What follows is the result of reading and commenting on one poem by a different poet every day for a month. Why? My rationale, if you want to call it that, is explained in the preface. Now, on to the poems...
"What Happens to All Flesh" by Vincente Aleixandre
From Twenty Poems translated by Lewis Hyde and Robert Bly, Seventies Press 1977
[Friday, August 1st]
I don't remember reading this book when I got it, some 20-30 years ago, but I have dragged it around ever since. Perhaps because of Bly, who I respect as a translator. Perhaps because Aleixandre had won the Nobel Prize so I figured I ought to read it.
For whatever reason, reading it now I can see why I didn't spend much time with it back then. Aleixandre is interested in the temporal nature of human existence and what ties us together. Life and death -- these were topics that I enjoyed pondering when I was 18 or 20. But more in a theoretical, abstract way.
And as abstract as the concepts are, Aleixandre is anything but theoretical. His poems pull no punches when discussing the frailties of physical existence.
But now that I am what would be called middle-aged, "the sourceless ocean that sends out wave on wave" of human flesh is neither solely imagery nor unnecessarily harsh depiction for me. And Aleixandre's attempt -- and failure! -- to make peace with that reality strikes a chord.
30 years ago I would have been disappointed with the poem, that he didn't either leave it as objective narrative or manufacture some closure, some resolution, some light of hope. But now I appreciate the self-assurance, the bravery, that is required for him to face the sourceless ocean, recognize a faint spark, but not give in to false hope. There is a chance. It is possible that there are "full eyes that watch us". But he makes no promises and it is up to us to determine if that faint light is sufficient for our own lives.
"Coconuts" by Ray Amorosi
From Flim Flam , Lynx House Press 1980
[Saturday, August 2nd]
Ray Amorosi is an enigma to me. His poems intrigue me, but it is rare that I am ever completely satisfied with the whole poem. There is always some jarring image or reference that doesn't fit into the "story", so to speak.
"Coconuts" is an exception to the rule. But not in a good way. The poem doesn't have that one glaring interruption; instead, it is one long interruption to meaning.
Amorosi is what I would classify as an American neo-surrealist. Not a full blown surrealist like Philip Lamantia or Charles Henri Ford, but one of the generation (starting around 1960) who internalized surrealism and used it as one of their poetic techniques. His poems are sprinkled with the juxtapositions and impossibilities that make surrealism famous. But there is also usually a thread or narrative that holds the poem together.
The problem with "Coconuts" is that thread never seems to go anywhere. The surrealistic images keep taking you away from meaning rather than piling them up, like good surrealist poems do. The lines "Let's say / you slaughter the fragile child of a widow / and sit on a coconut" don't lead anywhere. The poem rolls out a recipe (literally) for brutality but never lets you connect it -- or the coconut -- to anything tangible, either physical or psychological.
Surrealism tends to provide footholds to understanding. Unexpected, jarring, sometimes difficult -- but images that surprisingly connect the poem to your experience. "Coconuts" is like facing a blank wall of words and images without those handholds. The poem is too personal, or simply to self involved, to let you as reader connect to it.
"Going to Norway" by Jack Anderson
From City Joys, Release Press 1975
[Sunday, August 3rd]
Jack Anderson writes in sentences. Nothing surprising there. We all do. Except there is very little other punctuation in his poems -- few commas, colons or other "breaths". He writes in short, deceptively direct sentences. This is what gives his poems a sort of syncopated feel, like a quick walk or someone thinking out loud.
I say deceptive because the poems are neatly planned out. They aren't the off-the-cuff musings they seem. But Anderson is an expert at making them appear that way.
"Going to Norway" keeps circling back on itself. Repeating sentences with only slight variations to tell a story. Although written in present tense, the story actually starts in the past and moves into the present -- ending with a strong hint of the future. But it is not until the end that you understand the whole thing. Until the circling gets large enough to see what is driving the motion.
