Showing posts with label Kevin Young. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kevin Young. Show all posts

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A fine poem from Kevin Young

Kevin Young is an interesting but inconsistent poet who has yet to purify his style; the ghosts of those he favors make their noises in what seems to be every other poem I come across by him. But he does slam the ball from the park about as often as he swings through air. This works rather well, since the voice is stronger, more assured, the language taking on a diction that can make its influences mesh and produce a distinct set of tones:

Campbell’s Black Bean Soup

Candid, Warhol
scoffed, coined it
a nigger’s loft—

not The Factory,
Basquiat’s studio stood
anything but lofty—

skid rows of canvases,
paint peeling like bananas,
scabs. Bartering work

for horse, Basquiat churned
out butter, signing each
SAMO ©. Sameold. Sambo’s

soup. How to sell out
something bankrupt
already? How to copy

rights? Basquiat stripped
labels, opened & ate
alphabets, chicken

& noodle. Not even brown
broth left beneath, not one
black bean, he smacked

the very bottom, scraping
the uncanny, making
a tin thing sing.

The model, Frank O'Hara, suits Young's ability to catch the manic swerves of accelerated city speech and still have the precise phrasing a poem requires to be memorable. The conflations here, the puns, are electric and potent in the contradictory stances they bring together, a white art world and a young black artist trying to make a place himself amid the shilling, hype and inverse racism and still maintain his cultural identity. Would that he was this much on the beam much more often.

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.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Kevin Young: my Dad would have told me not to mumble

The poem Elegy, Father's Day by Kevin Young,is 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, a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring , the placement of windows so it can finally resemble something useful. Kevin Young's terms on on that stiff wind, bringing to mind the Hollywood cliche , the stock scene when some one's career is in the tank: a newspaper with their name on it shown being blown down the street, crumbled up, into the gutter. Kevin Young's scaled fragments seem part of a set of memories that are no longer whole:
From above, baseball diamonds look
even more beautiful, the pitcher's mound

a bright cataract.
The river wavers

its own way—see
where once it snaked.

Shine me like a light.

Ladies & Gentlemen, we are flying
just above turbulence.

The roads like centipedes,
their flailing feet.

How many, thousands,
to fall.

Below, parcels & acres blur
like family plots.

100 knots.

Cities bright
in the blinding dawn.

In Superman Returns, the Big Blue Guy tells Lois Lane at one point that he can hear everything that's being said, and from there the movie turns into a computer generated montage of swirled and confusing images and bits of conversation, the inane mixed with the desperate.One is meant to believe, apparently, that part of what makes Superman super is his ability to make sense to find what is meaningful and worth paying attention to out of the roiling , bubbling babble and so save humanity. Although I lack Superman's heightened finesse in detecting the important matters in the sediment of streaming babble, there's nothing here to catch my ear, no voice, or voices that are uttering anything of interest. The fault isn't with these things and the associations they might have for Young, it is Young's fault for not making them interesting.

This makes me think that nothing more was being done other than staring out the window for a long time waiting for something poetic to traipse by, to blow by, to drive by, that a sequence of minor events might become a narrative unity. It all does, no doubt, in Young's explanations for the poem and the guided tour he can offer us stanza by stymied stanza, but this poem, as it tries to breath and not fall apart in a the noisy terrain Young placed it in , is a species of Found Art. But where an hose fire hose nozzle , a bottle cap or a tarnished Gulf sign have visual design properties that in themselves are interesting enough and can draw associations from an audience's respective recollections of their own history, Young's phrases are not special enough, are not uniquely mysterious to make one curious to what thinking lies behind the slight writing.

All told, this piece is more gesture wherein he shows us who he's been reading but misses the point of their stylistics.