Reviewed by Matthew W. Schmeer
Since Christopher North first coined the term in his essay “Winter Rhapsody” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1831, writers and critics have argued over what constitutes a prose poem. The modern take is that the genre is coiled in tension created by what the British poet Nikki Santilli calls the intersection of “the axes of poetic and prosaic language.” And, Santilli adds, the prose poem should be brief, because tension increases with containment. Thus, the prose poem demands an imposed structure, and more often than not that structure has been the narrative--however loosely a writer cares to interpret. Narrative is the underpinning of lived and imagined experience, and taking a poetic approach to narrative discourse means the writer must balance the prosaic and the poetic so as to clearly display the difference between poem and paragraph. This definition might seem loose to the casual observer, who perhaps would apply Oliver Wendell Holmes’s line about obscenity to the form: we know it when we see it, or more accurately, hear it. This idea of the aural quality of prose poetry is what ultimately separates it from dry, commonplace prose. But there’s more to it than simply writing rhythmic prose.
In Oxbow Kazoo, John Olson, to his credit, often relies upon the poet’s skills of synecdoche, cacophony, onomatopoeia, assonanace, consonance, and other aural elements. But the volume, the author’s fourth collection of prose poems, also illustrates a tin ear for the structure of prose, and this ultimately reveals what’s wrong with too many writers’s approach to the genre. Too often, these pieces read like minor treatises on their subjects masquerading as prose poems; Olson’s attempts read like poor stream-of-consciousness imitations of Gertrude Stein. This is not to say that Olson doesn’t have flashes of insight. But these are often buried in blocks of dense nonsense. Take, for instance, the brilliant punch that misses its target at the end of “Sweet Fever”:
. . . The telephone rings. It’s a credit card company. Tell them to send us a credit card immersed in leeway. Let’s order a box of cogs and build a cognition and move it around with tongs. Or tongues. Or tom-toms. Or tokens. Tornados and trout. Translucence and trowels. Transcendence and tops. Tarpaulin and tone. Tone is where the moods unlock. Tone is the hum of five hundred volts. Tone is the bone of the button of being. Tone is the timber of timbre and the pi of the punch of topaz. Sympathy density wax. It is the summer of our discombobulation. It is the sparkle of consonants stiffened and still and heavier than air. Ad-libs and egrets. Women’s apparel and a few exuberant pesos of blown glass. Is there really such a thing as loose change? The recession makes it all seem pertinent. Language is to consciousness what seasoning is to soup. I feel engorged with prognostication. There is a paste of the past called memory and a glue of the future called reach. Movement sternum and suede. Nothing is given. Everything is made.
All the wham-o, right-on-target lines about tone lose their energy when he kills the mood with the nonsensical but alliterative “sympathy density wax” followed by the cheeky allusion to Richard III. But even worse, he stops to explain himself (a habit Olson ought to avoid) with a line right out of the now-discontinued SAT verbal section: “Language is to consciousness what seasoning is to soup.” Yes, it is the most lucid idea in the entire piece, a gem tumbling in a steady stream of babble, but it indicates Olson lacks an understanding of how chefs carefully layer and combine seasonings to enhance the taste of a dish, not render it unpalatable.
To better understand Olson’s problem with how prose poems should taste, try these opening lines from the last poem in the book, “Writing in Light”:
One can write the word light but in writing the word light does the word light light up? Does the meaning of the word light correspond to the actuality of light? I say yes. I say when the word light is written the word lights up. So if photography means, literally, writing in light, writing in light must be an actuality. But a photograph always disappoints. It is never the moment we experienced. It is only a weak visual representation of a moment isolated from its gestalt.
Writing a poem that contains a declaration of intention damns the poem to failure. Olson’s pieces often suffer this fate. To indulge in a mini-discourse on semiotic theory in a volume of poetry is just bad form (even if it is at the end of the book).
Individually, some of the pieces have their merits, especially the early poems that feature Arthur Rimbaud as a central character. But on a whole, the book is a mess. This perhaps is the central problem with Oxbow Kazoo: it seems good at first taste, but upon closer scrutiny it’s a spoiled broth.
Olson’s pieces here lack that necessary seasoning, that ingredient that unifies and completes the dish, that holds everything together. He has not imposed an overall structure--linguistic, grammatical, or otherwise--on his prose, but instead relies on the shock of juxtaposition to carry the day. This is a different and weaker approach than other current prose poets such as Eric Baus or Noah Eli Gordon, who create temporary alternative grammars that carry their work, or even Ray Gonzalez, who tends to layer word-sounds in anaphoric patterns. Instead, Olson merely zigzags and crisscrosses, substituting adjective-noun pairs or noun-verb pairs in faltering attempts to surprise. The results are spectacularly unsatisfying.
Though I haven't read this book and I'm just judging by what you have posted here, my comments about this piece would run somewhat counter to yours. Though I would agree that there is generally a condition of "spoiled broth" here, I would remark on this for different reasons.
The first is that the poem does rely on jump-cutting too much, the odd juxtaposition holds sway too frequently. A line no longer seems new if the next one displaces it. It's just the same old novelty.
Also, if this poem is supposed to represent some kind of mentality (possibly this is not Olson's intention . . . it may be pure artifact), then there is a lot of cognitive dissonance to deal with here.
The connections through sound and repetition and alliteration make for a great linguistic display (unless, of course, you've seen it all elsewhere).
My contention with your write-up (and it's certainly a debatable point) is about your comment:
"Writing a poem that contains a declaration of intention damns the poem to failure."
While I would certainly agree with you about this for poems that strive to be transparent about their technique, Olson is not trying to do this. In much of "experimental," "emergent," "difficult," "avant-garde," "post-avant" poetry, (which works very hard to inscribe a mental space and which is idea-oriented), I often think it is the obligation of the poet to put the reader on to the project of the poem. Too often younger writers in this mode feel that once they have inscribed their expressive space, they are done. The poem's project speaks for itself. It is its raison d'etre. To me, this is an abdication of the notion that the poem (in this type of experimental poem) should serve ideas.
This said, I would also agree with you that one can be unifying and random at the same time. In fact, these two impulses provide an interesting tension. The nods to unification (in the one poem) are less thematic than aural. This seems like a missed opportunity to me.
I have yet to read Mr. Olson's book either but hope to soon. His is always a voice of surrealism and savory, systolic pleasures. I must however give like credit to Matthew. In many other settings both academic and abroad reviewers feel pressured to pass off glowing reviews as if the role of reviewer or critic is to do anything but. Matthew appears to be offering his heartfelt opinion. Agree or disagree, he's entitled to it and it relects well on verse's editorial policy that they still allow and perhaps encourage this sort of discourse. Art is not a fixed set of facts, a formulae that can be categorized, quantified and taught verbatim. It's a discussion and it's wonderful to see verse still supports this.
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