"Lecture With Slides" by Jon Anderson
From Death & Friends, University of Pittsburgh Press 1970
[Monday, August 4th]
Jon Anderson is the exact opposite of Jack Anderson. Jon Anderson is a serious poet. (That is a descriptive, not a pejorative, term.) Each line, each sentence, is fully weighted with meaning. More meaning than you as reader can extract at first.
All poems deserve multiple readings (all good poems that is). Even Jack Anderson's seemingly off-hand writing carries nuances and secrets that require time to reveal. But his poems do provide an immediate pleasurable response.
Jon Anderson's poems not only require multiple readings to "open up" to the reader, they are so thick the reader almost needs to stop and take a breath after each sentence to let it all seep in. "Partially submerged in entrances, /the women are indistinct: dress, often / the color of dust. Happiness is not / important."
That is not to say Anderson is a "difficult" poet; he isn't. His poems provide immediate pleasure simply by the sound they make. But they do require concentration and the ability of the reader to bear the weight of the poems. And not everyone has that. In fact, even avid readers may not meet those requirements all the time.
Death & Friends is Anderson's second book. I haven't read any of his books since the third (In Sepia). I suspect I was a little worn out by the seriousness of it all. Even the titles of his books can be overbearing. But rereading this poem, I realize I have been missing something.
"Windows" by Guillaume Apollinaire
From Calligramme translated by Anne Hyde Greet, University of California Press 1980
[Tuesday, August 5th]
I've never admitted it, but I don't like Apollinaire's poems. I haven't admitted it because I was waiting to reach some point where I might at least respect or admire them. But even while I recognize their position as precursors to Dada, Surrealism, and concrete poems, there is simply not enough in the finished product to deserve admiration. The poems are arty but clumsy, the shape poems are simplistic and childish (instead of child-like). So I recognize the poems as historical models, but little else.
One side note: I have two copies of these translations -- the more complete University of California edition and the earlier, shorter chapbook from the Unicorn Press French series (1970). The UCalif edition has the more traditional layout of original French and English translation on facing pages. The Unicorn edition has all of the translations together, followed by all of the originals. I understand the idea behind the Unicorn layout (so the reading of the poems is not interrupted, but that the originals are still available). However, I actually prefer the facing pages. Even when I don't know the original language (or even more so in a case, like French, where I do) just being able to see the original on the page -- the line lengths, the look of the words -- can give me a sense of how the poem "feels" in its original form.
"Scheherazade" by John Ashbery
From Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Penguin Books 1976
[Wednesday, August 6th]
I'm starting to sound like the cranky old critic, because I don't like John Ashbury either. But in Ashbury's case, for completely different reasons. Ashbury is almost preternaturally talented. His sense of language, music, and motion in poetry is pure artistry. Every line he writes sounds beautiful. "Sounds". That's the problem. For example:
"an inexhaustible wardrobe has been placed at the disposal of each new occurence"
With the exception of an occasional poem (like the title poem of his book Some Trees) and one entire book (Double Dream of Spring) which are some of the best poems written in the English language, his work is practically drivel. His poems flirt with meaning, but always skitter away as if afraid to make a point.
What is so annoying is that he is so talented. It's almost as if he's lazy; it is so easy for him to write a beautiful sounding poem that he doesn't bother to trifle with making sense.
So every few years I optimistically buy one of his books, leaf through it, get disappointed, and put it on the shelf where it remains only half read. Self-Portrait is an exception. I've read it completely at least three times, but haven't liked it yet.
Am I being fair? Probably not. Am I being unduly harsh? Possibly. The fact he is so talented and wastes it is what gets my goat.
Mind you, I am not saying poems have to make sense. John Love's book Touch Code, which is brilliant, also flirts with meaning, teasing the reader, but that is its goal. Ashbury's own book The Vermont Notebook, which begins with pages of seemingly random lists, is another example. There is meaning in its pure existence, but little else. But it is a joy to read because you are not expecting anything and are happy to encounter serendipitous moments of connection here and there.
