Poetry on the Brink
Reinventing the Lyric
May 18, 2012
31 Min read time
What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?
brief fast has made me dangerously
thirsty for juice.
—Craig Dworkin, Motes (2011)
What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet? In a recent lecture that poses this question, Jed Rasula notes:
The colleges and universities that offer graduate degrees in poetry employ about 1,800 faculty members to support the cause. But these are only 177 of the 458 institutions that teach creative writing. Taking those into account, the faculty dedicated to creative writing swells to more than 20,000. All these people must comply with the norms for faculty in those institutions, filing annual reports of their activities, in which the most important component is publication. With that in mind, I don’t need to spell out the truly exorbitant numbers involved. In a positive light, it has sanctioned a surfeit of small presses . . . to say nothing of all the Web-zines.
What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety. The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity. Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject—and here identity politics has produced a degree of variation, so that we have Latina poetry, Asian American poetry, queer poetry, the poetry of the disabled, and so on—the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.
But even this formula is not a guarantee of continuing success. “Poets and scholars alike are specialists,” Rasula says, but in one important respect the two factions are rather different. Whereas scholars gain cultural capital as they move up the academic ladder and can—by the time they become full professors—feel relatively comfortable in their careers, poets are always being displaced by younger poets. Whenever I sort out the hundreds of poetry books that come across my desk and rearrange my bookcases, I notice a curious phenomenon. Poet X has produced two or three successful books and keeps on writing in the same vein, but somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets much less attention for the simple reason that, in the interim, so many new poets have come on the scene. The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, nor do they write in an appreciably different mode, but the spotlight is now on them. Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” has come to refer not to a set of poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.
It was not always thus. The poetry wars of the 1960s—raw versus cooked, open versus closed, Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960) versus Donald Hall and Robert Pack’s anthology New Poets of England and America (1962)—produced lively and engaging debates about the nature of poetry and poetics. What made a lineated text a poem? Did poems require some sort of closure, a circular structure with beginning, middle, and end? Should the poet speak in his or her own person, divulging intimate autobiographical details? And so on.
In the 1980s, after Language poetry came on the scene, the poetry wars were renewed, although the context for the debate became more specialized than it was in the 1960s. Language poetry provided a serious challenge to the delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech: it demanded an end to transparency and straightforward reference in favor of ellipsis, indirection, and intellectual-political engagement. It was closely allied to French poststructuralist theory, later to the Frankfurt School, and hence it was, by definition, a high-culture movement. By the late ’90s, when Language poetry felt compelled to be more inclusive with respect to gender, race, and ethnic diversity, it became difficult to tell what was or was not a “Language poem.”
The demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem has produced extraordinary uniformity.
American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2009) exemplifies the precarious rapprochement that followed. The editors, Cole Swensen and David St. John, try their best to fuse mainstream and experimental tendencies. Thus the introduction optimistically claims:
Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. . . . Hybrid poems often honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself—while also remaining committed to the emotional spectra of lived experience.
Well-meaning as such statements are, they don’t quite carry conviction. For, by definition, an “avant-garde mandate” is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it. Indeed, the implication of rapprochement is that poetic choice is arbitrary, that it has nothing to do with the historical moment or the cultural context, much less one’s own philosophical perspective. The commitment “to the emotional spectra of lived experience,” for example—the commitment of poets such as Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg—goes hand in hand with the refusal of the sonnet’s or villanelle’s restrictions on open form, even as, conversely, Yeats declared that the collage mode of the Cantos made it impossible for Pound to get “all the wine into the bowl.” From the perspective of Yeats and most Modernist readers, these seemingly unstructured poems were no more than beautiful “fragments.”
A plus B, in other words, can’t simply be combined to constitute a new C (the hybrid). Formal choices are never without ideological implications. Still, Swensen and St. John at least make the effort to forge an aesthetic consonant with the moment. With the publication of Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011), the very idea of such a project has disappeared. In her introduction, aptly subtitled “My Twentieth Century of American Poetry,” Dove candidly admits:
Although I have tried to be objective, the contents are, of course, a reflection of my sensibilities; I leave it to the reader to detect those subconscious obsessions and quirks as well as the inevitable lacunae resulting from buried antipathies and inadvertent ignorance.
