Showing posts with label Robert Pinsky. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Pinsky. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Unhinged Melody

"There Was A man of Double Deed" isn't great poetry, but it is worth remarking upon for how effectively it creates the mindset of someone for whom the world is great chain of secret connections that are mysterious, foreboding and headed, inevitably , toward a terrible end. The rhyme scheme, tick-tock, back and forth, a child's jump rope tempo, suggests a mind setting everything in sets in a convoluted task to understand a heartless exterior life through some ordering protocols, but this is in vain since the view here attempts to be global , beyond the limits of what this narrator sees and encounters daily. The banal things that get mentioned are paired with things that they have no functional relation to; seeds give way to snow banks, ships are without belts (meaning rudders, I suppose) and are likened to tailless birds who in turn fly in a roaring sky that brings a sounding lion to the narrator's front door.

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
'Twas like a garden full of snow;

Something crucial is missing in the descriptions , and the lack of a logical, connecting tissue results in violence on the imagination that might otherwise conceive a simple day as orderly and diverse in the purpose others besides oneself have in their daily routines. Save for the man of double deed (a shadowy figure we might think, a figure of divided agendas) there are no others in this poem, just he and the suffering narrator reeling as matters unfold, reeling as it all comes in, cause and effect seemingly obvious , but all without reason.

When the snow began to melt, 'Twas like a ship without a belt; When the ship began to sail, 'Twas like a bird without a tail; When the bird began to fly, 'Twas like an eagle in the sky;

It's a pile up of circumstances, and the speech is just this side of hebephrenia, the behavior and language habits of the paranoid, the schiznophrenic who lacks the psychological infrastructure to sort through incoming stimuli and create categories, context and relationship to the passage of time; everything happens simultaneously, at once, and everything that does happen does not end, but rather keeps occurring, repetitive, violent, without reason to the suffering. Items are conflated, images become strange, unfamiliar, and the mind that must deal with this chaos feels permanently tormented, put upon.

When the bird began to fly,
'Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
'Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
'Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
'Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
'Twas death, and death, and death indeed
The conclusion of all these connections, which the mind attempts to bring meaning to by relentless speculation as to how unlike things actually purposeful and conspiratorial relationships, is that all things , all deeds lead to death. In such a state, death is the only thing that makes sense, since even to the most marginalized of personalities death is seen as an end from which there is both no recovery and no more torment. The poem's rhyme scheme, 'though too slack and lacking muscle for my tastes, still gives you the chills for the unvarnished and clear mindset it gives you. I cannot shake the feeling of these odd enounters I've had over the years, listening to someone speak slowly, deliberately, with purpose as they told me about their poor circumstances, only to pick up the pace, quicken the rhythm as more detail came forth, until finally sentence structure had collapsed and the speaker was overwhelmed by attempting to talk about everything that came to their mind at the same time.

"The man of double deed" seems to be one who is not what he seems, someone superficially in our presence who seems friendly enough but who has an undisclosed purpose and reasoning in his dealings. Because the man is viewed suspiciously, the tint of treachery seeps into all he does. He is the proverbial tipping point from which the poisin spreads; perhaps in a perfect world each person and place and thing contribute only to greater happiness and prosperity, but there is something wrong with the world of our narrator, who describes events where activities end in some manner of demise; this is a cruel world of distraction and summary dismissal. The man of double deed, whatever name a listener might give him, appears to be doing nothing less than sowing the seeds of our destruction.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Slate shuts down Poems section

Fitting that the last poet we consider on Slate's poetry page is William Carlos Williams, the maverick who convincingly turned the impatient cadences of American speech, a verbal style that seemed to accelerate in pace as new technologies encroached on our attention span, into a means to express experience in ways both plain and abstract. Slate Poetry Editor and former U.S.Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's selections of poets over the years has been eclectic, daring, unexpected, nearly always provocative; not all his selections have been to my personal liking and I have, in fact, said unnecessarily harsh things questioning his taste. 

All that storming prose amounts to pounding the end of the bar, frustrated, irate, and smugly content to be that way. In addition to inspiring some of my better writing over the last ten years, those bits of prose that actually convey a series of ideas both fever pitched and lucid, the Slate Poems page and the attendant Fray page allowed me to pretend to be the Big Mean Critic, a self-made windbag opining among his books and empty coffee cups for a readership of persons a few dozen associates and friends on the forum. Overall, though, I respected Pinsky's dedication to not taking the easy way out in terms of his selections--rather than log roll and fill the page, week to week, with a string of poets who all write about similar topics in similar ways with similar failing, trembling voices--there are dozens of them in this country! 