What irks me about Ashbury's other books (Double Dream of Spring excepted, as I said) is that they announce the presence of meaning -- through their titles and their choice of vocabulary -- but then cheat you. It's like poetic bait and switch.
"Snow" by Russell Banks
Snow, Granite Publications 1974
[Thursday, August 7th]
Russell Banks is better known as a novelist. In fact, perhaps exclusively known as a novelist. (Snow is the only book of poetry listed in his Wikipedia entry.)
Banks' poetry is earnest. He is trying. Unfortunately, he falls into that pattern of writers who believe that by breaking prose down into lines and emphasizing the words, it will carry more meaning. It won't.
I don't want to say he is a beginning writer (of poetry) because he isn't. But he isn't writing for the music; he is writing for the intensity. But that intensity doesn't get translated to the reader. The halting line breaks, the unnecessary lack of articles in lines like "my / face pressed by / glass surface -- / kissings -- my / hand snapped on /lights outside / and I saw..." All serve to distance reader and writer.
This is something I sensed years ago when I was starting out (even in my own work at times), but probably couldn't have articulated back then.
"Royal Progress" by Antonin Bartusek
From The Aztec Calendar & Other Poems translated by Ewald Osers, Iowa Translation Series, 1975
[Friday, August 8th]
One doesn't want to promote stereotypes, but in the arts common behavior is more a result of nuture than nature. We learn from our compatriots, which is why there are "schools" of poetry, painting, etc where no physical institution exists.
That said, contemporary Eastern European poets tend to have an authority in their statements that is not found in American or English writers. Even W. S. Merwin who is perhaps the closest stylistically to the East Europeans (after the actual emigres, like Simic), will tend to excuse, explain, or elaborate on his statements.
But the Europeans leave them bare, to stand on their own merit. And, as a result, have a sense of authority and authenticity which is enviable. That is how Bartusek can get away with lines like "At dawn we trip over our own shadow, / unknown posthumous sons / of nameless kings." Impressive. (Nice translations as well.)
"Le Possede" by Charles Baudelaire
From Baudeliare, translated by Francis Scarfe, Penguin Books, 1964
[Saturday, August 9th]
Two years ago I sold off about half of my poetry books -- things I was bored with or have carried around for years, never read, and figured I never would read. It seems I got rid of most of my copies of Baudelaire and all of my Rimbaud. This is the only one I have left.
However, I suspect I kept this volume because it emphasizes the original French, delegating the translations to prose at the bottom of the page, like footnotes. Mind you, the translations are absolutely awful. But I probably kept it so I could concentrate on the French, if I ever read it.
The problem is that the world weary, seen-it-all attitude of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, & co. is very appealing when you're young (teens and twenties). I felt its draw, but I was also suspect. It is such an easy persona to put on. It seemed false, and unnecessary, when I saw my friends take to it.
I am not claiming Baudelaire was a poseur. I don't know. I am less star-struck now and see the poems as far more limited and strangely self-satisfied than I did when I encountered them in college.
"Christmas at the Buddhists'" by Robin Behn
From The Red Hour, Harper Perennial, 1993
[Sunday, August 10th]
I want to like Robin Behn's books. They are instantly appealing -- warm and friendly in their colloquial good nature. However, as much as I like her writing, at the same time I am put off. In each poem there is usually a moment, an image, or an expression that assumes too much familiarity. Sort of like a distant relative who insists on giving you a big lipsticky kiss every time you meet, her poems are scattered with images or references that assume you get it and can fill in the emotional details. For example: "I remember your postman-shoes" (from "Our Mutual Friend in Heaven"). I'm sorry, I don't remember. And the following explanation doesn't help erase the linguistic discontinuity.
Having said that, "Christmas at the Buddhists'" is the exception to the rule. There are no disruptions. The poem flows smoothly, adding layer and layer of personal reflection, building its story and its strength to the point where she can pull off the impossible ending, the statement "I qualify, like them, for admittance" without a hint of artifice or false emotion. That is what poetry is about.