One surmises from the table of contents of this chronological survey that Dove, from her perspective as a woman of color, has included many more minority poets than is usually the case. But her choices are oddly arbitrary: Harryette Mullen, widely considered one of the finest African American poets writing today, gets less than a page; experimental black poets such as Will Alexander and C. S. Giscombe are not included, and, more surprisingly, neither is the prominent Asian American poet John Yau. The Objectivists—Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker—poets increasingly written about and studied both here and abroad, are simply written out the canon, as are such significant West Coast poets of the mid-century as Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer.
If we grant Dove her donnée—“a reflection of my sensibilities”—we need not quarrel with these omissions, but what about the copyright issue Dove raises at the close of her introduction? Evidently, she wanted to include Allen Ginsberg (Howl gets a prominent mention) and Sylvia Plath, but the reproduction costs were prohibitive. The publisher “who insisted on unaffordable fees” is obviously HarperCollins; the paperback edition of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, a Harper Perennial Classic, is an Amazon bestseller, as are Plath’s Collected Poems and autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Clearly concerned about the omission of these important poets, Dove asks her readers to “cut me some slack” and reminds us that Ginsberg and Plath are readily available “in your local public library.”
The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, but the spotlight is now on them.
But if the anthology is to have any sort of validity as a textbook or a selection for the general reader, this copyright caveat is unacceptable, and the fault is primarily the publisher’s. How could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose? Imagine an anthology of twentieth-century drama that omitted Beckett on the grounds that Grove Press and Faber charge too much? Would such an anthology be worth anything? Ginsberg and Plath may be widely available, but, in that case, why produce an anthology in the first place? Most of the poetry in this anthology is available on the Internet anyway.
Indeed, what Penguin’s editorial team seems to be saying is that the value of Dove’s anthology’s depends not on its overall plan or on the wisdom of its selections—its capacity to satisfyingly delineate a poetic canon or make some claim about the nature of poetry in a certain time or place—but on the prestige of its editor. How else to account for the folksy informality of the introduction, peppered by homely analogies and what is evidently designed to be straight talk:
The beginning of the twentieth century was still partially populated by those who had crawled out of the wreckage of the Civil War thirty-five years earlier.
Into this disquieting age strode Wallace Stevens, a man with a mind of his own.
Almost all serious artists were, at least initially, deeply affected by modernism, even if what in youth might have seemed like a revolt would in later life often deteriorate into surrendering to one’s own quirks.
Every soup gets cold, however, and by the time the Beat poets were losing verbal steam, their take-no-prisoners approach had cleared a trail for the Confessionals, who were dedicated to uncovering a more intimate post-Beat self.
During the seventies, while America was licking its self-inflicted Vietnam War wounds and most of her citizens were shaking their heads over the Nixon nightmare, more and more of her poets fell under the spell of higher education.
Accuracy is not this editor’s strong suit: the “serious artists” of the early twentieth century were not “affected by” modernism; they created it. The Beats did not “clear a trail” for the Confessionals: the two groups coexisted and sometimes overlapped throughout the 1950s and ’60s. And higher education may be credited with many things but perhaps not with casting a “spell” over fledgling poets. As I was reading these curious assertions, it occurred to me that perhaps this Penguin anthology was designed for Junior High School students—kids forced to study something called poetry, who would find those references to “crawling out of the wreckage of the Civil War” or to the “take-no-prisoners approach” of the Beats both accessible and colorful. “Into this disquieting age strode Wallace Stevens”: it sounds like a sentence in a Victorian children’s book. And since the editor is an undisputable star, the recipient of just about every prize and award there is, a former poet laureate, and currently a commonwealth professor of English at the University of Virginia, one evidently wants to read her anthology to learn not about American poetry of the twentieth century but about her likes and dislikes.
