Thursday, March 5, 2020


Someone recently tossed out the coffee mug I kept at work, a cracked and infirm piece of pottery that had seen better days and superior cups of coffee than the foul brew that fills the break room with a the aroma of soggy scorched grounds. I didn't, though, mourn a bit, did not muse with tortuously extended metaphors over what the loss represented symbolically, was not , generally, willing to attempt the ironic connection between the manufacturing process and region of origin with ego-political concerns that are relevant, it seems, in another conversation.

What I thought was that crap, my cup is gone, dirty and cracked as it was, someone tossed my private property, it was mine, ugly and gross as it had become, it was my cup and it was my coffee that would have been in it on the fifteen minute break I am allowed by law but no, I am denied that, I am without coffee and now I have to go to the machine in the hallway and drink something less savory than the brackish blend our staff coffee pot contains. And that was it; my concern was local, not global, my solution was to move on to the next indicated thing, getting coffee from the machine and some minor-key grousing, not, shall we say, writing a paean to a cup that is, when all is said in done, only a material stand in for other matters, global and personal, that poet Michael Ryan can drum up in the composing of his poem "Mug".
There is a sense that Ryan wants to offer up a concentrated rant of a kind, an Albert Barth style tirade (or offer a tribute to John Ashbery with an investigation of how his mind associates the present world with the chambers of history the mind stores in so many sequestered boxes) in miniature, but even here this poem swells with literary bloat. Nothing sounds natural; there is no comic timing, no pauses for effect. There is the padded vocabulary of winking sarcasm that hides a contempt for the whole subject matter of ownership and the constructed ironies contained in the concept with grandiloquence , the hollow elegance of someone writing until a good line appears. All told, Michael Ryan would have done better by reducing this poem to something much sparser, nearly skeletal.Better to leave the bloggy-asides out of the poem, I think, and leave the reader something truly tactile, visual and genuinely provocative as a result. The poem has lots of one liners, but lacks a single idea we can walk away with.


Michael Ryan admires Emily Dickens, it appears, but there’s nothing in his poem“My Young Mother” that comes near the compressed internalization the Amherst mistress created with her jump-cut , cat- footed leaps between ideas. Dickens, for sure, was a writer one stayed with, labored over, argued with in terms of the uncompromising nature of the style and then and only then grasped her cadences and the burrowing revelations they contained; one was rewarded as well with a stinging wit that was properly lacerating once it was released from it’s coded sheath.

There are, to say the least, considerable rewards for the close inspection of her unusual diction and involuted construction. Ryan fares much less trying to write with a suggestion of her style—it’s the subject for emulation that is the least likely to produce interesting results—and where Dickens had the skill to keep one guess, unsure, strung along as to what her point would be or what it was that might be revealed (the peculiar joy of Dickens is the teasing, the delayed gratification), Ryan’s poem confesses his meanings and intents readily. There is no suspense in the game here, nothing that caste a different light on memories that are clear but clouded somehow with intervening events. There is, instead, a mannered and stiff rendering of a childhood memory I can’t help but think unfolds from Ryan with too much detail, 

What she couldn't give me
she gave me those long nights
she sat up with me feverish
and sweating in my sleep
when I had no idea whatsoever
what she had to do to suffer
the pain her body dealt her
to assuage the pain in mine.

The writing is too fussed-over, the particulars too polished, the narrative constructed in such a way that one knows that there is a punch line coming by the usual literary routes.Ryan continues an argument he seems to have been having with his mother over the years and finds himself in the grasp of swooning revelation that a handy device has landed at his feet to aid him in bringing a coherent (if game footed) line to his left over recollection. He senses his mother resents her requirement to remain with her sick child but remains so through an instilled sense of obligation and duty, instincts she likewise resents.

That was a noble privacy—
her mothering as a practice of patience—
how deeply it must have stretched her
to watch me all night with her nerves
crying for rest while my fever
spiked under the washcloths
she passed between my forehead
and her dishpan filled with ice.

Ryan attempts a feint her with the last stanza, doing as Dickens does by at first seeming to address a subject in a way that suggests a praising tone , and then , against expectation,turn to the other extreme , although in Dickens case, the “other extreme” wasn’t extreme in the writing, but rather swiftly, deftly, ingeniously offered. The effect was of someone changing their mind about someone or something, but credibly so, with some evidence visible from the argument the speaker had advanced in their initial praise of the subject. Ryan’s attempt to address a darker side of what he’s set up in the previous stanza , the conspicuously moldy conceit of the Sainted Mother, is ham handed at best, and bizarre.

That was a noble privacy,
but even then there was so much
unsayable between us,
and why this was now looks so
ludicrous in its old costume of shame
that I wish not that she had just
said it but that I hadn't been
so furious she couldn't.

We find now that he resents his mother because she was putting her child before her own needs and desires and that she did so without protest, but that the child Michael was sensitive enough, aware enough at the time that she was disguising her true feelings, was, in a sense, being false with him and now he has the lingering simmer of a resentment that she couldn’t speak to him , mother to child. There are those folks in various twelve step programs who “get stuck at the fourth step”, the writing of a fearless and searching moral inventory of themselves where one’s foul deeds, resentments, traumas and what have you are written out with a brutal honesty , the goal being that one may face their demons (to risk a cliché) and work through those matters that impede their progress.