"After 99 Comes 100" by Bill Berkson
From Lush Life, Z Press, 1984
[Monday, August 11th]
Bill Berkson is perhaps best known as friend of Frank O'Hara and subject of the poem "Biotherm", which is a shame. Berkson is an able writer in his own right. His writing has a slightly luminous feel to it. As a consequence, there is a lot to like in this book. But never quite a whole poem.
The problem is Berkson's writing is at its best when he isn't trying to write a poem; when he forgets and just writes naturally, as in the lines "this Election Day I tell you / I don't think there's much character in second sight". But his writing is at his worst when he is trying to be a poet, like "my loose foot stumbles overexposed / on the breeze-blasted mesa". The book ends up as a muddle of both.
"Gradation" by Charles Bernstein
From Islets/Irritations, Jordan Davies, 1983
[Tuesday, August 12th]
The Language poets fascinate me. They fascinate me because I am curious about what it is they do, why they do it, and how I react to it. At first, their work looks like the surrealists' -- a series of juxtapositions and contradictions to expectation. However, the language poets are playing havoc with the language, not the physical images; rearranging the adjectives and syntax rather than the nouns and verbs.
Where Bernstein says "good looks tear down / the harpsichorded shaft..." a surrealist would have said "the harpsichord's good looks tear down..." The language poets are doing sonically what the surrealists did psychologically.
The question is: is it interesting? Or rather, does it amount to anything? The answer is... it depends. Polemics do not make poetry, poetry does. And so as with other "schools" I like some and dislike others, for reasons largely tangential to their philosophical basis. As for Bernstein, I enjoy reading his poems because they sound good. But they are ultimately boring and I can't finish a whole book because there is no there there, to borrow Gertrude Stein's phrase.
"Sonnet XXXIV" by Ted Berrigan
FromThe Sonnets,United Artists Books, 1982
[Wednesday, August 13th]
Three random notes:
- You have to be open to read poems. Open in many different ways because each poet or poem will require different things of you. For instance, Berrigan's poems at first appear to be childish prattling, which turns many readers off. But if you are open to the joys of simple thoughts, to the abrupt turns and disjunctures of the human mind, the poems become less annoying and more playful. Unfortunately, in the end, Berrigan's work doesn't offer much else but that. And his constant private references and less than stellar thought patterns still end up being more annoying than pleasurable, no matter how open you are.
- Reading Berrigan, who in many ways patterned his writing after Frank O'Hara, just reminds me once again of what a genius O'Hara was.
- Whatever you might think of his poems, Berrigan's books are beautiful as physical objects. This edition of The Sonnets is a really nice, intimate size -- slightly smaller than most poetry books -- with a gorgeous wraparound drawing on the cover by Louis Hamlin. And the University of California Collected Poems is equally impressive, but in a completely different way.
"Dream Song 208" by John Berryman
From His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1968
[Thursday, August 14th]
I confess: I cheated. I saw Berryman coming up on the shelf and started flipping through his books a couple of days ahead. Berryman is one of those writers I depend on and go back to if I read too much bad poetry and begin to doubt my own sense of what poetry is about. He consistently amazes me and reminds me of how powerful poetry can be.
At the same time, every few years I need to reread parts of the Dream Songs. Because, if I haven't read it for awhile, I begin to suspect his unique voice and diction may be -- not a fad -- but appealing only as a counterpoint to the culture of a specific moment in time. It isn't. Amazingly enough, given his poems' strange, almost parodic, style they are not dependent on any specific time or school of writing. As his protagonist Henry says "groovy, pal."
"A Ballad of Going Down to the Store" by Miron Bialoszewski
From The Revolution of Things translated by Andrzej Busza and Bogdan Czaykowski, Charioteer Press, 1974
[Friday, August 15th]
I know almost nothing about Bialoszewski except what is on the dust jacket of this tiny book. I don't have any other books of his and I don't think he is in any anthology I own (although I could be wrong).
