Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Month of Poems (Continued)

[This is part 2 of a month of poems as described in the preface]

"Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway" by Gregory Corso
From The Happy Birthday of Death, New Directions 1960
[Wednesday, October 1st]

Corso always strikes me as one of those "friends of the famous" -- famous, but for no identifiable reason. Friend of Kerouac. Friend of Ginsberg. Author of Gasoline. And also The Happy Birthday of Death.

I remember being excited by Gasoline -- what? say, 35 years ago? -- but for quite some time I have been unable to reproduce or to explain that feeling. Happy Birthday always seemed to be the proof that his fame was misplaced. The stilted rhymes, the clumsy archaic speech, antiquated references, nonsense as meaning... The quintessential post flash in the pan.

Corso is perhaps the one Beat poet most bound by time. Outside the era that bore him, he feels alien and outdated. Even Kerouac, even Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti as "contemporary" as their writing was, manage to transcend that moment. But Corso doesn't.

Is that a failing? For modern readers yes. But perhaps they were only meant as momentary expressions. The trouble is it is hard to assess "value" or "beauty" of something that doesn't last.

Which is all the more strange that I found a poem I liked in Happy Birthday. "Poets Hitchhiking" shows Corso's humor, directed at himself as much as anyone else, mocking his own writing and its tenuousness ("we ended by melting away, hating the air!"). Perhaps he did know how fragile it was after all.

"A Form of Woman" by Robert Creeley
From for Love, Charles Scribner's Sons 1962
[Thursday, October 2nd]

Creeley's poems are almost devoid of imagery. What images are there are a form of monologue (or in some cases, like the famous poem "I Know a Man", dialog).

As a consequence, his poems for all their simplicity are very hard to read for a modern reader. Unlike most 20th century verse, his poems are written from the outside in rather than the inside out, in an abrupt documentary style. What emotion is there is only that which might be expressed -- and visible-- outwardly. "I could not touch you. / I wanted very much to / touch you / but could not." Add to this staccato, objective style his idiosyncratic line breaks and you have a tough read ahead of you. But when they work, his poems form a unique experience that comes into focus so slowly, you don't realize it until the poem has you.

"Self-Portrait in a Stainless Steel Mirror" by James Crenner
From My Hat Flies On Again, L'Epervier Press 1981
[Friday, October 3rd]

I don't remember where I first heard of James Crenner. Perhaps I found his work in a magazine. Maybe he was recommended by a friend of a friend. Whichever, the memory of his work stuck with me and I spent several years trying to find more of it, until last year when I finally found a copy of My Hat Flies On Again. Now I see why I was so persistent.

Crenner's poems don't seem special -- the subjects are interesting but not unique, his style of writing is familiar... But each poem has at least one line, an image, or an idea that stays with you for days. In "Application Blank" he describes himself as "curator of the part of my life that is over" -- a killer line. In "Self-Portrait" he turns an objective description of his own face into a landscape "with the trace of a bird, the trace of some weeds" where the entire poem lingers with you long after you put the book down. No particular line, but the poem as a whole.

There are flashy writers who surprise you and there are "serious" poets you try to make you think long and hard on things. Crenner isn't either of these, but he can do both. He is that talented. But it is a quiet, understated talent, which is what makes it all the more unusual and gratifying.

"VII (since feeling is first)" by E.E. Cummings
from is 5, in Complete Poems 1913-1962, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1972
[Saturday. October 4th]

I wonder if anyone reads E.E. Cummings anymore. He is easy to discount as all style and no substance. The uniqueness of his poems and their total reliance on surface -- the use of lower case, the staccato diction of speech and thought -- make the poems seem almost like parodies of themselves. And it's true: Cummings' poems either succeed or fail. And when they fail, they fail spectacularly. But when they succeed, the success is equally exuberant.

Cummings uses words like painters use brushes -- he "paints" his poems. I don't mean in the superficial sense of concrete poems or Apollinaire's poème-objet. Cummings is not interested in constructing sentences, he constructs scenes where dialog runs together and thoughts intersect and bounce off each other. His poems are more like screenplays without scenery or physical players. As he says himself "Since feeling is first / who pays attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you."

