you-to-read-it-like-you-mean-it success.