If you’re a culture vulture as I am, you don’t often associate Michigan with poetry, and when you do it’s either fairly dreadful stuff like Edgar Guest or far removed from personal experience such as Thomas Lynch or Philip Levine. It is true several transplants have wound up in Michigan by happenstance, including academic hires such as John Ciardi and Richard Tillinghast. Homegrown Jim Harrison is a poet, but is better known for his fiction and essays.
That leaves Saginaw’s own Theodore Roethke, a groundbreaking “deep image” poet who died in 1963, leaving a body of work that impressed W.H. Auden, Louise Bogan, and many other heavy-hitting versifiers and poetry critics. Suffice to say, Roethke had a tremendous impact on poetry in the second-half of the 20th century.
So it’s unfortunate that Michigan author Jeff Vande Zande doesn’t make more of Roethke in his latest novel, “American Poet.” True, Roethke’s boyhood home — which still stands as a historical landmark on Gratiot Avenue in Saginaw — features prominently and the Arthur Hill High School grad’s status as a world-class poet is expressed by the book’s characters. But the man’s literary legacy is given short shrift otherwise.
Where Vande Zande does succeed, however, is in capturing the essence of historical and modern Saginaw, which he employs as a fitting metaphor for the similar fate of the poetic art form. As once Saginaw was a bustling metropolis with a fully operational industrial tax base, so too was poetry. Not only was the state able to claim its Roethke, but as well its Levine, who wrote admirably about the automotive factories in Detroit. Levine has long since departed Michigan and Roethke has been dead for 50 years, and Saginaw is but a hulking shell of its former identity.
The reader may surmise that “American Poet” may take an unsuspected turn when the narrator early on relates the story of how Saginaw was originally settled by the Sauk Tribe, who were eventually relieved of their hunting and fishing paradise through a combined effort of the Chippewas, Hurons, Pottawatamies, and Menominees. The Sauks were slaughtered as they sang and danced in celebration of their harvest festival.
Into this landscape returns a solipsistic University of Michigan graduate named Denver (get it? He doesn’t belong in Saginaw, and perhaps not even in Michigan), with delusions of becoming an important poet and narcissistically feeling himself above his hometown, his father, and his lot in life. His abilities as a poet are overshadowed by a former girlfriend who seems poised for academic journal and small-press publishing success.
Denver’s attempts to impose his art on his hometown are met with predictable resistance. Hosting an open-mic poetry reading at a coffee shop, Denver butts heads with the owner, who is interested only in how much merchandise the visiting poets purchase. Here is where Vande Zande displays himself as an author of remarkably original thinking — the coffee shop owner’s position eventually is revealed to be defensible not as another Philistine attempt to boost sales by exploiting artists.
Interestingly, Vande Zande depicts the seeming at-odds between art and commerce without bemoaning the outcast state of the art form because government doesn’t step up to bail out poets, or even the Roethke house Denver seeks to help out of financial straits. Instead, Denver seeks out a former student of Roethke’s, D.W. Wallace, who is a successful poet as well as owner of a financially successful insurance company (and obviously modeled after real-life poet and insurance executive Wallace Stevens). Wallace gives Denver solid advice on where to find funding for the $20,000 in repairs required by the house, and not one of the potential funders is a government agency.
The novel’s climax is a bit far-fetched, but adequately captures the receding adolescence of Vande Zande’s narrator. And, ultimately, the novel’s conclusion satisfies as the protagonist learns the value of honest labor, respect for his father and coworkers, and the lesson that art endures without government subsidies.