The tragedy is that in his later poems Cummings retains the style, but attempts to apply it to physical scenes rather than human interaction, and the result is an exceedingly dull imitation of his earlier work. But until then, his work can be a wild ride.

"Baseball Cards #2" by Jim Daniels
from The Long Ball, Pig in a Poke Press 1988
[Sunday, October 5th]

There have been some great baseball poems. W.C. Williams' paean to baseball "At the Ball Game" in Spring and All, for example. And I recently found a stunning baseball poem by Tom Clark. So I have no objection to the subject itself. Unfortunately, Jim Daniels' poems in The Long Ball have little more than the subject and that is not enough.

These are poems because Daniels says they are, but he doesn't use any of the power of poetry. The language is flat. There is no under current, no secondary meaning. There is only what is described and what is described is, well, dull. Am I being harsh? Probably. But this stuff isn't for me.

"What the Rocks Say" by Robert Desnos
Translated by Anne Waldman, source unknown
[Monday. October 6th]

Robert Desnos was one of the first surrealist poets I read in the original French and, although my French is sketchy at best, I learned enough to be disappointed by most translations. This is unfortunate, because modern translations of Desnos are actually quite good for those unable to read the French. But I also learned that Desnos is very hard to translate because it is almost as if he had no voice of his own. His poems are friendly but stark, as if he were channeling surrealism itself. There is little of the personal style or linguistic quirks you find in his fellow surrealists, such as Eluard, Soupault, or Peret. So it is hard to determine what style or voice to use in English.

I originally intended to read a poem from Michael Benedikt's translation (22 Poems, Kayak Books 1971), but while leafing through it I found a xerox I made many years ago and had slipped in at the point in the book with the matching translation by Benedikt. I obviously put it there because I thought Waldman did a better job of translating the poem (and still do). But it also shows that the differences are subtle. Here are three translations of the first line of the poem (the third being from Selected Poems of Robert Desnos translated by Carolyn Forche and William Kulik, Ecco 1991):

The queen of the azure and the fool of the void go past you in a taxicab (Benedikt)

The Queen of the Blue & the Fool of Space pass by in a taxi (Waldman)

The azure queen and the madman of the void go by in a cab (Forche and Kulik)

"In the Pocket" by James Dickey
from The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, Doubleday 1970
[Tuesday. October 7th]

I am not a big fan of poems that meander all over the page -- poems with large gaps between words or lines that start in different places. There is plenty of power in language, in the rhythms, the sounds of the words, and the line breaks. These exaggerated placements seem heavy-handed and, in most cases, unrewarding. In bad poems, I find this sort of extravagance annoying and a crude attempt to hide the weakness of the poem itself. In good poems I simply try to ignore the spaces.

Dickey is one writer where I try to ignore the gaps. However, in Dickey's poems, that is difficult. He uses spaces as punctuation: breaking up and intermixing chunks of thought -- different threads of a story -- as a videographer splices together film.

Here we have another sports poem (football this time) and another poem ostensibly about the surface of things. Dickey is trying to reproduce the tension and rush of the football experience from the player's point of view by piling image upon image, piece by fragmented piece. It is a tall order to reproduce it in words. And when he gets to the end of the poem with its rush of all upper case words, like a drill sergeant shouting out orders, my initial impulse is to resist it. Too demanding, unjustified, manipulative. But frankly, the poem works. And as unsettling as it is, Dickey effectively achieves his goal.

"A Row of Identical Cottages" by Mark Doty
from Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, David R. Godine 1991
[Wednesday, October 8th]

Mark Doty is a very talented writer. His poems are mesmerizing in their use of language. The lines stretch out like a lush tropical garden with its heady odors, colors, and cacaphony of images. In a way, the verbiage is so lush it is almost overwhelming. Unfortunately he is also one of several very talented writers who I simply don't "get".

