Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Bruce Smith's Motel Room Art

There are times when deferred meaning and elliptical syntax are just the thing to spark up a reader's imagination so that they best piece together a poet's fractured missive from the muse; it's the kind of interpretive exercise that got me interested in the game to begin with, graduating from the lunch counter surrealism of Bob Dylan's lyrics to the the abstruse, evocative, exotic diffuseness of TS Eliot's suffering clerk sermons.

The fun of it all was finding what lines, half-image, fleeting reference fit together, what small iota of coherence could be made to create a larger significance, metaphysically, than what mere description could provide. One pays for this with all sorts of foolish speculation and willfully errant readings of obvious moods the poet has laid out, but my senses developed over time, as I continued to read poets and their work, expanded my frame of reference, changed my tastes, and became less interested in establishing immutable rules for poets and their poems and instead became fascinated by what made a poem work.

To say the least, the interpretive work I could became a more interesting process,about making connections between a writer's style and technique and how the sensible , tuned-in application of things could make an accounting of ideas and experience a true benefit to a reader's daily life. A benefit, let us clarify, less in the life-changing mode--- the art of poetry ceases to be art when it attempts the philosophical , as poets (when truly writing as poets and not displaced intellectuals) are creatures of intuition, not analytical rigor--and more for the valued addition of gaining some information or an insight that hadn't occurred to the reader before. Poetry and it's contemporary habit of not revealing it's
collectively arranged meanings on the surface, makes speculation a pleasure, and lessens the burden of being a creature for whom introspection is the curse of the species. Joined at the hips, perhaps, but they aren't the same thing; poetry works within the moment, restrained by what is more often than not a personal account of
phenomena, a very subjective terrain, and the good poet, with whatever sort of style or techniques they choose to use , to modify or create out of whole cloth, attempts to write in a language that achieves verisimilitude with that experience. "Poetic", in plainer speech. Philosophy , as a practice, as an art (if you're inclined to apply the term) requires more rigor in it's discussions of experience, the acquisition of knowledge, the forming and transmission of values that would make for a better culture; philosophy concerns itself with the creation of systems of analysis with a specialized language that is not open to the non-specialist. Poets writing with the expressed purpose of giving forth a philosophical lecture will wind up most often writing verse that won't satisfy anyone as poetry save their best friends and their parents.

Harold Bloom, a favorite critique because of his insistence that literature is a valid way to set one's sense of the universe in order for at least a short (and continuous) periods, tells us straight forwardly that poetry helps think about ourselves. The skilled diffusion and deferral meaning by the master poets Eliot and Stevens, the glorious creation of self-metaphor of Whitman, the the condensed , diamond contradiction of Dickinson,
all these results of a poet's concentrated effort to capture some perception in language which would otherwise be lost, is an extension of their process to the reader, who might create their own links, fill spaces with their own biography, and become just a more alive than before.

That is assuming that their diet of poets doesn't consist of poets as lazy as Bruce Smith, whose poem "Contraband" is this week 's selection in Slate,takes the elliptical and the diffuse elements of Eliot, of Stevens, of Pound, of WC Williams, and turns from stylistic devices to
mannerisms, dead, soul-less generic touches. The poem begins interestingly enough, suggesting a problem with an email attachment

That thing you sent didn't open,
didn't change my life as it should, didn't complicate,
or play,- -.

A writer could have a good time making sense (and nonsense) with a whole range of verbal cues and suggestive allusions; things that won't open up, unwrapped packages (of a sort) containing something wholly other than what was described,
expectation and result not linking up as one might have thought. There are several ways this provocative opening line might lead us to a rich stream of legitimately ironic points of arrival and departure; this is something that might have kept on going for several dozen lines. I was thinking of a new Ginsberg, perhaps, full of vision, metaphor and wide breadth, creating a list of paired things , ala Howl, that could have scorched the ground. Smith, though, is cheap in his estimation of the reader's patience and splashes bits of paint in a series of commas, dashes, clauses that hang together like a paper chain one pulls from a desk drawer.

as it should, didn't complicate,
or play, although it made a hate
crime, a love note—both of those—a stolen
thing from the Congo passed through France
then shown to Picasso by Matisse at Stein's apartment
a carving, a mask, a dance—a misrepresented
soul that became the thing—a trance
we lived in while we built the Great Wall,
The Chrysler Building, the Erie Canal—servants
to the civilization, dowsing, digging,
never stopping to drink. God strangled
the details as we smuggled the cargoes
of our gifted lives, our lies, our singing.

I've been a fan of poet David Lehman for years and have defended his method heaping scattered bits and pieces into his lines, and have found his style of disconnection to have the flash and verve of modern jazz ala Monk and Ornette Coleman, and the clipped, broken elan of pop art; Lehman seemed to not go for making of sense, ie, a clearly communicable argument a reader can discern and respond to rationally, as opposed to the creation of a broader, less obvious "sense" of things in his writing.

There is an atmosphere and tone in Lehman's writing I found contagious, musical, and honestly arrived at. I don't know about Smith's personal honesty, and I wouldn't say that he wrote "Contraband" intending to bluff his way through whatever audience he saw reading thSmith is a good poet who has written a fine number of decent poems, like this one:

The air like the street numbers was high and rare and had a low-voltage, low-wattage light and flavor

of something burning still from the extinguished 60's

or something about to be combusted in commodities

and futures remembered now as then. Bread and junk were cut and risen out of the sub-basements

to the street in packages of Wonder and bags of Mrs. Jones. Substance and dust. Through the crossed wires of the telephones

voices from Memphis said Jerusalem was on fire.

All I could do was talk about desire

while I rendered the face of the Sojourner Truth Apartments, like a myopic Monet, in different light. Mostly I was mute.

Upstairs the dancer turned engineer was mostly in tears. The air shaft was a cloud chamber of jilted beds and chairs.

I wanted to translate the stems of red carnations in the gutter and the golden fluids of the Eldorado and the Town Car.

Given a longer line , he gets a rhythm going, a pulse that gives his concrete details and his historical references a sweep that brings you into the midst of a private conversation precisely because there is not the push to construct significance out of an obfuscation of an other wise obvious point. He gets the half-dream state quality perfectly here. It's not over drawn, it's not belabored, there are no short cuts. It's an honest poem that brings a interesting string of associations together. "Contraband" remains as I said it was, not honest, contrived. is piece, but it is a safe bet to say he was in the perennial hurry as most of Pinsky's poets of late seem to be in , evinced by the frantic and slap dash quality of the verse. Even poems that are marked by the elliptical method, the with holding of information, a fracturing of narrative thread, still have associative leaps that are more than private jokes or transcriptions of marginalia from an old anthology. The iconic names--Picasso, Stein, The Great Wall, The Erie Canal, The Chrysler Building--are a self conscious assertion of his own "cultural knowingness"--and are more distracting than evocative of something outside the text; the name dropping is more like washed- out motel room art that vainly attempts to make you think of something other than the fact that room is drab.