Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Palmer on Poetry: 197.1 October 2010

As Poetry doesn't read blind, these reviews are likely the end of any small hope I had of my work being included within its pages. I suppose I embrace that, though being included in the same pages that broke Eliot has always been a dream of mine. Ach du.

I hope to have these reviews done in a more timely fashion in the future, but take them as they come. I hope you, my readers, find them useful.

Volume 197
Issue 1
October, 2010

Leslie Scalapino
Rachel Wetzsteon
Bob Hicok
Eleanor Ross Taylor
Joel Brouwer
Peter Spagnuolo
Dean Young
Jane Mead
Ange Mlinko
Iain McGilchrist
Fanny Howe
Paul Baumstarck
Daisy Fried

October's issue opens with a word-salad tribute to Leslie Scalapino. The poem begins its end with "'embarrassed' is being elated." I'd have to agree; this poem, as an epitaph, is an embarrassment.

The poems proper begin with another tribute. Rachel Wetzsteon's poems "Cabaret Ludwig," "Algonquin Afterthoughts," "The World Had Fled," "Rain at Reading," and "Silver Roses." The order of the first two poems, perhaps, should be reversed--because as "Algonquin Afterthoughts" is quick to point out, Wetzsteon is here rewriting Dorothy Parker. While one wonders if Ms Parker needs rewriting, Wetzsteon's poems are fine for what they are--sexy without solemnity. "Cabaret Ludwig" is clever for the inclusion of the f-bomb in its glaring absence (a poem about sex that rhymes "duck" and "pluck" and "cluck" and "luck" is hardly going about itself subtly) but finally too light. This lightness is echoed in "Algonquin Afterthoughts" in which one is reminded of Milton's exhortation of English rhyme as something "to set off wretched matter." Perhaps Wetzsteon would have agreed; in poems like these there seems to be too much rhyme for meaning to seep in--we're carried to quickly by the words to their works' end. It may be, as with many poems in this issue, that meta-cognition is the point. If true, it's too fine a point on which to balance a poem.

"The World Had Fled" is a lovely poem on the nature of "love's widening third stage" marred by the odd simile of "flying lovesick pigs." What are these pigs doing in the poem? It is as if Wetzsteon was afraid to leave her poem lovely. "Rain at Reading" gives a nearly too precious moment of "exchanges. . .between craft and climate" after which the poem exposes the inherent flaw in much of light verse--as Stein said: "there's no there there."

Wetzsteon's poems do end on a rather more solid note, however, with "Silver Roses," a sort of ballade-canzone hybrid. It's a bit of a disappointment that Wetzsteon didn't insist on a handful (instead of a pailful) of rhymes in this poem--as her strength for rhyme limited to four or five repetitions would have served the poem well--indeed, its most successful points are in its few recurrent internal rhymes:

when he marches in the door
they soar some more

The Italian feel of the poem leads one to look within the words, and in the penultimate image of a "trembling ungloved hand" one can't help but see the word "love." In this final poem, the deft rhyming that is nearly wasted on rewriting Dorothy Parker becomes, not a pushing force, but an inexorability throughout the poem--this is how rhyme drives verse.

Bob Hicok's selections, "Feeling the draft," "Report from the black box," "A private public space," and "Unmediated experience" are underwhelming. The first three poems feel as if the final lines were written and the poems then shoehorned on top of them. There's certainly something to be said for "When the next Adonis/stepped up to throw the bomb" but, as the rest of "Feeling the draft" feels, well, drafty, it's hardly worth the journey. As I said of Wetzsteon, perhaps this is another "meta" poem in which we're supposed to feel drafty until the end--ha ha get it? But I don't think so--and even if I did, that's hardly a conceit on which to build a poem.

"Report from the black box" begins with the precious Wheel-of-Fortunism "A cooler/head of lettuce" and quickly devolves into, as its says, "the etceteras." The poem ends on the question "which side is which side/are you on?" Which begs the question "what thought is what thought/picks these poems?" One can understand the writing of such work--indeed, when I get to Iain McGilchrist below, he sums up why they are written, but one is baffled to consider the publication history of such work. What, finally is the point?

"A private public space" has more "there there" but again drives to the final thought: "'just/a friend'. And oceans are merely dew/upon the land." This is a delightful flaying of the old relational lie, but does the rest of the poem live up to it? Moreover, it's indicative of our current sickness that the poem contains this passage:

I said nothing
for years until this morning I realized
no one reads poems: my secrets and hers
are safe in verse.

