Monday, October 31, 2022


 "The Unfortunates" by poet Cates Marvin, is a sad tale of sensitive people who are overwhelmed by life's cruel tricks to make them feel bad and keep them awake at nights contemplating what is horrible, ugly, and unfortunate in the cities they live in. It is not to my liking , mostly because the poet, Cates Marvin, tries to find some equal ground between herself (and those she presumes to speak for) and the homeless she espies whose misery gives her the jitters and attending guilt feelings, to which I say no dice. These steamy, cold streets are the mean ones better writers than Marvin, or me have walked down before, and they've managed to absorb the steaminess and squalor of their life and, depressed or no, didn't obsess on their frayed nerves. Their anxiety wasn't the subject, but an entrĂ©e to another topic. Marvin sticks with the frayed nerves, and that makes the poem a chore to read even once. It's a straining, over stocked equation; after spending the first stanza presenting the pathetic detailing the doings of the sad creatures he pities in ways that make them sound exotic, alien and strange, the second stanza smacks us across the face with slippery buckets of self-reflection in which Marvin, or the poet's stand in, waxes and whines on how this saps the vitality, makes the soul sink, and essentially turns sleep into a rehearsal for death:

Those hours we haggle,
wondering when the sincerity of sky's blue
will arrive, how come nobody's bothered to
repair the loose latch on the front gate, and
what kinds of eyes melancholy lovers have.

There is enough baloney here to make a hundred Salvation Army sandwiches. And for his sleep, one wonders why she doesn't buy ear plugs and a new mattress. Fragile poets are nothing new to verse and one ought not condemn them outright for their confessions of bad serves and upset equilibrium, but Marvin is neither Eliot nor Plath nor John Berryman , all three of whom could do more with their depressed witness to harsh facts and resulting sets of despair with remarkable self-reflection; the result was an honest poetry of personal exploration, and none of them, I recall, used the facts of poverty or squalor as a pretext to wallow in the kind of makeshift misery Marvin has concocted.

 It helps us to remember that Samuel Beckett's plays, novels, and poems were about those situations that have sapped us of our will to live creatively and makes a continued life of drudgery unthinkable to bear, and yet we do, getting up each day to face the same repetitious humiliations not from any courage to stay the course but because, more plainly, less gloriously, much more banally we cannot think of anything more interesting to do with our days. From this, Beckett gives us great comedy and creates a language of men that is more animal instinct than discourse; he digs within the sour mood of dread and drudgery and reveals sentences as loud and fragmented and repeated at odd intervals to kill what small spark of truth still rests in us, dormant. Beckett , unlike Marvin, reveals nothing apart from antics and absurdity, the rituals and recitations of characters keeping themselves distracted against a yawning chasm. Marvin can't stop talking about it and her feelings, and this quality, this yakkity yak she provides us does nothing to make you care or make you stay interested in the struggle. 

The intent of the subject makes her lines lead-footed, with some comically awful alliteration.", malice moves like mice…" is noteworthy not for evoking states of depression and ennui, but rather of old cartoons where the mice come out of their hiding places after the lights are out and throw one hell of a party). It's not a good fit at all, and somehow I'm dubious to Marvin's intent with the poem. The message is less about economic injustice than it is Marvin's feelings of powerlessness, which is fine in itself, but powerlessness in and of itself should not result in this kind of static, powerless writing.

Friday, October 21, 2022


It's been famously remarked that writer Rod McKuen was "America's  most understood poet". It was a smug bit of left-handed complimenting, a crack appearing to underscore the rosier, more banal, more hypnotically obvious this man's verse was. The proper poets, academics, and critics of the era, the 70s, considered what McKuen as worse than fresh spit. The irony, you'd think, was that he cried all the way to the bank, as he was among the best-selling living authors in history. Rod M. became quite a one-man industry, with books, records, greeting cards, calendars, movie scores, long sell out tours on a global scale. Who was laughing last? Barry Alfonso's 2019 biography of the writer, A Voice from the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen,  spent a good amount of time researching the many claims the poet made about his life and finds a personality more complex and melancholic than  one might suspect. Slate, the online culture and news magazine, additionally published an article asking why is it that we, collectively, do remember or at least mention a man who was, at one time, the most popular writer in the world. It's not that I've come to love McKuen's poetry more than I had, but this attention has made me consider the influence the bard has had on my growing desire to be a writer of some measure.

It's worth sharing, I think, that McKuen was a gateway to a larger lifelong experience with poetry; he was a primary influence in motivating me to write and eventually publish my poems over the last several decades. My early influences were a mixed bag of styles, beginning with Dylan's bucolic surrealism, up to Eliot's fractured, despairing modernism, Ginsberg, of course, and critically, McKuen's solipsistic romanticism. 

I was fifteen or sixteen, a choice age to get obsessed with feeling unique alone in the world, and McKuen was the poet I related to most because his persona was more cinematic than poetic. Even then, I imagined this character after hours, walking the waterfront in a thick fog, harbor lights and neon signs of seedy bars blurry through the dark gray patina, Bogart as Marlow or the Continental Op mulling over the day's events and a life of failed love affairs. It was an image of the man alone, carrying an emotional weight that would seemingly crush others of lesser depth of character.  I wrote especially awful and clumsy imitations and unintentional parodies of the poets and lyricists I admired and composed a good amount of broken line stanzas trying to assume the voice of a man who, like, McKuen, spoke from a position of long life and experience. The problem was obvious because I was in my mid-teens, had no real experience and, though McKuen's accounts of his life were fictional, lacked that poet's richness of imagination. But I continued writing, discovering more poets, a rich blend of modernists, classic voices, international voices, and learned one line at a time how to compose a poem rather than merely express feelings, real or imagined. 

 McKuen was sincere in his quest to get at those things he needed to clarify for himself. Still, I am convinced that he became a salesperson as much as an artist (in a sense) over time, standing for 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 a 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 added sense of writing about what's recognizable in one's life and helping a reader through a series of beliefs 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 beliefs is more important than either the art and, most tragically, the human life is supposed to augment and bring quality to. In this regard, McKuen wins the argument about 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.