Disruptive Juxtaposition

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Hecht, Wright, Simic

Hecht's a fine metrist, no doubt. See here:

As from some attic of my youth
I gaze out at the distances
That contrast renders almost white,
Like frocks of garden-party girls
I once knew or desired to know

from "A Love for Four Voices"

That last line does what meter's meant to do, which is to say play the pattern of stress that defines the line against the pattern of speech, which is a different thing. The line is itself, and may be told to be such by the preceding and subsequent lines, to be perfect iambic tetrameter: I ONCE knew OR deSIRED to KNOW. But of course that doesn't sound right. I ONCE KNEW or deSIRED to KNOW more closely matches the typical emphasis a speaker will lend the words. So this tension between the colloquial and the stress pattern (I'm parroting a bit what's been going on in class this past week) is what energizes the language as poetry & not prose.

Hecht in a larger sense is a valuable poet to read for the way he melds tradition with modern subjects and conditions. "Humoresque," also from The Transparent Man, is a fine example of this:

From sewage lines, man-holes, from fitted brass
Sphincters and piston chambers, from the dark
Gastro-intestinal corridors of hell,
Deep among wheels and oil underbellies
Of Wagon Lits emerge these screeching ghosts,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
Erupting here and there in baggy forms
That cloud, occlude and spirit away the luggage...

That suspension of the subject, which produces the initial (and further ups with each successive syllable) tension, plus the metrical verve and linguistic invention ("brass sphincters"? Let's hear some deafening applause, eh?) are Hecht's great goods. I have a notion that his work can be made to stand as a sort of Colossus-ish forebear to the post-postmodern urge in poetry, taking as proof this poem in addition to "The Transparent Man," the title poem in that volume. That poem is in the most immediate sense an elderly, ill woman's deathbed monologue to a friend of hers. One of the chief aspects of the poem is the woman's reflection that the bare trees outside her window are "like magnificent enlargements / Of the vascular system of the human brain." Lots of excurses and narrative detail follows; it's quite lovely and sad. Then after 25-30 lines there's this: "But this last week it seems I have found myself / Looking beyond, or through, individual trees / At the dense clustered woodland just behind them." The clarity of Hecht's diction & idea equals a clarity of sentiment: a tree becomes figured as an isolated singular consciousness, and the references to a "clustered woodland just beyond" applies to the idea of a larger unity toward which the speaker, she realizes, is heading. Now. These means are not modernistic, but the end result appears to be. The means by which the poem introduces and develops the figure of the trees employs formalism & traditional homage but is not merely formal, is not merely tradition applied to the latter 20th Century. This introduction and development is a particular brand of figura that, as it is couched within a consistent narrative voice, roots the poem in the notion of the speaker's mortality, but which hems and haws and makes an apparent mess in the way that the mere figura poem typically won't. The speaker thanks the addressee by poem's end for letting her "rattle on this way," but she's hardly been doing so - she's inadvertantly (and Hecht has very very vertantly) run a thread through the poem's expansive (& otherwise diffuse) monologue. So Hecht here directs both the energy and potential of formalism & of the coherent narrative voice and the techniques of image-jumping to postmodernishly leap from the figure of the trees-as-mind to the speaker's dim epiphany of the greater world/mind she'll be joining soon. This combination of leaps in subject and a trustworthy, narrative voice is something new. It's not modern: the end meaning is clear but the means are not modernism's. It's not post-modern: the meaning and the means are both far too organized and accessible to be so. And it's not formalism/traditionalism - a sort of 20th Century "My Last Duchess" - although formal elements certainly are going happening & well: there's too much of an, I don't know, expansive quality to the monologue to count. (This is probably the most indictable thing I'll write tonight.) It
constitutes, I think, a proto post-postmodern approach to composition and meaning.

