Sunday, February 28, 2021

WILLIAM BRONK

 

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World
William Bronk

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.


Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space. 


William Bronk is a good companion poet to read along with Wallace Stevens, as both concerned themselves with our ideas of a world unspoiled by skewed perception. Both were poets you could imagine walking among their gardens and cities of perfect forms, the ideal types and not the inferior, material imitations, chancing some thoughts beyond the gravity of the actual planet.

Helen Vendler asserts in her review of new "Selected Poems" that Stevens disguised his true hurts and sorrows with symbolism, merging his high, English inspired cadences with a Yankee's habit of plain speak. His was a seamlessly expressed struggle between the ideal relationships among things or the ideas of things finding harmony among their distinct qualities, and the tense world he must return to. He was a vice president of an insurance company, after all, an institution designed to protect and amend the quirky happenstance between gravity and clumsy people.

Bronk, in contrast, seems to be in one world who is constantly thinking of the other, and here suggests that it is our ability to coin words or vary our linguistic references to known, quantified qualities that recreates our world constantly, in terms of a musical score, with beats, rhythm, a narrative line that flows or gets jagged according to the tone each moment might take. And it is that skill, developed through various layers of frustrating experience and states of monotonous torpor, that we can again think of what we see as too familiar and what we see as alien and strange as intrinsically exciting, full of intrigue, it's own vital elements we can learn about and learn from. We come to think of the world in other words and not by the clinical terms they're assigned by dictionaries. This availed Bronk to see that light in the street he trudged every day, palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in from say, the sea, a purity of space. Our language needs to remain vital and up to the task of re-inscribing conventional experiences, lest we miss the whole point of having senses to begin with.

Friday, February 26, 2021

THE MEAT SECTION STARES BACK AT US

 The small yet dread thought most of must struggle not to give an ear to as we pass the supermarket meat section is exactly how did all those fine sides of beef, ham, chicken, turkey, lamb get to where they are, from animal to shrink wrapped packages kept cool under glass or dangling from hooks, ready to consume. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb among other books, phrased it well in speech I saw him give in the Seventies at an Earth Day rally, declaring that Americans are willfully ignorant of the costs involved in the manufacture of prepared food; as we roll our carts down the aisles, we assumed the shelves "are restocked by God." Ehrlich was speaking of the economic costs and how the waste was straining the resources the planet has to sustain life, but on a less alarming level there is the refusal of many of us to face the truth that animals are killed, slaughtered in cruelly efficient ways in order to speed the delivery of the meat to the grocer shelves at a reasonable for the hope of garnering a reasonable profit. Norman Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, gives an especially focused account on the mechanized brutality afflicted on the gathered cattle to a community can kept and content: 

"Well the smell of the entrails and that agonized blood electrified by all the outer neons of ultimate fear got right into the grit of the stockyard stench. Let us pass over into the carving and the slicing, the boiling and scraping, annealing and curing of the flesh in sugars and honeys and smoke, the cooking of the cow carcass, stamp of the inspector, singeing of the hair, boiling of hooves, grinding of gristle, the wax papering and the packaging, the foiling and the canning, the burning of the residue, and the last slobber of the last unusable guts as it went into the stockyard furnace, and up as stockyard smoke, burnt blood and burnt bone and burnt hair to add their properties of specific stench to fresh blood, fresh entrails, fresh fecalities already all over the air. It is the smell of the stockyards, all of it taken together, a smell so bad one must go down to visit the killing of the animals or never eat meat again. Watching the animals be slaughtered, one knows the human case--no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there. So be it."

Upton Sinclair, before Mailer, wrote about the splattered ugliness of the slaughterhouse in The Jungle, and in both books the point of the acute depictions of grizzly meat processing is to reveal what it is that we are shielded from and what we continually deny , that there is violence, death, what activists would call murder involved in each steak, hamburger and hamburger we buy or make for ourselves, that our feeding on meat to both sustain ourselves and enjoy, as a residual result, as an aesthetic experience, is inextricably linked to death. An old equation, perhaps, a faint point to make , but the intent with Mailer and Sinclair's writing was to connect their readers with the thorough unpleasantness of food production, in short, disabuse them of the idea that where the delicious preparations come from is none of their concern. Disgust was a probable goal, outrage another, all with the hope that a head long stare into the abyss would enable consumers to make better decisions about how they want to live. 

