Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some Poems I've Recently Read


Sometimes a writer tries to protect him or herself against complaints by attempting to theorize their work’s shortcomings, as we seem to witness in Slate’s recent weekly poem. It's a neat trick for James Longenbach to title his poem as "Draft of a Letter" , since it would inoculate him against the expected criticism and outright sneering that the poem makes no sense. Faced with the carping and complaints, he can fall back on the title and announce that the poem is an abstraction of a draft of a communication, a literal letter half written and half still in process, percolating in the author's head, with ideas and images and associations jumping between streams like so many dozens of digital fish one might imagine in a rather pointless computer game. The poetry, he would say (and probably does) lies somewhere in the spaces between the lines where our own imaginations construct our own connections between sentences that are hermetically sealed against coherence.

The preemption ploy might be believable if what was actually written were more intriguing, but Longenbach's parts are the sort of undergraduate experimentation and emulation one reads endlessly by the time a workshop gets up to reading The New York School. I see nothing here that wasn't written better by a dozen or so of my poetry buddies in college--Steve Farmer, Melanie Nielson, Shelley White, David Sternbach-- before they abandoned their spirited emulation and forged their own styles. Or anti-styles, depending on what you're attempting to make language do. Longenbach's poem doesn't read as if he's trying to make language do anything except lie there in it's tentative frame, hoping someone will stare at it (nee read it over and over) until a white spotlight shines down and the unspoken relations between Longenbach's skeletal remains of a poem are revealed. In this case, it is less an interpretation of a poem, less a parsing or evaluation than it is, in fact, an autopsy.

This might have been a healthy piece of writing at some point in its compositional history; there may well have been some rather sleek and alluring connections between the suggestions of dream imagery, sexual awakening, the conflict between wanting to fly and the rules of gravity that hard earth that enforces them

Clouds
From the invisible
Mountaintops,
Then mist.



Rain soaked the ground

Until it swelled,

Lifting

My body



Flat on its back.

Delicate fingers,

Voice fair.

In the end



I found myself drawn

To what was neither very large



Nor very small.

In heaven,

If you say the word death,

Nobody understands.

I have no reservations diving into the heart of allusive poems; it's my preferred style, as you might have noticed. But I demand that the writing, however fragmented and subjected to whatever fashions, trends and hot button theories about poetry, at least have a surface quality, a snap and a way with a phrase that makes the work of sussing through and reassembling the disconnections worth the labor. I think poetry needs music and rhythm no matter what the approach, and Longenbach is as musical as flat iron being pounded with large steel hammers. Even fans of Industrial would cry enough and beg the DJ for some Mahler. There are the beginnings of an interesting poem here, and I suspect that there was something much more substantial when Longenbach got started, but then the most casually advanced advice and admonishment one gets from workshop situations--- prune, prune, prune--took over as operating principal, and we can say, safely, that tactless and unfenced trimming of a poem often times leaves us with something that is malnourished, chintzy and cheap in it's minimalist array, stupidly arrogant in its incomprehensibility. The title is the tip off, an admission that this hardly a poem at all, but a murder. What stream of ideas our author was trying to bring together died on the way Slate's poetry page.

****

Two poets published in the last two months in Slate’s weekly poetry series have respective strengths and deficiencies which center on similar habits of composition, which ought to show that individual skill matters more in this game than the stylistic ideology a writer would throw at you in defense. The idea of having a musical ear plays strongly here.

First, one should know up front that Nadia Herman Colburn's reading of her piece “Love Poem” the poem is a buzz kill. Already hindered with the least appealing sound quality, she reads her verse blankly, stiffly, to the beat of the metronome and not the speaking voice. Remember movie scenes where the character is on the phone and the person at the other end of the line is made to sound as if they were speaking from a closet, yammering through a gag? Colburn doesn't sound much better; the reading and the sound quality have less audio appeal than what gets from an answering machine. Too bad, too, because this is not a bad poem when read alone, without sound, a series of elliptical images and sudden memories, seeming to come to the narrator in fast rush. There is some lovely, if diffuse writing here.

A lake flickers after snow,

and I enter the refraction,


like playing the piano—

fingers moving under hand


the hour stretched with Chopin.



