Showing posts with label Edward Hirsch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edward Hirsch. Show all posts

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Edward Hirsch befuddles the Gnostics

Edward Hirsch is a perfectly fine lyric poet, sometimes a little obvious with the carefully placed poeticisms that crop up in his lines. There's what reads like a desire to be seen as thoughtful and sensitive to Jack Handy like "deep thoughts", a habit that will trip up what are otherwise readable and soundly evocative poems. The philosophical turns are not what he does well , as the language betrays an embarrassment from having to rely on instinct and feeling for a reason to write; intellectualizing a visceral response leaves you with a brittle, match stick construction that will simply tremble and collapse under a casual inspection. Hirsch is a superb poet of feeling and evocation, and the corrosive realm of ideas and argument are not his neighborhood to hang an address. The writing is rich in atmosphere, detail, concrete in metaphor and fleet of adjective and verb, is a poet best writing in the present tense. A case in point is his basketball poem "Fast Break":

Fast Break
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn't drop,

and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump

perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession

and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender

who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight

of a high, gliding dribble and a man
letting the play develop in front of him

in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach's drawing on the blackboard,

both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out

and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball

between them without a dribble, without
a single bounce hitting the hardwood

until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man

while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air

by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,

but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country

and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly though the net.

Fluid, cinematic, switching between points of view,Hirsch creates a narrative line that he speeds up and slows down at will--the progress of that ball and the players trying to advance or impede its advance down the court leaves the willing reader breathless. "The Gnostic Gospels" Slate
is not Hirsch writing in current time, but rather as a voice among many in a long forgotten Christian sect which seemingly has been monitoring what Christianity has become through history and into modern time. The speaker, agitated, aggrieved( self righteous, shall we way?) announces the tenets of his faith and his suppressed gospel and eviscerates the falsification of the faith by a culture that has constructed false idols in consumer disguise:

We are like a surviving Gnostic sect,
*****living in caves and eating fallen fruit,
**********practicing our own brand of adoration,

which is devoted to wondrous signs,
*****inner mysteries, the radical unknown.
**********If you bring forth what is within you,

what you bring forth will save you.
*****If you do not bring forth what is within you,
**********what you do not bring forth will destroy you,

so Jesus said. Let others praise
*****the electrifying force of mass media
**********or kneel at the bruised altar of politics.

We keep faith with the technology
*****of the body, with the voices of pilgrims
**********naming the unnamed and resurrecting

dead languages of grief, inaudible pitches
*****of praise. We believe in the root power
**********of words, dreams, ecstatic trances, visions.

You are my twin and true companion,
*****Jesus said to the citizen, examine yourself
and be called "the one who knows himself."

It's true that our robes were stripped
from us, yet we are as stubborn as birds
searching for morsels of food in winter.

It's a plain case of us against them, the pure of heart, intent and action against the soul-less pragmatism that has de-centered Christ's teachings from care for the poor and the earth to distorted interpretations that remove the humanity from our dealings and replace them with bottom lines and expedience. It's a loaded spiel, and a hard one to say anything against; the audience for whom this poem is intended doubtlessly agrees with Hirsch to varying degrees to give him a pass for a weak poem.

The Gospel of Thomas intriguing myself and wonder if Christian faith can be re-tooled in a more politically progressive cast-- isn't it time for the Left to reclaim God and Jesus as the center of their moral certitude?-- and perhaps Hirsch does as well, but the poem he tried to write, the agony of the believer in a more human-centered Christianity toiling in their duties despite the shadow hanging over him, is more resentment than rant. Rants, when they work,get the blood pumping and instill the rage to get something done. The contrast between the gnostic gospels and the observed Christianity-Without-Christ that is the modern distortion of the Word is saturated with smug defeatism. It is the slave morality Nietzsche detested . I would call it befuddled and befogged.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poems and Painting