“Poetry,” Dove concludes, “has become a business albeit a small one; the laws of supply and demand have taken on an urgency similar to the pressures in the wider world of commerce, though in a quirky, somehow Chaplinesque fashion.” Quirky—and here is the paradox we might all ponder—in that, however individual and intuitive Dove’s judgments on contemporary poetry, her Modernist canon—Frost, Gertrude Stein, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, H. D.—is more or less everybody’s Modernist canon. It was already in place when I graduated from Oberlin College in the mid-’50s, even if Moore and H. D. now get more attention than they did back then. When it comes to the great poets of the early century it seems that there really is consensus: Who, for example, would claim that Eliot was not a major poet?
World War II was the watershed. Since then, there has never been a fixed American poetry canon. What Irving Ehrenpreis pronounced “The Age of Lowell,” was known to others as the Age of Charles Olson. Or the Age of Frank O’Hara, who said, “I think Lowell has . . . a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset.” To this day, acolytes of James Merrill have little to say to those of Robert Duncan, even though Merrill and Duncan were among the first openly gay poets writing in the United States. Even Elizabeth Bishop, revered as she is by the American and British literary establishments, was never taken up by the Language poets or more recent experimentalists, nor is she popular in Brazil, where she lived for so many years. The composer-founder of Tropicalismo, Caetano Veloso, who has worked closely with the Concrete poets Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, told me that he could not fathom the Bishop cult. John Ashbery, surely—and, to my mind, deservedly—the most universally admired of living American poets, gets curiously short shrift from the French avant-garde, which has been strongly influenced by the Objectivist poets Zukofsky, Oppen, and Reznikoff.
Today’s poetry establishment commands polite respect but hardly enthusiasm and excitement.
At this point, the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology. Today’s poetry establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Glück and Mark Strand, all of them former poets laureate—command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted and continue to greet such counterparts of the previous generation as O’Hara.
In the current climate, with thousands of poets jostling for their place in the sun, a tepid tolerance rules. Here is a poem in the Dove anthology called “Hot Combs”:
At the junk shop, I find an old pair,
black with grease, the teeth still pungent
as burning hair. One is small,
fine toothed as if for a child. Holding it,
I think of my mother’s slender wrist,
The curve of her neck as she leaned
over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled
the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps
at her temples. The heat in our kitchen
made her glow that morning. I watched her
wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,
sweat glistening above her lips,
her face made strangely beautiful
as only suffering can do.
This is an all-but-classic reenactment of the paradigm I described at the beginning of this essay: 1) the present-time stimulus (the fortuitous find of old hot combs in a junk shop), 2) the memory of the painful hair straightening ritual the poet’s African American mother evidently felt obliged to perform, and finally 3) the epiphany that her mother’s face was “made strangely beautiful / as only suffering can do.” The poem’s enjambed free verse, prose syntax, transparent language peppered by what passes for “literary” phrasing—“pungent / as burning hair,” “slender wrist,” “wisps / at her temples,” “sweat glistening”—and emotional crescendo, dubious in its easy conclusion that beauty is born of suffering, would seem to place this poem somewhere in the 1960s or ‘70s. But “Hot Combs,” written by the Pulitzer-winning Natasha Trethewey, was published in 2000.
So far I have been talking about the dominant poetry culture of our time—the culture of prizes, professorships, and political correctness. To dislodge the dominant paradigm is never easy, but in recent years we have witnessed a lively reaction from a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo.
If “creative writing” has become as formulaic as I have been suggesting, then perhaps it is time to turn to what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “uncreative writing.” Tongue-in-cheek as that term is, increasingly poets of the digital age have chosen to avoid those slender wrists and wisps of hair, the light that is always “blinding” and the hands that are “fidgety” and “damp,” those “fingers interlocked under my cheekbones” or “my huge breasts oozing mucus,” by turning to a practice adopted in the visual arts and in music as long ago as the 1960s—appropriation. Composition as transcription, citation, “writing-through,” recycling, reframing, grafting, mistranslating, and mashing—such forms of what is now called Conceptualism, on the model of Conceptual art, are now raising hard questions about what role, if any, poetry can play in the new world of instantaneous and excessive information.
