Goldbarth, Albert

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Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 31 January 1948. Education: University of Illinois, Chicago, B.A. 1969; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1971; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1973–74. Career: Instructor, Elgin Community College, Illinois, 1971–72, Central YMCA Community College, Chicago, 1971–73, and University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1973–74; assistant professor, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1974–76; visiting professor, Syracuse University, New York, 1976. Since 1977 professor of creative writing, University of Texas, Austin. Advisory editor, Seneca Review, Geneva, New York. Awards: Theodore Roethke prize (Poetry Northwest), 1972, Ark River Review prize, 1973, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983. Address: Department of English, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, U.S.A.



Under Cover. Crete, Nebraska, Best Cellar Press, 1973.

Coprolites. New York, New Rivers Press, 1973.

Opticks: A Poem in Seven Sections. New York, Seven Woods Press, 1974.

Jan. 31. New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Keeping. Ithaca, New York, Ithaca House, 1975.

A Year of Happy. Raleigh, North Carolina Review Press, 1976.

Comings Back: A Sequence of Poems. New York, Doubleday, 1976.

Curve: Overlapping Narratives. New York, New Rivers Press, 1977.

Different Fleshes. Geneva, New York, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press, 1979.

Eurekas. Memphis, St. Luke's Press, 1980.

Ink Blood Semen. Cleveland, Bits Press, 1980.

The Smugglers Handbook. Wollaston, Massachusetts, Chowder Chapbooks, 1980.

Faith. New York, New Rivers Press, 1981.

Who Gathered and Whispered Behind Me. Seattle, L'Epervier Press, 1981.

Eurekas. Memphis, Tennessee, Raccoon, 1981.

Goldbarth's Book of Occult Phenomena. Des Moines, Iowa, Blue Buildings Press, 1982.

Original Light: New and Selected Poems 1973–1983. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1983.

Albert's Horoscope Almanac. Minneapolis, Bieler, 1986.

Arts and Sciences. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1986.

Popular Culture. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1989.

Delft: An Essay Poem. Maryville, Missouri, Green Tower Press, 1990.

Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Across the Layers: Poems Old and New. Athens and London, University of Georgia Press, 1993.

The Gods. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1993.

Ancient Musics: A Poetry Sequence. Kansas City, Missouri, Helicon Nine Editions, 1995.

A Lineage of Ragpickers, Songpluckers, Elegiasts & Jewelers: Selected Poems of Jewish Family Life, 1973–1995. St. Louis, Missouri, Time Being Books, 1996.

Adventures in Ancient Egypt: Poems. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1996.

Beyond: New Poems. Boston, Godine, 1998.

Troubled Lovers in History: A Sequence of Poems. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1999.


Marriage and Other Science Fiction. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1994.


A Sympathy of Souls (essays). Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1990

Great Topics of the World: Essays. Boston, Godine, 1994.

Dark Waves and Light Matter: Essays. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Editor, Every Pleasure: The "Seneca Review" Long Poem Anthology. Geneva, New York, Seneca Review Press, 1979.


Critical Studies: By the author, in The Generation of 2000 edited by William Heyen, Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1984; "Riddle of Being: Goldbarth's 'The Importance of Artists' Biographies'" by Thomas Lavazzi, in Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburg, Kansas), 27(4), summer 1986; interview with Barry Silesky, in Aligarh Critical Miscellany (Aligarh, India), 24, 1992.

Albert Goldbarth comments:

(1980) I do not much care to turn my poems over and study their undersides—motives, influences, psychic needs filled. I would rather go on to a new poem instead. What can be said briefly, and I think truly, is that my interest in the long poem and its possibilities grows stronger. By this I do not mean to turn my back on the shorter poem. Comings Back, though it included the fifteen-page "Letter to Tony," included a six-line poem I like as well. But the extended poem that includes narrative, or has scope enough to play with large bodies of time, or that finds room for dialogue or quoted source materials, that can build up litany or weave motifs in and out with the huge sweep a suite has—Different Fleshes, for instance—is a "novel/poem" and is one book-length piece of alternating prose and poetry sections that is able—happily, I think—to allow moments of pure lyric visionary intensity to take place within a novel-like framework—plot, historic and invented characters, quoted conversation. My hope is that some of its best moments have learned from, even include, the concentration and connotation one expects from a brief poem but that those moments accumulate toward, and then take place within, an even richer context. In any case, that is the challenge I feel right now, and I suspect my next few efforts will record how well or poorly I have faced it.

(1985) I grow, if anything, more wary of statements of poetics. I believe my work asks to be self-sufficient. It is not a script requiring public performance, not a set of lyrics requiring musical accompaniment, not an arcane puzzle requiring for its fullest understanding prose commentary, not even, perhaps not especially, my own. All my poetry asks for is a few people who will, in solitude, care to enter the world of its pages.

