Monday, October 31, 2022

WEIGHTY AND LEAD FOOTED

 "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

SPARE THE ROD?

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.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

KENNETH PATCHEN AND THE CULT OF POETRY ABOUT POETRY

 Patchen was a poet with a thick diction and lead-footed cadence, and his poem “The Artist’s Duty” is likewise a wide load and wide of its mark.It’s a supreme example of what I’ve talked about constantly since I’ve started posting on the internet, the self-important poem-about-poetry. My point, in brief, is that the creation of art that contains it’s own form as it’s subject matter is evidence of a bored technician who , perhaps suffering from an inferiority complex in a world that they see as being really constructed by workers whose hands are layered in dead skin and scars, have to trumpet their own occupation. The notes are off key and played to o hard, the result being noise, not revelation. The aim , of course, is to convince the many that poetry such as that written by the secretly insecure poet is something no one can surive this life without. Patchen writes with a big, blunted pencil as headvances his manifesto:

So it is the duty of the artist to discourage all traces of shame
To extend all boundaries
To fog them in right over the plate
To kill only what is ridiculous
To establish problem
To ignore solutions
To listen to no one
To omit nothing
To contradict everything
To generate the free brain
To bear no cross
To take part in no crucifixion
To tinkle a warning when mankind strays
To explode upon all parties
To wound deeper than the soldier
To heal this poor obstinate monkey once and for all

To verify the irrational
To exaggerate all things
To inhibit everyone
To lubricate each proportion
To experience only experience

To set a flame in the high air
To exclaim at the commonplace alone
To cause the unseen eyes to open

To admire only the abrsurd
To be concerned with every profession save his own
To raise a fortuitous stink on the boulevards of truth and beauty
To desire an electrifiable intercourse with a female alligator
To lift the flesh above the suffering
To forgive the beautiful its disconsolate deceit

To flash his vengeful badge at every abyss

To HAPPEN

It is the artist’s duty to be alive
To drag people into glittering occupations

To blush perpetually in gaping innocence
To drift happily through the ruined race-intelligence
To burrow beneath the subconscious
To defend the unreal at the cost of his reason
To obey each outrageous inpulse
To commit his company to all enchantments

Not graceful by any means — Patchen is an exclaimer, a walker in clown shoes — and his grandiosity of the important and great things he thinks a poet should do is a conceit he appropriated from Pound, one that he does not make any more interesting. Artists making art about their art are spinning their wheels most of the time, seemingly trying to convince themselves that they’re geniuses when no inspiration is forthcoming. This is one of those kinds of poems; intriguing for historians, perfect for aspiring and delicate ubermensch, but useless for the poetry reader, or even the poet who has it in mind that a poet should be using poetry to see the world outside and not navel-gaze on it’s own imaginary perfection.

Horace and Virgil and Wordsworth were able to turn poems about poetry into literary art because they were that rarest thing , writers of true genius.That’s why they are are still read, and likely why the works have been preserved over time; quality does make a difference. I’d wager that they were able to write about anything they wanted to and be able to make it interesting for reasons beyond the ridiculous self-importance that goes on in Patchen’s humorless puffery. Patchen is not a genius, and cannot really make his pedanticism rise to the level of being compelling.

Someone who seeks good writing, originality, fresh perception, unencumbered by an author’s ham-handed attempts to disguise a lack of grace or power with what becomes a low-grade ideology. The reader is one who seeks a poet ,a writer who can get their ideas across without rhetoric usurping the subject.For the most part, at least this is what I have always assumed to be the case, most readers of poetry are practitioners of the craft. Even so, most poets read as readers, foremost, and they (we) in general react badly to writers swaggering around the page wasting their(our) time with hosannas about poetry’s higher and grander purpose. There’s an impatience with poets who don’t sound as though they leave their house to take a meal with friends.

Poetry in particular is and always will be where the depths of soul are plumed, where emotions are bared,and writers will reinvent language again and again to capture the tension between interior sensibility and the harder facts of material life.Poetry is introspection by default; what we’re talking about is how well the individual writer creates work that gets that oscillating tension. Mooning over  poetry itself, though, is a dead giveaway, more often than not, that the writer has little to say and yet must hear his voice. Unfortunately, we get more prate than poetry when this the case. It’s a dubious proposition that Patchen wrote these lines intending to be humorous or ironic; he took himself so seriously that a good laugh would crack his mask. As granddaddy to the Beats, heir apparent to Pound, he most likely meant every word he wrote here. Poets are the new priesthood, the antennae of the race, the mystics and fools who have turned their insanity into a virtue and now a weapon to upstage, upset and overthrow the repressed lives that The System gives us. This was revolutionary thinking in the fifties and sixties, when there was only a suburban squareness to rebel against, in addition to an illegal and immoral war in Vietnam. One can well imagine a generation of poets and readers being wowed by someone insisting that wild and random behavior and utterances are, in fact, a benefit to humanity. It merely seems quaint now, sadly dated. Patchen’s certainty here seems ,in retrospect, something you’d see the late Dick Shawn singing in a Mel Brooks parody of counter culture heroes.