Friday, February 18, 2005

Another literally rending etymological excursion from Jasper Bernes: thanks, Jasper. Scarifying stuff, again literally: to read this is to read what we've written on others and therefore our selves, Penal Colony-style.

Also been thinking about two recent posts by Laurel on the subject of "the mainstream" and "accessibility"—two words which make me wince just because they're so often used as blunt instruments to cudgel those of us whose sense of Outward is tied more to our own instincts (instincts we can't help but claim universality for) than to an empirically determinable audience. In other words, we collapse Gertrude Stein's infamous remark, "I write for myself and for strangers" into "I write for myself and therefore for strangers"—including, maybe especially, the strangers we are to ourselves. But Laurel doesn't mean to use these terms as weapons. I think it's a mistake to describe "mainstream" verse as a style: for me it's more a mode of organization or means of production, one that is more or less in harmony with other modes of cultural production (movies, the music business, TV, etc.) For me, "mainstream" is less a question of style than who authorizes the writing: if it's anyone who isn't the author him- or herself (i.e., self-publishing), or a voluntaristic community of producers/consumers (a "school," "circle," group, etc.), then that's mainstream. According to that definition, I myself am very much a mainstream writer, since I submit work to journals, book contests, etc. It's only through this blog, through critical writing generally, and through my teaching work that I've made a serious attempt to seize the means of production and by so doing to actively create an audience for my own writing and the context I want that writing to appear in. The question of "sincere personal content" does not, for me, define where a poem sits on the mainstream-avant continuum. Much of the work of all five of my Grood Younger Poets is crammed to bursting with sincere personal content. What sets it apart from, say, the personal content in this Sharon Olds poem is the poet's attitude toward the personal and the context(s) he or she recognizes and creates for it. Olds' poem suffocates me with the intensity of her self-regard: this isn't because of its subject matter (the ill-fated meeting of the poet's parents), though that might seem egoistical enough, but the formal decisions she makes (a melodramatic use of anaphora, pile-ups of rather ordinary adjectives, etc.) and what I might call the poem's "high-conceptness." What if I could choose to warn my parents not to get married, not to beget me? The poem's basic premise is pure Hollywood; it's dripping with sentimentality. In spite of its sepia tones (don't you just love the photo someone's inserted at the top of the page?) it's a poem bereft of history, either in the macro sense (historical events) or in the logopoetic sense (the words' sense of their own history, which in this poem might have manifested as a consciousness of cliche). Now I do find some of Olds' poems to be interesting and effective because they manifest the presence of the (female, aging) body in ways that engage the larger social-historical world: they confront us with our discomfort about sexuality, mortality, and the feminine. But mostly I object to the way her high-concept "personal content" overwhelms language—which is where the news I go to get from poems resides—and the poem as a whole presents me with a slack transparency through which I see nothing but a slightly icky story. And a mere story presented without vigorous, compressed, memorable (and in the sense of history I mentioned above, "memoryable") language ain't a poem.

As for the question of accessibility, I rather like Laurel's two-layer model: "We can call them the physical and the cranial, or the sensual and the academic, or whatev." But I'm not clear as to which layer Laurel would assign the "story" of a poem to. There's nothing "sensual" about narrative as such: it's just the most easily accessible handle by which we grasp a piece of writing. Having once grasped it by that handle, however, it's damn hard to look at it from any other angle. For me the sensual or physical experience of a poem is in the words: their sound first, then the images they conjure, and then the network of references they call up: melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. (Though prior to any of this is the situation I encounter the poem in: is it in a small press book or chapbook, a magazine unfamiliar to me, somebody's blog, in a textbook, etc. I can't and don't see the point in attempting to "bracket" the situation a particular piece of writing is embedded in.) As far as my personal taste goes, I don't think it's much different from Laurel's: I am more attracted to and take more immediate pleasure in poetry with a sensual surface. It's true that I'm often fascinated by poetry that goes "straight for the head" but even this poetry has an outer layer surface, however scuffed or inadqueate, and if I don't see it I'm quicker to blame myself than the poem. A poem of pure surface is almost impossible to imagine: the underlayer may not be discernible in the words, but clues are available in the situation of encounter I just mentioned. Still, the poems that I love the most tend to offer me both a rich aural surface and a chewy intellectual center, which together have the power to make me care about the sincere personal content. It's the whole package, not any one of its elements, that moves me and makes the poem memorable.

A poet from Omaha, Nebraska named Steve Langan sent me a chapbook of his, Notes on Exile & Other Poems, that won the 2004 Weldon Kees Award of The Backwaters Press. It's kind of badly designed, physically (the title of each poem and the book's title is superimposed behind the text on every page) but I like the poems a lot: aphoristic, dream-like, with a gentle urgency and "humorous sadness." "Alternate Endings (to a Red and Gray Book)" is in there and here's the poem on the facing page, which is a magnificent re-inscription of religious anxiety:
After John Donne

God, reconsider.

Earth is an interruption
of the epic dream.

Planets drift and sway.

To a bear, a grizzly,
earth is a tomb.

Some say it is also a weapon
"or could be fashioned as such."

Hello, common beasts.

Welcome, spools of glass
twined to the gravel.


A present given to me
by an inspired night watchman.

This not inexpensive watch.

So eerie, he kept telling us
about the "disassembled sky."

Constellations white as weeping.

While staring, we stood listening
under the gray awning.
That "inspired night watchman" seems like a more benign version of the gatekeeper in Kafka's great parable Before the Law: the confrontation with that which stops us from seizing our own truth, our own weeping. That's sincere personal content that gives me enough room to discover it. I feel that not just my intelligence but my personal space is respected by such a poem. It doesn't need to grab me by the lapels to fix me with its glittering eye. Nice work, Steve.

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