This was a comment I came across, reminding me of my post “Fetishizing Difficulty“. Something every writer and poet might want to think about. There might be readers willing to work harder than the writer, but not many. One can think up exceptions—T.S. Eliot comes to mind. But T.S. Eliot wrote very few poems in his lifetime and had a reputation for working very hard at them, writing wholesale revisions upon revisions. And so if Eliot’s poetry expects much from his readers, it can also be said that Eliot expected much from himself. If ones poetry is simply a cascading string of allusions to autobiographical effects, experiences and literary/artistic footnotes that no reader could possibly be familiar with without reference to the poet’s life and sources, then good luck to that poet finding a reader willing to work harder than they did. The poet who works hard is the one who makes their solitary existence universal and worth the reader’s effort.
I know I’ve expressed this opinion before to the surprise of some of my readers (and dismay) but I really do think Bukowski was a greater poet than the current establishment favorites, and by establishment I refer to those publications like The Library of America, who have anointed the likes of John Ashbery and W.S. Merwin—having dedicated whole books to their collected works. For the record, I find Merwin ineffably dull—the consummate writer of the generic—always poetic, but rarely writing poetry. Every last poem by Ashbery is written in the same key. That is, if you’ve read his best poems, then you’ve read Ashbery. I suspect that Ashbery represents the consummate ideal of the latter twentieth century—the pursuit of originality as the consummate artistic accomplishment; and in that sense, he deserves recognition. No other poet was as distinctively original as Ashbery; and yet, ironically, Ashbery was also his generation’s most derivative poet. As William Logan said of Ashbery: “A poet who will do anything to avoid repeating himself must, at last, repeat himself all the time.”
Bukowski would seem to be the antithesis of everything I enjoy in poetry, but not wholly so. I would put it this way: I don’t go to Bukowski for his way with language. Bukowski writes lineated prose, but so do the vast majority of contemporary poets. What I love about Bukowski is that he has something to say and he’s a story teller. He’s a narrative poet in a sea of poets whose poems are the poems of affect—having neither narrative nor having anything to say. As an example of affect, I just tabbed over to Poetry Foundation and randomly chose a poem by Merwin:
The Animals By W. S. Merwin All these years behind windows With blind crosses sweeping the tables And myself tracking over empty ground Animals I never saw I with no voice Remembering names to invent for them Will any come back will one Saying yes Saying look carefully yes We will meet again
There’s neither a narrative nor argument. Merwin’s poem is the poetry of affect—defined as “Affection; inclination; passion; feeling; disposition.” The poem is nothing if not a feeling or disposition—a momentary and ill-defined passion; so much so and so generic that one isn’t really sure what Merwin is even talking about. He just leaves you with the feeling that you ought to be feeling something. I’m guessing that one might successfully argue that this kind of poetry is a subset of confessional poetry (that burst onto the scene in the 50s and 60s and was internalized by almost every poet that followed). One could assert, for example, that Merwin was confessing his feelings. But poetry like this mostly puts me to sleep, and there’s so much of it (which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes enjoy such poetry or that I haven’t written the same myself). After Merwin’s poem, I returned to Poetry Foundation and randomly picked a poet I had never read. I found Heid E. Erdrich’s poem Last Snow. As in most such poems, Erdrich creates a landscape (which could be literal or figurative) meant to be evocative and emotive, and ends the poem with a kind of affective sigh. “Stubborn calendar of bone. Last snow. Now it must always be so,” the poet writes. If I were asked to describe what happened in the poem, I’d have to answer: Nothing at all. Some snow fell. And it was sort of melting and sort of not. If I were asked to describe what the poet was trying to say, I’d answer: He feels like this or like that. In fairness to Erdrich, the poem is well written (in the sense that it would do nicely as a paragraph in a novel, let’s say); but as a poem I get awfully bored reading stuff like this. My mind wanders.
I can read Bukowski the way I read a short story or a novel. Inasmuch as his poetry also arouses feelings, he does so through story telling and by having something to say. This isn’t to say there aren’t real duds among Bukowski’s poems (and among my own) but by in large, if you give the average person a poem by Bukowski and ask them what happened and what Bukowski was trying to say, they’ll tell you. Though the stylistic and linguistic gifts of a Robert Frost (or Eliot or Keats for that matter) far, far exceeded Bukowski’s, they nevertheless all have storytelling in common. And so, despite the plain prose of Bukowski’s poetry, I would say he has much more in common with traditional poets of the 19th century (and earlier) than, probably, the vast majority of contemporary poets. Contemporary traditional poets, who write accomplished meter and rhyme rarely, to my knowledge, write narrative poetry or, it seems, have something to say. They write poems of affect like their contemporaries.
