Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Salt Walter" by Peter Campion

Peter Campion has a  poem I enjoyed  posted recently in Slate, a lyric called "Salt Water" , a tract in which he does a skilled job of combing a number of different elements--a personal relationship, a landscape, an abstracted terrain-- and  persuasively reveals what the elements have in common without seeming even to try. It is the sort of effortlessness that tells you that this was something considered and redrafted a number of times--I can imagine Campion not writing a word for long stretches until the right one finally  came to him. That I admire, as one does come across a good many poems in a good many volume of poets who write things that make them sound as if they are still trying to get to the poem they imagined they had  in their possession. The result of that is a lot of  subdivided autobiography that amounts to only so much clutter--think of someone you know who talks too much of themselves trying to get along in the world.

As with the idea of sea air the title suggest, I find something unusually relaxed in Peter Campion's poem "Salt Water"; it is airy, not in the sense of being breezy or light headed, but rather in the sense one gets of going for a walk along a beach or perhaps being close to a coast line on a spring day. The world seems to assemble itself at will, spontaneously, the scents of the daily things--salt air, incidental gasoline aromas, meals on stoves --mingle with the bits of conversation , garish radio music, the slapping of waves against rocks adding a counter point to the persistent hiss of traffic that always closer than we want them to be in our perfect moments.

Campion allows this poem to breathe , providing space for his details, described in ways that are unusual but not grudgingly opaque ; there is the sense of something Suddenly Realized, a Wonder Beheld. It is a poem composed not unlike a classic Miles Davis improvisation over an old song that has been reduced to it's basic components that both solo and foundational melody seem an organic unity, moving in unison, perceived for a moment in its essence, in itself. An epiphany, perhaps, a string of relationships of oneself and another against a larger framework, composing a counter narrative than the practical instructions one might tell his or herself about getting from point A to B; Campion selects his words, his phrases the way the improviser selects his notes and assembles his phrases, with the effect being delayed somewhat, not immediate, gestating in memory until the stealthy metaphors or musical units recombine in memory with other sensory recollection. This is the poetry of surprise.


A Slate reader who'd listened to the audio version of the poem (featuring Campion reciting his own work) asked the question about who started the trend of writers reading their stanzas in a series of stylized moans instead of letting the rhythms of the work direct the style of recitation. Indeed, Campion on the recording sounds like he's coming out of a very bad sleep.

I suspect it's an MFA program thing, beholden to what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude; roughly speaking, that would a school of poetry that places the extremely sensitive personal of the author in the center of the poem who acts as a passive conduit through which all the universe's particulars must flow. The poems of this style vary incredibly, from amazing to god awful, but the default style for reading the poems aloud is passive, as if the poet is overwhelmed by the sensation and is about to pass out. In some cases it seems the writers are trying to pass an extremely contentious turd. This is quite the opposite of Campion's poem: though hardly requiring an Al Pacino type of exclamation, one can, I think, up the energy and highlight the rhythm and music of the the work. A reader ought not sound as if sounding out their work is a burden. It makes the reading of the poem a burden in turn, for the reader.

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