Monday, August 17, 2009

A flightless poem

David Tucker's poem "No Flights Until Morning" is an attempt to stuff as much pathos into as cramped space as possible; the effect is not unlike the weary undergraduate who's procrastinated on their paper too long and now writes fast and feverishly hoping the fear of failure might spark some late blooming inspiration. The poem, mind you is, too small setting where there is no convenient dynamic to move quicken the pace or make the more extreme poetic applications seem less glaring. This poem is a matter of trying to fit a size ten foot into a size seven shoe, and reading it was nothing less than watching the pained waddle of a customer denying the shortcomings of their high-heeled foot torture. There are choice details, yes, if one is inclined to excuse snap shot description of unhappy people in crowded places as examples of the author's generous heart.

The runways were covered by late afternoon,
nothing moved out there but the occasional noble

snow plow carrying on with a yellow grimace,
the big jets were barely visible like whale herds

sleeping off the blast. The concourses, so frantic
a few hours ago, were almost still, a few meanderers chatted on their cell phones and looked at watches.

There is nothing in these "humanizing" images that novelists John Cheever or John Updike haven't given us with more grace, sympathy, and with sense that the observed imperfections were leading to some greater effect.Rhythm and musicality are especially strong in these prose writers as they achieve a graceful ribbon of circumstance and happenstance which brings character tic, facial expressions, commercial products into a focus as being telling elements of a whole world and gestalt from which a sadness or great comedy is about to unfold. In Cheever's masterful "Wapshot Chronicle" and "Wapshot Schandal" and Updike's wonderful quartet of "Rabbit" novels the wealth of details forms a world, a fictional space where tangible emotion and poetic effects are achieved through equal amounts of economy and a tuned ear.

Tucker has the eye but not the ear, and like his glacially paced reading --did anyone else find themselves leaning into their speakers only to find themselves about to tip over anticipating his next laggardly utterance?-- and his poem turns into a drone. He had a scene that was worth a poem, but rather than find where the poem was among all those strange , private interactions he may or may not have seen from the corner of his eye, rather than select particular evocative scenes and link them somehow with some small, hidden yet quietly profound fact within themselves, he tries to contain the entire airport , and creates dead weight. We get the typical effect of someone who has written themselves into a corner and is forced to over reach to distinguish himself from the other scenes of nameless being:

II stayed quiet and thought of you;
checked my passport, read my ticket again, then again
like a spy with only a name to get me out,
a thousand miles from my life.

I find it incredible that in a moment when he is supposedly feeling vulnerable and less than dynamic because of his separation from his beloved "you" that he addresses his situation as analogous to that of a spy. Tucker here is valorizing his current despair and ennui and makes himself seem heroic because others are accepting and playing video games or raging at bemused counter help, he has the deeper wound of true loneliness. The poet as serial sufferer is loosed upon us, and you wonder what Tucker was going for other than to prove that he could out-mope a room full of the earnestly self-conscious.


  1. I didn't hate the poem, but definitely had my own reservations about it, sometimes agreeing with you.

    I must say though:

    "The poet as serial sufferer is loosed upon us, and you wonder what Tucker was going for other than to prove that he could out-mope a room full of the earnestly self-conscious. "

    This line has me dying, and if it isn't the absolute truth, I don't know what is.

    My problem with this poem is that being late on a flight is an essentially mundane thing. Which is fine, but trying to contrast what is assumed to be, and then proven to be, mundane, with what is supposed to be genuine suffering just doesn't work for me.

    We aren't given any sense of the speaker's love until those last lines, the meat of this poem, and therefore, I am left wondering what makes this such a thing to mourn over; what makes this delay (which is what it is, nothing more than a pause in a schedule) any more than an inconvenience?

    I'm given none of that, and so it sounds to me as if someone who is just overly emotional, stereotypically-poetic, perhaps, feeling sorry for themselves at an airport.

  2. I don't hate the poem either, mind you, but after some years reading, parsing and otherwise determining various layers of values of worth from the problematic presences of Robert Lowell, Johny Berryman, Sylvia Plath and the eternally cryptic James Merrill, I can't see Tucker's poem as anything else but a B-minus worth attempt to write in some long shadows.

    The problem might be his desire to create an epic language to treat the smaller discontinuities his poetic muse attempt to assess; he at times appears to be in competition with Eliot, who could name a banal object and treat with offhand touch that is serious but not dire. Eliot could modulate his various moods to proper pitches; the depressed persona gives way to the comic, the muddied musing gives vent to an exhilerated clarity. Tucker seems a little arch too often from the get go, the result being that his poems come to rely what seems to be stock movie-style imagery. This from another poem,"Notes from a Day in October".

    That sudden rain at lunch time,
    the scarecrow in the distant field
    holding onto its flapping coat
    saying, "Don't forget me!"

    That quiet at midnight,
    the slow giving in
    to each other--something
    moving at the window again, then gone.

    This reads like the Disney version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hallow", at best, all in what seems like an attempt to mine what one feels is a inexhaustible font of material, their emotions. Emotions that are, it seems, always sad, as if required by some unspoken Poet's Guild that the collective persona of bards must be a population beset by exaggerated sensitivity to life's barrage of progressively worse bummers.


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