This quality of Hecht's voice is absent from James Wright in The Branch Will Not Break, and from Charles Simic's Dismantling the Silence. They are, however, accomplishing something similar with jumps between images. This is the whole tack of the Deep Image poets - allowing metaphor to work in its most elemental form. Here's "The Jewel" by Wright:

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

That's it. And there's a lot there. Here's Simic's "A Thousand Years With Solitude":

Toward evening
When it stops snowing
Our homes rise
High above the earth
Into that soundless space
Where neither the bark of a dog
Nor the cry of a bird reaches.

We are like the ancient seamen:
Our bodies are the ocean
And the silence is the boat
God has provided
For our long and unknown journey.

These are fine, fine poems. They're little geodes in which you can see metaphor shining at its most simple and unchanging. "My bones turn to dark emeralds" and "Our bodies are the ocean", fine and vivid lines, are the sparks that arc from the poem to the reader and give her a zap of insight. And I don't mean to imply in my gracious-a-little-too-gracious lead-in to these poems that such zaps and pleasures are too minor - the zaps are real. Still, I have to confess a suspicion that while the poems achieve genuine statement, and even may be said to convey Wright's and Simic's voice, the oomph each poem packs is going to be small and passing, perhaps because the poems are so short, perhaps because the zaps are solitary. (Billy Collins, I believe in the poem "Haiku," refers to one such poem he's been rereading as like "one small, perfect grape I eat again and again. That's nice, and that's true.) The lack of excess is admirable, but it's also a hand that turns down the volume to a background level. Under my own metaphor, I should say, "Well listen harder, Mack!" Well, yes. And I do so listen, and will continue to so listen - I love these poems. I only mean to chart the ways in which they function and the ways in which they do not: there is a much louder, longer song on the radio if you find the right frequency - it uses some of the same instruments, but more than those, and it's longer than "Sister Ray" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and "Night Falls on Hoboken", and it whispers, soars, and enacts further verbs too; it is not Miltonicly wedded to indexing a whole culture, it might not be epic, but it's big, very big, and gorgeous a la Sigur Ros: every song a history of hues and shades, lulls and peaks, coming through the static but using the static too.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Barnstormer's Nostalgia

Beams on the train bridge make white shards that scissor what is beyond them
including a worn heap of Catskill stone and pale sky through which a tower
blips red, a semiotic visual for signal oscillations, steady red star
patterned on originals whose shimmer is the frequency with which their
ancient light breaches the shell in which the world pursues its dark half
and the violence of the transit yields steel windows or frames a plane
could not fly through but below, maybe, pinched forward by the pressure
of dense air above the Ohio, and embedded in the prop din ripples
through the elemental media and dead ether a broadcast big yahoo.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Ran across this little nugget this morning:

"In America blank verse has become something of a rarity toward the end of the twentieth century. The reason may have to do with the favor that plain speech enjoys. The poetic line has become shorter, so short that even a tetrameter line at times seems long. Today's poetry has taken on the directness of journalism and the simplicity of speech. Elaborate sentences are considered part of mandarin speech - inauthentic, self-involved, not committed to communication or at the very least not committed to delivering what might be easily, quickly acknowledged as the truth of a mood, say, or scene, or action. Our present-day preference for directness means fewer adjectives or adverbs, fewer subordinate or qualifying clauses ... that might lengthen the sentence."

This comes from The Making of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland - specifically it's from the primer to the section on Blank Verse. (My guess as to the author would have to be Ms. Boland; the text is Barthesianly non-specific on who penned what chapter introduction.) And I'm not so sure that I agree with it. Or rather: if it is the case that poetry has come into contemporary vogue, if plain speech does enjoy a heap of favor, it is but a single heap of favor, it is but one pole of the modern poetic spectrum. Or this: if it enjoys a vogue, it isn't because of any mass movement within the art but rather that the art uses it (the poetry of plain speech) as a wall by which we're bounded as - if I might make a metaphor here - we descend the staircase. To extend that, if the plain speech is the firm, reassuring wall on the left of the flight, then the bannister on the right is the elusive, allusive work of the avant-garde - Language poetry, say, or generally the poetry of postmodernity - beyond which is the open dust-filled air of the stodgy foy-yay. I apologize for that. But I can't dig the suggestion that any given voicing or approach dominates the mainstream, if indeed poetry might be said to have such, for two reasons: one, the field is just too varied to make such a pronouncement mean much, and two, we're in the contemporary scene and don't / can't possess the perspective to so qualify what poetry's doing.

