Wednesday, April 05, 2006

letter from Clayton Eshleman re: Olson review

Schmeer operates out of a simplistic prose poem theory. When he cannot saddle John Olson's rambunctuous and unpredictable sallies and branchings, he pouts: tin ear, poor stream of conscious imitation of Gertrude Stein (Olson's writings actually have little to do with Stein--even tho there is a fascinating homage to Stein in this book--he is much more akin to the Jackson Mac Low of Pieces O' Six--that is, in Olson, we have a granular, self-listening language, surging in jump cuts and waves, sometimes purely associational, sometimes with a "subject," which becomes the stem of branching variations).

Rather than seek a weak phrase or limp line (any poet, Stevens as well as Olson, can be made to look stupid by singling out the occasional botch and highlighting it), Mr Schmeer (one wonders if this is a pseudonym--if it is not, alas) should have focused on what Olson can do. For, in my opinion, Olson is the most dynamic and far-ranging prose poet of the last fifty
years. He has, like Robert Kelly, an extraordinarily inventive imagination, and he takes real risks, another reason to praise him.

At the point that the reader puts on critical pajamas, imaginative delight falls asleep. So Schmeer becomes a lie detector diviner, looking for howlers.

It must be acknowledged that Olson, at times, zigs like a digger wasp seeking an unknown host! Wonderful! Such are the perils for one of our masters, exercising, like Robert Duncan and Rommel, "his faculties at large."

Clayton Eshleman


Matthew W. Schmeer said...

Mr. Eshleman's reputation as a poet, editor, critic, translator, and reviewer is unimpeachable. I am glad he was moved to comment on my review, even though we disagree.

Mr. Eshleman takes me to task for being a critical reader. But is that not the reviewer's role? To read purely for enjoyment is to partake of the "imaginative delights" of literature; to review is to examine how that delight (or lack thereof) was constructed and crafted within the work, and decide whether the initial feeling of imaginative delight holds merit. The problem that I have with this book--with the book, mind you, not Olson's body of work as a whole--is that as a reader I was not delighted. I could easily have devolved into a discussion of personal aesthetic, but I attempted to justify my judgment of the book by framing it in a larger context: the debate over prose poetry's inherent structure. Mr. Eshleman dismisses this as a "simplistic prose poem theory."

Suffice to say that the stance he points out above is not my theory as much as a working, but accepted, definition; any dictionary of literary terms or poetry handbook will lead you to much the same conclusion. This is the accepted definition of prose poetry--and I'm not saying it's the right definition, just the established one. Some, as several emails I have received indicate, reject any formal definition or attempt at definition, as if an attempt to identify a form is anathema. But to understand a form and what makes it tick, you must start somewhere.

As we all know, prose poems don't have to be narrative; Bertrand, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud--whom many consider the originators of the form--often wrote more descriptive and philosophic pieces rather than narratives. This is the lyric tradition in prose poetry that is, in the last twenty or so years, beginning to regain ground.

But, since the 1960s, when Americans rediscovered the prose poem thanks to the Beat Movement of the late 1950s--specifically Kerouac's roiling and rapid-fire prose and Ginsberg's Whitmanesque free verse, both of which caught their contemporaries's attention and respect--a majority of poets turned the prose poem into a narrative form. This shift from lyrical prose poetry to narrative prose poetry mirrored the abandonment of received forms for free verse that happened at about the same time.

Quite frankly, I think Mr. Eshleman skimmed ove my original statement in the review, that "more often than not that structure has been the narrative--however loosely a writer cares to interpret." In speaking of narrative, I was implying that story is the universal dialect of communication; we live our lives from a chronological point-of-view. But I can stretch and pull and push narrative in a variety of ways. But the vestiges of narrative are still there. This is why flarf is so appealing--narrative structure can be found within the seemingly unstructured (google "flarf", if you aren't familiar with it).