The main charge against Conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people’s words negates the essence of lyric poetry. Appropriation, its detractors insist, produces at best a bloodless poetry that, however interesting at the intellectual level, allows for no unique emotional input. If the words used are not my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric?
With thousands of poets jostling for their place in the sun, a tepid tolerance rules.
This is hardly a new complaint: it was lodged as early as the 1970s against John Cage’s writings-through—texts, usually lineated, composed entirely of citations, with source texts ranging from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to the notebooks of Jasper Johns. Here, for example, is a passage from “Writing for the first time through Howl” (1986):
in thE mind
liGht of zoo
The source of these minimalist stanzas is the following set of strophes, whose erasure, based on what Cage has called the “50% mesostic” rule, uncovers the thirteen letters ALLENGINSBERG required for the vertical mesostic string. I have highlighted Cage’s chosen words, here beginning with the “B” for “–BERG.”
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo
Cage’s elliptical lyric functions as both homage and critique, subtly interjecting his own values into the exuberant, hyperbolic Howl. As hushed and muted as Ginsberg’s baroque “ashcan rantings” are wild and expansive, Cage’s poem is a rhyming nightsong, whose referents are elusive, with only the movement toward the “BroNx” transforming the “linking” of the “blinking / light” to one that is “wRacked” with “light of Zoo.” Without deploying a single word of his own, Cage subtly turns the language of Howl against itself so as to make a plea for restraint and quietude as alternatives to the violence at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem.
There is further dialogue between the two poems. For Ginsberg, sound and visual configuration support the poet’s exclamatory particulars, the urgent things he wishes to say, whereas for Cage poetry is, by definition, first and foremost a visual and sound structure. Poetry is not poetry, as he put it, “by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.”
This attention to musical elements is absent in most contemporary poetry. Open the Dove anthology at random, and you find writing such as this:
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife
When I transpose this into prose—“My father once broke a man’s hand over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man, Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father with a sharpened fruit knife”—I find it more interesting than the lineated version. Why lineate it at all?
Cage’s mesostic poem, on the other hand, cannot be turned into prose. Its very formatting, as in “Blind /in thE mind” or “BroNx / wheeLs,” produces a sense of Buddhist abnegation quite distinct from Ginsberg’s own ready-to-burst, action-filled anaphoric strophes. Francis Scott Key’s “dawn’s early light,” for example, here becomes the less glorious “dawns / bLinking / Light,” a sly comment on our National Anthem not present in the source.
A related example of the power of other people’s words to generate profound emotion—maybe the most sustained example—is Susan Howe’s That This (2010). The book is her tripartite elegy for her husband Peter Hare, who was found to have died in his sleep suddenly and without known cause one night in January 2008. Howe would not call herself a Conceptualist poet, and she regularly combines cited material with her own prose and verse. Still, she has always avoided the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation—triggering memory—insight) ubiquitous in the Dove anthology in which, incidentally, she is not included.
The first section of That This—whose very title, with its two indeterminate pronouns, suggests that we cannot really know the things we claim to be pointing to—begins with what looks like simple reportage:
It was too quiet on the morning of January 3rd when I got up at eight after a good night’s sleep. Too quiet. I showered, dressed, then came downstairs and put some water on the boil for instant oatmeal. Peter always woke up very early, he would have been at work in his study, but there was no sign of his having breakfasted. I looked out the window and saw The New York Times still on the driveway in its bright blue plastic wrapper.