An experience like that does change lives. I was talking to a friend last night about thanksgiving, and he told me about how, as a boy of nine, he went with his parents to aunt and uncle's farm for Thanksgiving and, after being allowed to play around in the farmyard and the barn with his cousins, saw his uncle bring the turkey into the barn, place the neck on a stump like we've seen in cartoons, and lop the creature's head off with an axe. The turkey flailed and ran around a bit before keeling over. That night, my friend said he couldn't eat the chicken. For what it's worth, he became a life long Democrat. 

Kimberly Johnson's poem "Marking the Lambs" fairly much covers this territory, highlighting narrator, sounding as if recovering from a dull shock to the system, recounts the subjugation of the lamb. The effect is something like a camera zooming in with suffocating closeups of struggle,carnage and turmoil, with a narration that itself is distanced and dazed, yet putting together a sequence from the jerking commotion


As crickets geiger-up for spring, we corral

the ram lambs. They stutter and dense against the fence

wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,

down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,

knee to sternum. The banded tail will black

to wizen, prune off easy. But marking is all trespass:

thumb the soft belly to pop the scrotum out, then lunge and turn

the mind away, teeth working, working, to snap back and spit


This voice is fractured, given to half phrases and short bursts of detail, given to obscure and unexplained usages (They stutter and dense against the fence wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,knee to sternum. ) leavened with inner rhymes that rise when the description of the carnage threatens to take on momentum and overwhelm and give the lie to whatever holiday spirit a waiting family used as a pretext to gather together. Johnson, though, does not preach, nor proclaim, nor climb on a soapbox to dispense a moral lesson. The horror, the disgust, the aforementioned outrage, is buried, repressed. What the poem lacks in an obvious explicit philosophical/moral point (which some readers would prefer ) is made up in power, as witness the narrator's attempt to consume and enjoy the flesh of the creature she subjugated and mutilated : 

I try not to taste but I am

all mouth, all salt blood and lanolin. I hear

their bleatings through my tongue. 

The poem is called "Marking the Lambs", a practice not of slaughtering lambs for food but rather a hard scrabble bit of anatomical clipping and slicing to ensure the lamb's health in the production of wool. Johnson,though, makes what I take to be an associative leap and becomes weary with the violence visited upon the meekest of animals. Clothing , food, good times, all enjoyed from the privilged position of uninterest. Awareness of how the pantry and the closet become so well stocked changes our relationship with the things we purchase; we can no longer be nonchalant about it.This had to have the loneliest dinner table this narrator had ever sat at, before a table of ridiculous bounty and a family acting out the spirit of Holiday joy (and I am assuming the poem is inspired by Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons past and present) with the taste and sounds of the sacrificed lamb protesting it's coming demise all too recent and vivid to deny. It's a moment when one realizes that the Great Chain of Being we muse over after hours in cafes or in discussions of vague spirituality is , in fact, a Food Chain, each link unbreakable and forever. 

What we eat comes back to back to be that Thing That's At Us, which we tried to assuage with poems as skilled and powerful as Kimberly Johnson's.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

AMERICA'S MOST UNDERSTOOD POET

 

Sometime back in the Seventies, Dick Cavett introduced the late Rod McKuen on his show by quoting a critic's left-handed compliment regarding the writer's work, "The world's most understood poet. “That was not intended as praise, and anyone in the business of writing what’s regard as serious poetry, whether a runny-nosed Beat or a hardened Modernist , would take a the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticeable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time, but the facts is that fewer people read poetry as consumers of printed books, and fewer still seemed to understand what the new scribes were going on about.

And so, poetry became the new scripture and critics, in a sense, became the new priesthood, discoursing on texts that allow no conventional entry point in terms that were equally cryptic. McKuen dared to be direct, simple in language, easily understood, trafficking much of his writing career in maudlin, mawkish, garish sentimentality. It worked, to be sure, as he went off to conquer the publishing world, motion pictures, the music industry. It worked and he built a huge audience that did not read poetry nor had the slightest idea of the medium's standards of quality might happen to be on any given day. He made a lot of money and in the making of his millions, he inspired young people, like myself, to become a writer myself. To be clear, it was a chorus of writers that got my fancy and stirred in me the desire to string words together and indulge in metaphor, not just the recently deceased McKuen. But McKuen was in the gallery of faces that had my attention. My tastes simply matured beyond what he was capable of writing about. Honestly, I had a man crush on him as a sensitive mid teen desiring to express wonderful things myself--he was part of the collective of Dylan, Ginsberg, Eliot, and Paul Simon that made me want to say things that were significant in ways a reader wouldn't expect. 

