Monday, March 30, 2009

NEW! Review of James Shea

Star in the Eye by James Shea. Fence Books, $15.

Reviewed by Douglas Piccinnini

James Shea’s first collection, Star in the Eye, considers the expanding and shrinking values of experience with vivid strokes of suspicious wit. His poems wander through dreamscapes, retaining their lucidity. And though it seems as if a sudden gridlock of nerves is impending, the speakers of Shea’s poems maintain composure and as “Panoplies” asserts, “[y]ou are not free to enjoy the nostalgia.”

The collection begins with “Turning and Running” and quickly establishes Shea’s shrugging expressions of alienation and peculiar rapport with the natural world— themes which stripe this solid debut.
The sun was backing away from me,
slowly, like one I have betrayed.
So I ran to the river to burn in it.
And they blocked the road with ambulances.

Shea’s compressed narration moves in logical jerks that result in the delightful accretion of visual surprises. The speaker’s relationship to nature evokes a kind of eco-consciousness, which resists slipping into clunky agitprop critique. Instead the speaker of “Turning and Running” insists on a reappraisal of [his] conditional relationship to nature and concludes, “There were at least four things / I should have said. Do not step on the rug / with the live birds sewn into it.”

“Turning and Running” befits an era of uncertainty— the title immediately ushers us out of the nearly chewed-through first decade of the 21st century. Shea’s voice captures an intense perception of the natural world taking us beyond Whitmanesque awe, and instead invokes a Stevens-like suspicion of both the perceiver and the perceived features of nature. Consider the opening of Stevens’ “The Green Plant”:
Silence is a shape that has passed.
Otu-bre’s lion-roses have turned to paper
And the shadows of the trees
Are like wrecked umbrellas.

The effete vocabulary of summer
No longer says anything.

Stevens’ violent image of “wrecked umbrellas” finds the natural world in human terms imagining nature as a kind of failed machine, i.e. a wrecked umbrella is a worthless machine, perhaps abandoned on the street. For Stevens and Shea, human activity and perceptions of nature push and pull on one another.

In the last lines of “Turning and Running,” a human product (a rug) and nature (birds) are unnaturally wed. The speaker’s cautionary closing signals a disturbing hybridization of nature and technology in a seemingly inevitable marriage. Shea’s speaker in “Turning and Running,” like Stevens’ in “The Green Plant,” experiences the “effete vocabulary” of a natural world that “[n]o longer says anything.” Though Stevens’ lament appears to be seasonal, it too, like Shea’s, suggests a betrayal by the natural world. As a result, both poets’ vocabularies shape the natural world into a kind of bio-technological event. Stevens’ bare branches are like twisted metal; Shea’s freakish magic carpet is ineffectual— to step on the rug with “lives birds sewn into it” is to wound or kill the birds: its potential for flight removed. As “Turning and Running” closes, only one of the “four things” the speaker “should have said” is said. In a similar outcome, the final stanza of “The Green Plant” suggests the difficulty in negotiating competing perceptions:
Except that a green plant glares, as you look
At the legend of the maroon and olive forest,
Glares, outside of the legend, with the barbarous green
Of the harsh reality of which it is part.

In Star in the Eye, many of Shea’s poems inhabit a “harsh reality,” which is to say nature corrupted, or co-opted by human experience, and yet these poems contain sensuality. In “Mechanical Foliage” the speaker feels “the rapid turning of the sun in [his] direction” and, like “Turning and Running,” is again faced with a natural encounter that leads to feelings of internal conflict.
A young entrepreneur sold me his business card.
He told me this was one of the beautiful days.

He offered a presentation on my whereabouts:
half of you awake, the other half was not asleep.

He said I would see handsome epiphanies,
a vision unifying the particulars, for example.

The poem ends with this promise fulfilled as the speaker’s senses heighten:
I heard sheets of ice clink over the lake.
I found the extraordinary moment and recorded it.

I wash small trees with my hands, sponging
the trunk and leaves. I live once supposedly.

In a type of cleansing ritual, having found the aforementioned “vision,” the catalytic sun again leads to a moment of insight in the natural world. Perhaps the sun is the “star in the eye” of Shea’s poems.

Shea’s talent for plain-spoken acuity is best laid out in the string of haiku-like segments contained in “The Riverbed,” which is one of two longer sequences in Star in the Eye. Shea’s “The Riverbed” uses “riverbed” as a thematic anchor: “On the Riverbed,” “Autumn Riverbed,” “Family of Riverbeds,” “Riverbed Water,” and so on. These gentle, playful lyrics mark an airy section, not only in its sparseness on the page but like the satisfaction one might feel seeing a box kite sailing in the sky.

