"There's no Place to Sleep in this Bed, Tanguy" by Charles Henri Ford
from Out of the Labyrinth, City Lights 1991
[Saturday, Nov. 1st]
Ford is one of the few (only two?) American surrealists in the true French tradition. (It is odd to speak of Surrealism and tradition in the same breath. There are so many variants, but the French progenitors form a unique aesthetic around which others invent and improvise.)
Anyway, Ford follows the French style of Breton, Peret and others, resulting in the same thrill of inventiveness for the reader. However, his poems also contain a persistent undercurrent of anger and cruelty. It shows through in the language and the images ("lasso of love... wires are cut... menacing... the painted trigger... torture-machines... whose quarry is fear... set new traps..."). And this is one of the less violent poems.
Where at first this sense of anger is part of the excitement of the poems, over time you realize the anger is undirected and unmitigated, poisoning the poems and leaving the reader uncomfortable -- not at the "newness" of the style but at the lack of control or self-awareness of the persona behind them.
"3:59" by Ruth Forman
from We Are the Young Magicians, Beacon Press 1993
[Sunday, Nov. 2nd]
I like this book. I like these poems. I know I shouldn't. I can name the reasons why I shouldn't: the story lines are heavy-handed, over-simplistic, the self-conscious writing in dialect -- a pet peeve of mine -- ("n i could sure use some a them lil white pills"), the unnecessary use of lowercase, the predictable and sometimes trite endings... But despite all that, I still like them. There is a driving beat to the lines that keeps them moving to the end and as predictable and hammy as they are, Forman carries them off with style and you kind of like her for the audacity of it all.
"Promesse" by André Fenaud
from Poètes d'Aujourd'hui 37 André Fenaud, Pierre Seghers [year unknown]
[Monday, Nov. 3rd]
"When you give me your hand it is your entire being" (translated). Only a French poet can get away with a line like that. In the hands of an American writer, it would seem like pretension. We know it's not true, as much as we may wish it were. And because of that knowledge, we refrain from saying it. We work towards the truth, we dance around it in elaborate and -- in their own right -- moving ways. (See John Ashbury's "Some Trees", W.C.Williams' "Dance Russe", or Roethke's "I Knew a Woman")
But the French defy all logic and, despite all proof to the contrary, make such grand statements with pure, unadulterated conviction. And get away with it besides.
"Some Comfort" by Martha Fritz
from If the River's This High All Summer, Pym-Randall 1974
[Tuesday, Nov. 4th]
This is a beautiful book. It is one of only two or three I own where you wonder what happened? Why the poet published one book and disappeared? Because Fritz is an exquisite writer with a gorgeous sense of language. The images suspend you in air as you soak them in ("Blossoms are words in the long-winded streets"). There are few first books as beautiful or as fully formed as this. There are the occasional poems where her images get caught up in themselves and leave the reader stranded. (Thinking, what exactly does that mean?) But in general there is nothing here but the joy of language and intense emotional discovery.
"The Wood-Pile" by Robert Frost
from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Collected Poems), Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1969
[Wednesday, Nov. 5th]
I was never a big fan of Robert Frost. I thought of him as too artfully rustic, too grade school English class. But then my son asked me to read him some of Frost's poems, so I was forced to find poems that I would be willing to read. It was far less difficult than I expected.
Frost is intentionally rustic. He is also overtly philosophical, openly sentimental, while at the same time grumpily misanthropic. But he also has a tremendous sense of native speech (which I may understand better now having lived in New England for a number of years) which makes the rhythm and rhyme of his poems integral to their narrator's sensibility.
I like Robert Frost now. Not everything, but many poems that were ruined by grade school teachers have now been reclaimed and many "lesser" poems (lesser only because they are more complex, less "ta da!" like or easy to stereotype) newly discovered.
"Everyone Knows the World is Ending" by Alice Fulton
from Palladium, University of Illinois Press 1986
[Thursday, Nov. 6th]
Fulton is a master of her craft. She writes finely-honed poems filled with incredible language, an expansive vocabulary of images. ("Each thought a focused mote in the apocalypse's iridescent fizz.") The only danger is that her writing is so inventive, it can overpower the poem itself. The intense focus on the language can distract the reader, making the subject of the poem into more of a pantomime rather the driving force, to the poem's detriment.
"Haunted Importantly" by Jack Gilbert
from The Great Fires, Knopf 1994
[Friday, Nov. 7th]
Jack Gilbert is a serious poet. A very serious poet. Too serious for some... He takes his poems seriously and he takes his subjects seriously.