The goal is progress, to move on and make a life for oneself that’s worth living, not to assign blame to those who’ve beset you with life-hobbling “issues”. But there are those many who continue to dig for bones in the backyard and continue to contrive new odious scenarios from scant fragments; it basically turns these people’s lives into conspiracy theories where forces have aligned to make one’s life a punishment. Ryan sounds like he’s stuck on some matters that he would have been better ridding himself of once and for all; the point of an inventory is for an enterprise to rid itself of goods that cannot be sold if it is to remain a going concernExaggeration often times benefits a poem , and in fact that is often the point of engaging in this peculiar form, but Ryan doesn't make me want to suspend my disbelief or to dissociate my sensibilities precisely because the thinly constructed and blatantly contrived nature of the punchline,which was the supposedly stultifying effects of his mother's care for him. The poem is whining, really, the sort of who can't help but feel ennobled by their self-diagnosed dysfunction. It's an easy way to give your life a narrative arc, an originally source, from which a limitless flow of causes and effects can be writ, most of pat and phony. “My Young Mother” seems to be an example of someone inventing evidence that he’d been done a foul deed; the result is an awkward and ludicrously reasoned poem. Some things can only be written off when all is done , and as someone who manages bookstores, the ridding oneself finally of what cannot be made good use is a relief.the tone of Ryan's poem is weepy and woe-is-me, and my experience in the programs I alluded to in my initial post has presented me with those for whom their issues, whether alcoholism, drug addiction, codependency or child abuse, is a form of identity politics. There is a power in the brand, as it gives one a world view and provides license for one to rummage through their past and invent further originating sources of their dismaying existence. It might well be that Ryan intended anaha! in all this, that something is revealed, but what I take to be an unsettled issue keeps him on the fence in the form of the equivocating language he selects. It remains in dysfunction; if the matter here was settled Ryan would have the instinct to offer up a portrait of a "fully formed man" that would have resulted from his struggles. But he doesn't, and the poem ends only with the feeling that this is a man who can become weepy because he chooses to be so.

Monday, March 2, 2020


Poets dream about writing poems about moonlight , still waters , vapor escaping from a yawning mouth on a cold night , love that will not reciprocate no matter the intensity or rigidity of your yearning and, I wager, writing poems about poems besides said still waters, under said moonlight. You write about what you know about, so goes the advice, and it often seems that all the poet knows about is his medium and the  mewling, drooling, soft headed language required to fill pages and eventually books with the kind of poetry that is steadfastly unsure in what it wants to say, or at least get at.

 It is, however, not a situation isolated to the New Yorker, as it is a habit of mind that filters through the versifying consciousness regardless of politics, preference, or where the poet thinks they are in the relative standards of quality. Save for the few instances where the habit results in a brilliant gem of cadenced self-reflection, it is the worst sort of navel gazing, to employ a cliché. To employ a fresher simile, it's the drone of a specialist of who cannot talk about anything else. Poets are supposed to have mastered their craft and then enter the world. Too many of the writers that find sanctuary in the journals have reversed the process. I am not against difficulty, I am not in favor of dumbing- down poems in order to attract larger readerships, and I don't think the non-specialist reader insist, as a class, that poets have their wear as unadorned as sports writing. The gripe is against the poet who cannot get away from making Poetry their principal subject matter, by name.  Not that each poem about poetry is, by default, wretched; there are bright and amazing reflexive verses indeed, but they are the exception to the rule, the rule being that a medium that ponders it's own form and techniques and ideological nuances too long becomes tediously generic. The problem, it seems to me, is that some writers who haven't the experiences or materials to bring to draw from will wax on poetry and its slippery tones as a way of coming to an instant complexity. Rather than process a subject through whatever filters and tropes they choose to use and arrive at a complexity that embraces the tangible and the insoluble, one instead decides to study the sidewalk they're walking on rather on where it is they were going in the first place.  

I rather love ambiguity, the indefinite, the oblique, the elusive, and I do think poetry can be ruthlessly extended in it's rhetorical configuration to encompass each poet's voice and unique experience; the complexity I like, though, has to be earned, which is to say that I would prefer poets engage the ambivalence and incongruities in a sphere recognizable as the world they live in. First there was the word, we might agree. But those words helped us construct a reality that has a reality of its own, and I am more attracted to the writer who has tired of spinning their self-reflectivity tires and goes into that already-strange world and field test their language skills. 

Wallace Stevens, perhaps the most beautifully oblique poet America has produced, can be said to have written poems about poems, but I think that misses the point. Our latter day mainstream reflexives  are enamored  of the their own broad readings and wind up standing outside of poetry  thinking they have a better idea to what a poem should be. The concern isn’t the poem, but the abstraction, an inversion that has the erudition outsmarting the inspiration. Stevens was smart enough to familiarize himself with the philosophical propositions regarding the problems associated with the world we see and the world as-is; his genius was that he created a metaphorical systems that could deal with poetics-as-subject and still give us something beautiful and wholly musical.

 I am beginning to suspect that the problem might not be that poets are writing too many poems about poetry--the tradition for the bard to reflect on his craft and his relevance is very long established in world literary history--but that of the tendency of editors to select or solicit these sorts of works. If one looks further into the works of the New Yorker poets cited in the story, one would notice that they respectively manage to engage life outside their craft ; the body of work is not always the excluding, suffocating lone idea as it may seem here. Editors, I am tending to think, need to be more open ended as to the subject matter they consider suitable for the magazines or journals they write for.