In “Dream Trial,” the other long sequence that closes the book, part 12 codifies the interiority of Shea’s voice: “What if only my anxieties keep me alive? / What if only my anxieties transmigrate?” Shea’s speakers experience the bewildering clarity of not an unforgiving world, but one that simply persists in endless renewal. In the final moments of the book the speaker again faces the sun— the star, albeit hidden by cloud cover:
I lie down on the splintery lawn.
Sparrows ’round me like corners.
Above: a small re-release of rain.
No one can stop the Spring from coming.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

the panharmonicon

[from an abandoned essay on the panharmonicon]

In one of his many journal entries, Ralph Waldo Emerson envisions a new genre for a new country—the panharmonicon—which builds from oratory (namely the lecture and the sermon) and in which “everything is admissable, philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, fun, mimicry, anecdotes, jokes, ventriloquism.” Aside from its startling inclusiveness, the panharmonicon serves as a salutary example of genre-opening: Emerson seeks to expand the possibilities for poetry by breaking down traditional generic boundaries.

Many of Emerson’s lectures are monologues, proto-performance pieces that, if performed by another, would be as vibrant and dramatic as a traditional dramatic monologue. According to Emerson, “A lecture is a new literature … It is an organ of sublime power, a panharmonicon for variety of note…”

Many of James Tate’s more recent dramatic monologues (see Worshipful Company of Fletchers and Shroud of the Gnome in particular) adopt a didactic tone—the narrators seem half-sane or otherwise under extreme psychological stress, but they do their best to convey their knowledge of the world and the urgency of that knowledge. In their own way, they lecture. The poems parody knowledge or, more specifically, the conveyance of knowledge. Erudition becomes a matter of particulars, not of breadth. While Tate’s dramatic monologues rarely approach or court the sublime, they do attain a “variety of note” that openly autobiographical poems cannot accommodate. This is perhaps even more evident in Tate's last three books, which feature free verse/prose poem hybrids narrated by various personae.

With increasingly porous boundaries between prose and verse, more and more poets seem to be realizing Emerson's vision. Which seems appropriate, since Emerson's poetry was in his prose.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

the plain style in poetry

“Innovation does not mean change for the sake of change; experiment does not mean fiddling with a perfectly serviceable tool. Innovation is a necessary response to force of circumstance in which the apparent utility of the medium is insufficient.” --Jed Rasula, introduction to Syncopations

“this importance cannot be seen in what the poem says, since in that case the fact that it is a poem would be a redundancy. The importance lies in what the poem is. Its existence as a poem is of first importance, a technical matter, as with all facts, compelling the recognition of a mechanical structure. A poem which does not arouse respect for the technical requirements of its own mechanics may have anything you please painted all over it or on it in the way of meaning but it will for all that be as empty as a man made of wax or straw.” --William Carlos Williams, 1934 review of George Oppen’s Discrete Series

“I am moved by work that does one or more of the following: includes emotions seldom found in contemporary poetry; unsettles the limitations of genre and convention; subverts cultural complacencies; articulates emotional states for which there is no norm; enacts the reader’s sublime.” --Alice Fulton, “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge,” in Feeling as a Foreign Language

“Simplicity is prized as a symptom of sincerity...” --Alice Fulton

Plain speech, as Marjorie Garber notes in Quotation Marks, is “often a cover for the most successful and duplicitous (or at least manipulative) speech.”

The assumptions inherent in the plain style: of readerly collusion, of frictionlessness. Poetry is a language art; it contains artifice. To pretend otherwise is to pretend. Poetry written in the plain style is as rhetorical in its colloqualisms and accessible diction as stylized poetry is in its involutions and disjunctions. The difference is in the poet’s assumptions of the reader’s reception. The plain style poet expects the reader to slide with ease across her words in order to focus better on her content, whereas the more resistant poet expects the reader to work at reading, to experience the textures of language as an integral part of the content.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

quotation in poetry

“Quotation confesses inferiority.” --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) describes quotation as occurring when “a writer expresses himself in words that have been used before because they give his meaning better than he can give it himself, … or because he wishes to show that he is learned and well-read. Quotations due to the last motive are invariably ill-advised.”

So Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze, Adorno, etc. appear regularly, and often unnecessarily, when a poet is writing about poetry. Always out of context and frequently misunderstood and/or misapplied, these noble figures are used for their weight, to give ballast to the drifting rafts of text the unsure writer is putting into the world.

Like a cliché, a quotation stops thought for a moment, giving the “author” a break from having to put his or her own thoughts into words. Quoting other writers has become such a common, if not automatic, process that most writers who leap to recognize others they admire do not augment themselves but disappear themselves. They get lost behind the figures they conjure through the act of quotation even as they seek to align themselves with what they quote.

Is it possible to cite without citing? To benefit from others without bowing to them? To quote is to simultaneously step aside and assert oneself. But the stepping aside can be a problem, because it is evasive—one’s own ideas are what are being evaded. And asserting oneself in this way can be a problem, because all that is asserted is one’s tastes and reading habits, one’s endorsements and affiliations.