It's an ideal situation for poets to interpret a painter's world, especially those artists who are both figurative and have content which implies a relationship between the objects and people on the campus, a suggestion of narrative complexity.The basic problem to overcome, though, is finding the equivalent tone and language that relays a strong sense of the visual style , which suggests the narrative thread. I've written of few poems after artist's work, not that any of them have been successful in any terms I'd lay out, but these efforts have been a interesting practice of jumping over the tropes you might normally rely on and instead develop a new rhetoric. Staying with a style one knows when attempting to get inside another man's art can result in a poem that reads more like product, as I noticed in a poem I came across recently, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" by Edward Hirsch.Normally I like Edward Hirsch a good deal, but this attempt to unearth the hidden essence of Edward Hopper's ideally isolated landscapes makes me think that it is a tad overwritten. The details seem entirely ready made:

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.

Artifacts from the prop department.This reads more like scene descriptions one finds in parenthesis in a film script's early draft. The camera lingers on the badly lettered sign, the camera pans the closed storefronts, the camera pulls back to a vista that reveals the town in bas relief against a mountain range, with houses
huddled in tight clusters that encircle the center of town. It is rather dramatic, visual, and effective , if one were watching a movie film made from our supposed script.

But we aren't, and Hirsch's descriptions more instructive than revealing. Hopper's advantage is that he could suggest relations between his human figures to one another and to their surroundings with his magnificently broad strokes and his blurred, subdued tones and yet maintain the essential isolation of each element on his canvas; his contexts are subverted by the existential singularity his streets, sunlight, his characters are all shown to be locked in. The effect is visceral, one gets his mood in a rush, and one garners more perception the more they study his best paintings.

The narrative, of course, is implied, and this is where Hirsch's poem becomes mannered, in the attempt to do what Hopper achieves by describing the elements, suggesting the rather obvious relations between them . and back peddling to conclude, finally, that the American malaise is totalizing estrangement.
It's a poem full of tricks and moves, and it makes one wish
for a more plain spoken, less qualified tone poem.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Edward Hirsch Turns Pro

This is a weepy little exercise, written by a professional poet who knows the audience he was writing for, an intimacy having less to do with shared values than knowing which subjects and words can move a reader to awaken some easily agitated nest of sentimentality. Hirsch is one of the better grey-suited lyric poets of our time, but there times when his professionalism kicks in when his inspiration is flagging, and we end up with stanzas that seem to exist only to push buttons and bring the unexpected tear, the reverse of Billy Collins, who’s mastery more often than I care to admit make him serve up the easy laugh, the conceited snort. “Conceit” has everything to do with Hirsch’s “Green Couch”, drawing upon a poet’s life of homes and apartments filled with bookshelves and tacky furniture, a life characterized by the fact that the narrator remembers personal milestones by what turns his reading habits took:

That was the year I lived without fiction
And slept surrounded by books on the unconscious.
I woke every morning to a sturdy brown oak.

That was the year I left behind my marriage
of twenty-eight years, my faded philosophy books, and
the green couch I had inherited from my grandmother.

Smart man, reflective, in the center of a dissolving relationship, leaving through the door of three decades of marriage into unknown adventures. There’s a visual style here that is too obvious, an all seeing eye that not only gets the details but comes complete with flashbacks and back story; this is a cluttered storyline that is presented in orderly fashion, but reminds one of desk drawers that are artfully arranged and superbly organized that, for all their tidiness, look overstuffed all the same. You suspect there are things in the drawer that need to be tossed out, shredded, gotten rid of finally, not folded and placed in a pile of junk, according to size. The Hirsch poem reads like a outline for a two hour film, or a pitch for a miniseries, or a sketch for a middle brown romance where people in late middle age have their lives disrupted and discover that everything they know was conjecture after all, wishful thinking. Hirsch knows his audience the way a professional songwriter knows their market. The green couch, abandoned, stored, rescued and now awaiting a final disposal, becomes that immaterial thing that rather conveniently turns out to be the place where Hirsch’s narrator found the link between the expectations of having a life that makes sense and an education that warned he and generations of other readers that what we take for granted is not embedded and fixed.