A confluence of sensation, a shiny lake surface, a recall of music, a suggestion that the body remembers where it is and what do as would the trained fingers on a keyboard. Something in her responds, is aroused, bits of place and incident brought together in new configurations, just as the fingers themselves never know what music they might play under fingertips actually touch the ivory.


In children, too, it's habitual:


a group mazes its way along the street
like an amoeba under a microscope—

but once when the day still held us
to itself, there was a sudden turning towards—

as when, in Wisconsin, from the back of the car,
I first saw the man in the moon:

An interesting jump here, children in winter crossing the street, a sense of driving forward, to the center of some mystery so far unknown. But then the revelation, some sight observed from the backseat of the car, as if witnessed for the first time, eyes open, and alert.

those craters, the eyes, the wide shadow at center
the mouth. It was so obvious!

Now I'm always trying to forget
so it can come again,

naturally, like the cat through the crack
in the window over the garage,

or the fallen leaves
that collect each night by the door.


This is an intriguing string of images, one stanza said and laid over the other like oft-kilter whispers or distinct melodies performed slightly out of sync. The main point, that one's whole body and being will respond to triggers and cues and make one feel that there is meaning and resonance in places that cannot be spoken, is successfully gotten across, but what strikes me is the chain of association that reflects the short cuts of thinking, quick measurement, fluid framing of context and detail, yet malleable, in flux, unfixed. Her language is musical, graceful, and strangely enough provides us with a dissociation of sensibility that retains a delicacy that is rare. It is an elegantly wrought poem

For the time being we have seen fewer poems-about-poetry and have become witness to another notable tendency for the Tuesday poetry selection, poems of intense narcissism. It's not necessarily a bad thing, since last week's poem by Nadia Herman Colburn both outlined and made sense of fleeting images of a faint past without forgetting that her task was to be lyric and evocative with the material she chose; Colburn's wonderings and bemusements of the sharp synapses her environment provoked involved us in a poem that precisely and unpretentiously captured the intensity of the perceptions, the rush of recall, and avoided an understandable seduction of placing a lecture in the confines of her choicely selected words.

This is not true for Louise Gluck's poem "A Myth of Innocence", which is lecturing, nearly hectoring, and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elder priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine year old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when ones loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance
cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that it makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of an artfully prepared meal. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities flow back and forth in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self and an unsigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, none of it particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader with strong hints as to what Gluck has been reading all these years.

I have a feeling that this may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit in order to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have moved on, cleared her palate, and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.

I don't think that there's a gender gap concerning like or dislike or dislike of Gluck's poem. As I said , I rather enjoyed last week's "Love Poem" by Nadia Colburn even though it treads much the same territory Gluck is traipsing about in--both poems concern a narrator's vivid glimpse of an acutely missed past--and I think the preference is about style, not gender. Colburn writes as if she's aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of incessant concentration on the modulations of one's emotional temperature and rather smartly, I think, veers her line to that of William Carlos Williams ' that there be "no ideas but in things". The surface quality of her words are absolutely true to a gone moment in time, tactile, physical instances that trigger a rushing recall; her sensation is real, felt, and there is something in the elegant sparseness that allows a reader's mind to enter into the scenes and "finish" the poem, to diffuse the intrigue with the resonances of their own experience. Colburn is smart as well in with holding what she knows about larger matters, and keeps her literary fore bearers out of the stanzas and on the shelves where they belong. In mind, but out of sight.

"Love Poem" is a marvelous and careful composition, a neat composition. Gluck, who, I have to admit, has rarely written a poem I wanted to reread is someone who’s vaunted jaggedness and open ended writing I find somewhat prosaic and all-thumbs in her attempts to seem daring and innovative."A Myth of Innocence", perhaps more approachable than the host of her other poems, is the least interesting thing I've read by her; it is an exercise on a routine and not so compelling theme, and whatever emotion she might actually have been drawing from to write this is leeched out by a characteristically ill-thought involution of syntax, and a need to instruct the reader as to how to respond. Her poetry is a glacier paced assortment of ponderous bits that strike me as remote, abstract, and cold, and there is strain in her associations that makes the muscles in my arms tense. I never get beyond the feeling from reading her poems that an overworked muscle is about to tear, and some real pain is about to begin.