It takes a few more moments (recorded minutely in Howe’s narrative) for the poet to realize what has transpired, but with the shock of discovery—she finds her dead husband in his bed, ironically, still “with the CPAP mask [used for sleep apnea] over his mouth and nose” making a “whooshing sound of air blowing air”—comes her recognition that no words of her own can measure the horror and grief of this unanticipated death. At this point, the poem abruptly shifts gears:
’O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.’ On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Edwards Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.
Here is the donnée of the unfolding elegy. For Sarah Edwards, the wife of the great New England theologian, language, with its “analogies, metaphors, and similes,” is the Word of God and hence a source of comfort at a time and in a place where death is always imminent. But Howe’s consolation here is not their spiritual one:
For Jonathan and Sarah all rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full, so in general there is always progress as in the revolution of a wheel and each soul comes upon the call of God in his word. I read words but don’t hear God in them.
Herself not a believer, Howe can nevertheless mine the Edwards archive for a series of ghost poems that alternately echo and question the religious faith of the Great Awakening as well as the poet’s own belief system.
In the poem’s long middle section, “Frolic Architecture” (the title comes from the last line of Emerson’s “The Snow Storm”: “The frolic architecture of the snow”), photocopied fragments from the diary of Jonathan’s sister Hannah Edwards Wetmore are cut, taped, merged, overwritten, inverted, realigned, and collaged with the abstract photograms of the artist James Welling so as to dramatize the conviction that, in Hannah’s words, “Our lives are all exceeding brittle and uncertain.” The resulting poems become constellations designed for both the eye and the ear: now and again, we recognize bits of scripture such as, “Oh had I the wings of a dove” or narrative fragments such as “walking just below my father’s orchard.” But no sooner are these phrases articulated than they dissolve into clashing elements in the larger soundscape of Howe’s own highly charged present—a soundscape that tests the very limits of readability. To further “thicken the plot,” as Cage would put it, in 2011, Howe, working with the composer David Grubbs, created a musical environment for “Frolic Architecture,” a performance piece in which Howe’s voice, partly live, partly digitally recorded, is combined with multi-track electronic sound (organ, cicadas, dry leaves underfoot) to create a mesmerizing sound poem, each morpheme (e.g., nent, trt, mys, fin) given special emphasis by this poet’s superb speaking voice.
A growing group of poets is rejecting the status quo.
There is not an original word in “Frolic Architecture”: it is all recycled text, the poet functioning as arranger, framer, reconstructor, visual and sound artist, and, above all, as the maker of pivotal choices. If you set these fragments against their sources, you will see how much has been made of relatively little material, Howe’s method being to repeat, re-cut, juxtapose differently, all in the interest of sound, rhythm, and the look of the poetry on the page. And although Howe’s pages were composed by what are now old-fashioned methods of photocopying, works such as “Frolic Architecture” could not exist except in the digital age, where reproduction as well as instrumentation play a crucial role. As Howe asks in her final lyric response to her own ”frolic architecture”:
Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace
copy as to one aberrant
The verbivocovisual—we might call it Joycean—mode of That This is one of the directions appropriation has taken in contemporary poetry. From the work of Steve McCaffery and Christian Bök, to Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf, such poems are designed to exceed their dimensions as print blocks, moving outward both aurally and visually to encompass the larger field.
The opposite move—found in the work of leading Conceptual poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, Caroline Bergvall and Craig Dworkin—is to foreground the choice of source text itself, the very selection of that text and its context generating the methods that determine its “copy.”
An interesting example—this time from a poet who is not primarily a Conceptualist—is Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager (2011). In a Web site accompanying his book, named for the famous spacecraft, Reddy tells us, “I began to delete words from Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs [In the Eye of the Storm, 1985] in the autumn of 2003, hoping, for reasons beyond me, to discover something like poetry hidden within his book.” In a series of erasures, the same material from the memoir figuring again and again, Reddy produced a series of propositions, then a narrative made of short print blocks, then a long verse sequence using the three-step line made famous by William Carlos Williams in late poems such as “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” and finally an epilogue in which Waldheim’s encomium to a brave, “neutral” Austria is almost wholly crossed out, leaving in just a few words that belie its author’s self-justifying account.