I react to this because the notion of plain speech - the conversational, as I'll probably refer to it more than once - hits close to home in my own work and my thinking about same. See, the above writer treats plain speech and elaborate diction (for example) as antitheses. Although it'll sound for a spell as though I'm saying that black = white, I want to suggest that there's a method out there, a way possible, to blend together those colors. The conversational aspect doesn't necessarily have to obviate verbal fireworks; much as there's a middle space between the wall of the conversational (say Frost, say Collins) and the rickety rail of wrought & ornamented poetic language (say Graham, say Ashbery), so too is there an intermediate region between plain speech and heightened diction* - after all, if this is a staircase, and I do say it is, then it's that space by which we travel between floors.

Plain speech as a designation belies what may be a far more useful descriptor, which is the vernacular. Let's try this, to arrange a series of what'll probably look like synonyms for a time but (I hypothesize) will as we move across the page begin to marry the originally-dispararte concepts of "plain speech" and "elaborate diction," which terms we've borrowed from the Making of the Poem editor.

plain speech <--> vernacular <--> public phraseology <--> jargon <--> elaborate speech

I don't want to get ahead of myself and in so doing skip some step in this budding logic, but the basic point I want to make here, which is part & parcel of the burgeoning poetics that are ever nearer to getting their manifesto writ and strewn wide, is that plain speech, which is to say that vocabulary & rhythm that one uses at the checkout line and reads aloud in Clifford books blurs into common linguistic structures the simplicity of which is not a given, but is only the way it tends to be construed - i.e. plain speech does not equal simple speech, not quite. The plain speaking of your say Frost ("Whose woods these are I think I know") is only a more poeticized yet still defined as "simple" version of the prosaic Joe-speak, say, "Oh, this looks like the Wellingtons' woods" (i.e. the vernacular) which bleeds into something like "I've miles to go before I sleep" ** and from there perhaps to some being versed in country things such as the type of fence on the outer limits of the speaker's vision (what with the snow) (that's the jargon example, btw), and then the heightened diction I suppose would have to be something complex but not needlessly so, rather some achievement of overdescription of that fence, perhaps, which makes it Poundishly new - it's central to this discussion that that latter overdescription is not dialectically opposed to the plain speech from whence we set out but rather apes the public & specialized vocabularies so as to further enliven & color that otherwise run of the mill fence, but rather builds upon the instances of plain speech and the other kinds in order to better attend to the image, to the idea, to the poem's core import.

Is this mere adornment? Filigree with no real work to do as far as making the poem mean something? No. It's more than that, although I suspect I'll have to revisit this soon. Suffice to say, at the least, that instances of say an overdescribed fence won't do jack for a poem unless something in that overdescription advances some thematic or imagistic point in the poem we've just invented. Fancy for fancy's sake, I don't brook that, and neither do the readers I have in mind - such ornament would be so much and I'm with my craft's elders (Fussell, for one) that a poem when it may rightly be called such will waste no words or syllables. (As to how this affects our discussion of this new vast poetry, keep your navbar here).

But so it's about here that you realize that that set of speech descriptions above is no continuum, but a fucking circle. It's a fucking circle with points for each of these qualities of speech and more along the circumference, and the best possible poem, I think, at least w/r/t the kind of poem that is best equipped in terms of addressing / chronicling the way the culture's going (another post, that) is going to arc between these fashions of speech according to the demands of the poetic moment, caroming pinball-like from plain to jargon to vernacular to heightened to overwrought bombast to Great Aunt Millie's favorite cliche to et cetera.