What's surprising is that his subject comes first. He crafts his poems and his language with precision. And the reward is lines that are close to perfect. For example: "The music that thinking is". For almost any other poet, arriving at this line would be sufficient, it would be an appropriate close to the poem. But Gilbert wasn't done with his subject and so he needed more: "He wanted to know what he heard, not to get closer." It takes the reader by surprise. It isn't as pure or as perfect a line as the previous one. But he needed to say it. It is this private sense of direction that gives his poems a unique kind of atonality you don't find in other American poets.
"America" by Allen Ginsberg
from Howl and Other Poems, City Lights 1969
[Saturday, Nov. 8th]
Rereading "Howl" and "America" I'm reminded of how talented Ginsberg really was. Yes, there's a lot of broggadocio and chest thumping, but there's a lot of talent too. So why don't I read him more often?
It's related to why I don't listen to the Beatles more often as well. It's not that it's old or out-dated, it's not. But it is kind of like driving a car that is stuck in one gear. It's not all the same; you can drive it fast or you can drive it slow. But its still only got one gear. Ginsberg's got his points, and he makes them one way. Loud (like "Howl") or quiet (like "In back of the real"), the point comes out the same.
"Killing My Pen-Pal" by Loren Goodman
from Famous Americans, Yale University Press 2003
[Sunday, Nov 9th]
This is an interesting collection of poems, ranging from single line poems to poems that look like they were copied directly out of TV Guide. More importantly, Goodman plays with what we think poems are about. Many of these poems are like overheard dialogs -- fragmented, partial, still under construction. ("I plan an escape as I would plan / to take off my clothes. / That is, there isn't much planning / I just undress...")
It is exciting to see art being stretched like this, testing the edges of what makes a poem a poem. Of course, the fear is that you are just being conned. (e.g. Is this Andy Warhol the artist, or Andy Warhol the commercial shill?) The fact is it is hard to tell.
Even time can't differentiate in all cases. The artists themselves sometimes get caught in their own inventions. I am thinking here of people like e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollack. Fame and invention are not necessarily friends
"Somewhere a garage door goes down..." by Noah Eli Gordon
from Novel Pictorial Noise, Harper Perennial 2007
[Monday, Nov 10th]
It's not surprising that Gordon's book was picked for the National Poetry Series by John Ashbery, because in many ways it reads like Ashbery's writing in prose. The linguistic gymnastics, the element of surprise, the circling, feints, and verbal shadowboxing. ("Clouds gather, disperse. Let this suffice as a working formula for working a formula...")
I haven't read the whole book, and it is hard to tell whether it is more of a book of individual poems or a single poem that is divided into chunks. But reading it as individual poems demonstrates the flaws in Ashbery's and Gordon's style. For all the amazing verbal play, there is a lack of substance, a resolute avoidance of subject matter.
I could be wrong. Read as a book rather than as a separate poems, a subject may emerge (as in Ashbery's best book, the Double Dream of Spring). As individual poems you can enjoy the playfulness. But it begins to wear thin after a while without something to hold it together. And based on current reading, I don't see a meaningful thread evolving yet.
"If I Could Wear the Pain" by Janet Grey
from Flaming Tail Out of the Ground Near Your Farm, Illuminati 1987
[Tuesday, Nov 11th]
A friend recommended this book to me a number of years ago. I have read it through a couple of times and I pick it up every now and then. It is a strong piece of work. Gray's poems pack a punch and her writing is close, personal, and direct. ("If I could wear the pain / like perfume, for example [...] if the source of it / could become unimportant, / or simply interesting -- the stories I could tell...")
This is a good book to read whenever you've read too much mediocre poetry or when your head gets clouded by the murky stuff you find in literary mags. When you begin to doubt the effectiveness of poetry or its social relevance, her poems will ground you quickly in what poetry is capable of.
"Of" by Deborah Greger
from And, Princeton University Press 1985
[Wednesday, Nov 12th]
Boy, I must spend a lot of time in the "G" section of the local book store because I just noticed a pretty impressive lineup of poets coming up: Debora Greger, Linda Gregerson, Linda Gregg... These three are all excellent poets. Not the same in any way, but all what you might call masters of their craft: finely honed poems of imagery and emotion.
Of the three Greger is perhaps the most overt with her craft, her manipulation of language. She is also my favorite of the three. Which is somewhat strange since she is also the most overtly "poetic". You always feel the hand of the poet in her writing. ("a glossy centerfold dissolves into / modesty -- black, cyan sequestered / under magenta's blush, and yellow / unmixing the muddied glow...")