But why In the Eye of the Storm? And what kind of “voyager” was Kurt Waldheim? Secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981 and president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, Waldheim was exposed, in the mid-’80s, as having served in the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II and quite possibly having committed major war crimes. The president, who had carefully covered his tracks for years, continued to claim he was innocent, and many of his fellow Austrians defended him, even when the evidence became overwhelming. His political and diplomatic success—he was allowed to finish out his term as president—has become a symbol for the hypocrisy and mendacity of the postwar era in an Austria that had strongly supported Hitler in the war years, before it received occupied-nation status in 1945. Avoiding the fate of its Iron Curtain neighbors Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Austria quickly became a prosperous nation.
Reddy’s sequence of erasures or writings-through makes for a brilliant political poem—one of the few really notable political poems of recent years. By using only Waldheim’s words but transforming his sentences so as to create absurd propositions and triads like the following:
I avoided speaking
in my unhappy state,
overcome by glory—
whereupon Silence leant across
and asked whether I would be good
enough to man the wheel.
(I consider him my maker,
and thus was disposed
to maintain good relations).
With the utmost courtesy,
frowned at the view
—the river sparkling outside,
a man delivering a sofa,
the high echelons of the saved
Writing through the memoir, joining unrelated phrases to one another, creates a devastating image of smarmy self-justification and self-congratulation on the part of a “cultured” but shameless liar. Waldheim seems never to have felt remorse. In the epilogue, the crossing out of whole phrases is used to isolate and heighten inadvertent revelations, for example:
It was allegiance to democracy, tempered by theexperience of fascism, whichtaught me that in the final analysis nothing is weaker than dictatorship.
Just what did experience in the final analysis teach this protagonist? In turning Waldheim’s own words against him, Reddy’s poem is a powerful critique, not only of “Waldheim’s disease” (forgetting one is a Nazi), but also of political mendacity in general. And yet Voyager’s fabric, generated, as the charts show, by the digital voyage through source texts, is curiously free of all moralizing or invective on the poet’s part.
We have witnessed a return to the short lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material.
Like Howe’s That This, Voyager has to be understood as a poetic book rather than a book of individual poems. In recent years—and here is another direction the language of appropriation has taken—we have witnessed a return to the short lyric, but now a lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material. In Charles Bernstein’s All The Whiskey in Heaven (2010) we find a pseudo-folk ballad that follows hard upon a list of absurd newsflashes such as, “An unresponsive person was found lying in a boat on Half Mile Road.” The song’s question-and-answer structure weaves together folk and lyrical ballad motifs from Shakespeare’s “Sigh no more”—“Converting all your sounds of woe / Into. Hey nonny, nonny’—to Goethe’s “Erlkönig” (“Elf King”)—“Who rides so late through night and wind?”—to the pop lyric “Every time you see me, what do you see?”
What do you see, Nonny?
What do you see?
A tune & a stain
Waiting for me
Will you go there, Nonny?
Will you go there?
It’s just by the corner
Right over the bend
Who’ll you see there, Nonny?
Who’ll you see there?
A monkey, a merchant, a pixelated man
What will you say, Nonny?
What will you say?
I’m just a nobody making my way
Who is this Nonny (nanny), and how can a stain be said to be “waiting for someone?” “There” (lines 5–6) is a meaningless specifier, for “right over the bend” there may be many corners. “Bend” doesn’t rhyme with “there,” so that something isn’t working. In the next stanza, “there” is the realm of children’s story, what with monkey and merchant, but the pixelated man who takes up so much syllable space, has no real existence beyond the computer screen. Indeed, he seems to function only as mirror image for both Nonny and the questioner, the name Nonny finally expanding into the bathos of pop: “I’m just a nobody making my way.”