Fortunately, poets are increasingly finding ways around the problem, through collage, graftings, montage, erasure, treatments, compost, palimpsest, documentary and investigational poetries.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Trouble With Billy Collins [part 3]

from an unfinished essay [see note for part 1]

But Collins was not always so milquetoast. “Hart Crane,” for example, stands out as a well-developed piece that imagines Crane’s body hitting the water and feeling the water around him change from wake to wave. The poem seems perverse in its lack of emotion—Crane is an object, already a corpse in Collins’s hands—but this perversity, being absent elsewhere in Collins’s work, is refreshing. It seems fitting, then, that Collins omits this poem from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, which includes only the safest poems from his first book. (Of the 45 poems in that book, 15 appear in Sailing Alone Around the Room.) So “Child Development,” in which he refers to Samuel Johnson as a “fatuous Enlightenment hack,” is gone, perhaps because it might offend someone. He also omits “Cancer,” which addresses the difficulty of saying the word and in an unexpected, moving conclusion, applies this difficulty to the poet’s father, who apparently suffers from the disease. Such pain, however genuine, does not earn a place in the Collins canon. And when cancer is allowed into the New and Selected Poems, it’s only through a humorous simile, in “My Number,” in which death is “busy … scattering cancer cells like seeds.” And “Flames,” which portrays Smokey the Bear setting a forest on fire “to show them / how a professional does it” does not make the cut. Though little more than a bad joke, the poem demonstrates a spark, at least. Collins omits even the minor terror of “Hopeless But Not Serious,” in which “every morning begins like a joke” and “trouble is you cannot remember the punch line / which never arrives until very late at night, / … just before you begin laughing in the dark.”

Originally buried on page 50 of The Apple That Astonished Paris, eleven poems from the end of the book, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” is given pole position in the New and Selected Poems. A reader unfamiliar with Collins could not be blamed for expecting a political poem (gun control being an ever-contested issue in the United States), or at least a poem with an edge. That reader, of course, finds something else instead—safe wit, a dog “sitting in the orchestra” to accompany a symphony by Beethoven “as if Beethoven / had included a part for barking dog.” The title, then, remains outside the poem, as a joke framing it, and this indirect relationship emerges as the poem’s primary strength. Given the shallowness of most of Collins’s work, a title that does not comment straightforwardly on the poem seems like an achievement.

It becomes easy to predict which poems from Collins’s earlier books will be chosen for the New and Selected: those that are thoroughly safe, tentatively clever, and aiming to please—or to be less generous: those that are passionless, shallow, and obsequious. It also helps if the poems take place in museums, on vacation in Italy, in libraries, or on college campuses: apparently the favorite haunts of the NPR-listening audience Collins depends on so much for his book sales. To jettison the macabre and the disturbing from one’s New and Selected smacks of self-censorship, and is especially unfortunate given the broadening effects those elements would have on this career- and income-boosting volume.

Charles Simic has noted that “Collins is fun to read” even though “he has absorbed all the modernist techniques and uses them well.” Unfortunately, Simic does not articulate what these techniques are, aside from calling Collins “self-consciously literary” and pointing to his homages to Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and W.H. Auden. In any event, despite their allusions and occasional self-consciousness, Collins’s poems read nothing like Pound’s, Eliot’s, Stevens’s, Moore’s, Crane’s, Stein’s, or any other poet considered modernist, and the claim seems contradictory, since modernism is apparently what killed the popular audience for poetry.

Simic is more accurate when he points to the Collins persona: “Collins comes across in his poems as a slightly eccentric but friendly neighbor, a professor with a nice wife in some affluent suburb or small town, who walks his dog and does the usual errands and chores associated with that kind of life” (italics mine). In other words, simply SWM. In his poems, Collins is not seriously eccentric or misanthropic, his wife does not make his life difficult, he has no financial worries, he does not beat or otherwise abuse his dog (Collins likes his dog, but not enough to give it a name in his poems, perhaps because he wants his dog to be the NPR ur-dog) or neglect or bemoan his position in the social fabric. Simic adds, “Probably one of the reasons for the success of his books is that he gives the impression to his readers of being like them.” Collins himself claims no ambition to disturb his readers: “I want to establish a kind of sociability or even hospitality at the beginning of a poem. The title and the first few lines are a kind of welcome mat where I am inviting the reader inside.” Given the commercial success of Collins’s books, he must be an accommodating host.

Yet Simic also admits that in Sailing Alone Around the Room “too many poems have predictable conclusions.” And “Collins is so much in control that by the end of a poem I’m left with the feeling that I’ve been told everything that there is to know. … there has to be a countercurrent, a touch of ambiguity and uncertainty” to keep things interesting if not edgy. This gentle criticism coincides with Collins’s own description of his process in his Paris Review interview: “I want to start in a very familiar place and end up in a strange place.” But his poems fail to tell the reader what the reader does not already know. One learns almost nothing from Collins. This is probably why he has become a popular success. Ever palatable, never disturbing, Collins is a poet for everyone. And that is the problem.

