Friday, April 24, 2020

confess I was in love with my adjectives, metaphors and unhinged diction when I was a younger man attempt to write in the shadow of the Eliots, the Ashberys, the Stevens of the poetry world. Needless to say (but to be said anyway) I wrote a great deal of poems that could be blue penciled into submission, as many, many of the things I composed were done on the fly, in full improvisational rant. Most of us are lucky enough to survive and learn from their youthful indulgence, and my preference in tone , for my work, is to more concise, terser , more direct in my treatment of the world. It's an ongoing experiment in phenomenological terrorism, but we can conclude that my later offerings seeks to get back to the data, the situation under a poem's consideration. 

One longs for something to come from their keyboard that's less abstract and more at one with the material realm, a project destined to fail--one cannot step outside their own skin to observe oneself in their habitual habitat--but it is the attempts that are worth considering, pondering, it is the art that adds to our knowledge of the things we don't know. For others, of course, poetry is a means to classify and categorize and index people, places and things; it is a means to conquer the world and reduce to quantifiable data. Poetry here is means of missing the point entirely.
Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean.
One needs to admit to Anthony Hecht's mastery of the carefully articulated tone of his work , and appreciate as well the limits he observes when constructing correlatives between interior states with the material world. Not pompous, not grandiloquent, not bombastic, Hecht's poem "Despair" finds a way to make the sluggishness of the human spirit resemble the turns of the day--

Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.
The adjectives are perfectly selected and fitted like the smaller, finer diamonds in a larger arrangement of vaguely tarnished gems, with the intent being to remind you, I suspect, that more often than not one has found themselves caught unaware that the warm afternoon has taken on a sudden chill in just the minutes it took for the sun to take a late afternoon shift of position. It does just that, but it seems a bit false; the perception seems padded by the slightest degree.

But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.
What I recognize over anything else is a world that seems to exist only for it's elements--an Edward Hopper universe of subdued tones, melancholic hues and diffuse light-- to illustrate a mood that itself seems more imagined, fanciful. The language eschews the chance to be vivid and naked with the sadness it attempts to corral and instead decorates the psychology. Phrases like "Washes the bank of a dry arroyo" or"To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine" ,  hang lifeless like waiting room art that is nebulous and comforting; the real experience is abstracted, obscured, defused of potential. This makes me think less of an accounting of what one has felt and found suitable expression for than it is a rumor of something having happened . This is the kind of language one comes upon with someone who has something on their mind they aren't comfortable exposing to an honest art. Measured, well crafted, balanced, similes and metaphors synchronized , but without a single provocative notion. You're left to admire the structure of the thing, the finesse of the inner mechanisms, and leave the poem without a hint of real feeling.

A little guilt mongering is just what you need to deliver several stanzas of applause ready morality. Anthony Hecht loves to bask in the glow of Points Already Made.The idea seems to be that even with the advance of decades since a horrific event, later generations still bear a moral responsibility for atrocities committed in their country's name; one cannot consider themselves excluded from the fatal commotion that had come before--there is no statute of limitations as to when no longer carries the blood stains and the culturally inscribed rationalizations that made the murder of millions a massive event performed both for the greater good and a fulfillment of an historical inevitability. There is no generational privilege; whatever one tries to do in occupation, hobbies, lifestyle, the routines of contemporary life, on grand and smaller scales, echo the terror, whisper of one's connection to the evil that was perpetuated, implies without subtlety one's responsibility to change the culture to the true nature of a collective personality that made the unthinkable an historical fact we must confront. 

Prepare to receive him in your home some day:
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal. 
This ending is straight from the Twilight Zone, which would have been fine if this were an early sixties television show emphasizing a then-controversial Humanist perspective. Controversial ideas, though, are mainstreamed over time, and this poem seems to occupy a space on the shelve of Subjects No Sane Person Would Argue With.
Hecht, though, is heavy handed in this delivery of what is history lesson and moral that would make for an easy round of applause; one can't argue with his politics or his sense of morality, but the parallelism he uses goes quickly from being an effective device to a trick used a few times too many. As with some other poems of his I've poured over, there is a smugness in his work I find grating, even on points I would otherwise agree without pause or reservation. Hand wringing is what occurs to me, a routinely glum observation that humans are fully capable of being evil , despicable bastards, and that the people who make such monstrosities possible are likewise horrible. This would make a fine speech,but it makes for a poem that wears it's morality like a loud suit of clothes , clashing and garish colors that obscure substance. 

There's a clue in the Martin Luther quote Hecht uses as an epigraph, ,Martin Luther’s translation of John 19:7 (“We have a law, and by that law he ought to die.”)An ironic counter point, I think, given the discussion that's already go on ; Luther believed in a higher order and a Higher Law , and was inspired to disregard Papal rule in pursuit of what he considered God's true nature and calling. Laws are written for the convenience of man's convenience, greed and fouler purpose, and the laws the ancient Jews obeyed to justify Christ's crucifixion, as well as the legal and moral right Nazi's claimed for their genocide were cruel, thin fictions that collapsed under historical weight. Hecht seems to want to set us for how consistently small minded we are in our variety of evasions and excuses for the horror we've done; the poem, obviously, reminds the reader that we cannot escape what we've done to one another; my problem with the poem isn't the moral, but the delivery in general--hammering, heavy, lecturing. It's a message without grace . 