Really, now, Poetry?

If we let ourselves adopt this attitude we might as well pen drivel.

"Unmediated experience" is a bit more interesting than the previous works--but a poem that abuses the old chestnut "a puppy is not just for Christmas" to write on growing up leaves an empty taste in the mouth.

Eleanor Ross Taylor's poems include "Vita," "Schizotableau," "Trying to Get Through," and "Small Trek." Unlike the previous two poets, Taylor's work gets exponentially weaker as it progresses from first to last. "Vita" does what light verse is supposed to do--with a not to Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," it captures the nostalgia of childhood in a far more perfect way than Hicok's poem--and with dependence upon nothing but the English language.

Unfortunately, "Vita" is by far Taylor's best work here. "Schizotableau" is simply a rehash of "author-as-writer" works with a dash of Yellow Wallpaperism thrown in. "Trying to Get Through" could be saved as a meta-work--it screams for context as much as its narrator does and though this is perhaps the first poem in the collection to be able to carry itself on its metatextuality this is certainly thin praise. Taylor's selection ends with "Small Trek" that "pointblank" has no point.

Joel Brouwer's "lines": "Lines from the Reports of the Investigative Committees," "Lines on Marriage," and "Lines on Distance" are weighty with craft but for at least the first poem, drowned by temporality. Just a few months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is already too late to read such a poem--poetry is not news, it's truth. A mismashed, dial-spinning, wheel-spinning poem simply goes nowhere. Perhaps like all that effort to seal that cap--but I fear that is gilding the wilted lily.

"Lines on Marriage" and "Lines on Distance" are more successful, though "Lines on Marriage" falls into the nihilist's trap:

they don't do
anything and are
no one. Which is to
say they're like us.

. . .

the disease
is pettiness and
mediocrity, which is
to say life itself

The hateful bleakness of Brouwer's poem is countered with the image of marriage, and hearkens back to Wetzsteon's earlier poems in the issue:

and as long as you
are with me I wish
never to be cured.

The speaker has an absence of faith in anything but his love. This is far more bleak than sweet.

"Lines on Distance," while not as disjointed as the first poem, is still bogged down by temporality (the War on Terra) and a distasteful discourse on masturbation. The poem includes the curt instruction: "If nothing like/this has happened to you, imagine it" but its value hardly pays for the poem itself, which ends up being a purposeless poem about purposelessness. If that was the goal, how is the ink superior to a blank page?

Peter Spagnuolo's two sonnets are "Her Scar" and "Interpol 22019-1.7: The Head of the Hatra Apollo." "Her Scar" is a passable nostalgia poem that makes the nearly unforgivable mistake of a heavy-handed etymologicalizing of "remember" into "re-member." I suppose this is inevitable in a climate where metaphor is shunned, but obvious wordplay is hardly a substitute. "Interpol. . ." cuts a more dramatic picture regarding the dual impermeability and inessentiality of art. Of the poems in the issue, it does the best job of painting image--we see the singing goatherd and his Kalashnikov.

Dean Young's two poems: "The New Optimism" and "Speech Therapy" have "learned all the wrong lessons." "The New Optimism" falls prey to histrionics ("the last polar bear") and, though it begins as fine satire, loses it in the last quarter, not unsurprisingly, when it mentions a certain oil spill. "Speech Therapy," as it says "learned the wrong lessons": it begins on a wrong note and ends, not explaining the wrong note, but in an entirely unrelated place--perhaps imagining how the speaker is better than Prufrock? I suppose that's a fine and attainable goal (he's not the best person, you know) but if a poem's going to run up against Eliot, it ought to have some fight in it.

Jane Mead's poems "The Geese" and "Walking, Blues" close out this issue's poetry section. In "The Geese," Mead refers to geese as being "nuanced/and muscular." Perhaps there is a different brand of Goose in Florida and Italy, but I've never seen one I would consider either nuanced or muscular--indeed, cooking a Christmas Goose means using an electric roaster so as not to coat the house oven with fat. "Walking, Blues" is a good stab at light verse, with rhythms and rhymes hidden. But the poem is in such a hurry--to what?--that I can't get a grip on it. I wonder if it's not a rewrite of "We Real Cool"--but it lacks the threat and punch of Brooks' gangsters.

