Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A poet in the lower case

It's strange to go through old bits of writing and see again what you once thought was simultaneously cutting edge and timeless. This isn't the sort of thing I pursued in my writing life, and have vacillated between degrees of difficulty that at least read well, but I can't quite dismiss my time attempting to write within the self-critical confines of Language poetry as being a waste of time; it was , in fact, terrifically instructive, not least of which was to direct me toward my strengths and away from my weaknesses. I also have a real fondness for some of this en-jambed lines and marvel at the language's capacity to snap back into usable form after being tortured and twisted by willfully abusive wunderkind.

But overall, I couldn't see writing a poetry that only a brief coterie of associates and a thin scaffold of masters might appreciate. I read this and recognize that the non-sequiturs have there origins in actual conversations in which tempers flared and love affairs commenced, and that the puns are jokes I used to share about texts, authors, gossip, local landmarks, pop culture references, all mixed together in a way in many attempts to dislodge the master/slave relationship we thought existed between writer and reader. The words to describe the appearance of things that compose an imitated world are the subject of the Language poets; the variant commodity fetishism that links a unified idea of poetry to a consumer reality is reduced to non-sequitur, babble, a distracted murmur of people standing in line.

The problem, though, is that that audience for whom the pieces were intended has dispersed, moved on, or died as tends to happen in the unexamined life, and the poems and texts I produced emulating Language poets are homeless, so to speak, sans an audience to confound and taunt. People just stared at me at the readings where I dared trot this creaking experiments and attempt to perform them; imagine a room full of confused dogs staring at you, heads tilted the side, waiting for the biscuit of wit you don't in fact posses. But by this time my appreciation for the Language writers I was coming familiar with --the multi-tracked universe of Ron Silliman, the satiric inversions of Bob Perelman, Rae Armentrout's crystallization of the fleeting perception that would usually escape a sentence's ability to make lucid--only deepened in an appreciation for the rigorous pioneering their aesthetic undertook when no one would really shake up the post-Beat/New York poetries. But what they had started was there battle to put forward, not mine, and as I began to develop something resembling a mature style--when the poems were "more hits than misses" as poet Paul Dresman told me-- I resigned myself to being an unusual sum of all that I liked in poets in their work, someone at the margins of the scene I was nearest who's influences were clear but whose application of styles had grown beyond emulation and formed something natural and original, something my own. I was content to be a good minor poet, unknown for the most part, but satisfied that what was on the page with my name on it wouldn't embarrass nieces and nephews after I was gone and perhaps some future professors might find some poems that were actually satisfactory in estimations other than my own neurotic rethinking of my own worth as a writer.

Unlike Cage, extended silence bothers me tremendously, and over the years I've opted for a style and strategy that at least invites the reader to interact with. It's not inaccurate to say that I found my subject thirty years ago, but only fifteen or so years ago did I find the consistent, flexible voice to give it life. But I am grateful for the fifteen years of poems that don't make me wince and which have brought a nod, a laugh, a tear to some others and which made me feel as if I was actually connected to a greater chain of circumstance that fended off the desire to wallow in the kind of EZ alienation that is our culture's chief curse and cheap excuse for doing nothing to make this life better. It beats putting a gun barrel where it would do the most harm. Breathing, says all good poetry, beats not breathing.