Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ellen Wehle and the Art of Not Getting It Right


Ellen Wehle's poem "Augury" , printed in Salon in July of 2003 and which I came across last night surfing through that magazine archive of previously published, is a wonder, a poem about memory that achieves the epic without the expected drag of self-dramatization.There is none of the photographic exactness of detail that makes me think that there is fiction being passed off as truthful episodes; poetry is in large part fiction, I think, but poets (like myself) are reticent to admit that not every line we write is directly autobiographical. If it were so, we would have reams of duller poems, dreary and inane; there would be no art. Art is artifice, after all, and there is no good reason to equate artifice with lack of honest effort or glorious intent. But I like about Wehle's poem is the realism here, the way she gets at the moment when memory fails and details and context dissolve into dust. This is the art of not getting it right.This is a small and minor poem as I read it, but I like it fine, and think there's something honorable in the way Wehle left her undefined problem (her ennui, soul sickness, and terminal boredom) unresolved.

The language is mythic in the rhetoric it assumes, obvious in the choice of "fortune teller" or in sections that literally drip and ooze poetic flourishes, as in
": gabled night, the secret trees
spilling darkness around streetlights, blown roses
singing hosannas over a fence."

What makes the poem interesting, though, is that the world itself, the one the poet is actually walking through, does not really yield anything, become more profound, nor offers the slightest clue to a deeper, life-sustaining argument for all the beautiful used to describe the activity as it unfolds; this poem has the jammed-up literary haste of a restless mind that is certainly too self aware as it goes through the simple activities of executing the banal obligations of daily life.

The mind describes details in literary language, and yet the banal remains banal, ordinary and unreconstructed in spite the epic attempts at metaphorical largeness.
"Don't get me wrong, nothing was solved." is what Wehle writes in the middle of the poem and from there we see it all come apart after that meticulously scripted first stanza. This is a poem that is contrary to Wallace Stevens's notion of poetry being the intuitive and elevated means to get to the Supreme Fiction that lies behind the mere descriptive alacrity of words.

Wallace had a notion that art and life become unified in such a way that the barriers, intellectual and basely instinctual, that separate the primal and the abstract vanishes, disappears, and is gone as perception is heightened and we see the world we are born into as an entirely new place.

Implicit in that is the notion that to see the world differently is to also make it possible to make the world new and revolutionary.
Wehle, in this verse, can't make use of this mythic ability to penetrate into the secret heart of things; her malaise, her situation remains the same, though festooned with the garlands of intense description. The moment of the narrator's admission in the single line middle stanza marks the poem's wonderful disintegration. The language becomes choppy, monosyllabic.

Attempts to re-ignite the dramatic language turn into exhausted mumbles. I actually get the feeling that this a poem Wehle started in good faith and then soured on by the middle, and allowed the poem to gag on its failure to remain grand and dynamic in a field crowded with exclamatory poets and their noisy, incantatory verse. "