This volume covers a lot of ground -- shaped poems ala Apollinaire, monologues, dialogues, imagistic poems, rallying cries... Perhaps too much territory for such a short book (only 36 pages). The result is kind of like going to the circus or watching a Constructivist play -- there are plenty of surprises and enjoyment, but all the posing and loud noises tend to make you doubt the sincerity of it all. Mind you, the Charioteer Press books are always interesting and beautiful besides.
"September Night with an Old Horse" by Robert Bly
From Silence in the Snowy Fields, Wesleyan University Press, 1962
[Saturday, August 16th]
I chose to read a poem from one of Bly's earlier books, rather than something more recent like Morning Poems. I did this because, for all his "wildness" and talk of self and the inner beast, Bly has an exquisite sense of control over expression and ability to channel that unfathomed passion into words that communicate directly to the reader.
I hadn't read the early books for a while and what I expected to find was the same sense of raw talent but with far less control. But that's not the case. Looking backwards, you find almost the exact same sensibility, the same concerns, and the same tightly focused channeling. Unlike almost any other poet and despite his various and changeable interests, Bly has had a single style and a singular talent for expression his entire career.
What you do find in these early poems is a much more limited vocabulary and a less laser-like focus on the image. I used to complain that his early books had too much "darkness" in them. Not negativity or ominousness, but literally too much use of the words "dark" and "darkness".
"Darkness" is a vague term, and as a result his images in this early work do not carry the piercing specificity they came to later on. "In Arabia, the horses live in the tents, near dark gold, and water, and tombs." But it is the same Robert Bly and the same sensibility at work and the same controlled channeling of emotion to paper.
The one exception to this rule is The Teeth Mother Naked At Last. It is a very hard book to read and must have been a terribly hard book to write. I think this is the one occasion where Bly lost control of his expression and let the passion get the better of him.
However, none of this affects his importance both as an influence on modern poetry and as a model of what poetry can be -- a growing, evolving, but consistently fascinating thing.
"Olvido" by Vittorio Bodini
From The Hands of the South translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann, Charioteer Press, 1980
[Sunday, August 17th]
The trials and tribulations of reading poetry in translation has been discussed many times before and is too large a topic to cover here. Suffice it to say translations are a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are a window providing a glimpse into other cultures, styles of writing, or ways of thinking that do not exist in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, at best, only about 50-70% of the original poem's power survives the translation process; the music, the intonations, small cultural references, are all clouded by the filter of another language. (At worst, it can seem like 10% or less survives, when the translation barely makes sense in English.)
I just don't get this poem. "All the clocks in your house / are restless flowers, / or pulse with temples of lemons / in fruit dishes..." Whether it is the translation or the original poem, I can't tell. There are other poems in this book I do like. I can make sense of certain images and events. But the process is way too hard for the experience to be pleasurable, never mind enlightening. There are times when you simply have to turn away from a poem, a book, or a poet and say "not this time." It may reveal itself at later. But for now it is not a window, it is a brick wall.
"Her Brown Checked Dress" by Marianne Boruch
From View from the Gazebo, Wesleyan University Press, 1985
[Monday, August 18th]
I know I should like these poems. Boruch is clearly a talented writer, with a precision of language and seriousness about her poems that makes you turn the pages like fragile leaves and speak in nothing above a whisper. Unfortunately, I don't.
The problem is there is too much seriousness here. Everything is so too damned packed with impending overtones that at some point you have to break the scholarly silence and say "so what?"
I'm not saying she's not a good writer. She is. But she is asking too much of the reader, washing us in some ominous about-to-happen that never resolves itself.
"this room flooded with childhood"
"my uncle's young and in a frame smiling like he never smiles"
"we discuss it carefully, the way chess is played on a deeply shadowed porch."
These are not impenetrable personal references, as you would find in bad poems. They are carefully selected but strangely impersonal images rigged to pull our emotional strings. They work at what they are intended for -- generating intense emotion in the reader -- but they don't work towards the resolution of the poem itself. They are like a trompe d'oeil painting. Brilliant work that makes us feel somehow cheated.
