Friday, May 21, 2010

Jim Powell and William Carlos Williams

Jim Powell's poem "Dance Figure" resembles William Carlos Williams' poem "Poem (As the cat)" in it's sharp, curt delineation of a something observed; the difference, though, is that the Williams' poem is closer to the late poet's natural, evolved style. Williams worked a lifetime developing a poetics that would be about a poetry based on what he considered the American voice, a natural, un-embellished cadence that he considered the model for his imagist inclination. A direct treatment of the material thing perceived was the goal:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset

first the right
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty

It's short and not so sweet; something here reminds me of the still photograph experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, in his continuous photographs of a single action that, when seen in rapid sequence, replicates motion. We can see the cat padding about cautiously as it tests its balance on a precarious edge, we can sense the progress, stanza to stanza, the halting placement of the forefoot, the comedy of hind leg stepping into an empty flowerpot. This artfully , succinctly condenses visual information to essential actions , creating the feeling of the excited, rapid commentary of one friend nudging another to view a comic vision. One nudges the other, whispers "get aloud of that ". Longer digressions are left behind, compound words and their alliterating implications are left on the work bench. Word selection and length are everything, and the goal for Williams, I think, was to create a sense of the event happening in real or recent time, detailed with words that are fresh and pure of post-reflective abstraction. He hasn't larded up the perception with  cracker barrel philosophizing.

Jim Powell accomplishes much the same effect as Williams, although he isn't as temperamentally taciturn as the late poet was. He does have, though, a strong sense of the lyric move and succeeds, in his his strongest work, of knowing when the lines break, when the image commands the center of the work, and when the narrator's rumination filters through the descriptive arrangements, an insertion of a personality that sufficiently problematizes his subject. It's a delicate balance of the objective, the correlative and the subjective. It's a nice seduction, when the writing hand isn't over eager to deliver a payoff.

Dancer Figure
He interlaces
his fingers
and stoops
to make a saddle
at knee level
of his palms
where she places
her right foot
and steps up
continuing to rise
while he straightens
to lift
and boosts her
springing from his hands
arms extended
fingertips pointed
arrowing skyward
as she leaps
than either

Ah, but this is a crisp description of a delicate scene; like Williams, the concentration is on closely observed movement, the cupping of the male's hand to form a lift, a bridge for the woman to place her foot, the slow rising from the floor toward the sky, the final, cascade-seeming leap. What Powell has assumed from Williams are lessons well learned; the brief lines are an internalized beat, a slowly wound spring tensing up until an eventual, ceiling-bound release--the motions here are a seamless stream without the bumps and segmented grating a stitched-in abstraction would have brought to Powell's elegant outline.

One element rings false, if only slightly, the additionally commentary at the conclusion "...she leaps / higher / than either / separately could." The narrator emerges from the wings , Rod Serling style, and offers up the summarizing afterward , and this an intrusion on the serene, zen-moment mood Powell had other wise established here; it takes the reader away from a simple, sweetly arranged music, remarkable for its brevity and absence of loaded terms and freighted associations, and places us in the realm of argument. It's a jolt , as it was both unneeded--did anyone really need to be told , at poem's end, that this was a feat a dancer couldn't accomplish without a partner? The abrupt turn, shifting from the evocative to the editorial, would suggest that Powell has things in mind that the dance partners are symbolic of , or symptomatic of , but I doubt that's the reason. He's too concrete a poet to become vague and allusive and allude to invisible concerns outside his actual writing if there wasn't anything in the work to give the insinuations a tangible presence. I suspect it's merely a case of the instinctual habit to sum things up; this is a habit that can be effective in longer works, where a brief paraphrase of a poem's tropes can illuminate how imagery and theme has been reconfigured in the process of bringing to an articulate expression, but "Dance Partners" is too brief for the effect. The minor failing of the ending illustrates my belief that a large factor of a good poet's working philosophy is the instinct of knowing when to stop writing--often times a poem is complete before the writer thinks he's finished with it.  The point of these tense, brief lyrics is to leave well enough alone