Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"The Hole" , a poem by Tom Sleigh

Few kinds of writing are worked on as hard as a bad poem; sometimes I suspect poets are aware that they've committed to an unworkable conceit and labor over it from pride, misplaced as it goes. Gonna make this son of a bitch work, goddamnit, no matter how hard it squirms and wriggles to get away. The reek of dried flop sweat never quite leaves the result. Tom Sleigh, otherwise a good poet, has one of them with "The Hole", published last year in Slate.From the first stanza where the wind is laughably compared to a dog trying to make a bed against the foul weather--rather hard to anthropomorphise the wind as a pooch let alone reconstruct our associations enough to imagine weather conditions seeking shelter against itself--to the self-conscious literary references to poets and their writings, I found Sleigh's poem dead on arrival. I object: wind is not like a dog , unless one lives in a cartoon,and the logic of having a weather condition digging for protection against itself reads like an insular joke about post-modern
self-reflectivity or , better yet, existential self-examination inspired by a light reading of Walter Kaufman. It takes too much explaining, it distracts
from the notion that Sleigh lacks a point to get to, or even an idea to develop through the stanzas. It is, in plain fact, bad writing, the depressed equivilent of the crowd who compose optimistic poesy and decorate their notebooks with hearts and roses.It's poetry written to fulfill a task: BE DEPRESSING,BE HAPPY!! This command-theme poetry caters to its respective audiences the way sundry and contrived pop music does; it allows the reader a fake sense of the poetic and reflective without any real work being done. Inspiration, the drive to side step obvious tropes and catch phrases and usual riffs, makes no appearence in this make-work effort.

One may, if they're inclined, sift through the images and dissociated images to get meanings and inferences to larger, buried controversies, but this poem is freighted with rather typical angst and dread. Sleigh's symbolism is the kind of thing one wrestled with in the fifties and sixties with Lowell, Plath and Sexton, disguised and not so disguised confession and perpetuated despair that sometimes resulted in striking, brilliant verse. The brilliant verse, remember,was the result of the poets trying their best to come up with a poetry of a sort that hadn't been composed before. Not all of it was good, some of it was especially self indulgent and grueling to the eye and ear, but there was genius somewhere in those lines, some of which emerged in particular poems. Sans the occasional spark, much of the work of Lowell, et al, seem less poetry and more the mutterings of
dementia.

Sleigh's slide- show confession gets stuck , frames askew. It's a grab bag of corroded symbolism that he drags around in a burlap bag, trying to sell off for gas fare. It's just not very good.There are many "new" poetries making the rounds, as there always has been. I prefer poems that work structurally, whatever the style or technique. The poems shouldn't have language that is strained, labored, or needlessly opaque, vague or abstruse, there should be a fresh idea or perception at the heart of the writing.From the first stanza where the wind is laughably compared to a dog trying to make a bed against the foul weather--rather hard to anthropomorphize the wind as a pooch let alone reconstruct our associations enough to imagine weather conditions seeking shelter against itself--
to the self-conscious literary references to poets and their writings, I found Sleigh's poem dead on arrival. I object: wind is not like a dog , unless one lives in a cartoon,and the logic of having a weather condition digging for protection against itself reads like an insular joke about post-modern self-reflectivity or , better yet, existential self-examination inspired by a light reading of Walter Kaufman. It takes too much explaining, it distracts from the notion that Sleigh lacks a point to get to, or even an idea to develop through the stanzas. It is, in plain fact, bad writing, the depressed equivalent of the crowd who compose optimistic poesy and decorate their notebooks with hearts and roses.

There are many "new" poetries making the rounds, as there always has been. I prefer poems that work structurally, whatever the style or technique. The poems shouldn't have language that is strained, labored, or needlessly opaque, vague or abstruse, there should be a fresh idea or perception at the heart of the writing. Frank O'Hara, Dorrianne Laux, Kim Addonizzio, John Ashbery, Richard Tillinghast, Paul Dresman, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, among several slews of others who do the artful balancing act of writing in a manner that is both friendly to the ear, simulating spoken rhythms, with a heightened rhetoric that makes the expression memorable, worth a second and third read. The goal is to seem natural, and the writer's stance might be to consider what it is he or she might want to read if they were to spend some time with stanzas. What they share is not style or ideology but rather an ability to make me, the reader, stop a second and consider their thoughts.

Poetry,especially free verse, should just about never have itself as subject matter, nor should the poet refer to him or herself as a poet in the work. The self-referentiality is a dead give away that the poet is stuck for a transition and will instead digress among a plenitude of ready made discourses about poetry before getting on with the show, often times with ham-handed transitions from the poetry rap to the larger theme. The poet who refers to themselves as "poet" in a poem is often times bragging without a accomplishment to justify their pride; it's a conceit that maintains that the "poet" is the antenna of the race and is capable of greater perception than the poor, clueless reader.This marks an insecurity on the poet's part that they're not really sure of what they want to say, and it comes off as busy work rather than actual poetry writing. As such, it distracts, detracts , diminishes and otherwise gets in the way of what a poem ought to be doing, sans self-justification. A poem should be proactive with life, not the writer's library.

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