Doug Powell at the University of Chicago, April 20, 2017

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The 5th meeting of the Chicago chapter of the ALSCW was the occasion for a reading by the poet Doug (D.A.) Powell, whose initials emphatically do not belong after his name. Powell, the author of five collections, is a law of one. His work has received many honors, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and, for Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys (2012), his latest, the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Powell’s appearance had three sponsors: the ALSCW and the University of Chicago’s Committees on Social Thought and Creative Writing. In brief opening remarks Powell told his audience he has been “recently attached to, obsessed by, minimalism,” in particular Ronald Johnson’s Songs of the Earth. Powell began his reading with “First Strains,” a new poem inspired by his engagement with Johnson. “First Strains” uses the letters o, w, and l in many variations, and it casts an elegiac spell. Powell is pleased to have readers in the former Soviet Republics, and proud “First Strains” appeared in Locomotive, a new journal affiliated with the American University in Armenia. Then he read “Prosody,” a minimalist sonnet that concludes: “the line / ain’t / what you / break / you break / the silence.” As the reading continued the poems grew in length and luxuriousness if not necessarily in ambition, since what attracts Powell to Johnson’s minimalism are the stringent limitations forms impose.

Powell has always worked in forms, even if, in his early books, many were of his own making. His reading exhibited and examined ideals of constraint and restraint, of forms and styles. In her introduction, Rosanna Warren, Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and a founder of ALSCW, quoted from the introduction to Powell’s early book Tea, where he writes, “I am happy to be accused of style.” Powell’s ironies inflect his apothegm. The range of his latest collection, Useless Landscape (2012), which he read from to close his reading, cured us of any need to decide if Powell was or was not happy or unhappy, or guilty as charged: stylish.

Powell’s feelings are as diverse as his forms, his forms as scrupulously observed as his feelings. Consider, for instance, “Outside Thermalito.”

Persimmons ripen with the first frost.
The bitterness inflicted on them
takes their bitterness away.
Would that there were some other way.

This poem of twenty-two words—twenty-four including the title—repeats “bitterness” twice, and each repetition reminds the reader of the subject persimmons, and of what the persimmons are subject to. Affliction sweetens the fruit, and Powell’s description of the transformation affliction affects—ripening the metaphysical conceit—afflicts us with its poise and its feeling. In her introduction Warren mentioned Donne as one of several influences Powell had “absorbed and transformed.” Reflecting on “Outside Thermalito” I was reminded of Eliot’s famous remark, where he contrasts poets “who think,” with the Metaphysicals, “who feel their thought immediately as the odour of a rose.” Powell feels and tastes his thought, in this instance conjuring with the bitter flavor of persimmons.

“Missionary Man” was the penultimate poem Powell read. Not quite midway through a question arises, conventional but fraught with hope: “Had I ever thought about being saved?” “No.” the next line answers, “I had only ever thought of being spent.” It was as if the bottom dropped out of the idiom, and a new well of feeling opened.