"Ode to Bela Lugosi" by John Bowie
From Screen Gems, W.D. Hoffstadt & Sons, 1978
[Tuesday, August 19th]
Here is an oddity. Bowie's book (published posthumously) is all poems about movies and movie stars. The poems show a great love for the movie industry and its personalities. They also show a spirited sense of verbal play and recognition of the awkward divide between the public and the private self. You can see why his friends liked him and his work (as evidenced by the tributes included in the book.) But I'm afraid there's not much else there. There is no real intimacy or enlightenment. So, it is fun to read, but you won't learn much.
"Propelled by Portals Whose Only Shame" by Richard Brautigan
From Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, Dell Publishing, 1970
[Wednesday, August 20th]
What are these books doing on my shelves? Just kidding. The two volumes of Brautigan's poems were originally my wife's. I've tried reading them off and on since I first encountered his poetry in the 70's, without much luck.
On the positive side, they don't show as much wear as you might expect. They are a product of their time and are steeped in the contemporary lingo and ethos. But surprisingly they don't sound as silly as other cultural artifacts of the age (such as episodes of The Mod Squad).
However, as rebellious and didactically confrontational as they intend to be, the poems don't have much depth. So the brashness of 30-40 years ago sounds quite pale to modern ears.
"About the Way to Construct Enduring Works" by Bertolt Brecht
From Poems 1913-1956 edited by John Willett & Ralph Manheim, Methuen, 1976
[Thursday, August 21st]
Brecht is a fascinating juxtaposition to Brautigan. Brecht is also very "of the moment". He writes in the vernacular of the time. But the two couldn't be farther apart.
Despite Brecht's obsession with the here and now ("How long do works endure? As long as they are not completed.") his poems have a universality that transcends the specifics of time. Similarly, the flat, intentionally prosaic style of his writing instills its own sense of formality. Finally, the unabashedly didactic statements, which from any other writer would be decried as "telling, not showing" become their own form of imagism -- lyric poetry borne of the inner symbolism of morality.
"Rather Life" by Andre Breton
From Selected Poems translated byKenneth White, Cape Editions, 1972
[Friday, August 22nd]
Like everyone else it seems, I was attracted to Surrealism in my teens and early twenties. It is like an rite of passage: stuffed animals at 6, dinosaurs at 10, pirates at 14, surrealism at 18... With most people, this fad quickly wears off, becoming yet another dim memory of a somewhat embarrassing stage in their development.
I stuck to surrealism a little longer. Perhaps because of my pre-existing interest in poetry; perhaps, -- since French was the only foreign language I could read -- because I could actually read the original texts, making it more exotic. Whatever the reason, I stuck with it and learned to distinguish its many practitioners.
Learned to distinguish and be selective. Breton made a name for himself for his polemics, the manifestos, but in reality he was a lousy poet. Despite Surrealism's obsession with the subconscious and automatic writing, Breton's poems are stiff and awkward. Almost like bad parodies of his compatriots' works. The only time I can bear reading his poems is when he is collaborating with one of his more talented friends (Soupault, Eluard, Char, etc.)
So this book, one of several handsome volumes of his work on my shelf, stands more as a historical document than as a real piece of poetry.
"83 Grade School Children" by Michael Burkard
From Fictions from the Self, W.W. Norton & Co., 1988
[Saturday, August 23rd]
Michael Burkard's poems fascinate me. His first book, In a White Light, astonished me, although I could barely make heads or tails of it at the time. The sound of the poems washed over me like some sort of magic elixir.
The remarkable part is that that sense of wonder at the sound of his poems has continued through all of his books, despite the fact that the writing itself is almost the reverse of what it started as. With each volume his writing becomes more and more transparent, objectively descriptive, almost clinical in its level of detail and lack of commentary: "There are very few unqualified smiles / in the photograph, a few are looking off / as if a dog is barking..."
