Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Crass Hack Work


I feel like a jerk and an unfeeling heel, but I cannot
get beyond the feeling that Philip White's poem
about his mother's frail and failing memory and health "A Moment Ago" to be just a little canned. Elision and associative leaps are hall marks of contemporary poems, where two seemingly unlike instances or references are brought together by some synaptic spark , simulating the effect of the poet's thinking.

Under the best circumstances, there is the element of surprise
that catches you unaware of what's coming, and leaves you breathless with the end result, a point or emotion you didn't expect to be brought to credibly. "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara, about the day the author heard about the death of Billie Holiday, is a splendid example of this effect, done with amazing precision and condensing of detail:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
in Ghana are doing these days I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

-- Frank O'Hara


It's a poem about going about one's business in a
city legend for hustle and frenetic activities, comings and goings, and O'Hara's casual survey of the limitless details of what the city reveals (there is a feeling in this poem of painter Stuart Davis' pre-Pop Art cityscapes, large, blocky, jazzy and absolutely electric), the issue of Holliday's death is unmentioned save for a passing headline. O'Hara goes about his errands, his distractions, until he remembers a seat in a comfortable jazz bar, and the tragedy , the sorrow, the irreplaceable loss hits him finally and suddenly and the room was impossible still as she started to sing. O'Hara gets the sense of
revealed truth, the rush of sensation that rings every bell and tells you that life is different now and a bit diminished, that whatever you've learned from the departed will either be your strength or your weakness.

White reads like he's only more than eager to convert his sadness into a poem. Where O'Hara
was conversation and offers up his revelation as if it were a bit a self knowledge that emerges in a talk quick and unexpectedly, White' sentences are stiff in their writerly vestments:

We were out on the deck talking with mother,
watching the line of shadow climb the foothills,
intercepting the peaks around us one by one
as if the valley were a bowl being slowly filled
with darkness. She wore the blue cloth hat
with a flower, having just given up therapy.
We asked what she remembered of "little"
great-grandma and others we never knew.
It was hot. An afternoon storm had splotched
here and there the laurels, startling the swallows;
a dusty trickle had formed briefly in the throats
of the gutters


This is prose, first off, and it suffers from obvious conceits such as the strained conceit of equating the time of day with the state of his mother's health and memory; sad as it is in fact does not make moving as a piece of writing by default. The fading light, the darkness engulfing the mountains, it's a cement shod set up for the delivery of the punchlines, the mother's interruption of her recollection with a frail mention of a song she suddenly remembered, something she brings up
unexpectedly. What happens with the material is the kind of gutless literary writing that is over polished, seeming graceful and poetic at first, but which comes across as inconclusive in how an emotion is received. It's an aesthetic distance that decorates the bare facts of compounding sadness whose rhetorical style, a conspicuous overkill of fine writing, avoids a response that reveals something cracked in one's perceptual armor.

The mother is made into an exercise in slipshod allusion and creaking metaphors.I don't expect poems to make sense literally, or to
be snap shot perfect in how they recreate the factual world since what interests me generally is how the writer creates credible mood. What's interesting half the time are the skewed details. My objection is White's fervor to smother everything with thick, glorious language that is arranged just to show his mastery of the tongue rather than let on what it is he feels. Not that I'm crazy about poets who pump and gush feelings like leaky hoses, but one does note the lack of felt experience here.

White's literary reputation is more the issue of the poem, not the state and being of his supposedly dear mother. She exist here solely to provide the poetic moment for the poet to deliver his prepackaged cadences and store room ironies. .White , I suppose, might have been saying "Oh wow" to himself while all this was going on, and was mentally framing the poem as he stood there, maintaining a concerned face . If a sister or a brother slapped that concerned face after reading this poem, I wouldn't be surprised.

7 comments:

  1. Quite a rant as always, Ted. I think so much of the issue is that in reaction to sentimentalism we have turned to Hemingway-esque models of "show not tell" and therein turned away from ourselves. Again, like you, not advocating telling the reader what to feel by layering on maudlin cliché. But, "no tears in writing, no tears in reading" - being willing to be vulnerable (or not) can be felt. I don't know White or the poem well enough to lay on praise or blame. But I appreciate the situation you describe as epidemic in modern writing.

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  2. I so agree. But it's worse than that. It's hacks trying to make an epiphany out of a moment they think *should* be an epiphany. But, too bad, there's nothing in there. So they make an epiphany placeholder and don't have anything to fill it with. There are a lot of ephiphany cans filled with a view from a suburban garden, and the weather, and humdrum details of middle class life, and they are not good in a can unless you make an enormous effort and can stuff an entire suburb and an entire life in there.

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  3. As a kind of superset of epiphany, I'd use the word transcendence. If we can't bring something wonderfully new to bear within the cadence and tone of plain speech, we might as well go back to the high-fallutin' decorum of anastrophe, meter, and scheming rhyme. This is part of what I call the "problem of accessibility" -- that anyone can seize upon the opportunity to write badly in free verse, because it "looks easy" -- and to do it well is not!

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  4. Robert and Liz:

    Thanks for the remarks. I might suggest that what White exhibits here is evidence of an occupational, or at least an avocational hazard; the intensely sensitive and shy and reticient who further distance themselves from the things they have to walk through by mentally narrating their actions as they engage in them. More than once I've muted the sound and sight of what I took to be a mundane presence by describing my own boredom and gestures, ie, "Burke slumped in the chair as she brayed on and on about her glory days as Cheer Leading Captain, propping up a sagging smile with a unclipped index finger." As is, it can result in interesting writing , if one grows beyond the neurotic need to make all things subordinate to past tense prose; I would count my habit of mind at the time to have been practice , of sorts. One , though,should also know when to turn it off and make sure they have something interesting to say before applying their perfect constructions on personal history. Besides a musical ear, which I insist on,
    one requires a filter to know where
    the feeling in a subject is located, and how to best dig it out.Otherwise it' just mechanics.

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  5. And plain speak memoir mechanics seem to be a lot of what creative writing programs are encouraging these days. That said there is no reason to throw out infant with bathing liquid -- i.e. the personal can work, as can the mundane (transcended). To me sincerity drives originality; obviously never the other way around.

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  6. There are always exceptions to a rule, since I think sometimes an insincere voice can write a great poetry; poets are writers, after all, and literary writers are liars of a kind. Part of the magic , if that's not too precious word to use, is that there is the occasional writer who has no particular emotional involvement in what they're writing about who is yet able to have a reader respond viscerally. But that's a different kind of writing, perhaps. What we're talking about here is how one goes about getting across something very subjective without seeming to be "instructive"--over qualifying with adjectives and verbs-- or flat line, or , for that matter, getting hoisted by the twin nightmares of mawkishness or bloodless aestheticism. It is, I think, as you suggest, a matter where instinct instructs the writing hand, where talent directs mechanical know how to produce the seamless thing we call "art".

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  7. Charley Horse6:30 PM PST

    I believe a Wiki Elf has added your name to Ender's entry on BOTF writers.

    See this page.
    Scroll down to find External Links.

    ReplyDelete

Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.