Friday, July 23, 2004

Well, the question as to whether I will actually devote a chapter of my dissertation to the Language poets remains open. I certainly appreciate the feedback I've been getting, though—and more than that, I appreciate how the stakes get raised when one contemplates scholarship on living writers. The stakes are highest of all, of course, for myself as a living writer. If I've become fixated on pastoral as the eccentric lens through which to read modernist and postmodernist poetry, it's largely because of my own attractions to the genre and my insisting on its possibility as a site of mediation between aesthetic and political impulses. We shall see.

And now for something completely different: I'm reading and getting a big kick out of Lytle Shaw's The Lobe here at The Bookery tonight. Shaw happens to be an Ithaca native, and he specializes in masking high literary comedy in low blows; or perhaps it's the other way around. There's a painful edge to some of the humor, because many of the poems imply questions about readers: who are they? Do they want this? How about this? Both reader and writer are occasionally cast into the pose of an Augustan literary man, comically distanced from possibilities for real dignity by our actual 21st century context:
Some Critical Exercises

Consider carefully the men busy reviving a woman collapsed by a fire they've built beneath a rock, then pronounce this one of the best composed scenes of the salon.

Reprimand if you must, but save a choice morsel for the Baron and his slumped, work-suited helpers.

Tap your cane sharply against the polished marble.

Purse your lips while uttering the letter O, leaving your mouth open an awkwardly long time, then recline into the bean-bag chair.

Smirk at his malapropism, but mind your own words with a heightened vigilance.

Pass the hookah and recite a naval yarn.

The Spaniard is on horseback, he occupies most of the canvas.

Poor little one, how intense, how thoughtful is your pain!
This is delightful and squirm-inducing all at once, as is the poem that follows (you'll have to content yourselves with the title: "Some Failed 18th Century Jacket Blurbs"). What saves the book from being mere highfalutin' hijinks (which I don't mean to disparage; I could still enjoy a book like that, ideally in the form of a leatherbound mass-market paperback) is how much of the recognizable (or recognizably strange) world Shaw crams into it. Somehow he makes the pomo collage of one poem, "My Mother Would Be on Falcon Crest" facing pages with another poem called "Fragments and Aphorisms for Holderlin" seem fresh again; it's the matter-of-fact furniture of our lives posed agasint the matter-of-fact shag carpet of cultural studies. (He can do this in a single poem title: "Dude Looks Like the Portrait of a Lady.") Not the least of this poetry's pleasures is its musical sense of wit, captured in this six-liner (the middle poem in a series of six-liners):
From the Couch

Pool man escalates turf slide
out back of bread edge pile.
Lay back and limn it.
A hose in the greens, magazine
gloss to Continental hood:
May I speak to the helper of the house?
This reads like riding a waterslide, jumping between alliterative peaks of t and b and splashing through the een rhyme to its assonantal conclusion. But you don't lose sight of the social content of these poems, almost always a self-implicating critique of bourgeois norms or cultural circles (we have met the literati and it is us). If an avant-garde artist is one who wants to close the gap between art and life, but who thereby runs the risk of losing the perspective that makes him or her an artist, Shaw succeeds by leaping right into the gap and discovering all of us already in there with him. The Lobe is good company.

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