A week before I visited the National Gallery’s new Andrew Wyeth retrospective, I had gotten my hands on Tom Montag’s new In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. In This Place is a retrospective of sorts, too, though by a man who is sometimes called a “minor regional poet.” Montag’s regionalism, though, is like Wyeth’s – a particular window on human conditions and feelings. I thought of Montag’s poetry often while walking through the show.
Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In concentrates on Wyeth’s windows, and most of the show’s studies and paintings are of windows from only two houses, the Kuerner Farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson House in Maine. The inexhaustible subject matter Wyeth finds in two houses reminded me of the cover photograph of In This Place: the front of “the big red house” where Montag and his wife Mary have lived for upwards of forty years in their Wisconsin farming village. Like Wyeth, Montag finds unlimited inspiration from a handful of things within a fixed geographic radius. He has written over a thousand pages of observations, for instance, for his blog, The Middlewesterner, just from things he observed during his daily drives to and from work.
Five years after Wyeth’s death, the NGA show asks, have we begun to see beyond his realism and beyond his insistence on a limited, regional subject matter? Part of the narrative of Wyeth’s show is the universalism in his regionalism as well as the renewed critical appreciation for the “detachment and nonbeing” undergirding Wyeth’s realism, as Charles Brock puts it his essay “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” appearing in the show’s catalog (66). I hope In This Place generates a similar appreciation for the universalism and detachment in the corpus of Montag’s poetry.
The partly negative connotation of “regional” persists, of course, and Wyeth would have sympathized with Montag becoming known as a regional poet. In her essay “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts,” also published in the show’s catalog, Nancy K. Anderson quotes Wyeth as saying, “People like to say Robert Frost is a bucolic poet. Just as people say I’m a painter of rustic scenes – that has nothing to do with it!” (26). Wyeth and Frost were great artists, Anderson contends, not because they were regionalists, though they were, but because they effectively used the natural world to suggest significant feelings and thoughts that moved their audiences. Explaining the name of the Wyeth retrospective, Anderson writes that, as “a keen observer of the natural world, [Frost, like Wyeth,] used exterior prompts for interior purposes – looking out triggered looking in.” The same is true of Montag.
Montag writes about the sky, the clouds, and the crows, the wind and the land. Like most things that populate his poetry, the farms, the telephone poles, and the hawks are usually Midwestern ones, but this specificity serves only to ground the experience in a particular poet. Note the “looking out” triggering “looking in” from these two poems from the section called “Landscapes with Silos”:
the wind’s against.
Montag’s East Coast or West Coast reader – his reader anywhere – puts herself in the Midwest poet’s place, and this nexus of poet and reader isn’t a geographic location but a spiritual space.
Montag’s poetry involves the Midwest’s people, too, but not as directly as it incorporates its land, animals, and weather. The header of Montag’s blog has for years quoted Nancy Besonen: “Tom Montag is defining the character of the Midwest – one character at a time.” A lot of his prose focuses on these characters, chronicling their lives and recording their recollections. But his poetry, particularly over the last couple of decades, is almost devoid of characters. A comparison with Wyeth’s portraits helps me to understand this apparent puzzle.
Montag and Wyeth share a love of their respective region’s land and people. “Wyeth was deeply connected to both [Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine] and intimately involved with their inhabitants,” according to Brock (65). Wyeth was a “committed portraitist who forged long-term and personal relationships with his rural neighbors” (66). But his portrait practice eventually left him frustrated. “Most of my portraits would have been better if I had removed the figures,” he ironically declared (67). The NGA show demonstrates how Wyeth would often include figures in his studies but remove them in his final tempera works. Brock sees Wyeth’s proclamation about removing the figures as a sign that Wyeth sought to detach himself from his portraits while he also recognized that the portraits were ultimately of himself. I think this paradox in part caused him to simplify his work to the point of abstraction.
Anderson, finding another motive Wyeth may have had for removing his figures, points out references Wyeth made to people who permeated his figureless paintings and made them somehow personal. “On more than one occasion,” she writes, “Wyeth described Wind from the Sea as a portrait of Christina, noting that the birds crocheted on the fraying curtains ‘were as delicate as the real Christina’” (21).
I think both Brock and Anderson are right. And I think both motivations explain the relative lack of people in as people-oriented a writer as Montag.
Montag’s figureless poetry, like Wyeth’s figureless paintings, does two things. Like Wyeth’s paintings, it evokes “detachment and nonbeing” – something of the spiritual. It also evokes the people who are not there, the farmers and the other workers who are almost never the overt subject of Montag’s poetry.
