Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ellen Wehle and Mark Strand

Not every poem an interesting writer publishes is itself interesting;I've had the embarrassment of seeing my least favorite self-penned poem printed in small magazines
that would expose my damning pretensions to an audience that mattered ato someone trying to practice the craft. I thought Ellen Wehle's poem in this week's Slate"Second Coming" was too elliptical and sparse to worry a meaning from it, which is a shame since I think poet Wehle is normally an interesting poet.This seems less writing than say, jotting , an attempt to get flashing chains of association rapidly on paper. Not every chain is worth rattling, or presenting as a finished work.There is what seems like a conspicuous attempt to create a dread here, something similar to Mark Strand's poem "The Dreadful Has Already Happened" [www.poemhunter.com]. Strand, though, isn't merely arranging choppy sentences that are glutted with iconic references; instead he creates a narrative, non sequitur as it may be, and lands us on a terrain that is palpable in spite of it's unreality.
The symbolism and private allusions remain concealed, of course, but their capacity to disturb and convey the sinking feeling that something awful has happened , for me, strikes a primordial core. It works because Strand's elements is localized, with a skewed family history, punishments. The familiar is defamiliarized. Wehle hits a slip stream with "Second Coming" and powers through the junkyard of history with the equivalent of an industrial grade magnet. The assignment , perhaps,was to sweep over the battered metal remains of political and religious bastards of the past and then to make art, a poem, from what sticks to the black, flat disk. It is ,though, a tad worn in presentation, part Dada construction, part political agitprop, part language poem, not synthesizing the energies of the three competing anti-aesthetics into something recognizably new. Or interesting.It suffers the worst fate a poem can suffer, it has no vigor. Tap, and you get a flat thud in place of resonance. This is more finger exercise, a practicing of the scales in different keys, this is something you leave in the notebook. Ellen Wehle is a good poet, and I've written well of here in a past Slate offering, and I will chalk this one up to Robert Pinsky's curious habit of pick weak submissions by good writers.