Even his use of line breaks in arbitrary places seems to challenge the reader to call them poems at all. But they are. They are amazingly beautiful lyrics disguised as mundane descriptions of the every day.
"Hoodlum at Night" by Dino Campana
From Orphic Songs translated by I.L. Salomon, October House, 1968
[Sunday, August 24th]
I haven't cracked this book yet. By that I mean, decoded.
I've tried reading it a number of times, thinking I was reading the wrong poems or not in the right frame of mind... But despite the fact that I "understand" it on a what-does-it-mean level, I don't see why it matters or what I'm supposed to get from it.
It could be some combination of a stilted translation, an unfamiliar culture, and incompatible personalities. Whatever the cause, this book remains opaque.
"Ode to Severn Darden" by Paul Carroll
From Odes, Big Table Books, 1969
[Monday, August 25th]
Well, I didn't pick at random this time. I couldn't resist the opportunity to reread Carroll's six foot "Ode to Severn Darden About Angels, the Common Cold, Nuclear Disarmament, and Popcorn" which is printed on a very long fold-out in the middle of the book.
I wasn't particularly fond of this book when I first got it. But I kept it and I'm glad I did. The problem was that at the time I was into "great poets" and Carroll is not a great poet. He's OK. In fact, he can be quite enjoyable. But you have to be open to it and not quite so critically minded to appreciate his poems.
The fact is, whether Carroll was a great poet or not, he was a great influence on poetry, having published the first books of Bill Knott, Dennis Schmitz, and Andrei Codrescu, among others. That is a pretty impressive resume. Add to that his obvious love of poetry and you realize he was clearly one of the angels of poetry himself.
Besides, any poem with lines like "or like the static cracking from the squawk box in a checker taxi which is how the Dearly Beloved Deceased attempt to communicate with us" deserves our respect.
(I strongly recommend the touching tribute to Carroll written by Paul Hoover and published in the Chicago Review.)
"The Years from You to Me" by Paul Celan
From Nineteen Poems translated by Michael Hamburger, Carcanet Press, 1972
[Tuesday, August 26th]
These poems are full of pain. So much pain, in fact, that it cannot escape or be effectively communicated to the reader. Instead you view it through an invisible barrier, like watching someone suffering a horrible death through a one-way mirror. The poems are so caught up in their own pain, they are impenetrable.
You can sympathize with them, from a distance. If you've felt a lot of pain yourself, you might even empathize with them. But you can't be them.
Perhaps that is partly what makes poetry poetry: the ability to be the poem, or the poem to be you, for just a moment.
Entry "78" by Rene Char
From Leaves of Hypnos translated by Cid Corman, Mushinsha/Grossman, 1973
[Wednesday, August 27th]
Rene Char is a surrealist like Paul Cezanne was an impressionist. In both cases, their talent and dedication to their craft would have resulted in much the same output, regardless of the other artists of their time or persuasion. Andre Breton pronounced, Rene Char created.
"Time rotates but there is only one season" by Tom Clark
A postcard published by the Alternative Press, date unknown
[Thursday, August 28th]
I've already written about the pros and cons of Tom Clark's poetry. This postcard is an example of Clark at his best. A poem about baseball and a poem about eternity. All in six lines. Nothing wasted; no throw-away lines. Genius on a 4x6 card.
"Demands of Exile" by Andrei Codrescu
From Belligerence, Coffee House Press, 1991
[Friday, August 29th]
The cover blurb declares Codrescu "prodigiously talented". Probably true. He is clearly talented. What I don't get is why I have so much trouble reading his books. One time I'll like them, another time I hate them, yet another time I'm bored. (This time I'm bored.)
Codrescu has what is often called the "gift of gab". He can write perfectly in any number of vernaculars (a talent he shares with James Tate) mixed with a surrealist's love of surprise and the unexpected. The result is a loud, somewhat confrontation style of poetry. At times I find this linguistic fencing invigorating. At other times, I get to wondering: what's the point?
