Friday, October 14, 2011

David Lehman's New Barbaric Yawp

David Lehman gets a tip of this writer's hat if I wore a hat. Poet, critic, biographer and an editor who has done more good work in bringing the problematic pleasures to a wider audience than anyone I can think of. Among the things I respect about is his refusal, as an erstwhile popularizer of art the public steadfastly resists (and one who's poets resist being corrupted by something as defiling as popularity) for refusing to write consumer -friendly verse.
His work is not the work of a Billy Collins, who composes one masterful bit of middle brow irony after another. Lehman rather likes the idea of using words as if they were things, malleable and ready to be shaped in mode and manner that makes the interested reader do a little bit of their own work. He gets respect for not dumbing down the poetry he writes, or the poets he presents in the anthologies he brings to the world annually.
David Lehman’s poem “November 18”, from his collection Evening Sun, was the subject of a dispute among some fellow poetry readers, half of whom liked the poet’s disjointed connections, and others who thought the poem was dated because of a seeming lack of unity and the use of dead American artisan’s names. The conversation became rather steamy. All the same, the poem is hardly dated.

Because it mentions people, places and things that are equated with the '50's? An arbitrary habit of thinking, I think. Lehman essentially creates a medley of voices, different streams of language that melt into one another, and with he balances the texture of associations the references bring; this is very much in the modernist mode, especially as practiced by The New York School, who, through the work of O'Hara and Ron Padgett, made a city poetry from an everyday language of the noise of the city, it's billboards, magazine stands, grand hotels, loud radios, and sports extravaganzas.
November 18 By David Lehman
It's Johnny Mercer's birthdayfrom Natchez to Mobilein the cool cool cool of the eveningvery cool with Barbara Leesinging Marian McPartland playingthe greatest revenge songs of all timehooray and hallelujahyou had it comin' to yaand a bottle of RodenbachAlexander red ale from Belgiumwith cherries and "Tangerine" inthe background in Double Indemnityhe had a feel for the lingo, "Jeepers Creepers"as Bing Crosby sang it on my birthdayin 1956 I just played it three straight timesand an all-American sense of humor what doesJonah say in the belly of the whale he says manwe better accentuate the positive that's ithappy birthday and thanks for the cheerI hope you didn't mind my bending your ear

It is a particularly American sound that Lehman lays claim to here, starting with Whitman's barbaric yawp, coming up through William Carlos Williams, and finding itself resting next to other high art forms that found much to use, exploit and find glory in from popular culture. It had been mentioned that Langston Hughes did this sort of thing” infinitely better”, but that’s an assertion meant to distract. Hughes never did anything remotely like what Lehman succeeds in doing here, I'm afraid. He sought a blues cadence, a gospel resonance, and a voice based on an idealized African American idiom, but what his brilliance is a separate set of accomplishments. They are simpatico on a number of points, but to weigh over the other on the merits of a fictitious objective standard is spurious. The terrains are different -- Hughes rural and black, Lehman white and urban -- and the motivations behind the experiments vary dramatically. Lehman is an inspired heir to the mood and tact of the New York poets, and what he is able to do he does cogently, with humor and a love of making language behave in ways that are poetic for the sheer ingenuity that cogent barbarism can bring.

Hughes was quite a different case. the poem can't make up its mind as to whether it wants to be urban jazz or rural blues. The poem is about, among other things, the thriving, buzzing, and churning diversity of noise and music and tempos that one finds spread out across the American landscape, and what happens is a nice medley of musical emulations. If you've driven across country with the radio on all the way, you'll have an idea what the poem manages, the layering of music, voices, references all on top of one another, some fading to the background, others picking up as you near the transmitters, everyone in competition to be heard on the limited bandwidth. Charles Ives once hired two brass bands to march into the center of a town square from different directions, both playing entirely different pieces of music, just so he could sit there and find out what it all sounded like. You pick up this curious, adventurous, experimental verve in his brilliant music. Lehman is in much the same American Grain.