Where do these people come from??--Pinsky challenged our conceptions with poets who often times took the form apart and rebuilt it in ways not always to our liking. These are writers who hadn't abandoned the idea, by of Pound, to "make it new" and Robert Pinsky, to his credit and our great benefit didn't abandon the search for the voice that stood out, the voice that was unique,the voice that was legitimate. There was much I didn't personally like among the poets he chose, but the discussions that ensued on Poems Fray, now defunct, were a perfect way to think through the issues I had with particular poets. Robert Pinsky, as well, demonstrated that he is a genuine and classy guy, willing to participate in the discussion, refusing to take a hard line in favor of adding an additional insight to a counter idea to something you've written. I am deeply sorry that Slate is discontinuing the Poems page. It has been a wonderful experience throughout the years.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Poetry" by Marianne Moore: the craft for the Sisyphus in all of us

Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky gives readers Marianne Moore's widely anthologized "Poetry" as a topic discussion a few months ago. It was a a joy to read again/It shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: it's a poem about poetry. She rather handily summarizes an array of cliches, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion.

This is not a subject I warm up to in most circumstances--poets, of their accord, have demonstrated the sort of self-infatuation that many of them, left to their means-to-an-end, would remove themselves from the human scale and assume the ranks of the divine, the oracular, the life giving, IE, develop themselves into a priesthood, the guardians of perception.

Moore's poem, though, presents itself as a contracting string of epigrams that seem to quarrel, a disagreement between head and mind, body and spirit, and a larger part of her lines, as they seemingly across the page away from the statements preceding the line before it, is that no really knows what to make of poetry as a form, as a means of communication, as a way of identifying oneself in the world. It frustrates the fast answer, it squelches the obvious point, poetry adds an ambiguity that would rile many because of lines that start off making obvious sense but which leave the reader in a space that isn't so cocksure. Little seems definite anymore once a poem has passed through the world, and the reassembling of perception required of the reader to understand a bit of the verse (the alternative being merely to quit and admit defeat) is bound to give a resentment. It's a headache one would rather not have. Moore's poem seems to be a response to Dorothy Parker's ironic declaration declaration "I hate writing. I love having written". The reader may hate not understanding what they've read, but love the rewards of sussing through a poem's blind alleys and distracting side streets.

Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The agony, the contradictions, the dishonest sleights of hand that deceive you in the service of delivering a surprise, an irony, an unexpected image , all of this is worth resentments a readers suffers through. One is , after all , made better, made stronger by the exercise of the will to read and confront the poem on it's own terms. Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet.Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without it's application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.I wouldn't regard this as a polemic of any sort, nor a manifesto as to what the writer ought to do or what the reader should demand. Reading it over again, and again after that makes me think that Moore was addressing her own ambivalence toward the form. After one finishes some stanzas and feels contented that they've done justice to their object of concentration, some lines appear contrived, other words are dull and dead sounding aligned with more colorful, more chiming ones,an image seems strained and unnatural, an analogy no longer seems like the perfect fit.

She too dislikes it, I think, because poetry will always come up short of getting to the world without our censoring buffers; Wallace Stevens solved the problem of cutting himself from the gravity of his real life by no attempting to launch his persona , via metaphor, through the imagined barrier between our perception of events and what is there, sans a mediating ego, and landed himself among his Ideal Types, his Perfect Forms and Arrangements, but the strength of his language. The metaphor he would have used to address qualities otherwise unseen of a thing her perceived became, in his method, the thing itself, a part of his Supreme Fiction. William Stevens voided the decorative phrases and qualifiers that he felt only added business to the world a poem tried to talk about and made a verse of hard , sharp, angular objects. Moore, though, seems to insist in Poetry that however grand , beautiful and insightful the resulting poems are in a host of poetic attempts to resolve the problem the distance between the thing perceived and the thing itself, we still have only poems, words arranged to produce effects that would appeal to our senses that are aligned with this world and not the invisible republic just beyond our senses. Poetry is a frustrating and irritating process because it no matter how close one thinks they've come to a breakthrough, there is the eventual realization of far one remains from it. Poetry as Sisyphean task; one is compelled to repeat the effort, and not without the feeling that they've done this before.