McKuen did have a knack for slinging words--his much-anthologized poem "Camera" is good at the plain-speak verse later adopted by the ever-accessible likes of Billy Collins. The poem, though, was clean and lacking the sentimentalism that made McKuen a standing joke and, eventually, an overripe expression of every unconsidered emotion. I should clarify that I went the middle period Dylan/TS Eliot route in poetry and came to prefer a more surreal and harder edge verse. The change, of course, came around when I had some genuine emotional upheavals and realized that experiencing, processing, and recollecting such events in the process of forming a real personality trying to engage the world wasn't as simple as McKuen's McPoems would have us think. Though I harbor a soft spot for him, I think his "poetry", such as it was, was indefensible on any grounds as verse. It scratched those places before you had an itch. I hate to seem harsh, but his writing was slick, and it was awful. Now and again he could write a few lines that were acceptable because they weren't dripping with the goo of his onerously bathetic persona, but he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love,)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco water front in the rain and fog, looking for bar to nurse his pain at. Though he was an influence on me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake. 

From an audience perspective it is a sign of cultural arrogance to think of them as dumb or less than bright because they enjoyed McKuen's writings and his songs. The bald truth of the matter is that academics and the self-assigned elite readership of "quality" poetry (a set of poets that varies, depending on what kind of critical codification you prefer) read poems for the same reasons, to find in words something that corresponds with their own experience and the inchoate emotions that are the result of them. Many feelings are hard to put into words even for the most savvy of tongue and wit, and poets have been the Culture's traditional medium for being the antennae of the race, gathering half thoughts, conflicting urgencies,  the ironic ordering things that don't jibe in how we view the world, the whole play of happy/sad/ambivalent  and getting it all in writing;  the goal is to speak to people about things that they cannot talk about themselves. That said, though, poetry is also a medium that wants to speak of things inexpressible in unforgettable terms.  That is where it becomes an art, as such, which requires more reflection, deeper consideration, better word choice and image creation in the attempt to make a reader feel more than mere happiness. It also requires a higher critical vocabulary into order to parse the poems, which is an irony in itself; the language created to discuss the movement of more challenging stanzas is as abstract, obtuse, as difficult poems themselves. 

So, poetry, as a form, does not win in this discussion.  McKuen was sincere in his quest to get at those things he needed to clarify for himself, but I am convinced that he became a salesman as much as an artist (in a sense) over time, representing Rod McKuen Inc. Over the decades I poked my nose into the unending stream of books he produced with stunning regularity and concluded that he had stopped any honest writing years ago and was composing verse he knew his audience wanted. He was writing for the marketplace, whether he was aware of it or not. But while McKuen can be listed as trader in the mawkish, the trite, the bathos-ridden, one cannot with ease point toward a commonly agreed upon example as to what constitutes a clear and substantial alternative in the quality field .Billy Collins and the wonderful Dorianne Laux come easily to mind, however, both skilled with accessible senses of language and the additional sense of how to write about what's recognizable in one's life and helping a reader through a series of perceptions where their world is more extraordinary than it was before. Their likes are rare, too rare, though, in the field of poets with followings--the notion of quality poets is an idea that is a muddy pond.  

While I enjoy a good many "difficult poets", I have to say that mine is the situation shared with academics and the self-appointed readership elite I've already mentioned; I know the critical language, I know the theories, I know the standards of consideration. It's a trap that one cannot see they're falling into which bedevils Modern Art across the board, in writing, visual art, what have you:  you cannot "see" (or "get") unless you "know" the theory and the historical forces that have brewed and seduced each other to make that theory possible. Knowing the rap about an art that is, by definition, supposed to deal with hard to express perceptions, is more important than either the art and, most tragically, the human life it is supposed to augment and bring quality to. In this regard, McKuen wins the argument as to the value of his work; he was awful as a poet, but the alternative was smug and something of a private club that few in our population found worth the bother to apply for membership in.