Have you been there? Now, Natchez to Mobile certainly gives us a slice, but few would say that it's a particularly urban slice. Yes, I've been there, and as I've said prior the poem is about creating a feeling of the vastness of America; part of the way you create that feeling is with place names, time-honored and effective. One has the feeling of pointing at a map, seeing an odd sounding name that has native-sounding exotica, and telling your traveling companion "let’s go there." It's texture, and it adds this pieces city/country/city layout. The poem I argue is not outdated because it deals with the '50s (a straw man argument you create for me - and by the way, I wish there were more historical poetry), it is outdated in style and tone. Hardly outdated, I think, since lyricism in any guise that effectively makes a reader forgo reason and engage emotionally, more "felt" associations from what the language highlights cannot be said to be antiquated; it is always timeless. This poem is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who cares to read it with open ears. The language school you reference is petering out - Ashbery and Graham, the two best-known poets to emerge from the school, no longer associate themselves with it - Ashbery always (wisely) kept a careful distance from the label.

Well, I didn't reference the Language Poets in reference to this poem , because it adheres to the New York School of Poets, a group of poets known for their friendships and alliances with painters during the late fifties and early sixties, a food decade and a half prior to the emergence of the Language Poets. John Ashbery is not a language poet, as he believes, however obscure and private may be, that there is a core personality at the center of his poems, a diffuse "I" perhaps, but an "I" none the less. The Language Poets, many of whom are cursed with theoretical baggage they've borrowed from Marxist criticism and French structuralist linguistics, deny the capacity of language to accurately present the world through an egocentric notion of "the author". Some of this work and theory is interesting and brilliant, but Ashbery isn't in their company. He's an aesthete and has produced a brilliant body of work in his lifetime. Not for the last ten years, perhaps, but his strong work is plentiful. Jorie Graham, I find just abstract and dull and unable to write an interesting line or image. There is perhaps some hope for it in a handful of figures, some of which you've noted in a previous post. You left out there the individual who I think holds the most promise - Lyn Hejinian. Last point - The point on the contrast between Hughes and Lehman is that both have the similarity in wanting to use an idea spoken cadence and musical phrasing of a sort in their writing, areas where they are simpatico in the abstract. What each poet has produced, practically, as writing, is vastly different, in style, range, notions of place. All one need do is read them side by side and become aware that each are doing different things, and that a qualitative comparison is tenuous. Better you match Lehman against O'Hara or Kerouac, two poets who are stylistically coherent with Lehman for the purpose of critical contrast. The Langston Hughes option is merely strained, and requires too much fancy footwork to make an argument stick even loosely. The fact remains that Hughes and Lehman are miles and miles apart in their approaches toward what one might call common goals; theirs are different methods to similar, but not identical ends. Belaboring similarities or the lack of them as a way of attempting to hoist one over the other simply accentuates the meaningless of the comparison in an attempt to discover which poet has more merit. Both got to what where they wanted to go, accomplished what they wanted to accomplish in decisively different ways.

Another, better poet ought to be mentioned before this aspect of the conversation goes anywhere useful. What Lehman does in the spirit of Whitman, and there is traceable stylistics in this and other poems he's written. Loose-limbed, ready to take a barbarism and make it poetic in spite of its vulgar intent, colliding impulses, drives, ego, instincts, pleasure zones. The poem has the senses reeling, on the kind of overload that Whitman neared and reached in the few truly amazing works he composed. This a poem about spreading oneself over the map, to assume the personality and vibration of all that makes up the world one is surrounded by; it is an impulsive bit of lyric acceleration of the spirit that strives to know things in a hurry, to understand the life and style of the obscure corners of America in a manic flurry of celebration that life itself is vital and finite and cannot be curtailed or compromised by form or structure. One can argue if they wish with the irrationality of this idea, with the informing subtext that drives the glancing mentions and riffs drawn from the music of place names and advertising coinages, but this is a universal spirit none the less and well worth expressing because it is a poem, ultimately, of witness. Whitman claimed he contained multitudes, Lehman's smaller set of provisions asserts that he is multitudes.