All my difficult reading took place on that couch,
which was turning back into the color of nature
while I grappled with ethics and the law,
the reasons for Reason, Being and Nothingness,
existential dread and the death of God
(I'm still angry at Him for no longer existing).

The counterpoint here is one of those stray bits of detritus that fell from the drawer that’s been opened too many times; the drawer we figuratively speak of, as well as the poem itself, slides into disarray. All the neat symmetry falls away from use and scrutiny, and Hirsch, the professional, imagines time is money and that one, being professional, must bring this project in on time and under budget. We get rushes of biographical tidbits that haphazardly attempt to show us that the green couch, that molding and reeking remnant of a life that no longer exists, is both the symbol of the narrator’s deeply felt convictions, and is also an empty signifier, merely an aging assemblage of wood frame and spring with which the narrator has unattended issues.This is the kind of poem that inspires critiques that are more exciting than the actual art ; an analysis is fine and subtle, edging on brilliance hell, let's say it, it is brilliant, and so saying this illustrates for me the problem with the poem, something that inspires sympathetic responses more an application of generic technique than a guiding inspiration, and results in commentaries that are far more arresting and intriguing than the poem they try to illuminate.

For all your sympathetic and incandescent explication on how things are arranged in this poem and how they appear to be having a dialogue with the writer through the decades, I never shook the feeling that these were instructions for a montage in a weepy soap opera in which each frame and item within the frame is arranged for pure, suggestive value. Only in this case it is less the suggesting than the telling t I likewise think it is an underperforming work from a poet with as much talent as Hirsch. I had worked in bookstores for years, and it was expected by my managers that I'd read four or five books a week, novels mostly, and in the near decade of having to do that in the interest of making informed recommendations I found myself reading a number of novelists who's fictions of irritable middle class folks seemed sheared from the same, unruly cloth. You begin to sense when things are going to turn specific ways by conspicuous signifiers--blinking answering machine lights, someone espied in the distance for no particular reason who shows up thirty or forty pages later with a life changing challenge for the hero or heroine--and though one can learn to enjoy these mechanized movements in prose fiction (something about prose helps you accept suspend disbelief and enjoy the yarn on its own terms) it is disquieting to see the same moves in poetry, a form that many writers claim eschews the obvious in favor of the original. All writing has formula, of course, all writing comes down to a structure that will help a writer finish a sentence and come to their point, the effect they want to have. Aesthetic preference, though, insists that such things be invisible, undetectable. This poem is an occasion where Hirsch wasn't able to hide the map he was using to fill up the page. hat gets me. This poem is film like without at all seeming cinematic.

That was the year that I finally mourned
for my two dead fathers, my sole marriage,
and the electric green couch of my past.
Darlings, I remember everything.
But now I try to speak the language of

the unconscious and study earth for secrets.
I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.

And so, the last recall of a dying father plus one, a lone, forsaken marriage, a loud resounding sigh, a whispering metaphor at the end suggesting a psychic departure from the city and a migration to the country to “study the earth for secrets”. His life is reduced to the comings and goings of his profession, persisting against loneliness, bitterness, disappointments in the exactitude of his routine, yet retaining the hope that he might grow and achieve yet more insight, perspective, by walking the short lengths of botanical garden and green paths. This lets readers off the hook Hirsch was impaling them with; he retains hope, his is still a romantic, tomorrow will be another day!!

Fiddlesticks. This might be marvelous if Hirsch had spared us the tangents and conditional ironies and provided rest spots along the way. The poem, though, is tight as a drum head, and just as airless. “Green Couch” would work well if it had been boiled down to essentials, fewer details that would have more plausible secret history of the things we own. But what we have instead are several plots to many "B" movies.