Friday, January 4, 2008

ACT NOW AND SAVE: minimalist misery

There is something to be said about being chintzy with the number of words one puts on the page as one attempts a compact and powerful expression of an idea that might otherwise be talked to death. "Less is more", in the words of architect Mies van der Rohe's explanation for his Spartan designs. In the builder's sense of the phrase, form follows function, with the aesthetic of the structure shaped by the functions the building is required to fulfill; the idea was to disabuse urban populations of the decorated and sickly festooned traditions of the bourgeoisie that have gone before and introduce a new set of relationship between human beings and the spaces they inhabit.


The modernist poet, inclined to the terse and abrupt phrase, the broken image, the elliptical sensibility, wanted to use words as if they were objects to be arranged to achieve a specific effect; the aim in turn was to discard several generations of accumulated rhetoric, not the least being the argumentative digressions of the Metaphysical Poets and the shammed-up personas presented by the most drippingly egocentric of the Romantics, and give us all, rather, a direct treatment of The Image. A reader was to be made aware that what they were bringing to the poem were associations already contained in their head; the poem, the hard expression of the perception, stripped of the adjectives and qualifiers usually the poet's ready, is meant to be seen in itself, isolated. One is supposed to examine the conditions of their response and realize that it is they, the reader, who completes the poem upon reading. Williams, though, considered his world rather concretely; there is nothing beyond the mist except vacuum. Eliot is present, not at all for the obvious reason that Eliot and his revamping of the Metaphysical Poet’s habit of poeticizing their philosophical arguments weren’t principal sources of Young’s anxiety of influence. It’s Williams, with his notion that poetry needs to be in the vernacular and that the thing in itself is its own adequate symbol, whom Young has gone to school on and is influenced by. You of all those here should know that not every poet gathered in this generation of geniuses had the same view as to what poetry and language must do. It has been said that there are as many types of modernism as there are modernist’s exceptions, and this ought not be considered a claim that the poets in America and England were on the same page, reading the same paragraph, nodding their heads to an agreed agenda. The argument that Young sides with, and which I find the most appealing, is the one Williams, Shapiro, MacLeish (and Stevens, for that matter) make in their different ways, especially in their Imagist experiments, was that what is need in poetry is a clear, hard, material language where the things of this world can be treated directly. This was the principle thrust of Modernism, however divided the schools were in their particular aesthetic--to change the way the world was perceived and, as a result, change the world for the better.

All this is fine as long as it works, which is to say in each case that as long as the buildings are reasonably attractive or have intriguing shapes in the city blocks where they've displaced older buildings, and as long as the poem is , on its terms, making use of a language, sparse as it might be, that gives one the phrase, the trope, the image, the spark that will make the reader's mind engage the cultivated intuition which makes poetry worth reading (and writing) in the first place.

But too often enough less is less, and this is what poet Kevin Young has brought us, again, with his poem "Act Now and Save". Young is one of those young poets whose work veers between genuine invention and gimmicky application of line breaks and pauses lifted from WC Williams or Archibald MacLeish; one wonders when he will stop trying to please his professors and mentors and slip into something more comfortable, such as his voice. His previous poem here, Elegy, was nothing less than a low-rise building under construction, bare girders and preliminary piping through which a stiff wind blows. That's the point, I suppose, of a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring, the placement of windows, so it can finally resemble something useful. It was so bare that one might as well have been gazing at lone, gnarled steel rods sprouting from the compact dirt at construction sites as they wait for the rest of the building to appear, one rivet, welding spot and steel beam at a time. There are better ways to make the mind do interesting things. Act Now and Save has the same problem, a sequence pared back so far that there remains only a gutted root of a poem. It's a sequence of unfinished sentences, declarations that are choked off before the mind can convince the voice to finish the sentiment and commit to knowledge that about the speaker's life has changed. That ambivalence might be interesting had the verbal chunks themselves, the smashed syntax, been interesting enough to have us imagine, that is to say, finish the scenario, and alternative scenarios as well.


It's a wonder of the world

keeps its whirling—

How I've waited

without a word—

Staring where

the sun's no longer—

You gone

into ether, wherever

You want

to call it. Soon

Sun won't fight

off the cold

But today warm

even in the rain.

Whatever the well

you want me

To fall down I will—

Meet me by the deepest

part of the river

And we'll drown together

wading out past

All care, beyond even

the shore's hollers.


I can't for a moment find sympathy for this depressed person who is standing by the river talking to another who is present only in memory; "river", "drown", "rain" "sun" come off as readymade words one selects from a write-your-own-free verse-poem list, terms in themselves that when properly placed give us automatic evocations of loss and the feeling that world is too complex and mean spirited to continue to live in now that a certain someone is gone. Not that there is anything wrong with these words as such, just as there is nothing wrong with the notes one hears in a glutted guitar solo on a classic rock station. Context is everything, a suitable melody for the guitar notes, and sharply drawn particulars, details, in the case of Young's poem. It sounds hackneyed to say this, but Young didn't make me care about this mumbling; one hears this stuff on public transportation all the time, but the beleaguered there are not paid four hundred dollars by Slate. Young at his worst sounds like he’s still trying to prove himself to his elders . The essential point didn’t require a thorough outlay of the trends in modernist poetry since the Jazz Age, since that would have been padding. I spoke to those facets of modernism that are the models Young sees himself in line with. The limits of empathy are tested and exhausted every day until the next morning, and a professional like Young should give us more than this dress rehearsal. It's opening night here, and his fly is open.

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