This is a fine, concise and swift waxing on the fury and rapidly changing shape of our National Self Image. Everything here comes together in one gasping, groaning, singing, chanting, snare drum rattling orgasm that says everything in this life, the only thing we can be certain, is needed and wonderful and full of lessons we've barely the time to learn. It's a textured and rushing chorus that says that all we hear is music, and all music is beautiful if our ears are open enough to allow the notes to hit the heart and revive the memory of all the things that make life worth living, which might be songs of love, lyrics of love, choruses about love found, lost or broken, but it is these thoughts that however perfect or malformed our notions of affection, belonging, attraction, love finally have come to be, it is the final idea that it is love in any way that makes life worth living, and that it's the lack of love that kills it. Lehman chooses to remember and to love and live in the sunshine of the moments that pass and will never be again. There is music in every crowded line, there is music in every broken rhythm, and there is music in every car alarm and train whistle and a blast of radio static. There is music everywhere. do believe that music exists in ways we've yet to discover, but I’m speaking of Lehman's intent with the poem, not my personal and unbending view of the world. Poetry can be written in many ways, in my many styles, with many different criteria for successful work; it's a versatile medium, yes? Criticism needs to also be as flexible in how work is read, in order to make a coherent statement about them. I am not hard-and-fast in any regard about how I want poems to work, just as long as they are successful in their uniqueness and provide a sense of the predicaments they might be addressing. My critical practice is pragmatic and my ears are wide open to the sorts of sounds a manipulated rhetoric can make. The validity of any idea is in how it works, to crib an idea from William James. I can like the idea that "music is everywhere" - but I cannot live it and so cannot truly hold on to it as a valid tenet in my own critical approach.

I believe that a good critic ought to be willing to suspend their disbelief ala Coleridge and expose themselves to some forms they might not otherwise be prepared to have a truck with. As an argument for the musicality of November 18, you essentially claim that everything is musical. Sorry, I made no such claim. Rather, I was talking about the operating psychology I sensed in the poem, a Cage /O'Hara/Mingus/Ives stream of ideas that finds tonalities, timbres, pitches, and harmonies in city and country, and what I further described was that there is beauty in the clashing, contrasting sounds; composer, improviser and poet can find the music in it all and place it on paper, and can further exclaim their work into the air as a celebration of the amazing forms available in the 20th century.
The same amazement, as typified by the poem, is no less contagious for many readers in the early part of the 21st century. In any case, my remarks were poem/poet/styles specific, and I've already made clear that although I think this is a naive way for one to approach the practicalities of life as we must live it, it remains a successful tact to lure the lush and lyric from our ambiguous language. The claims for what is, after all, a very modest piece, might seem hyperbolic and grandiose.
So be it, guilty. I'll accept sounding momentarily grandiose and perhaps hyperbolic; under the overstated is the truth about Lehman's poem, which is that it's good, successful, and works in its neatly modest way. It's that odd layering of references, one on top the other, like shards of per of varying colors, shapes, and grades of translucence, that gives me the Aha! sensation, something accidental in its arrangement but stunning in how the plain and inane is made into a configuration that stops you, makes you turn your head and requires you process what's been seen/written.I think Lehman himself would blush as the poet deliberately eschews that high prophetic voice of poets like Whitman and Ginsberg. My guess is that Lehman would appreciate the fact that I picked up on the poets who've influenced him and continue to motivate his best work. I thought it was about Johnny Mercer - more a tip of the hat than anything else - a brief acknowledgment of a musician who "had a feel for the lingo,” and who was therefore simpatico with the poet. Mercer is the starting point, but the poem moves on, along the roads, through the towns, the meals, the intriguing place names. Lehman addresses Mercer's lyrical, vagabond spirit. In doing so, the poem, like travel itself, moves from where it starts and becomes about something much larger, and harder to define. The final definition is impossible, more than likely, but what we have is the realization of one of my favorite clichés, it's about the journey, not the destination.

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