I am not arguing for accessibility as an end or cure-all, nor as a mean toward a larger readership. Because poetry is often difficult to write, it can be difficult to read and still be valuable to culture. It is especially difficult to write strong, accessible poetry that does not pander to the reader. Yet when a poet comes along who can gaze outward as powerfully as s/he gazes inward and write poems compelling at the levels of language, perception, and imagination, the virtues of accessibility are realized—at least in the case of David Berman’s Actual Air—and readers will notice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Trouble With Billy Collins [part 2]

from an unfinished essay [see note for part 1]

Among American poets who have not become entirely mainstream, David Berman seems particularly adept at bringing a larger audience to poetry. Berman has published one book, Actual Air, which has sold more than 12,000 copies in five printings and received wide notice (in literary magazines as well as major newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker, and Spin). Berman’s status as the singer/songwriter for The Silver Jews surely helped his sales, but has had little bearing on the literary world's response to his book, which has been mostly positive. Consider the following excerpts from reviews: “Actual Air is one of the funniest, smartest, and sweetest books of the year” [GQ]; “Actual Air is actual poetry. Berman is on a mission to make the world strange, to find in the doo-dads of daily life a profound weirdness” [Spin]; “Berman’s debut announces the discovery of a great American poetic storytelling voice by a new generation” [Publishers Weekly].) As a poet and literary critic, David Kirby, reviewing Actual Air for the New York Times Book Review, would hardly be swayed by Berman’s music career in his assessment of the book. Despite some quibbles, Kirby concludes that Berman’s poetry has “great promise.” And in Boston Review, the poet-critic Ethan Paquin has described Berman as “a master collector of American miscellany.”

Berman’s poems work because of the quality of his imagination, his understated flair with language, his humor, his compassion, and his sense of timing. In his own words, his poems are “psychedelic soap operas” (Redivider interview). Although attracted to the possibilities and textures of language, Berman is less committed to formal innovation than are more challenging lyric poets. Neither disjunctive nor oblique, arcane nor stylized, his poems evince an attractive ease. But they present the alert reader with sufficient resistance to give the reader a sense of progress in moving through the poems. One does not finish a Berman poem wondering what one has just read, as many people do when reading contemporary poetry for the first time. His poems meet the reader halfway without pandering to the reader. Even the title of his book was selected out of a desire to assuage people’s skepticism about poetry. As he explains in an interview, “I wanted to express in the offset, before someone opened up the book, that poetry is speech, which of course is totally dependent on the fact that you can push air through your mouth and that these words are just air filtered in a certain way” (Brett Burton, “Coming Up for Air,” City Paper).

One of Berman’s signature moves is to treat himself as a character, not as an impermeable construct. This is a direct result of his poetic imagination. He mocks his own sensitivity and pretensions to sensitivity, but he can be disarmingly straightforward in the process, as in “Self-Portrait at 28”:
I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.

My childhood hasn't made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes
with a few stand out moments…

Berman does not evince the “hatred of Identity” (Evans 13) that characterizes the work of an increasing number of contemporary poets, but a distrust of Identity is common in his work. (According to Steve Evans, avant-garde poets reject “the type of identity conferred by the commodity form” in an attempt to respond to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, imperialism, and their recent offspring, globalization. “Introduction to Writing from the New Coast”, Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetries of the 1990s, edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks.) Berman engages in identity politics by questioning the authority traditionally associated with his identity group, the straight white male. By questioning this authority, he undermines his own position in a social hierarchy which the white heterosexual male has historically dominated. One could call this interrogation an identity crisis, but one that, because of its political ramifications, goes beyond the typical Romantic poet’s questioning of the self. The self in Berman’s poems mutates, turns on, agitates, and generally fucks with itself so as to destabilize the lyric tradition in general and SWM privilege in particular. The lyric voice is assaulted through multiplicity and refraction, but it is consistently maintained, which distinguishes this poetry from radical or otherwise avant-garde poetries. He subtly questions the cultural privilege assumed by and ascribed to SWMs. This social aspect pushes Berman’s poetry further into the public sphere.

Berman’s frequent relinquishment of SWM privilege also appears in James Tate’s poetry, as Lee Upton has pointed out: “The actual work of the poems in their demasculinizing of male characters and caricaturing of heterosexual desires, in the voicing of need, weakness, and contingency, boldly counters patriarchal posturings of expertise” (Upton, The Muse of Abandonment). But Tate is a slippery poet, and at Berman’s age he was more preoccupied with the surfaces of language and more inclined to experiment with words than Berman is. Like Tate, Berman knows that humor can be an effective means of simultaneously inviting the reader into the poem and disorienting the reader.