A large part of his problem may have been his choice of writing this as a sestina, which limits variety.He's obliged by requirement to repeat phrase and idea in conspicuous variations that extinguish the possibility of surprise. Good poets work through their metaphors and themes so that a premise they begin evolves into something larger later in the work--a reader, when the poems are successful, gets an idea of how ideas are not fixed things, unchanging, but rather change when made to interact with a crucial "otherness" that coincides a verse's codified vernacular. There can be, I think, some playfulness in the language that can make even the most baleful subject stick with you without cramming your face deep into the moralizing. Hecht's choice of sestina, though, coincides with intent. He obviously didn't want his audience to miss his intended ironies an

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975 by Robert Creeley
There's a collection of verse by a great American Poet, Selected Poems 1945-2005 by the late Robert Creeley, and I'm obliged to go out and buy it. My paperback editions of his books are, sad to say, falling apart with that rare affliction for poetry volumes, poetry books with a cracked spine.It's a fine time to remember Creeley's mastery of the terse lyric poem, a major characteristic in a time when "lyric"for most writers mean lazy associations, odd line breaks and a verbosity that is more about extended a line than treating a subject.


What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not - but still
not chanted enough -

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory -
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness -
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
"Taught them not this -
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . ." 

Robert Creeley's poetry was the terse vocabulary of a man who feels deeply and yet has hardly a voice to equal the sensations that warm or chill his soul. It is the poetry that exists at the margins of and in the spaces between the huge language blocks of what is commonly deferred to as eloquence: they are thoughts, full formed and fleeting in their unmediated honesty of a first response to a new things or upsets, a poetry where heart and mind have no natural boundaries.


America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.

Let the sun shine again
on the four corners of the world

you thought of first but do not
own, or keep like a convenience.

People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term.

Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back

what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.

I sometimes consider the poet to be a film editor of perception, isolating key images and spoken lines in their spaces and arranging them in sweet and near silent succession where mood and sentiment are restrained but clearly present, nakedly expressed, without embarrassment.The surprise of his poems is that he seems to bring you to the "thing itself", without the contextualizing and taming rhetorics that buffer our responses; this is his ability to move you in ways that never feel like coarse manipulation. Creeley's was a vision with sharp-stick wit, the straightest line to a truth no one will admit seeing.

Thomas Gunn called it a "eloquent stammering." I can't think of a better superlative.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Kevin Young

The poem Elegy, Father's Day by Kevin Young,is nothing less than a low-rise building under construction, bare girders and preliminary piping through which a stiff wind blows. That's the point, I suppose, a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring , the placement of windows so it can finally resemble something useful. Kevin Young's terms on on that stiff wind, bringing to mind the Hollywood cliche , the stock scene when some one's career is in the tank: a newspaper with their name on it shown being blown down the street, crumbled up, into the gutter. Kevin Young's scaled fragments seem part of a set of memories that are no longer whole:

From above, baseball diamonds look
even more beautiful, the pitcher's mound

a bright cataract.
The river wavers

its own way—see
where once it snaked.

Shine me like a light.

Ladies & Gentlemen, we are flying
just above turbulence.

The roads like centipedes,
their flailing feet.

How many, thousands,
to fall.

Below, parcels & acres blur
like family plots.

100 knots.

Cities bright
in the blinding dawn.

In Superman Returns, the Big Blue Guy tells Lois Lane at one point that he can hear everything that's being said, and from there the movie turns into a computer generated montage of swirled and confusing images and bits of conversation, the inane mixed with the desperate.One is meant to believe, apparently, that part of what makes Superman super is his ability to make sense to find what is meaningful and worth paying attention to out of the roiling , bubbling babble and so save humanity. Although I lack Superman's heightened finesse in detecting the important matters in the sediment of streaming babble, there's nothing here to catch my ear, no voice, or voices that are uttering anything of interest. The fault isn't with these things and the associations they might have for Young, it is Young's fault for not making them interesting.

This makes me think that nothing more was being done other than staring out the window for a long time waiting for something poetic to traipse by, to blow by, to drive by, that a sequence of minor events might become a narrative unity. It all does, no doubt, in Young's explanations for the poem and the guided tour he can offer us stanza by stymied stanza, but this poem, as it tries to breath and not fall apart in a the noisy terrain Young placed it in , is a species of Found Art. But where an hose fire hose nozzle , a bottle cap or a tarnished Gulf sign have visual design properties that in themselves are interesting enough and can draw associations from an audience's respective recollections of their own history, Young's phrases are not special enough, are not uniquely mysterious to make one curious to what thinking lies behind the slight writing.