I can admire these poems, but I can't enjoy them. As rich as they are in images and language, the poem never really connects with me as a reader. In a way, it is the richness, the lushness of the writing that stands in the way. "The flag flapped like a towel hung out to dry ... the single breathing undulance that sea and sky made ... the water that was hurrying with the idea of storm ..." The images are so thick and fraught with meaning, they end up being a sort of a blur. The language doesn't allow for enough variation to be realistic. It is like looking at an exhibit of Faberge eggs: beautiful, intricate, well crafted, but ultimately meant for a different time or place.

Now, I am more than happy to admit this as a flaw in myself, not in the poems. I can see why some people would love this work, if they feel connected to it. But unless you feel involved, the rich language and intricate craft ultimately becomes a barrier -- an invisible wall of glass -- that separates you from the emotion of the poem.

Consequently, when he tries to pull the scene and the emotions together with lines like "I saw the shoreline break / above your heart..." it fails. Because by that time I am already on the other side of the glass. And that is disappointing. Disappointing because I would like to like these poems. I can see them, I can admire them, but the rarity of the language gets in the way.

Note: There was a lapse in new entries to this blog entry for two reasons. First, I made a mistake (more on this below) which caused me to rethink. Second, I was busy preparing for a birthday party which consumed all my free time. But now I will catch up...

"529 (I'm sorry for the dead...)" by Emily Dickinson
from Final Harvest, Little Brown & Co. 1961
[Saturday, Oct. 18th]

I made a mistake. I overlooked a book on my shelf on Wednesday. When I discovered the mistake, I had two simultaneous, competing thoughts: "oh, I can just skip that" and "I should take it out of sequence, because the point of the exercise is to get me to read different writers". The trouble is the book I skipped was Emily Dickinson.

I don't like Emily Dickinson's poetry. Never have. Thing is, I am not fond of rhymed poetry. It tends to be too sing-songy, more interested in getting the rhyme that following the reason. Frost may have complained about free verse being like playing tennis without a net, but rhymed verse sometimes feels like playing tennis with your shoes tied together.

This dislike of rhyme is not unequivocable. I am very fond of G.M. Hopkins. Frost also has some great poems. But rhyme can be a barrier. Add to that Dickinson's short lines, arbitrary and incessant use of capitalization and dashes and you have something more resembling a billboard than a poem.

Be that as it may, there is something enjoyable about her poems. It is not just the marching band rhythms (bang! bang! bang!). It is a turn of phrase, the flutter of language underneath the beat. So when she says "When Men -- and Boys -- and Carts -- and June, / Go down the Fields to 'Hay' --" it is like skipping with the entire village -- including time itself (June) -- heading into the fields. I can see the pleasure in that. So maybe I don't dislike everything she does...

"The Elephant" by Carlos Drummond de Andrade
from Travelling in the Family edited and translated by Thomas Colchie and Mark Strand, Ecco 1986
[Sunday, Oct. 19th]

Drummond's poems are what I think of as South American Surrealism. French Surrealism was about language. The entire context of the poem -- the subject, the location, the words describing them -- falls under the surrealist lens. In South America, Surrealism tends to be about objects. The object is surreal, unnatural, or out of place, but it plays within a perfectly normal, real landscape. Neruda perhaps epitomizes this style in poetry while Garcia Marques is a master practitioner in prose.

In Drummond's poem, the elephant itself is the surreal element, not only because it is out of place but it is manfactured ("I made an elephant from the little I have"). Once this surreal element is introduced, everything it does and the reactions of those around it are perfectly normal ("my elephant goes down a crowded street"). The juxtaposition of the fragile man-made elephant and its interaction with our everyday world are what gives the poem its power.

It is interesting that this style is very hard to reproduce elsewhere. US poets who try it tend to come off as posturing. (Perhaps we don't have enough everyday life in our poems to make it come off realistically.) In Eastern Europe, surrealism takes more of a theoretical turn, where everything about the poem, including the landscape, has the feel of some sort of great social experiment. (I am thinking of poets like Vasko Popa here.)