Lots I didn't talk about tonight. Solomon Burke: "There's always tomorrow, and tomorrow night / Hang in there baby, sooner or later / I know I'll get it right.

* There's a potential oversight in what I mean by these terms: "plain speech" isn't meant to exclude any sense of it too being "heightened." Which is to say that although the effect of this poetry is to mimic & enact some quality of the mundane human voice in its verses, the structure of that poetry remains a highly produced, studied, & considered artifact (in the sense of the expert artisan). The poetry of say Graham, say Ashbery stands opposite to Frost's in several aspects but chiefly in that the intended effect is either to or not to replicate, within the illusive possibilities of verse, the rhythms and tambors of spoken words.

** Which I REALIZE is another Frostism, but the convenient & possibly confusing thing about Frost and the way I'm discussing him in particular is that his lyrics have attained the airie heights of cultural suffusion shared only by such all-star product of the zeitgeist as Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" commerical and Sara Lee jingles; you sometimes can't be sure if you're quoting Frost or some pre-Big Bang humanistic truism. So it isn't a perfect example. But this line moves us from the vernacular to the precincts of public voicing & common phrasings that I think still works w/r/t the continuum between plain speech and heightened diction.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Sundays, "static & silence"

Top Three Things I've Discovered / Can't Wait to Have / Existences About Which I Am Thrilled

1.) The Sunday's titular album. The album Sixpence None The Richer couldn't make after "Kiss Me." Thanks, Amanda!

2.) "Rebel Sell," a book by the Canucks Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, which I do not yet own (my birthday is in late March) but which I must due to simple nuggets of truth such as nyeh : "the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years." Which claim attempts to wake up those of the "counterculture" and the "anti-establishments" and show them that the black-market strains of skepticism toward the mainstream has long - indeed, may have always - been co-opted by the very forces of consumerism that that skepticism purports to criticize and eschew. Anti-consumerism is itself a consumerized cultural production. Like most theories and phenomena in the modern world, I'm sure that in some yet-to-be-processed way this has everything to do with DFW's "E Unibus Pluram" (which details the problems TV, via irony, poses to practitioners of postmodern American fiction).

3.) "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. Neither do I have this yet, but the Times Book Review has a fascinating review of it by David Brooks. You should read it. Among the jawdropping examples that support the general thesis that good, sound decisions can be made in seconds (due to aeons of natural selection's neural editing, one supposes) are these: that versed researchers, viewing a short clip of a newlywed couple's conversation, can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a newlywed couple will be married 15 years hence; that students evaluate a teacher's performance just the same whether they've watched a 30 second clip of the teacher or spent a semester under her/his tutelage (particularly striking, that last).

Top Three Oddities / Pressures That Have Me By Turns Worried & Befuddled

1.) The Job Search, capitals much Deserved. But I'm feeling better about it by the day. Chances are that my feelings & optimism on this front will follow a classic bell curve, with confidence and inner sunshine rising as more applications enter the system, and the hook of my future is gently nibbled upon, and then there will come that rollercoasterish moment of suspended flight before the incipient plummeting. That won't happen, though. I can ride that coaster forever.

2.) Neighbors. Would you ask your neighbor to steam-vacuum your carpets? What if you'd met this neighbor last month? What if you paid him $50 to do it, over his reluctances a) to do the favor in the first place and b) to take the fee? Would you pay him the money, go shopping with your daughter, come home, figure that the carpets could use not just another complete cleaning at your own hand, but three more complete cleanings, thereby rendering moot the cleaning your paid neighbor's just completed? Would you then in explaining to the neighbor what you've done, i.e. finished more completely the job he'd not done to your satisfaction but which under typical societal codes you would have done yourself, and then, amid the sense of guilt thusly inspired in him, ask him to return the steam-vacuum to the store? Neither would I.

3.) The poetics of post-post-modernity. More to come on that score imminently.