Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Counting one's chickens

"Odysseus Seeing Laertes"has a burdensome title, if nothing else. We are made to think that a cataclysmic revelation is about to make us quake in our boots, that something had been written in a more formal age has resounded through the historical corridors and asserts its truism as prophecy. This isn't the case,  however, and the portentous title does a disservice to the  poem's real merit, which is more in line with sort of slight lyric that attempts to clarify a vague feeling but succeeds instead in producing another  kind of beauty.The thinking here appears to be that this poem would resonate louder, brighter, more deeply if there was a classical gloss laid upon it. As there is nothing within the poem that clicks with the oblique title --no reference, that is, that would trigger the reader's own associations independent of a didactic explanation--the reference is merely decoration. The weight it adds isn't inherent significance , but merely freight. It threatens to make the poem ungainly and unspeakably pretentious; the poem, though, survives the author's striving to insert irony where it does not exist.   All this is a pity , since this poem has the makings of being a nicely controlled bit of observational verse, an adult perspective of a distant childhood perception that has, by chance, influenced the narrator as he was growing up; through the fog of memory poet George Kalogeris could have situated the speaker's current state of mind and shown us what it was that made him grasp this faint memory with such a sudden vividness of recollection. I am thinking , of course, that this could have been an intriguing reconciliation between parts of himself that have never quite been at equipoise. 
The poem, though, does work effectively as a snapshot of a something pulled up from one's distant past--there is that sense of someone going through their family photographs, placing them in the best chronological order they can manage. A narrative forms from the sequence, and what emerges in the telling, wonderfully spare at its best , uncluttered (save for the title) with quaint literary props, is a young mind as a blank slate which the world is writing upon.
he elements from modern Greek culture aren't in dispute and, in fact, make this an interesting contemporary poem. The weak corollaries with classical texts, though, serve the poem not a wit. Themes of absence/presence regarding parent-child dynamics have fairly much been absorbed by the larger culture have, in fact, become common stock for poets, novelists and playwrights to make use of; this poem, as is, is fine as an evocation of an adult attempt to bring focus to a diffuse memory and can stand on its own merits. It does not need the Classical allusion the title provides; it's window dressing, a redundant signifier, an advertisement that the poet is well read. The poem does not need it, the reader does not need it, George Kalogeris didn't need to provide it. 
This is an alarm bell I've sounded before, tiresomely so; my dislike of poetry about poetry.One of the things that have been choking the life from much of the work of poets these days is the habit of many to clog the arteries of their stanzas with entirely self-conscious and self-admiring references to poetry and it's traditions. Indeed, too much of the the subject matter of poetry has been poetry itself; there are some with genius and talent enough to make the self-referential style swing and sing with real verve and brains, but genius is rare. In this case, anything less than that level of genius--of a Stevens, an Ashbery, a Silliman--is to not be a poet at all. It's a different kind of game, and it is fueled by its own waste products.