During his brilliant and destructive youth, Steve Earle (singer-songwriter extraordinaire) once proclaimed, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Later, older and sober. Earle recanted such unorthodoxy and admitted that Van Zandt was not as good as the forever mutable Dylan.
What does this story, which sounds almost apocryphal, have to do with the prose poetry of Howie Good? Well, like Steve Earle talking about Van Zandt, Good’s prose poems summon similar hyperbolic and unorthodox statements. In his varied landscapes which encompass the political, the personal, the pop, the historical, and the surreal, Good’s prose poems are unique in American literature.
Unlike the masterful prose poems of Robert Bly and James Wright, his work is seldom vatic. The characters which occupy his poems believe in horror more than transcendence. The god he comes across is “absorbed in his own thoughts” and acts “like he didn’t believe he ought to exist.”Within these poems, as in life, the mundane and the awful happen side-by-side. People die or climb a tree to survive, but hope left on a train to an unnamed camp long ago.
The world Good creates is both visual (he loves to reference painters) and apocalyptic. His work does not re-state the commonplace. A reader will not think, “I have also felt this way.” Instead, Good offers a kaleidoscope view of another reality which often bleeds into our own.
None of this is to imply that his work is without humor. Good often laughs at himself, but his humor is not like vaudeville. It is like the existential jokes of Steven Wright or the ironic jokes of Franz Kafka or the exit door jokes of the patient in the cancer ward. Even his many book titles like The Bad News First, The Titanic Sails at Dawn, and The Death Row Shuffle display his dark humor. Sometimes Good’s characters laugh until they cry and then they keep crying.
It’s important to say characters since these poems are occupied by various figures. There’s no self-willed persona in Good’s work as there is in the work of Bukowski and his acolytes. Only the constancy of themes (fear of the unknown, the certainty of pain and death, the cruelty of existence, and the occasional redemption of art) reveal anything about the man behind the writing.
In his essay, “A Small Note on Prose Poetry,” Good wrote, “All poetry worthy of the name exists in opposition to the churn of mass culture.” The idea of opposition is the force behind Good’s work and aesthetic. He writes as an outsider who makes arguments against the easy and expected.
Good’s background in journalism gives a clarity to his work even when he seems to take notes from a made-up country. Journalism taught him the value of a strong declarative sentence and he is a solid student of the ways a sentence can be shaped.
Good’s outsider status is confirmed in his life and in his poetry. He’s a bit like Alfred Starr Hamilton: tied to no group or school, he has few readers and fewer supporters, but many fine poems. His writing career includes approximately 40 books from small and tiny presses in the United States and England, but involves neither an MFA program nor a WPA conference. Since no one told Good what kind of poems he should write, he went off and wrote like no one else.
Uniqueness is both difficult and rare. Howie Good’s work is not difficult, but it is rare in the quality of the language, the vibrancy of the images, and the challenges of the worldview. What he offers the reader is a tilt-a-whirl ride where the landscape is always changing and where frogs rain in abundance.
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