How We Spent Our Time, Poems by Vern Rutsala
In reading this book, it is easy to see that the poet was inspired by William Stafford. In general, as far as it goes, this is a very good thing. Rutsala too went to school in Iowa and worked for many years at Lewis & Clark College in the English Literature department, and his poetry seeks to capture moments in the lives of ordinary people. This is good also, as far as it goes. There is much worth in writing free verse poetry that nonetheless offers the reader with considerable insight even without rhyme that follows a naturalistic vocal line. There can also be much enjoyment in reading about the lives of ordinary people and in seeing poetry with a populist touch. Yet this book does not quite live up to the promise that one would expect by such things. Indeed, the biggest issue with this short book of poetry is that the author fails to have the emotional restraint that would give voice to the people portrayed, rather filling these lines with his class envy and his hostility to conservatives and other generally disreputable political sentiments. He is writing less to express the nobility of the common person as much as to complain about the way things are and to advance a political agenda that would help neither common people nor please this reader.
This collection of poems that takes up less than 100 pages can be understood as sharing a common set of themes. For one, all of the titles are written in the gerund form, such as “Looking For Work” and “Learning Your Lesson,” and so on. While the author tries to put the reader in the mind of a fictional person–perhaps even someone the author has known, the author is unable to stay out of the way enough to let the poems seem authentically individual. A lot of the poems deal with journeys–trips to England, driving North, taking the old road, coming home, killing flies in Georgia while one is in the military. Is the author unhappy with life in America and dreaming of going elsewhere to escape the political problems here? The poems clearly express discontent, as the narrators of the poems are down and out and living in a somewhat obscure circumstances, pacifist while also seeking to avoid being around too many cops and too much of what is going on. Even when the characters look for work it is done in a desultory fashion.
Yet at the heart of this book is something particularly inauthentic. The author, as a longtime tenured professor in an elite private school, is someone whose sinecure granted him a lifestyle far beyond the narrators he portrays. Yet unlike William Stafford, he does not seek to provide an insight for the readers into his own life experiences and his own travels, but rather seeks to imaginatively cloak narrators with whom there would be greater sympathy by the reader with the reader’s own political beliefs that would be hypocritical coming from someone who had no cause for class envy with others. If the author had used the gerund form and reflected more on his own particular personal journeys, this book would have been more authentic even if its politics would have been just as jarring and unwelcome. As it is, though, most of these narrators are two dimensional, most of the supposed insights rather shallow, and this book just is not as good as it would have been crafted from a genuine poetic talent like William Stafford. As it is, this is a book that only those who share the author’s left-wing agendas are going to wholeheartedly enjoy, and as I do not share that worldview, I found little in this work to enjoy.