Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Poem gets talked to death

"Just A Tranquil Darker" is a contrived poem I’ve read this year, more excercise instead than an execution of an idea primed for the words one would labor to give it deserving expression. This is rather odious because it is, we note, a poem about poetry, and the writer has so taken the typical license to wallow around in that mire of gooey irony and what-the-hell whimsy. It operates on the premise that the narrator has overheard some part of a private conversation, where the woman’s request, quaintly and innocently phrased, sparks the poetic response, as does the optometrist reaction to the odd qualifier, saying not a word nor giving a gesture that gives a clue that he might think her vain, precious; she is his customer, she deserves respect, he , the professional, knows what she wants and in providing her service gives her what she needs, a decent set of lenses.


John Hodgen , though, gums up the moment with literary language and cornball erudition, straining to convince us that all the large ideas of religion and philosophy comes to the simplest and most direct things we say to one another , in locutions both local and meaningful to community tasks on hand.


…maybe he is God himself, the great optometrist, or at least that dim image
we strain to see of the omniscient god who mostly does not trifle with us.
The occasional hat flown off our heads, perhaps, the tossed banana peel
with the businessman's wingtip approaching, the hurtling safe heading
down for our heads, all of us so intensely looking elsewhere, as if our lives
were God's New Yorker cartoons, all his back issues stacked up, the ones
with the Elizabeth Bishop poems, teetering, in his waiting room.

This is quite a bit of language to consider the slight mystery that exists between the women requesting the tranquil , dark lenses and the doctor who anticipates her desires and knows her needs. What ought to have been, I think, a sequence of images, a record of gestures, a scenario composed of sight, sound, smell and light, is talked to death. What we are presented with isn’t so much an incident or a statement that would inspire a testimonial or a breakdown of the high and middle brow references that might be read into or drawn from the small request and the effort to fulfill it, but something quieter, nearly as fleeting as the incidental itself. Arm waving and loud as he may have been, Frank O’Hara would have written a poem that was right sized in the rhetoric brought into play, as in his masterful “The Day Lady Died” or “Why I Am Not a Painter”


Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
--Frank O'Hara


Robert Creeley comes to mind as well, a poet Hodgen might have thought about as he considered the off hand remark he wanted to memorialize. It's a fitting influence, since so much of Creeley's writing inhabits that space between unadorned expression and a spatially terse elegance. But Creeley, even in adding to bits and pieces of small things in his poems and then stepping back a little to give them a longer look with some authorial intrusion set upon their essence, doesn't lose his subjects exactitude in rhetoric;

The Rescue
by Robert Creeley

The man sits in a timelessness
with the horse under him in time
to a movement of legs and hooves
upon a timeless sand.

Distance comes in from the foreground
present in the picture as time
he reads outward from
and comes from that beginning.

A wind blows in
and out and all about the man
as the horse ran
and runs to come in time.

A house is burning in the sand.
A man and horse are burning.
The wind is burning.
They are running to arrive.


The issue, I think, is that O’Hara and Creeley understood the situations when what the poet thinks of what’s happening inside his poem isn’t important and is, in fact, the least interesting aspect to consider; what’s missed in “Just a Tranquil Darker” is that lack of humility that prevents a writer from forgetting that they are a poet and so be able to get at something out of his control, a phenomenon that just wandered into his perceptual field by the odd chance. There are those things which occur that stop time the slightest bit, amaze and confuse our codes, and then are gone, sketchy and yet vivid, a perception that remains in memory and which changes us a bit each day, each year that follows. Getting these incidences right in poetry –right in feel, tone, texture, pitch—and Hodgen hasn’t done it here. But he did remember that he was a poet, and that is exactly how he chose to behave here, and that’s a shame.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:03 AM PDT

    Thank you for citing Frank O'Hara's marvelous poem. Years ago I pinned the poem down in my mind as the greatest poem ever written about poetry. And you recognize its richness too!

    I've read other poems by John Hodgen that don't err in the way that "Just A Tranquil Darker" errs (it is an ultimately quite cloying poem with undeveloped irony and all the other things you incisively convey). I hate to indict a poet's entire ouevre. He is a poet worth coming back to despite this poem. Sadly, this is the kind of poem that often appears in Slate, The New Republic, The NY Review of Books, and other high end trade or even online magazines.

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  2. It's been remarked on Slate's Poems Fray forum that their poetry editor Robert Pinsky has a habit to select the weakest or most ineffectively obscure from the batches submitted to him by otherwise good poets. Like you, I've read Hodgen in other circumstances, and his work can be strong and sharp; this seems like a chance for him to show his chops as a Well Read Man, but shaky premise shows all that stuff to be name dropping. O'Hara could to the heart of the matter that prompted him to write a poem , and like you it's hard for me to accept second best, let alone third best.

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