Friday, March 13, 2009

Sailing through the dry facts

Jill McDonough's poem,"December 12, 1884: George Cooke", from a series of sonnets she's been writing drawn from actual events in American history, has only one good virtue going for it; it spared me the purchase of the book.

This reads as if it were a combination of dry facts from a history book blended with a student's marginalia. Scissors, paste and yellow highlighter are all over this assemblage, which indeed seems more assembled than composed. There is a punchline McDonough wants to land on, an example of Fate's anonymous wit, but there is not enough here to make us, meaning me, the reader, care enough to interpret the poem so that it becomes whole and coherent. It would be easy enough to dwell on issues such as how a sensationalist media twists historical fact into personality driven events and fictionalizes the record with romantic constructions in the interest of selling papers, but that would be too much weight to lay upon such a slight and underfed piece of writing. Such speculation would be more than the critic's invention than the author's intent.The mistake was to approach this set of information as a poem, as this is a clear case where an unambiguous prose format would have achieved what resonance McDonough wanted to have us experience; prose seems better suited for such terseness. I'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway, who's masterly avoidance of qualifiers still provides a powerful kick, particularly his short story collection In Our Time is a masterpiece of what wasn't included in the telling. The italicized sketches between the longer stories are what McDonough should pay attention to, as they show how only a few facts conveyed in a paucity of words can still pull at your heart the way she wanted.

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