Monday, September 26, 2005

"six poems equal the dirt in the road"

Not long after my post below on “Crisis Aesthetics” I happened upon an essay by Raymond Carver where he loosely describes his “minimalist” approached to writing.

But extremely clever chichi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.

Is contemporary poetry missing this sense of wonder? Or at least a sense of amazement at something other than its own language?


My only recourse lay in a sort of divination,
lying down conjuring the Fred and Ginger building

so to pollenate my categories like catbirds and cowbirds.
“Missing footage suggests she lost an arm.”

Subtitles appear as grass under our feet
Though we would like to read what they say of us

(with the fungible singers of the fainter ochers
droning through the ivy netting on rash brick)

–Ange Mlinko, “The Treasury of Plain Sense,” from STARRED WIRE, recently selected to be part of the National Poetry Series


Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distance of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

–James Wright, “Lying in A Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”, ABOVE THE RIVER

I like Mlinko’s poem, especially the line, “Subtitles appear as grass under our feet.” And I like some of the other poems in her new book. But they ultimately seem to be just about the language, the unique image or sound, and not much else. While Wright seems to be using the language not only to create something beautiful out of language but to also touch and explore something more essential. One could argue that Wright’s poetry is also only about the language, that it’s only reference point is the poem itself. But then you would have to argue that all language refers only to itself. I know there are complex theories of language and I have tried to wade through some of them, but in the end when you tell a child, “Go to your room!”, the child knows what that group of sounds means, what parts or the real world they refer to.

This is not to say I’m opposed to experimentation in poetry and art – far from it. I think experimentation is an essential part of art. The Wright poem at the time it was written was a break from tradition, it was an experiment. I can’t imagine jazz without the experiments of Coltrane, Coleman, Davis, or Monk; the visual arts without Picasso, Rothko, Agnes Martin, and countless other artists. What would poetry be without Stevens, Elliot, Pound, O’Hara, Berrigan, Howe, and many other poets? It would be repetitive and boring. Experiment for experimentation's sake might be necessary at times to advance the art, to breakup a log-jammed imagination, but experimentation alone can also harm the art. As Carver goes on to say

Too often "experimentation" is a license to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that's all—a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists…But if writers haven't taken leave of their senses, they also want to stay in touch with us, they want to carry news from their world to ours.

Deserts can be beautiful and moving and simple “news” boring. But I think what Carver is saying is that a poem or story must still be in touch with everything that makes us human, not just language, which is an essential part of humanity. I think William Carlos Williams was saying something similar when he wrote,

It is difficult /to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day /for lack /of what is found there.

I think experimentation is always needed in order to say things new, but experimentation that loses sight of the soul, of the human, of reality will ultimately fail and fall flat. Somehow Coltrane, even at is most experimental, was always grounded in the human spirit.

Wittgenstein wrote,

Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.

What contemporary poetry may need is a little less “thought” and a little more “reality” – poets who can harmonize the last 50 years of experimentation with thousands of years of human experience.

Where wrought iron spears
punctuate the common and rain
turns to snow a minute
I learned six poems

equal the dirt in the road
twenty more make a cobweb
thirty five muddy bodies equal a wall
one and a half jobs don’t make a living
great novels are stainglass
their pain is their color

—Fanny Howe, “Goodbye, Post Office Square,” SELECTED POEMS


At 10:30 PM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Amen to this post. It's an excellent one.

Wright had his heart in the right place. Or to be mildly clever about it, the Wright place. (See the difference between being direct, if cliched, and being clever.)

The retreat into writing about writing (about writing about writing about writing): well, it's nothing new, or Carver wouldn't have been writing about it, but it goes on and on and on (and on). It's safe, it's convenient, it gets people grants, contracts, even tenure, and begets the same. It's a cloister for the cloistered. The other night I heard a poet who was MFA'd and poetry prized and to be published with a major press, and all she was doing as far as I could see was showing us all how clever and learned and yet cool she was. Part of me was amused, but the deeper part, bored out of its tree. As oblivion approaches in every way, can we really afford this waste of our time? (It may be the very approach of oblivion that causes certain poets to be so *oblivious*...)

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

Excellent post! And, a few of my favorite poems & Ray Carver, too. I'll come back to this & link to it soon. I've been having blogger problems for the past 2 days. Thanks for this.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

Just found and read your blog for the first time. Enjoyed this post. James Wright has been a favorite of mine for many years.

I also run a little dry reading and/or listening to (or attempting to) much of the "post-modern" poetry -- and the writing about it -- of the past 20 or 25 years. A part of this is I suppose because my own approach to poetry (reading it and writing it) is not mainly through the intellect, though certainly the intellect has its place.

I think the constant scramble to make an academic career has on the one hand worn down the sensibilities of a lot of poets who started out with real potential, and at the same time has left the field open for more blatant careerists who are writing (and teaching writing) purely to advance their career ambitions.

I'm not saying anything brand new here -- just off the top of my head, Donald Hall (for one) covered a lot of the same ground a number of years ago in his essay "Poetry and Ambition." I guess I'm just saying that I agree.


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