Berman, in some ways, sounds like Billy Collins. An unusually bland poet with an unusually large readership, Collins is accessible without writing doggerel, humorous without being aggressive, self-deprecatory without being anguished, SWM without being particularly virile. He writes in free verse composed according to the phrase; he does not attempt verbal pyrotechnics. Thus, he offers an unthreatening presence on the page. He even wrote one of the two blurbs for Actual Air (Tate wrote the other one), which might signal an aesthetic affinity between Berman and Collins. Yet I find little to like or even enjoy in Collins’s poetry, even after reading all of Collins’s work, from his first book to Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems and The Trouble With Poetry. Why, then, do certain readers embrace one poet and ignore or shun the other?

First consider Collins’s own thoughts on poetry, as expressed in his introduction to his anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. Here he recycles the well-worn narrative about modernism killing off poetry’s readership: “During the heydey of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Crane—that Mount Rushmore of modernism—difficulty became a criterion for appraising poetic value,” and thus “readers fled in droves into the waiting arms of novelists” (I agree with Collins that the “hunt for Meaning” is often the surest way to ruin poetry for a reader. But there are ways of talking about a poem that do not rely on meaning or different interpretations but that can be intellectually engaging and enjoyable. Paying attention to—and trying to understand the effects of—the sounds and moves a poem makes, pretending that one is writing the poem and thus making decisions at every step, can effectively involve readers in a poem.)

For Collins, “clarity is the real risk in poetry. To be clear means opening yourself up to judgment.” Collins’s denouncement of difficulty and embrace of clarity is meant to forward his own poetics of accessibility, where there is no “obscurity for its own sake,” since “the willfully obscure poem is a hiding place where the poet can elude the reader and thus make appraisal impossible, irrelevant.” Collins’s discussion about the public reception of poetry has shifted from aesthetic terms to ethical terms: difficult poetry not only turns off readers, but is a sign of an evasive, untrustworthy author who under no circumstances wants to connect with readers. This shift points to a major problem in Collins’s thinking—and in others like him—since the question of audience for poetry does not need to become a question of the moral, ethical, or social fitness of the poet. But because Collins obviously has a stake in the legitimacy of the accessible poem and the speciousness of the difficult poem, he must attack the authors of difficult poems, not just the poems themselves. The fact is, difficult poems often seek a deeper connection with their readers than most accessible poems (especially Collins’s) do. By virtue of the work—active reading—a difficult poem can require, the reader can join the poet, temporarily, in the act of the creation and interpretation of meaning. The difficult poem can enlist the reader as much as it can shut out the reader, but Collins does not acknowledge that site of possibility because it is not in his best interest to do so.

Poetry 180 arose from the Poetry 180 project, a program that Collins, as Poet Laureate, initiated to bring a daily poem to high school students. The anthology seeks to present “a generous selection of short, clear contemporary poems which any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing.” In theory, Poetry 180 is a worthwhile and potentially effective endeavor. By exposing high school students to a poem every day, without quizzes, tests, papers, or even discussions about the poem, the project implies that poetry does not have to be an academic exercise even if it occurs in an academic setting. Even though Poetry 180 is geared toward high schools, the absence of the usual academic activities creates more possibility for enjoyment. But Collins’s tastes are so bland and out-of-touch that I have difficulty imagining many of the poems he selects appealing to teenagers. He admits to including poems in Poetry 180 that would appeal to high school students—thus the presence of poems about sports and cars. But the poems about sports and cars are almost always written from a middle-aged (and SWM) perspective, and thus (in the eyes of a high school student) from Dad’s perspective. Another example: Paul Muldoon, whose poetry I very much admire, is represented by a poem about a sonogram—not exactly the kind of poem the average, or even above-average, teenager will respond to. “Gathering Mushrooms” (or any number of Muldoon’s shorter poems) would have been a more appropriate choice here. Likewise with Joe Wenderoth, represented here by the allegorical (and relatively “difficult”) “My Life” rather than a piece from Letters to Wendy’s. So Poetry 180 is a case of good intentions—and a good idea—but ultimately a missed opportunity.

Collins’s poems, too, represent numerous missed opportunities. His poems are formally unassuming, written in a free verse that rarely acknowledges the line as a site of possibility. Built almost entirely on the prose phrase, Collins’s lines are among the least notable in contemporary poetry because they are the most common. There is nothing singular or distinctive about them. Although sporadically punctuated, Collins’s line breaks demonstrate little enjambment, as if to use line breaks rather than allow them would prove unpopular or otherwise alienating to the reader. Stylistically, Collins is an adept of the McPoem—a phrase coined by Donald Hall and subsequently encapsulated by Reginald Shepherd as “a little reminiscence, a little nature description, a little epiphany.” At first glance, Berman’s relaxed style can resemble that of Collins, but Collins’s poems admit are almost pathologically bent on small epiphanies. For Berman, the failure of epiphany is as important as its arrival.