"To a Red-Headed, Do-Good Waitress" by Alan Dugan
from Poems 2, Yale University Press 1963
[Monday, Oct. 20th]

I have a love/hate relationship with Alan Dugan. One day I read his poems and find them energizingly irreverent, witty, and erudite. The next day I find them pretentious, self-important, and petulant.

At first I thought it was me. There certainly are poets where I have to be in the right state of mind to be able to fully appreciate their work. Otherwise I read too fast or too slow and miss the essential ingredient.

But I have come to believe it isn't me this time. Dugan's poems truly are that hit and miss. Because he spends so much time tilting at the gods and demigods of poetry -- ridiculing high-blown language, mocking the favorite topics and attitudes of "classic" verse -- he runs a risk of leaning too much the other direction. I don't object to the four letter words or discussion of taboo subjects (drunkenness, masturbation, etc.). But these aren't the unrestrained outburst of working class minds. They are often strategic and staged more for shock value than for real need of expression. And that is when his poems fail for me. It is the false harshness, the studied realism that tends to let him down as a writer.

But when he escapes this and mixes traditional styles with modern sensibility (as he does in "Waitress") he is well worth reading.

"The Heat" by Cornelius Eady
from Boom Boom Boom, State Street Press 1988
[Tuesday, Oct. 21st]

Eady is one of my favorite young poets. I say "young" although I have no idea how old he is. It's just that his writing is refreshingly individualistic and has the air of youth.

I am currently reading his selected poems (Hardheaded Weather), but today I chose to go back to the first book of his I read. Eady's writing is light -- not subject-wise, but in the language. The rhythms are punchy, almost syncopated, like a good jazz riff. The lines also tend to be short. There is no shortage of words -- his poems are not minimalistic, just well crafted. And each poem is set off by one or two really beautiful turns of phrase, like this poem's closing: " Muggy, the announcer predicts, / Like a man who is / The last one to know."

In fact, the only real danger in Eady's early poems is that the images may be too perfect and remind us that this is, after all, artifice.

"Dr. Nigel Bruce Watson Counting" by Russell Edson
from The Tunnel, Field Editions 1994
[Wednesday, Oct. 22nd]

Russell Edson is a perfect example of why poetry is undefinable. As soon as you define it and try to nail it down, you find a poem that defies that definition. Edson's poems defy almost all definition.

First, if poems are about format, Edson's poems are prose poems, so there are no line breaks or rhyme. If poems are about things, Edson's prose poems -- although narrative in style -- bend and weave keeping their actual subject a secret, sometimes beyond the end of the poem. If poems are about emotion, Edson's prose poems often result in a sense of ambiguity -- ambiguity towards what the poem is about and ambiguity towards one's own feelings about the poem.

When you get to the end of one of his poems, you feel almost as if you are on the deck of a ship in high seas. What do you think of the poem? What is it about? The impact is dizzying. It is as if the poem keeps moving long after you finish reading.

"Mirror of October" by Gunnar Ekelof
from I Do Best Alone at Night translated by Robert Bly, Charioteer Press 1977
[Thursday, Oct. 23rd]

I respect Ekelof as a poet, but I can't say I ever liked any of his work. His poems are deeply philosphical -- everything turns to the universal so quickly, it is almost as if the narrator needn't be there. Even the title poem with its titular first person quickly surrenders to the universal. "Somewhere / chance is sleeping in the cards. Somewhere / a truth has been said once already..." Personally, I can only take so much of this type of ominous foreboding, this mystical visioning before I begin to have my doubts. Where is the everyday in this? Nowhere, perhaps. But the poem has to have some grounding if it expects to reach across the gap in the page and convince me.

As I say, this is a personal bias which might be exacerbated by the distance created by the translation. But Bly is a good translator in most cases. So I think it is just a difference between Mr. Ekelof and myself...