The problem is I'm not sure that is a valid question. I don't ask that of Frank O'Hara or Jack Anderson. Why is it apropriate to demand it of Codrescu (or Ashbery, or ....)?
I think it comes down to what you are asking of the reader. If you are going to throw things at me and demand I consider whether they have meaning (e.g. "We are growing a bitter seed issue / of poets who can't go home again") then I will expect them not to devolve into cheap vaudevillism (e.g. "the pen prevents / the closing of the fist and prices being / what they are it's a good thing too"). I'm not arguing against Codrescu's prodigious talent, I am saying I'm disappointed when it lets him down.
"Plot" by Billy Collins
From Pokerface, Kenmore Press, 1977
[Saturday, August 30th]
I went back to Collins's first book, because it was the one I enjoyed the most and I wanted to find out why (or if it was a momentary thing). No, I still like it. There is an edge to Collins's writing that keeps the reader on their toes. And Pokerface epitomizes this style: quick, funny, yet piercing poems. The reason they work is because they hit and run; nothing lasts too long or tries to draw out the metaphor too far.
Which also explains my reticence concerning his later books. Make no mistake about it, Collins is a clever, suave writer and his poems -- which are longer and more drawn out in his later books -- go down smoothly. However, the poems themselves don't hold much more meaning than the original poems in Pokerface. Can I criticize them for appearing to have more meaning? For wanting to achieve more and only reaching the same level? Perhaps not. But I can't praise them for it either.
"The Scenario" by Cid Corman
From And the Word, Coffee House Press, 1987
[Sunday, August 31st]
Cid Corman's poems are earnest. I chose a poem from the earlier part of this book. The latter half of the book demonstrates the influence of reading and translating Japanese poetry on Corman, as his line becomes shorter and the poems more cryptic and, well, mystical. But not really mystical. More reliant on a mystical connectivity between random images which may or may not exist. For example:
Unfortunately, many of these poems end up resembling parodies of the western idea of what a Haiku is. So is this bad poetry? Well, as I said, Corman is earnest and that shows through in his work. And sometimes I think earnestness is 50% of what makes up a poem. (The rest being -- what? -- 10% craft, 20% beauty, and 20% the ability to move the reader. That's just a rough estimate...)
This brings two questions to mind. First, is it fair to assess the "earnestness" -- the intent -- of the author as part of evaluating their work? As an objective value, no. But as a subjective effect the poems have on the reader -- how earnest the work appears to the audience -- yes.
The second question is why don't I afford the same sense of earnestness to reading, say, Billy Collins? This is one of the deficits of craft: if you have the talent to write as flawlessly as Collins, there are more expectations on what you are capable of writing -- and more suspicion about the veracity of emotion. Is this a true feeling or a poetic sleight of hand? Is it truly beautiful or simply pretty words?
One last influence on the reader's perception of "truth" in poetry is the context of the poet's larger body of work. I have been reading individual poems, but I notice that I have, more often than not, been commenting on the poet's total work.
There are certain poems that stand -- or stand out -- by themselves. Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall" is an example. But other poems are not so self-reliant and gain strength from their existence within the context of a poet's overall work, the readers' understanding of the poet's (or the persona's) sensibility, their aesthetic, their point of view.
Robert Bly's poems are strong, but they are even stronger as you see they form a continuous thread from the 1950's to the present. Similarly, Cid Corman's later haiku-like poems seem almost silly, taken one at a time. But taken in the context of what he was attempting in the earlier poems, you can admire the effort (if not the result).
This is the same issue that comes into play when reading magazines. Reading poems -- lots of poems, 20, 50, 100 -- by different poets read "out of context" can be a very disorienting experience. Seen in a magazine, a single poem may elicit no response -- or a negative response -- which when you come back to it later after reading more of the poet's work you think "why didn't I see this before?" Constantly having to reset your aesthetic radar between poems can be very difficult and tiring.
(Continue to a Postscript to A Month of Poems)