We are used to seeing prose poems as blocks of text. This raises the problem: how can we tell a prose poem from well-written prose? Well, we can point to all the other tools and tropes of the sonic level of language and how it is applied in poetry. For this, I point the casual reader to Lewis Turco's excellent discussion in the third edition of his The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. The section on prose poetry runs from pages nine to fifteen. The problem is that it is awfully difficult to maintain the intensity of poetic language using poetic sonic devices across ten or fifteen pages without the pieces lagging a bit. Mr. Eshleman claims that "in Olson, we have a granular, self-listening language." May I ask how language can listen to itself? Language is a medium of communication; it cannot listen as it lacks ears to pick up sound and a brain to process signals. Only the writer and reader can listen to the language and make sense of what is found there, and in prose poetry, we should demand that the writer do more with language than simply self-reflect and self-congratulate while spinning webs of word association and image juxtaposition which have more meaning for the writer than the reader as the writer works out private connections without attempting resolution. I can and do appreciate wordplay for the sheer joy of wordplay, but in working through a book, I want more. I want to walk away from the work more meaningfully engaged than merely being entertained.

This leads to my suggestion that shorter prose poems are often more successful--primarily because the compression of language increases tension and forces the poet to be more precise in how he or she employs poetic devices. Pick up a copy of Benedikt's 1970s-era prose poem anthology, or the Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal, or even an issue of Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics (one of the new prose poem journals). You'll find that, for the most part, the pieces that work well, that are the tightest in terms of poetic diction and structure, are those that are shorter. And they also happen to be those that are more narrative in structure.

Ultimately, narrative structure is only one structure, but it has become the ├╝ber-structure for prose poetry, despite claims to the contrary. My point was that Olson seems to overtly want to use narrative in his book, but just can't pull it off successfully. Mr. Eshleman says that Olson takes risks. Pray tell, what are those risks? Is he putting himself in the line of fire? Is he jumping out of planes without a parachute? Is he writing in a country where to speak out means imprisonment, death, or the torture of family members before your eyes? For an American to speak of risk in writing is to speak of one and only one risk: the risk of rejection. And that is a risk that all writers take when they put the pen to the page. And there's no need to draw attention to this risk; it's a given.

As I mentioned above, contemporary poets have attempted to return lyric qualities to the prose poem. But they have done so by shrouding their attempts in linguistic wordplay. But as a commentator to my original post pointed out "A line no longer seems new if the next one displaces it. It's just the same old novelty." And I hardly need to point out that anything that is the same old novelty isn't a novelty at all, but merely cliche. Thus my comment about re-hashing Gertrude Stein; poetry that focuses on lyricaly linguistic wordplay--including the latter half of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement and the current flarf movement--has failed to capture a significant chunk of the poetry-reading and buying audience (however small that audience might be), primarily because once it become established, it's no longer innovative.

One final note: While I have developed a thick skin from years of schoolyard taunting, I take offense to Mr. Eshleman's comment on my family name within the pages of this magazine. I have no need to stand behind a pseudonym. A quick search on Google would have revealed that I am who I say am. Mr. Eshleman should know better than to stoop to ad hominem attacks in an attempt to bolster the primary thrust of his argument--which is to say that I am a hack--and laud Olson's merits, without offering any specific textual evidence for his own choice of overjoyous superlatives.

Eric Baus said...

I wanted to write in to agree with the Eshleman letter. It's a shame that Schmeer’s review frames the prose poem in such a prescriptive and dogmatic way. It's more shameful that it gives such a distorted, short-sighted reading of one of the most exciting poets writing today. Olson’s writing refuses to be confined within received modes of the prose poem and that is reason to celebrate. His expansive, explosive work is a sign that the prose poem is alive and constantly evolving. Olson’s poetry abandons the “shoulds” and “musts” (mustiness?) of this review’s rhetoric. It merges many logics. It eats Schmeer’s mirage.

Eric Baus