How? The people are there in the voice and the aspect the poet brings to his subject. One imagines a farmer looking up from his work and thinking what Montag says about a crow. Montag, whose verse often swings from Zen-like intimations of his Midwestern world to near-commonplaces, to something just shy of aphorisms, suggests through these close encounters both the depth and the moral (but not religious) simplicity of his rural Midwestern family and neighbors. One is often left to imagine the farmer or at least the poet connected with the farmer. To me, much of Montag’s verse feels like the way Wyeth wanted his portraits: devoid of people and so, paradoxically, more expressive of them.
Both artists’ styles are as spare as their present or implied subjects. Anderson reports that, “At various times during his career, [Wyeth] described the process as ‘distillation,’ ‘boiling down,’ ‘getting to the bone,’” (16). Montag also cuts to the bone, reducing a single thought, Zen-like or aphoristic, into as few words and with as few flights of fancy as possible. His diction is direct and unobtrusive, and the syntax is spare, sometimes even lacking verbs. It’s a wise cutting away because what’s left, as in haiku, suggests what’s missing. What’s left also gives the reader some rows to hoe on those mostly white fields among and beyond Montag’s lines.
Montag’s is a concision of modesty. It stems from a feeling that the land and birds and clouds are holy and shouldn’t be disfigured by man’s metaphor and loquacity. It’s what Montag’s father, who worked the land he writes about, taught him in silence. If Montag’s is a voice for a shut-mouthed Midwest, it’s a voice hewn from silence.
Despite my examination here, everything in In This Place seems geared for the reader, not for a critic’s retrospective. Montag’s poems are arranged not chronologically, exactly; they’re arranged to delight. As you would expect, some of the thirty-nine sections of poems share the title of the previously published book their poems are taken from. But some of the sections, such as “Lessons the Wind Would Teach” and “The Language of Birds,” are arranged by subject matter. Many of the poems in those sections come from The Middlewesterner, where he has maintained a practice of posting verse every weekday (and then some) for over six years now.
To see these poems about wind, or about birds, in their own, new sections is a treat. “Cacophony of Crows,” for instance, collects poems concerning this familiar aerial creature from Montag’s verse. Think of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” take out the deliberate associations among the stanzas, and you have “Cacophony of Crows.” The poems in “Cacophony of Crows,” as in many of the book’s sections, are broken into stanzas of two, but sometimes one or three, lines, and each poem is separated from its neighbors by the barest tilde.
The subject-defined sections, then, are new arrangements of existing poems, and the effect of each arrangement is different from and in addition to the effect of each of the arrangement’s poems. Someone familiar with Montag’s blog will find something wholly new and pleasing with these arrangements.
Consider the interplay among three adjacent poems, for instance, from the section entitled “Lessons the Wind Would Teach”:
I try to speak –
a mouthful of wind.
to make you
wish for wings.
Wind, the color of dust.
Sky, the color of wind.
Light, the color of sky.
Breath, this moment’s surprise.
The book has a flexibility of organization as well as a looseness that befits the poems, which are themselves loose and inviting as a favorite blanket in the season’s first cold evening.
There’s also the book’s quality – the thick paper, for instance – a silly thing to consider, maybe, but important for Montag’s work since most of the poem resides in the spaces between the lines. Montag worked in printing for twenty-four years, and his attention to the book’s layout and feel makes the book and its contents come together like a labor of love. There’s an integrated and suggestive experience among line and poem and page that I find rare in poetry books. The book’s expansive. I love thumbing through it, chuckling over this poem, musing slowly over that one. Laughing out loud with the humor or joy suggested by many others.
An insistence on poetry and on the poet’s vocation quietly hums through In This Place, beginning with its heft – 375 pages of selected poems. The poems are “selected,” not “collected,” mind you: Montag chose fewer than a third of his available poems for this book. Montag has taught me that it’s the aggregate work – a kind of acknowledgement of the drive to write poetry – that can please a reader as much as the individual poems. That aggregate experience has something to do, I think, with the presence of the poet in his work. I feel Montag’s gentle advocacy and love, too, for the objects of his poetry – the clouds, the birds, the sky, the wind – and for the people who appear and don’t appear among his lines.
It’s been thirty-two years since Montag’s first book of selected poems. Both in selection and arrangement, In This Place uses to great advantage the thousands of striking and observant poems Montag has penned in those intervening years.