Collins’s poems are full of redundancies, imprecision of thought, and lame narratives. Even Collins’s concept-driven poems stem from the most banal concepts. Consider the beginning of “Schoolsville”: “Glancing over my shoulder at the past, / I realize the number of students I have taught / is enough to populate a small town.” This would seem trite and poorly written in prose; that it is cast into lines does not help the idea gain substance. Collins’s set pieces—“Advice to Writers” and “Introduction to Poetry”—are really just two innocuously tongue-in-cheek didactic poems that read like watered-down Kenneth Koch. That said, “Introduction to Poetry” is practically the only poem of any imaginative worth or vigor in Collins’s first book.

Because the narratives in the poems themselves are so lightweight, he sometimes puts all of his energy into a poem’s ending, as in “Vanishing Point,” the first poem in The Apple That Astonished Paris: “You have heard of the apple that astonished Paris? / This is the nostril of the ant that inhaled the universe.” Collins would do well to replicate such wit, however modest, more often in his work. What distinguishes Collins from Berman is his complacency. Formally slack, morally unengaged (despite his claims to the contrary), and politically detached, his poems are polite, almost treacly in their determination to please. They never make the reader—or the poet—uncomfortable. The pleasure they give is without risks. Nowhere does Collins seem menacing, misanthropic, distressed, or otherwise unlikeable. A desire for a negative personality can play into the cliched image of the agitated Romantic poet, but negative emotions appear in almost every poet worth reading. Berman, on the other hand, frequently implicates himself in the pain that can accompany pleasure and therefore attains a more difficult—and more human—equilibrium. Collins’s is a white-washed, white-bread poetry designed for mass consumption and easy digestion. No one leaves a Collins poem troubled or otherwise disturbed. Collins’s style is the non-style.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Trouble With Billy Collins [part 1]

Note: This is essentially an unfinished essay, started in 2000 and abandoned a couple of years later. The essay discusses the idea of accessibility in contemporary poetry, using David Berman and Billy Collins as its primary examples. Originally, the essay was going to cover another 5-6 poets in an attempt to rethink how accessibility can be applied to considerations of poetry.

Accessibility has increasingly become a key ingredient of public discussions of contemporary American poetry, particuarly when those discussions focus on the general reader’s flight from poetry. Those who call for more accessible poetry—for poetry that, like prose, can be paraphrased—frequently want a poetry that can compete with fiction for a readership, demonstrating in the process a tendency to equate poetry’s relevance with its sales volume. On one hand, postmodernism, with its indeterminacy and theoretical apparati, is to be avoided; on the other hand, modernism, with its cultural superiority and white-maleness, is the bugbear. Both modernism and postmodernism, the story goes, have diminished the art’s audience outside the university. Poetry has become a specialized field, and as a result no one reads it, though everyone seems to be writing it.

The issue of accessibility in poetry is largely a matter of comfort zones. By watching many films, American have learned, perhaps unconsciously, the language of film. These same people, if they read just ten books of poetry each year, would learn the language of poetry and would come to enjoy ostensibly “difficult” poets as they enjoy “difficult” films. Poetry is not beyond the average reader, whether she is located on campus or off it. And poetry does not need to be “narrative” poetry to attract a larger readership. As it was practiced before film and modernism, narrative has become less viable aesthetically. To narrate in the mode of the nineteenth-century novel is to pretend modernism and film never occurred, for the narrative strategies introduced, developed, and complicated by modernist and postmodernist fiction have become further developed and complicated by film.

When Dana Gioia writes of “the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative” (in “Notes on the New Formalism”), he does so as one of New Formalism’s most articulate apologists. Although much of Gioia’s critical writing centers on metrical verse, he has called for more narrative in American poetry as a means of regaining some of the lost audience for poetry. That he also calls attention to the absence of powerful narrative strategies among contemporary poets is significant because Gioia, more than most poet-critics, has a vested interest in seeing narrative poetry flourish. If narrative poetry takes off, he can claim (as he does for metrical poetry) to have been one of its staunchest promoters. Despite Gioia’s efforts, however, New Formalism and New Narrative poetry have not put poetry back into “mainstream American culture.” Most of these poets, like other contemporary poets, publish in academic quarterlies, teach for a living, and give readings primarily at universities. (Thus, one of the more disturbing aspects of the New Formalist and New Narrative movements is the common assertion that the practitioners of formal and/or narrative verse are rebels, blasting the status quo of confessional free verse. In his essay “The Other Long Poem,” for example, Frederick Feirstein goes so far as to compare narrative poets like Dick Allen and Frederick Turner to “the formally censored Russian writers.”) This is neither a positive nor a negative reflection on those poets; it just means they’re also vulnerable to the difficulties of marketing a non-lucrative genre.