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot
from Collected Poems 1909-1962, Harcourt Brace 1970
[Friday, Oct.24th]

I don't have much to say about Eliot. I liked his early poems (1917) when I was younger. Probably because they were closest to what I was reading of contemporary poems -- somewhat narrative, somewhat imagistic. Now I am beginning to understand his later poems, when he became more interested in the complexities of philosophy and religion. Not organized philosophy and religion (well, not only those) but his personal views and how they and he fit into society. He was still a poet and his goal was to express both thoughts and feelings. Without resorting to imagism, he managed this by layering impressions and descriptions one on top of another to try and build the complex portrait he wanted: "In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley / This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms / In this last of meeting places / We grope together..."

"Shirley Temple Surrounded by Lions" by Kenward Elmslie
from Motor Disturbance, Columbia University Press 1971
[Saturday, Oct. 25th]

These poems are enjoyable. Like browsing through the dictionary looking for unusual words is enjoyable. There are surprises at every turn ("scenario: an albino industrialiste, invited to the beach at noon"). But there is very little to hold these twists and turns of speech together. (Except, perhaps, the poems' titles and even they seem relatively random.)

I used to get upset at Elmslie and poets like him. It seemed like they were wasting the reader's time. But I've got to the point where I can enjoy them for what they are. The problem is, any one poem is as good as another; there is no real distinction. So you can enjoy them, but you can just as easily put them down.

"Letter to my Mother" by Sergei Esenin
from Confessions of a Hooligan translated by Geoffrey Thurley, Carcanet Press 1973
[Sunday, Oct. 26th]

I have always been attracted to Esenin. He is the romantic/ tragic figure of the artistic personality in the face of overwhelming indifference (or outright belligerence) from their the social environment. Unfortunately for Esenin, the portrait ends up being more tragi-comic than romantic, as his own conceit and self-destructive tendencies made him the poster child of the narcissistic dissolution the socialist art councils believed was the ultimate outcome of individualistic artistic expression.

These are not particularly good translations. but then again, I have never really found any good translations of Esenin. I suspect it gets the words across, but the music is missing or distorted. It's like trying to read a book of poetry on the subway or while a marching band is going past. You get the gist of it, but the sound is drowned out by the surroundings.

"Junkman's Obbligato" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from A Coney Island of the Mind, New Directions 1958
[Monday, Oct. 27th]

Ferlinghetti was one of the first contemporary poets I read as a youngster. His poems are the right mix of rebelliousness, anger, excitement, and a moderate level of awareness of literary past to appeal to a teenager. It is not so much what he was saying as how he was saying it that struck a chord.

Unfortunately, many years later, one's earlier enthusiasms often seem embarrassingly naive in hindsight. So I was trepidatious to pick up his books again. Yes, he is a sort of second-rate Allen Ginsberg. Yes, the overly serious "Beat"-ness of Pictures of the Gone World has not aged particularly well. No, poems like "Junkman's Obbligato" do not hold together conceptually as we might have come to expect from reading more thoroughly in the genre. But rereading this poem and others, it is surprising how much of Ferlinghetti's voice and concerns do still come across. I have never heard him read in person, but I have a strong sense of how the poem was meant to be read -- impassioned, involved, and enthralled -- and I still can put on that mantle and enjoy these poems much more than I had expected.

"Wave/Rock" by Ian Hamilton Finlay
from Poems to Hear and See, Macmillan. 1971
[Tuesday, Oct. 28th]

Finlay is not a poet. Or rather, he is many more things than just a poet. He is an artist who works in many different media and forms.

In truth, Poems to Hear and See may be one of his least successful works of "poetry". It falls under the general category of concrete poetry and -- like much of the genre -- is intellectually intriguing but emotionally unmoving.

However, several of these "poems" were also sculptures. "Wave/Rock" itself was produced as words etched in glass. Other poems in the book I have seen as sculptures in glass, marble, or neon lights. The real impact of these works simply are not apparent on the page and do not become visible until you see them in their "natural" environment.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of Finlay's work is the "garden", Little Sparta, which he created in a small town in Scotland. For anyone who has not been exposed to his work, I strongly encourage you to look up and find his sculptures if you can. At a minimum, visit the Little Sparta web site to get a feel for one unique way in which poetry can be created, and the impact it can have.