In "This Is Your Brain on Poetry," Ange Mlinko interviews Iain McGilchrist on the nature of the division of the brain and its relationship to poetry. First let me say that McGilchrist's responses were so cogent and moving that I put down the issue in the middle of the interview, went to amazon and ordered the book. If you like the angle of the arguments I have presented on this blog, this book is for you a thousand times over.

Mlikno references the "atomized, utilitarian culture in which . . . the quantitative is valorized" but does not seem to see that this applies to much of contemporary poetry. McGilchrist puts her straight. It is his assertion "that metaphor is the only way of understanding anything." Though I would restate this as "comparison is the only way of understanding anything," McGilchrist is fundamentally correct.

In discussing the value of "slow poetry," McGilchrist says "Subtlety and depth require tact, time, and sheer hard work, not likely to find favor in a culture that demands instant gratification, prefers the loud and blatant over the quiet and tentative [c.f. "School of Quietude"], and is impatient of the idea that nothing good is achieved without a battle. McGilchrist almost dismisses his battle when he says that his neuroscientific research was "rather a waste of time" because it hasn't convinced anyone. It is cogent, however, that as metaphor or comparison is the root of all meaning that people reject correct comparisons if they do not jive with their worldview (of course, that means I perhaps overvalue McGilchrist because of selection bias--but selection bias is just a tool for discounting arguments).

In response to his emphasis on metaphor, Mlinko says that "metaphor is . . . merely ornamental." She then goes on to quote Larkin's "The Trees" and Ashbery's "Some Trees" in an effort to show the value of Ashbery's complexities over Larkin's simplicities.

Having none of it, McGilchrist points out that Mlinko, as she says "fetishiz[es]" Modernism (indeed, faith is simply replaced with fetish) and points out that the Enlightenment is when metaphor was first rejected (as a reaction against Donneian/Miltonic conceits) and that her trying to box in Larkin is a lark. McGilchrist goes then on to pull apart Mlinko's assertions and demonstrate why Larkin is "far richer" than Mlinko allows and while the Ashbery "is a great poem too, . . . because it takes more working out exactly what is being said" it is "the less powerful of the two."

McGilchrist then makes the "distinction between newness and novelty": "poetry need not seek novelty, because true poetry makes what had seemed familiar new."

After backpedaling, Mlinko tries to defend the notion of "over-aphasic poetry" as a reaction to "the disenchanted world." But apart from one wondering what the point would ever be of writing "over-aphasic poetry," it is clear that because McGilchrist has already said "in poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult" Mlinko's assertion falls flat.

McGilchrist closes with the assertion that "we should not be concerned with proving ourselves clever, but with doing something science could never do on its own, understanding and celebrating experience." He says that insisting on making our own world traps us in "the postmodern predicament: nothing really exists because we made it all up ourselves." He insists that "incarnation provides the necessary resistance without which nothing could move, or change, or have any meaning." Dante would be proud, of course, but it is just as well to see a modern thinker admit the "soul and body" are "each as awe-inspiring as the other."

In "Keepers of the Image," Fanny Howe discusses adaptations and translations she has done from Ilona Karmel, a Polish writer. I've difficulty reading the passage, though her assertion that poetry is "syntax, balance, and image" makes me smile. If only she had used the word syzygy.

The October issue closes with a Letter to the Editor from Paul Baumstarck regarding Daisy Fried's previous Letter to the Editor in which she derided Dana Gioia for serving "America's most malignant administration ever." Baumstarck chides Fried for "self-indulgence" but I think a more apt response would have been to encourage her to write a Brownian "Lost Leader" sort of poem. At least it would have scanned.


J said...


Holy Spindrift ratman!

Curtis Faville said...

I think Poetry might try inviting in more "guest editors" who have a bone to pick. The "Objectivist" issue edited by Zukofsky is one of the very few back issues of the magazine that's become collectible in its own right. One of the main problems with Poetry has been its desire to represent eclectic views of the whole scene--which inevitably ends up looking like mediocrity and watered-down inclusiveness.

How about Silliman to present a Langpo anthology?

G. M. Palmer said...


Silliman presenting a Langpo anthology might make me curl up into a ball and die.

They had a flarf issue. That was bad enough.

See today's post for my opinion on the destructive nature of Langpo.