Now consider the title of the sequence in which this little ballad appears: “Today’s Not Opposite Day.” The sentence sounds almost right—like “Today’s not Armistice Day” or “Today’s not laundry day.” Today, we know, is the opposite of tomorrow, or perhaps today’s not an oppositional day. With all these intertexts, the title remains elusive, for no day of the week, not even a holiday, has its opposite. It only has a series of alternatives. The little pseudo-ballad, in any case, tells us nothing about this poet’s particular situation, but it communicates a sharp sense of anxiety especially when Bernstein recites it. On each reading, this ballad, like his “Doggy Bag” and “Castor Oil,” becomes harder to pin down.
It has been argued that Bernstein’s poetry has become “easier,” that in recent years, it has lost some of the edge that defined the “non-sensical” language poems in such earlier books as Controlling Interests or The Sophist. But the ballads may be even more elliptical than the earlier satires and parodies because their tone is so difficult to assess. The title poem of All the Whiskey in Heaven, for example, opens on a note of absurd hyperbole—“Not for all the whiskey in heaven / Not for all the flies in Vermont / Not for all the tears in the basement.” And before we have got our bearings and remind ourselves that the last thing we want is flies in Vermont or tears flowing in the basements of our world, the poem turns dead serious:
No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again
How to come to terms with this embarrassing bathos? That is precisely the question the poem asks, poised on the edge of irony as it takes on all those Tin Pan Alley love songs that flood the airwaves.
“Echo,” as Craig Dworkin reminds us, “literally, always has the last word.” Let me give that last word to a poet whose recent lyric has made intriguing—and surprising—use of echo. Here is Peter Gizzi’s “Gray Sail,” from Threshold Songs (2011):
If I were a boat
I would probably roll over
If I were a prayer
If I were a beech stave
If I were a book
I would sing in streets
Alone in traffic
If I had a gown
I could be heroic
With a flowering mane
If I had a boat
I would eat a sandwich
In broad dazed light
I would come visit
As a holy book
If I were a boat
If I had a prayer
Various earlier poems and pop songs serve as intertexts here, but the one that I hear most keenly behind the “If I were . . .” clauses is the song “If I were a bell!” from Guys and Dolls:
Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a bell I’d be ringing!
From the moment we kissed tonight
That’s the way I’ve just gotta behave
Boy, if I were a lamp I’d light
And if I were a banner I’d wave!
So it goes for four more stanzas: “If I were a gate I’d be swinging,” “If I were a watch I’d start popping my springs,” “If I were a bridge I’d be burning,” “If I were a duck I’d quack.” “If I were a goose I’d be cooked,” “If I were a salad I know I’d be splashing my dressing.”
“Gray Sail” and Gizzi’s other Threshold Songs were written in response to a series of deaths—his mother’s, his brother’s, one of his closest friends—so overwhelming they can hardly be processed. Like Howe’s “Frolic Architecture,” the poem avoids the unsayable by its appropriation of other voices—here as unstated echo. Gizzi inverts “If I were a Bell” in a string of similes that take the common sense of the Broadway musical to absurd limits: “if I were a boat” immediately brings to mind Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre,” but here the metaphor of the poet as drunken boat can hardly be sustained. For “if I were a prayer” confutes being and having: the words the poet can’t articulate until the last line spell out the simple phrase “If I had a prayer,” the implication at the end being that no, this desolate person doesn’t have one. “Gray Sail” ends in a limbo where bells don’t ring, lamps don’t light—and yes, he must burn his bridges.
Night thoughts, death thoughts? What Yeats called the Spiritus Mundi becomes, for Gizzi and his contemporaries, a vast cybergalaxy of words, phrases, and images on which the lyric poet, consciously or not, has learned to draw.
“Echo,” as Dworkin puts it:
becomes a model of Oulipean ingenuity: continuing to communicate in her restricted state with far more personal purpose than her earlier gossiping, turning constraint to her advantage, appropriating other’s language to her own ends, ‘making do’ as a verbal bricoleuse.
Increasingly, the “true voice of feeling” is the one you discover with an inspired, if sometimes accidental click.
May 18, 2012
31 Min read time