Normally, this would disturb me. But in Greger's case, she not only shows off her control of language, she uses it deftly and with surprising variety. She writes personal poems, historical poems, dream poems, reimaginings of fairy tales... Each with the same deft touch.
"Ship" by Linda Gregerson
from Fire in the Conservatory, Dragon Gate 1982
[Thursday, Nov 13th]
Gregerson may be the most emotional of the three poets, also the least controlled. Her poems ooze feeling. Unfortunately, sometimes that sensation is hard to nail down and therefore hard for the reader to share. ("Our hope's a kind of geography: each place it lands, a city like ours springs up. Your daughter's dowry hangs by a bolt of silk in the hull. Another bolt shortened to stitch up the corpse.") This sort of hop, skip, and jump of imagery is emblematic of her work. At its best, it's a fascinating and intriguing collage of images and emotions. At lesser moments, it is a murky jumble of pictures as if the poem slipped out of the poet's grasp at a critical moment.
"Singing Enough to Feel the Rain" by Linda Gregg
from The Sacraments of Desire, Graywolf 1991
[Friday, Nov 14th]
Gregg is also emotional. But in her case, the emotion is as finely honed as the poems themselves. She is also perhaps the most personal poet of the three. Her poems slip seamlessly between the eternal and the immediate, the global and the intimate. ("I am alone writing as quickly as I can, dulled by being awake at four in the morning. Between the past and the future, without a life, writing on the line I walk between death and youth, between having and loss.")
The poems here never escape her grasp. They do, at times, cleave so closely to her personal life (or that of her persona) that they are hard to decipher for an outsider. But they are always under control. And even if the details are confusing (e.g. "I am far from there in a hurry not to miss the joining" There where? Joining what?) the poems' momentum usually carries you over these gaps.
"Painkillers" by Thom Gunn
from Collected Poems, Farrar Straus & Giroux 1994
[Saturday, Nov 15th]
For those who don't know, I was born in England. When I was six my family moved to the US, which is where I grew up. As is often the case in situations like this, I had a fascination with my "homeland" and when I got interested in poetry in college, I read both American poets and contemporary English poets. This was unfortunate because I didn't like most of the English writers I encountered, including Thom Gunn. (I won't go into it here, but in general I find modern English poets are -- for all their rebelliousness -- still slaves to their literary past far more than American writers.)
So why do I have this book? I suspect I thought I'd give Gunn another try. But I haven't got very far with it. The fact is, I don't think these poems are written for me. There is too much tell and not enough show. This might be a peculiarly American aesthetic. If so, so be it. Besides, for all the talking, I find the ideas in these poems trite. ("What was the pain / he needed to kill / if not the ultimate pain / of feeling no pain?") Just not my kind of thing.
"Nervous Collapse" by Paul Hannigan
from Holland and the Netherlands, Pym-Randall 1970
[Sunday, Nov 16th]
Hannigan is perhaps the most underrated, unread American poet of the past 50 years. His poems are a perfect mix of reality, absurdity, and wonder. I have been meaning to write about him at more length, but find it hard to be objective -- I am that fond of his work.
I was sorry to hear recently that Hannigan died in 2006. He left a relatively small body of work: a handful of books and a smattering of poems in magazines. I can only hope someone puts the effort into organizing a volume of collected poems. It would be one of the best books you've ever read.
Currently, his books are all out of print. But they are well worth the effort and cost needed to find them. Holland and the Netherlands is my favorite. A small, almost perfect volume. I'll close by quoting the poem of the day, just to give a taste for those who have never encountered Hannigan's work before:
All the nerves collapse
All the body does a little
Nerveless dance. This is not so bad.
This is not bad at all.
In comparison to the Eiffel Tower
This is wonderful
"#20 (The mushrooms helped again...)" by Jim Harrison
from Letters to Yesenin, Sumac Press 1973
[Monday, Nov 18th]
Harrison is a great antidote to too many "literary" poems. Unfortunately, he is well aware of this and sometimes plays it to the hilt. He is not as anti-literary as he puts on. Still, his writing is refreshingly brash and straightforward.
"The star king makes cut after cut..." by Bob Heman
from 12 Prose Poems, Clown War Press 1976
[Tuesday, Nov 17th]
These prose poems are in the late American surrealist mode, in the style of James Tate, Russell Edson, etc. And Heman has studied his form. These poems are well structured and each comes to a tidy conclusion. But ultimately, there is no real meaning here and far too much imagery used simply for the shock value (homosexuality, incest, cutting flesh, etc.) That, plus the fact that the language used is just not interesting, makes this a pretty dismal book.
[Personal business interrupted my reading this month, so I will finish the post here. --Andrew]