Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sharpen That Pencil






You wonder about all this leisure time many of Robert Pinsky’s poets seem to have in their daily lives. Based on the profusion of poems we are offered that hover around the subject of poetry or consider the turmoil and troubles of someone who’s assigned themselves the odious job of being the conscious of the race, you would think many of them don’t have jobs they have to go to, work they have to do for a paycheck. These are not homeless bohemians scraping by on recycling money. Someone pays them a salary for some kind of work that's performed, tasks rarely mentioned or hinted at. Do they teach the writing of poetry? Why wouldn't be surprised if that were the case? What would be interesting , I think, would be a series of poems where there no one was captured in the act of being poetic, contemplating ambiguity, choking on big thoughts, constructing small, straining epiphanies.

A poet’s task is to regard such things, sure enough, but we have a tendency, a trend, a permanent crease across the fabric of our poetry community that can’t stop regarding itself as something isolated from the rest of the community. Many poets are willing to keep themselves separate from the hoi polloi and rusticated rubes who are mere lowly readers.


By Christopher Cunningham doesn’t concern itself with poetry and the poet’s sorry burden directly, but it contains the clichés one would toss into a diorama one would build to illustrate the context you’d expect to find a writer in, a café, a pencil in a fidgeting hand, the speaker, by association, worrying the lines of a poem or lost in strophes he might yet write to fictionalize his experience.

And fictionalize he does, in the form of someone who is presented in a manner that typecasts him as an interruption, a bother. Oy!, the agony of being a poet subjected to folks not interested in who or what he is; the bounder even attacks the means , the symbol of the craft , the essential tool of every scribe hunched over a tattered notebook ;


Will you stop that.
Will you put your pencil
down, and stop touching it, stop moving
it, moving and shaking and twisting
it. Will you stop. Stop.

Our poet ponders, frets, imagines the day this intruder goes through with his disorder, and bothers with a thought about his welfare, perhaps, but mostly feels threatened, his territory infringed upon. Sympathy goes out the window, the muscles tense, the jaw line clenches, and then the resolve comes to him, at last, to stick up for his right to twist and spin a pencil in a public place:



But on that day, stubborn
with surprise, undismayed by the jaw
of his fervor, I said, No.
He stared, fastened by wonder
and agitation, his fingers moving, nervous digits
tying and untying themselves, fretting
at some insoluble knot,
but I said, No. I said, Don't Look.
Just don't look, I said.

Papa Hemingway couldn’t have toughed out the situation any grander or terser, Bukowski couldn’t have been more –go- fuck- yourself .

None could have been more smug. Like the rest of the lazy scribblers who write these inane confessions and , Cunningham’s narrator wallows in his own reaction and attempts to make us co-sign his knee jerk thinking; instead of closely observing the man or empathizing with the poetic techniques one assumes he has at the ready, positing an insight or an opinion made visceral with an observed detail, Cunningham rather imagines the man elsewhere in the day, being strange, quirky, alien, a threat bring fear and bewilderment to small children. Strawman arguments are familiar among pundits and back porch pontificators, but a poet is supposed to use a language that gets to a truth that is overlooked or undreamed of. "When I Think About the Time the Man Asked Me To Stop Fidgeting With My Pencil" is another pathetic example of the kind of poetry that is little more than a writer scratching his privates in a public place.  I'm positive that this poem is meant as self -recrimination, but that isn't enough to get it off the hook , or to make it a good poem. It reinforces the self-absorption--this would fit very well into the many volumes of poems where the authors are caught in narcissistic feedback loops where their awareness of their obsession of their own responses and reactions to situations only sustains the activity. It is not art because the subject does not achieve an independence from the creator's intents or motivations--there is not the sense that appears in the best writing when the subject and it's (his) the world it resides in assumes a character distinct from the artist. This poem is about the narrator's comfort zone being invaded, and ends with the slightest suggestion that the narrator feels bad about his response. That is generous of him, but we're still stuck in this man's emotional backyard, listening to him recite his tales of woe about how awful he feels for not mowing the lawn or taking out the trash.