Collecting Sparrow: He’s no Blake, But He Gives Good Proverb


Famous as much for picketing the offices of the New Yorker and running for president as for his own poetry, Sparrow displays his belief in the latter’s singular importance by not including much of his own verse in America: A Prophecy—The Sparrow Reader, a collection of his political, cultural, literary, and spiritual writings. This isn’t the contradiction it initially may seem to be; Some of the most fervent believers in poetry’s extraordinary powers have then gone on to abandon it—witness Rimbaud or Laura Riding.

Sparrow hasn’t abandoned poetry, but his relationship to it partakes in the same dialectical tug-of-war with political and literary authority that pervades this book. He compares the “I” to shit, poetry to spam, and his own “proverbs” to garbage. For the Left, finding a balance between assuming and abdicating power and authority can be a challenging ethical imperative. As a result, if William Blake’s America: A Prophecy articulated a struggle between the spirit of revolution and the repressive forces of order and rule, Sparrow’s America articulates a clash between two forms of absurdity: the ridiculous spectacle constituting mass-media capitalist culture versus a creative resistance to it—rooted in Situationism and the Yippies—that Sparrow has long been a model practitioner of, and which this volume thoroughly documents.

Sparrow doesn’t have Blake’s capacity for sustained vision (who does in these spatially and temporally compressed days?), and the funniest and at the same time darkest pieces in the book tend to be the shortest. (One proverb reads: “Death is no gourmet.”) But Sparrow emulates Blake’s embrace of iconoclastic imaginations, even if, as Sparrow writes, “Right now, the world is dreaming itself faster than we can.” Poetry has always been a primary tool in the imagination’s construction of a better world; yet as Sparrow warns, don’t take this too literally—or seriously.