Whether or not one ascribes to Stevens’s adage “Realism is a corruption of reality,” the realism of narrative poetry is an aesthetic and intellectual limitation. Although a renewed realism has been touted as a primary strength of New Narrative poetry, realism itself is archaic as an artistic mode; and American readers are not looking for literature (or film) that reverts to tired narrative conventions. Those who criticize poetry for becoming too difficult, too narrow in its concerns, seem to ignore the critical and popular success of films, such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento,” that demonstrate more formal complexity and aesthetic innovation than most contemporary fiction or poetry. (And some video games in the twenty-first century also employ complex narratives that, because of the medium, are enormously more interactive than film or literature. “Max Payne” and “Max Payne 2,” for example, use graphic novel storyboards as well as the usual cut scenes. And of course there’s the “Grand Theft Auto” series, which provides revolutionary open-ended gameplay as well as a primary narrative and various sub-narratives.) Saying that most poetry is too difficult for the average person is condescending, since ‘the average person’ has enough intelligence and sophistication to decipher and enjoy films that make the plot-line of Infinite Jest seem straightforward.

Despite T.S. Eliot’s elitism, much of the poetry written today would not be possible without at least some of his proscriptions. Even the most populist (in intention if not in reality) identity-centered poetry depends upon Eliot’s (and Pound’s) tenets “that diction should become assimilated to cultivated contemporary speech,” “that the subject-matter and the imagery of poetry should be extended to topics and objects related to the life of a modern man or woman,” and that it is important “to seek the non-poetic, to seek even material refractory to transmutation into poetry, and words and phrases which had not been used in poetry before” (Milton lecture). Of course, Eliot never licensed “free verse as a liberation from form,” which is something “only a bad poet could welcome.” He undoubtedly would consider almost all contemporary poetry, with its near-total ignorance of the formal qualities of poetry, very bad indeed. Eliot’s observation that “a great deal of bad prose has been written under the name of free verse” is even more applicable now than in his time.

Of course, it is one thing to point out a problem, quite another to prescribe a solution. Stopping at identifying this impasse—between the possibilities of film and of poetry—would imply that movie-goers should not and will not read poetry: it is out of their comfort zone. Some of those championing the New Formalism or the New Narrative think reintroducing narrative into poetry will help it regain some of the audience it has lost in recent decades. But too often the narrative strategies employed by these poets are far behind contemporary fiction and even farther behind film. These poets inadvertently pander to their potential audience by implying that it cannot handle complexity in poetry. This is why most narrative poetry fails to enlarge the audience for poetry. And the most enduring recent book of narrative verse to reach a large audience, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1997), is one of the last books that proponents of the New Narrative would champion.

There are poets writing now who write accessible poetry without conforming to outdated narrative strategies, condescending to their readers by exploiting identity politics, or reciting domestic anecdotes that culminate in trite epiphanies. (Another major problem with contemporary poetry is the prevalance of poets who present one-sided, often self-serving views of their life experiences, a tendency that results in a dull cacophony: with so many poets writing so unimaginatively about their lives, it is no wonder the average literate person steers clear of contemporary American poetry.) The work itself, not the public relations surrounding it (television appearances by the Poet Laureate, poems read at Presidential inaugurations, poetry sound bytes on NPR, inflammatory remarks and condemnation from the Anti-Defammation League—such public spectacles, while good for individual careers, do little for poetry) is what will help poetry gain a wider audience, if not the mythical huge general audience of yesteryear. Poetry is an art form distinct from fiction, music, film, and television. While it can, and does, incorporate elements from each of the other art forms, poetry is something else. Adding narrative to poetry—making it more like conventional fiction—only makes poetry more like fiction; it does not expand the audience—actual or potential—for poetry.

Why not? Because those who read poetry do so because they want to read poetry—not fiction in an alternative form, but an alternative to fiction. This is where accessibility can benefit poetry and its readers. A poetry written with the rare (and difficult) combination of accessibility and close attention to the possibilities of language and imagination has a great capacity to draw readers—not poetry that tells stories, not poetry built on predetermined identity, not poetry that requires a PhD reading list to decode, but a poetry that presents enough of a challenge to make its readers feel sufficiently engaged in and by the work, that provides readers with adequate entry points for that engagement, that privileges medium as well as message, that evinces a poetic imagination that can transcend, or at least side-step, the morasses of identity politics and therapeutic self-expression. In other words, a poetry blending difficulty, accessibility, artfulness, and imagination.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

NEW! Review of Jane Mead

The Usable Field by Jane Mead. Alice James Books, $14.95.

Reviewed by Christina Pugh

Read in its entirety, Jane Mead's new collection The Usable Field has a texture that is reminiscent of both unbroken dream and the perceptual field experienced by a person who is almost too awake: a life lived, incidentally, on a vineyard in northern California. It is on the cusp of such a distinction that this book's considerable value resides; and Mead’s voice, with its sometimes impoverished and always ravishing frequencies, reveals this liminal place as home.

