Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

Better this immersion than to live untouched.
— Lynda Hull, “Frugal Repasts”
If poetry is not absolution, we can expect pity from nowhere else.
— C.P. Cavafy

Lynda Hull’s love of beauty was so intense that she could risk her life to achieve it. In the fall of 1981 in Little Rock, Arkansas, driving her oil-burning “Outlaw Vega” through a thunderstorm, she decided not to turn on her windshield wipers, since the rain-streaked patterns of streetlight and starlight on the glass reminded her of Monet’s water lilies. She crashed into a parked car, cutting and bruising her head. This incident illuminates many of the themes her poems address: the intensity of longing, the attraction to near-disaster, the compulsion toward desolation, and the glamorization of difficulty. These forces were manifested in her greatest poems, and were what drew her to the sad and unfinished story of Newark’s decline and renewal. Hull was an urban poet; her approach to personal and collective memory merges her historical context with an intense, ethical, empathic language: she moves the chaos of the cities as herself or through a mask, and describes the streets with a jazz-inflected lens of horrified fascination.

Lynda Hull
BY Michael Trombley
PHOTO COURTESY OF GRAYWOLF PRESS

She is an urban poet, with the concerns of urbanity: she pursued an inventive way of describing the interlocking meanings of decay in her own life and in the city that she loved. We should care about Lynda Hull because she not only illustrates intensity. Her work illustrates that empathic inquiry can start with one idea: to look at cities, and then ask one’s own mind: what else have you got to say about reading cities with love? Her subjects employed to find these meanings show the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of lost causes, and of “utsuroi,” a Japanese term for “a way of finding beauty at the point it is altered.”[1] Hull did not, however, seek to praise decline, as much to embody its necessity of reinvention, and of relocation — she sought to be critical enough for her subject to become greater. David Jauss, Hull’s undergraduate poetry teacher at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, reveals her desire for criticism in a way that relates to this obsessive treatment of her subjects — she handled criticism better than she handled praise, if only because she believed it more than she could allow herself to believe the praise:

“Such a craving is not only good but necessary if someone truly wants to be an artist, of course, but at times I thought there was something almost unhealthy about Lynda’s response to criticism: it was as if she desired confirmation of her own negative judgment of herself, as if she wanted proof that she didn’t deserve to be praised and loved.”[2]

The dynamic of her attraction to criticism and her attraction to the shards of the cities annihilated by the urban crisis are connected. The urban crisis, a special collocation that Thomas Sugrue associates with a cities’ arsenal of democratic social services, blue-collar industry, and fast growth that changed since the end of World War II; those cities (Detroit, Watts, the Bronx, Newark) later became “eerily apocalyptic,” with boarded up shops, hollow shells of factories, and huge portions of the population living below poverty line.[3]

In Hull’s exegesis of this crisis… she did not romanticize suburban ambivalence. She sought ways to create a subterfuge to escape that ambivalence, even if it meant seeking the caustic, often painful remains of the urban spaces that ignited her imagination in the first place.

Hull’s work explicates her unique reaction to this crisis, which looks into the vortex before the plunge and embraces the burning buildings. By claiming an intractable crisis, commentators severed their moral ties to places in decline and thereby reneged on their social obligations. Many argued that people had either succumbed to despair or lacked the capacity to overcome their condition. The practical advice instead became extreme — abandon the city![4] Poetry helps us to read nuance and subtlety to this term[5] because it does not take politics as a way out, it constantly refreshes and engages language, and it engages the reader not as mere consumer, but as a producer of the text. Therefore, the reader’s ethical and imaginative sensibilities are employed with the mechanisms of a poem.

In Hull’s exegesis of this crisis — specific to Newark, but useful for cities in general — she does not disagree that the crisis was intractable or had succumbed to sadness; she was not repelled, however. Un-intimidated by race, and drawn to the angularity and chaos in the urban environment, she did not romanticize suburban ambivalence. She sought ways to create a subterfuge to escape that ambivalence, even if it meant seeking the caustic, often painful remains of the urban spaces that ignited her imagination in the first place.

Much of Hull’s work operates along a trajectory of her memory of these urban spaces. Hull was driven by “a deeply ambivalent sense of survivorhood — an awe and astonishment that she endured and emerged relatively unscathed her years on the street…. Memory, in other words, but never in an abstracted or effete sense.”[6] In this manner, the private sectors of her past become inextricably bound to the public knowledge of cities (e.g. “the asphalt jungle, the blackboard jungle — concrete as a cancerous quicksand”).[7] Her poems are the guide through her own memory, even as the tour expands into a collective retrieval for the cities slowly succumbing.

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References

  1. Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. 113
  1. Jauss, David. “‘To Become Music Or Break’: Lynda Hull as an Undergraduate.” Crazyhorse 55 (1998): 85.
  1. Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 3.
  1. Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities. Oxford, United Kingdom: B. Blackwell, 1993. 151.
  1. “unpacking my sequence of crises vanquished”
    Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. 81.
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. Judah Stampfer, as quoted in Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities. Oxford, United Kingdom: B. Blackwell, 1993. 204.

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