Friday, January 6, 2012

Walking Backwards


The construction of this poem, consisting of so many dependent clauses revealing previous events and perceptions after the poet commences to speak of his walk, makes me think of someone attempting to conduct a tour of a neighborhood while walking backwards, spicing up his odd stride with a monologue that is unfocused at best. 


Song of the Unseen Bird / HL Spelman
To walk so long with her in so much quiet
Then hear that unseen bird, whose name
I don’t know, wouldn’t know where to find,
Singing somewhere among the leaf sheen,
Was to realize why, when his beloved hero-killer
Resolves at last to die, Homer gives us
Not the laments the sea nymphs wail
But the nonsense song of their limpid names
He makes up: Limnoreia and Doto and Proto
And sometimes there are no words
And Kallianassa and Kymodoke and Maera
And sometimes no words could be sad enough.
Ashwing, Seedquit, Spotted Larmer:
Tee-way tee-wee tee-wooo you sang to us.


The walking companions , he hopes, continue to be interested in the bits and pieces of facts and mythical factoids even as he falls backwards, tripping over a rake, a tree root upending a chuck of sidewalk, a rake left by a homeowner gone to the backyard to fetch a basket for the leaves he's raked up. This poem stumbles greatly and does easily blend the informative, the mythic and the incidental and the   mythic, say literary, into the sort of casual, seamless streamlined elegance we praise Billy Collins or, even better, Thomas Lux. There are too many grace notes for this poet to include, I think. 

This is less about what the poet found out during a walk or what they saw that they hadn't seen before than it is about the poet's education; this is a world where everything he sees reminds him of something he's read , a tendency that seems like a condition rather than a bad habit. This poem is another bulging, overstuffed suitcase of intelligent chit chat, not a matching sock in the lot.

A writer making use of other writer's work is not a tragedy in itself, but it is something that is fraught with risk. It's a delicate operation, as it goes, and it seems to work best when used with only the lightest, glancing touch, and the effect that works best, that is, seems the less preposterously over-thought, is when it produces an irony that might reveal how idealized and fallible our initial takes on people, places and things happen to be. Ideally, it achieves some insight about one's place in the world that does not bend obediently at the altar of art. Too often, though, the mentioning of other poems, poets, philosophies, spiritual precepts, traps the writer in an large, sealed container; he or she tends to mistake the sound of their voice echoing a stream of heady names and quotes to the the task at hand.

Spelman uses only one allusion, to Homer, in the work, and one can the problematic and brilliant TS Eliot as a poet who courted toxic levels of literary reference in is masterpiece "The Waste Land".One allusion this manhandled is too many, and I think the Homeric turn is a decisive move to force readers to consult old Penguin editions or Wikipedia. A poet as tin-eared as Spelman , as least tone deaf to euphony in this piece, seems to have a reflexive action that compels the writing to become about what he has read before, not about he is ostensibly trying to address . Harold Bloom has the idea of the anxiety of influence, a life long theory of his that states, simply expressed, that all writers are writing in the shadow of Great Writers before them, and that every poet, bar none, is writing in the shadow of Shakespeare. What makes the difference, though, is to what extent does one stop using literary allusions like badly planted foot notes along the stream of assoication and instead use the ideas as tools to tangibly pierce the veneer that cloisters our responses to events and circumstance. I would imagine greatness as being those writings that aid readers in imagining reality, life-in-itself, outside Plato's fabled cave. TS Eliot, with all his allusions criss crossing each other in his non-linear lyrics, was obsessed with seeing the world as no one else had seen it;l he had a vision of it being arid, sexless, full of the dessicated ruins of religious , political and aesthetic dogmas that failed to keep the world vital , full of purpose, meaning and order. Antisemitic and racist though he was, his poetry is a beautiful expanse of mood and dour music. Unlike so many others, including Pound and the majority of his American and English contemporaries, he had grit, he had gumption, he had an ear for a world he heard spinning off it's gears. 

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