The Usable Field is not quite a dream book, not quite a landscape book, nor exactly a book of elegies -- though in another sense it is all of these. It is first and foremost a book about the phenomenology of personhood finding its integrity and often its literal bearings in a world that, though familiar, feels perennially unmapped -- a place in which persons must search not only for the content of the soul, but also for the delineation of its very boundaries. There is thus a certain sort of phenomenological, not to say philosophical, motion sickness at the core of Mead’s work; and it invariably governs the way in which the poet perceives the world, whether as landscape or as human relation. The insistence (and morphology) of her search for boundary and delineation may be found in two passages from two different poems:
deer-colored dog

is loping in the
deer-colored grass
in the morning. Nowhere

are you where we are not.

In grief the pilot knows you--
no need to say take me to my so-called soul--
she is your so-called soul: she knows
you will be waiting when she lands--she wants
you to be with her if you drown.

In the first passage, the metonymic spillage of deer color creates a Gestalt wherein the observed animal – the dog -- becomes indistinguishable from its surroundings. This collapse of figure and ground is emotionally borne out by the authority of the italicized insight that follows: any geographic or conceptual distinction between the “you” and the “we” has dissolved. In the second quotation – so eerily reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” in which the pilot keeps “keeps / on steering headlong into the waves, on purpose” (The Dream of a Common Language) -- the female pilot not only “knows you" but “is” your so-called soul,” as proximity becomes a disquieting transitivity-as-intimacy: “she wants / you to be with her if you drown.” In both of these instances, the self, even while on the verge of dissolution, retains its strange perspicuity and indeed its skepticism (“so-called soul”) in the face of the categories which define both itself and its relation to others, whether human or nonhuman. Indeed, this is a voice that, as we are told elsewhere, was given "to believe in nothing / before [it] believed / in the jay.”

In the preceding passages, we can also hear the plain style sounded out in dissonant notes. With her paradoxical combination of stuttering and oracular sureness, Mead is echoing and yet resisting the musics of several women poets before her: Dickinson, the H.D. of Trilogy, and even Louise Bogan (Mead’s “High Cliff Coming,” for example, is reminiscent of Bogan’s later “Night” and “Morning” poems). It is most gratifying to hear the poet listening so intently to this aspect of her voice. The pitch of this book is consequently higher than in some of her previous work, which sometimes erred on the side of flatness; but I also sense that her visceral distrust of high lyricism abides. Such distrust reveals itself most often on the micro-level – for example, in the occasional obstreperous diction choice such as “bleep,” which “ruins” a higher and more musical pitch of declaration. Though these moments can jar, I am convinced that this infinitesimal ruination is what keeps Mead’s poetry in an authentic relation to itself. So much contemporary poetry lacks precisely this sense that the line, and the poem itself, must function apotropaically (as a formal and materialized defense against other possibilities of verbal incarnation). Helen Vendler makes the point succinctly when she writes the following of Whitman: “…one ought to mention as well the temptations that the poet’s mind encounters along the way….and how these are staved off or (in some cases) yielded to” (Poets Thinking). In Mead’s own words, we may discern in her work “a cavern of darkness / where the phrase is missing / at the bottom of music.” The traces of the unwritten, even (or especially) as resolved in the often harmonic surfaces of high lyricism, are what make poems worth reading; otherwise, they become simply machines or verbal exercise.

It is also unusual to find a book of poetry that is not explicitly “themed,” narratively or otherwise, that exhibits the degree of tonal cohesion found in The Usable Field. In this way, Mead finds her model in Louise Glück, who has always known how to materialize a mental state most symphonically in a succession of poems. The poems in The Usable Field unapologetically reflect emotional extremes (Mead addresses the heart directly, in a poem titled after it) as well as the slow deliberation attendant upon and constituting ratiocination. Mead heightens this effect by using a consciously anachronistic use of doubled punctuation such as a comma coupled with a dash; even the poems’ titles incorporate this strategy at times. “Same Audit, Same Sacrifice” is how one poem’s title encapsulates the book’s characteristic duality of shrewdness and lyric drama. In short, the impression we get is of something driven, something true: not “true” in a confessional sense, but true in the sense of Glück’s own argument “against sincerity.” The poems are not worked up; they give the impression of having emanated directly from a particular insistence of thought and -- much rarer -- of emotion as well, no matter how alloyed the nature of that emotion might be. It need hardly be said again that the effect here is often Dickinsonian.

“This is some chant I’m working at--” writes Mead in her book’s first line after its proem. Chant and work: two words that don’t necessarily dovetail in the mind of the reader. Yet Mead has coupled them in order to make a truer trajectory. I would also suggest that Mead “trues,” as carpentry, in the material, emotional, and intellectual senses. How beautifully she has inaugurated a collection that is so infused with the combined and paradoxical virtues of simplicity, lyricism, and unstinting thought.