All told, this piece is more gesture wherein he shows us who he's been reading but misses the point of their stylistics.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020


George Oppen
We’ve been reading Michael Davidson’s superb anthology of George Oppen’s verse, Collected Poems, forcing me to the keyboard to ponder some connection with Wallace Stevens . with whom he shares an obsession with how the human personality tries to speak to those things that will never let themselves be revealed.The massive solitude in Oppen's work, wholly devoid of Romantic despair, seems an intrinsic part of his recognition that the Earth itself can never be known.Oppen is connected to Wallace Stevens, I think, in that there is awareness that language has the habit of taking on the personality and delusions of the speaker and thus disguises nature, "reality" under layers of wordy assumptions that miss the mark of the mystery of experience. Stevens, though, exults in his search and wonder, and views the finalizing that eludes him as occasion for joy, wonder, a reason to intensify one's attention on the very nature of being in the world; Stevens thinks it enough for the witness to be staggered by the realization that existence is absent of final, metaphysically fixed perimeters, and that one should relish the more profound miracles in the details of their own senses.

Oppen comes to know his loneliness, and there is in his work some longing for old myths that gave comfort to a restless mind. Oppen, though, denies the lure of nostalgia and presses forward on some path that has an end only beyond his own death, that language will be restored to it's ability to correctly assess the world and ourselves in it, and avail us with some ideas of assembling a world that operates on good acts and deeds and not a high rhetoric that amounts to sighing, whimpering and casual bad faith, in Oppen's estimation.I'd be interested to hear your ideas regarding Oppen's path that leads beyond his own death, as that seems alien to his poetry, at least as far as it refers to poetry.A bad habit of mine is to use dramatic language when I'm the full boil of writing, so forgive me for possible vagueness and overstatement. I am thinking , of course, of Oppen's leftist politics and his association with what's come to be called the Objectivist movement, spearheaded by Louis Zukofsky, and whose members, as such, included Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, with older American modernists such as W.C. Williams and Pound having close affiliations with this loosely defined group of writers.In the broadest sense, Objectivist writers, following Zukofsky's lead, developed styles that evolved from Imagism, but sought to come up with a kind of unblinkered epic poetry that wasn't hampered the symbolic obscurantism. The idea was to write, according the poet's personality, a verse that presents concrete things and realities not for the purpose of making them mere props for some metaphorical system whose results wind up with dead tropes and forgone conclusions that reaffirm only bad faith, but rather gloried in those things and their uniqueness.
Zukofsky, along with Charles Olson, sought to expand the aesthetic into the social areas, the geographical, into areas the names of which define us in relation to nature and the world humans build within it. Where a modernist like Pound (as opposed to Stevens) sought to legitimize the poet as an insurmountable authority on the exactness of nature and meaning and hence establishing him or her as an arbiter of Power, Oppen's wanted to use his poetics to make the discerning habit of mind, the ability to use language in unsentimental ways, to the general population. This would have been his ultimate gift of love, and there is a tone in his writing that I get, sometimes, that he is aware that such revolutions are started in one's lifetime but often not finished. I've no doubt that he wished that what started as a preferred compositional practice would grow into a self-renewing alignment of the population's right-sized perception of itself within Nature. Some of that loneliness might as a result abate. Zukofsky, Oppen and the work of the Objectivist Poets, as such, are a huge influence on the work of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, whose ranks include that charged inversions,reversals and redirected practice of Ron Silliman, Rae Armentrout, Bob Perelman, and Michael Davidson himself. It's a stretch to refer to these poets as a school or movement at all, which is why I preface the remark with the tired qualifier "In the broadest sense...."
These poets come at time when the American modernists were getting older and their ideas had been assimilated by a younger generation. The poets share some similar attitudes regarding poetic language and the quest for unassailable truth, but calling them a coherent movement is a stretch, as you say; literary critics, needing to classify styles and writers, pounced on "Objectivism" as a the term to use, and in fact wrote the manifesto, in the form of their varied systematized remarks, that Zukofsky et al never got around to composing. The poets were off into the American wilderness, distinct in style, attack, voice. Oppen's attraction to the general attitude with the Objectivists, to compose a phonologically responsible poetry, is understandable, but his personality and his style are his own, after the association. It might also be said that Oppen's poetry is the best of this generation of writers
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, unlike what's been called Objectivistism, was an actual poetry movement, replete with manifestos, several anthologies, and an intimidating backlog of criticism and commentary by the poets themselves addressing what are conspicuously shared ideas and aims, stated succinctly as this: the theme of Language poetry is language.It was an inevitable development, I'd guess, coming out of the Sixties new left affiliations, and riding in along the tide of structuralist -inspired art where making a consume aware of the art's own mechanisms and intentions, was a common card to play; along with the writings of Ron Sukenic, Barthelme, and the films of Godard and Snow, Language Poets seemed to think that exposing the mechanics of syntax and grammar would make readers aware of how they're being manipulated.
Not a bad idea, perhaps, but it's something that expressed whatever was interesting it had rather quickly. Lately, it seems more a strong addition to a poet's resume so they can acquire an academic position. Not surprisingly, there are younger student poets who've been seduced into this style, and one prays they move from the semi-Marxist psycholinguistic braying of that peculiar school and find their own voice, through which they can trust the authority of their senses