*  *  *

Albert Goldbarth is bent on restoring useful clutter to the American lyric. For years the tendency has been to keep stripping down language to an ultimate essence, a vital center where all the truth may be put down in a phrase or a word. Most lyric language since World War II has been as gaunt as winter branches. Charles Olson stretched the line longer and freighted it with more content, Robert Lowell crabbed syntax and meter, and other poets have managed to spread language more thickly along the line, but Goldbarth has about him a certain genius to patter on indefinitely and keep it interesting.

Goldbarth's poems open any subject and become pretexts for labyrinthine monologues; his logic is a bramble bush of interconnections. Goldbarth's poetic, if one may hazard discerning it, is to pull everything around him into the form at hand. In one way his mode is high parody of our universal lust to consume, to own, to put it all into the shopping cart even if the money runs out. The poem comes back to its premise eventually, but the means is primary for a Goldbarth poem. The joy is in watching him drown in chatter and float back up again with a point.

Jan. 31 departs somewhat from this florid verse style, but the leaner lyric has some advantage for Goldbarth as he shows himself a moving, tensely emotional observer of the cold weather of Chicago, which he makes his vortex for a close commentary on love, lovemaking, survival, friendship, urban squalor, isolation, thinking, and finally hopefulness. Much of the book is written at half his range, however, and as a journal of poetic notations and some fully fledged poems, it lacks the delirious variety of his more exuberant free-form explosions.

Goldbarth renews poetic discourse by dropping back in time into the grandiloquent style of Elizabethan verse—Shakespeare's and Jonson's-and he does it shamelessly, lavishing on his verse all of the naive punning and wordplay, sonorous embellishment, exaggeration, and polysyllables that geysered up at the birth of English dialect. Laid over this older baroque is Goldbarth's sure touch with American slang, and the pastiche works, as in "A Week on the Show":

   CORRECT-O! The Lung is the Foot on the Breath-Stop!
   Halverstrom, clovequeen and fingerwhorls etched with spittle
   turning Newark's alley-cobbles to delta with life electrode
   in you
   as in cue-chalk, skewering, shewering, NOW
   for the slats are down and the scent of muff of Gazelle,
   as the hand
   prongs five in the fifth of the gift and Luck the gland
   the Lord forgot:
   What astronomical body circles the earth and has phases?

But there is more to Goldbarth than mere verbal performance. His poems are nearly desperate about language and the need to keep talking, the need to explain the slightest facet of personal history with all of the terminological armament of science and philosophy. His fully conceived book Comings Back is also the clearest instance of how Goldbarth intends his poetry to be a point of convergence between the individual and the immense culture heaped around him. Perhaps Goldbarth intends us to see that we are again at a birth of language, a dawning of new technological speech that he dares to use as his own personal utterance. Comings Back is charged with scientific lore, with facts of all sorts, with statistical junk and heaps of otherwise useless information, all put to lyric use.

Goldbarth's persona is chameleon-like, dropping into other periods and other voices at whim, and he seems to suggest that the poet may no longer have a culture to possess personally. The poet may plunder the world's codes and some of its lesser secrets in swashbuckling verse, but he too is a drifter in a much larger and increasingly impersonal human realm. Unlike the vast majority of other poets now writing, Goldbarth is not interested in staking out some part of the human realm as his own, and his attention wanders from old lovers to friends, to the deep past, to fragments of experience belonging to all of human experience.

A poetic vision more in the making than fully formed lies below the verbal froth of Goldbarth's later books. He has been doggedly pursuing a certainty that life is a Moebius strip. "History repeats itself," he blandly declares at one point in Jan. 31, but the theme is pervasive in Comings Back and is the whole point of the 1977 chapbook Curve: Overlapping Narratives. Goldbarth later turned toward an earlier preoccupation, his own family history, from Chicago, to which the family had immigrated, back to Poland. Other Jewish poets have done accordingly in their efforts to get to the sources of their own personal myths and, by inference, the roots of imagination.

For a poet of ironic, sometimes impenetrable masks, the turn to sentimental history is buoyed up by incursions into general mythology. In The Gods, for example, plain living is shot through with the divine; gods inhabit the ordinary world as Goldbarth's considerable expository powers begin to mix fable with facts. In Heaven and Earth the two worlds become one in the poet's vivid attention to surfaces and their elusive mythical depths. Experience is a tapestry of rhymes between the sacred and profane.

Goldbarth's rash, impetuous style of writing conceals an evolving vision of the world. If he began with irony and satire, it was aimed at Cartesian certainty. In his later work satire gives way to faith, belief in spirit, and a growing seriousness about the values at stake in poetry and the literary imagination.

—Paul Christensen