The commotion of the animals, the pushing elephants, the rolling horses, the tireless yet immobile Wolf, seem like analogues to restless mind Moore at one time might have desired to have calmed by the writing of poetry. There is the prevailing myth, still fixed in a good number of people who go through various self help groups, that the writing of things down--poetry, journaling, blogging, writing plays or memoirs--is a process that, in itself , will reveal truthful things one needs to know and thereby settle the issues. Writing, though, doesn't "settle", finalize or cement anything in place, it does to set the world straight , nor does it resolve anything it was addressing once the writing is done with. It is, though, a useful process, a tool, one may use as a means to get one out of the chair, away from the keyboard, and become proactive in some positive way.

The expectations of what poetry was supposed to do--create something about the world that is permanent, ever lasting, reveal a truth who's veracity does not pale with time, whether a century or hour-- are crushed and a resentment when realizes that the world they're attempting to conquer, in a manner of speaking , will not bow to one's perception, one's carefully constructed stage set where the material things of this earth are props to be arranged on a whim, and that the mind that creates the metaphors, the similes, the skilled couplets and ingenious rhyme strategies is not calmed, soothed, serene.

The world continues to move and change, language itself changes the meaning of the words it contains, the mind continues to tick away, untrammeled. Moore's animals, in the restless paradise , are themselves restless, non contemplative, instinct driven toward species behavior that is about propagation and survival, creatures distinct from the contemplative conceit of the poet who thinks he or she is able to sift through the underbrush for secret significance. I've always heard a weary tone in Moore's poem; a mind that in turn wrestles with matters where poetry doesn't reveal what's disguised but only what the poet can never get to. Her poem echos Macbeth's famous speech rather nicely:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

She seems not a little dismayed that poetry is only part of our restless species behavior and that the language we write and expound to bring coherence to the waking life are only more sounds being made in an already noisy existence.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Robert Pinsky blows his nose

Former Poet Laureate and current Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky recently caused a stir , a small one perhaps, with a column he wrote for the online magazine’s Culturebox department where he offered up a Poetry Frequently Asked Questions. He gave a number of questions it seems the mildly interested have asked him over the years such as why don’t modern poems rhyme, why are they so hard to understand, or why don’t contemporary poets write about politics and current events? The selected questions tip Pinsky’s hand, and his own replies are terse, as he prefers to instead quote a poem at length to clarify his point or contradict an inquisitor’s assertion. The feature read like it was Robert Pinsky giving everyone the rasty raspberry with his version of Frequently Asked Questions, and the sarcasm and condescension of his replies and example poems reflect someone who is tired of being kicked in the groin each Tuesday for his selections. It's time for the poet to move on, or if you prefer, to move forward to other projects where he hasn't such an opinionated readers who are more than willing to flip him the bird and eviscerate his often quizzical selections . Pinsky tipped his hand answering the final question, a one word reply that sums up a few years worth of bottled aggravation:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


The abuse the former Laureate has received is due more than his idiosyncratic choices; his refusal to engage the criticisms from PoemsFray commentators has put him at a remove. His silence is imperious, detached, reeking of contempt. When he was writing his Washington Post column about poetry, Pinsky could write lucidly , and concisely, on a topic and specific poems, and more than one of us at the PoemsFray had hoped that he would offer prefatory remarks to his weekly selections. Not to give away everything before the poem could be read, but with enough context and insight into style and technique that could well have been a launching point for more varied thinking on the board. But remark he didn't, and from anyone can tell he gritted his teeth , waiting for a chance when he might have his turn at the microphone. Yet even here he pusses out; it's worth remembering that what he presents in Culturebox is what he thinks are the most frequently asked stupid questions that have come his way, queries given him by legions of straw men to whom he gives poems as a way of saying "fuck off". We have, in effect, an editor who really can't understand the resentment he's created, cannot (or will not) talk with the posters, and gives vent to his congested anger in a messy, unsightly spectacle. Yeah, maybe he should go on to the next project, the next appearance on The Colbert Report. The point is that he should probably be someplace other than on Slate.