Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Poems and personality

How can anyone hope to comprehend the poetry without comprehending the poet first?

If the poet is good, they should be able to write poems that stand by themselves without the poet's biography to guide them. Reader's "get" Shakespeare's speeches and sonnets with out requiring the background incidents that might have been the material from which he drew his images and metaphors--the competently written poem has a coherent , if elusive language that can be understood on their own terms. One can learn to enjoy John Ashbery's fluidity of association without wondering if this is what goes through his mind when he's driving a car or attempting to prepare his taxes, and one needn't even know what or who it is he's writing about or to while they read him. It's the quality of Ashbery's writing, the unusual way he frames every phrase with something alluring and tactile that makes the guesswork we need to do to his intentions a pleasure.

Gloom is also an alluring element in a poem if it's well crafted, freshly phrased, provides a new sensation. Bukowski at his best could get you with that jab in the heart after making you laugh at his antics,but his punchlines end up as shtick too soon and too often. We leave it to Thomas Stearns Eliot to provide the elliptically phrased dread, the exquisitely burnished despair that speaks to us clearly without a hint of Eliot's crabby personality being known to us: the work speaks for itself.

For elusive poems one can appreciate the mood and tone, one needn't go further than Eliot; his dalliance with anti-Semitic movements in Europe can enlarge a reader's understanding of his famously ruined terrains, but one can, all the same, get to the larger pessimism that something special has been lost in our culture and we cannot get it back. Ryan, though, might be too transparent in her poems, if her work reflects her thinking--writing is the act of fleshing out a notion so that it intrigues a reader. Ryan is terse to the degree that you think of Joe Friday with slant rhymes.

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