"The Tub" by Karen Fish
from What is Beyond Us, Harper Perennial. 1992
[Wednesday, Oct. 29th]

Karen Fish is part of the University of Iowa post neo imagist influence that pervaded the 70's and 80's (and a good part of the 90's). I can say that because that's part of my intellectual heritage as well. Her writing is very precise, with an eye for detail and a well-formed turn of phrase. "The mountains in the distance are pewter -- / like the pitcher, cool and sweating on my grandmother's lace / tablecloth." The focus is not on the object, but on the collection of objects -- the tableau -- and in many cases, their emotional history.

She does this well. She has a very good ear ("the light has only one thing left to do"). My only concern is that her work relies so heavily on the emotional baggage that it can at times seem almost like cliches. The lace, the barn, the old lady washing in a tub in the kitchen. I have seen this before in movies and in paintings and she is relying so heavily on the feeling this evokes that it becomes, well, trite. The danger of relying on the cultural associations of objects and landscapes is that the poem becomes fragile, like ice on a puddle -- trying to hold still something that is moving.

"One evening at the turn of the century..." by Jean Follain
from A World Rich in Anniversaries, Logbridge-Rhodes 1981
[Thursday, Oct. 30th]

Follain is also interested in objects, in the details of a moment in time. However, one would never mistake him for an American poetry school student. It is not just a matter of talent; it is approach and a vision.

I have always been intrigued by this book; it attracts and repels at the same time. I am drawn in by the writing, but left uncertain by the poems as a whole. Looking more carefully now, I think I see the reason for both. Follain's poems follow a pattern. They start with a detailed description of a scene -- a tableau vivant almost. ("One evening at the turn of the century you see a mathematician reach home carrying a birdcage.") The scene expands with more details ("black and yellow hansoms... the dog running down an alleyway... the furious, mustachioed butcher...").

But the poem soon moves beyond the scene into the abstract ("In the future... citizens who have survived the massacres..."). What massacres? What future? Any emotional baggage that you bring to the original scene is forced to vie with the abstraction, creating a new view and response to the entire proceedings. Follain then brings the poem to a close physically linking the abstract to the present ("before their eyes, the ghost of the professor.. the uninhabited cage in his hand.")

It is almost like a magician's sleight of hand with which Follain brings present and future together. But the uncertainty? It is a trick, and it works. And Follain's final twist usually adds another perspective to the scene, which sounds like closure, but is it? The closure brings the pieces together but tends to leave the scene suspended, often with a sense that the future has already been decided. But what that decision is -- even if you know the results -- is not clear.

This sense of suspended animation is very powerful and reading a few of his poems can be a very moving experience. Unfortunately, the more you read, the more you begin to recognize the pattern and start to lose the surprise at the end. They all kind of end the same way. Can that be? Well, can it?

"Departure" by Carolyn Forché
from The Country Between Us, Harper & Row 1981
[Friday, Oct. 31st]

Forché is another member of the Poetry School School. This group is not identified by a specific style as much as a general aesthetic, focused on precision and detailed descriptions of scenes or objects; what I sometimes refer to as the post neo imagist movement. These are the poets who were taught or were teaching in the various writing programs in the 70's and 80's. It was the pervasive form of poetry pretty much until the Language poets showed up.

Forché is both a member of that general caste and a demonstration of how diverse it is. Her writing is precise and sometimes overly "writerly" ("I am the woman whose photograph you will not recognize, whose face emptied your eyes...") But there is no fragility here. Underlying all of her poems is a fierce personal vision that drives the poems forward. You may not always understand or agree with everything said, but you feel the scenes unfolding as much as you see them. In her best poems, you become the persona, the narrator. At worst, you see them in third person; detached but fully aware.

(Go to part 3)

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