When I was offering my novel to friends, I’d tell them: All I’d like to know is if the story makes you want to turn the page. In some ways I’m more of a story teller than a poet (though I’ve only shared a handful of my short stories here). I’ve written hundreds. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve really come to value a good story, or at least a good narrative, in both poetry and fiction. Bukowski makes me want to turn the page. I finish reading a poem by Bukowski and I say to myself: I’ve had it in mind to say the same god-damn thing. I like that about Bukowski and realize that I like that in poetry.
upinVermont | April 11 2021
Way back in 2008 I reviewed one of Dana Gioia’s books. I just edited it. (My writing was a bit more straight-laced back then—and wordier.) And that was because, while noodling around The American Conservative (the closest I get to visiting an alien planet and/or parallel universe) I discovered a new article about Dana Gioia. The article was — odd. Like a couple articles I’ve read there, it managed to make the article’s ostensible subject matter yet another opportunity to piously reflect on the “The Church” (to be fair, the conservative site doesn’t hesitate to lay into conservative commentators). They’re not solely a right wing propaganda outlet.
But back to Dana Gioia. Schmitz, the writer of the article, Dana Gioia’s Timeless Piety, likes him because:
Gioia’s characteristic virtue, like that of Aeneas, is piety. (….) The pious man worships God, serves his country, and honors his mother and father. He remembers the dead. “To name is to know and remember,” Gioia writes in one of his finest poems, and here he repeats the refrain: “Oblivion can do its work elsewhere. Remembrance is our métier. After all, our Muse is the daughter of Memory.”
I’m not sure whether Gioia would necessarily go along with that interpretation, but it suits Schmitz’s narrative. And then Schmitz makes the assertion that has done more to ruin traditional poetry (let alone classical music) than any critique that I know of:
His unpolemical formalism is in part a way of keeping faith with the literary traditions that have shaped and sustained the West, expressed in their highest forms by Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Gioia is Latin not just as an ethnic matter, but in his commitment to an ancient civilization. He is a faithful steward of what Pope Benedict XVI describes as “the treasures of worship and culture … accumulated by the Romans.”
He enlists “Formalism”, or the formalist writer, into the conservative cause. But the more one drills down into this belief, the more insubstantial it becomes. George Gordon Lord Byron had nothing good to say about the the church or its pieties—and he was a blue-blooded formalist. Keats was more a Deist than a Theist (some say a pantheist) and detested the clanging of church bells. Milton is the only poet one could call pious, and Milton rejected the strict formalism (the closed heroic couplets) considered (by conservative Restoration poets) the true analog to the great poetry of classical Greece and Rome. He wrote blank verse instead. No one really knows where Shakespeare came down (some speculate he was Catholic) but he too paid no mind to the classical obsessions of his peer, Ben Jonson, who insisted plays be written according to the “Classical Unities” (and huffed and puffed when bored audiences didn’t appreciate the effort). So if, anything, the great formalist of the past weren’t exactly faithful stewards of worship and culture.
But Schmitz has this to say about piety: “Today the word “piety” is used to describe hollow and sentimental shows of belief. In its ancient and proper sense, however, piety is a noble thing, a disposition of reverence toward those to whom we owe gratitude.”
And this is how literature gets dragged into the mud pit of identity politics—both on the left and the right. The “left” by asserting that a given work’s “canonical status” is primarily a reflection of the author’s gender, skin and entrenched social hierarchies (that art has no intrinsic claim to greatness beyond this); and the “right” by identifying the formal structures in “canonical literature” as intrinsic to great art and as the embodiment of the social hierarchies (formal “structures” in politics and religion) they wish to preserve and reinforce. And then there are the politicized poets and authors who reinforce these associations insofar as it benefits them.
All I can say is: Good grief.
Howard Fine, a reader of my blog, sent me one of his books of poetry to review and I have to say, aesthetically, it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve gotten. Each page is a handwritten facsimile. I myself wouldn’t possibly have the patience for this sort of effort. My mind wanders. I would absent-mindedly misspell a word and have to start all over again. I would probably end up writing the book ten times over just to get one printable version. So I admire Fine’s effort, his handwriting, and the neatness and readability of it. This book is a labor of love.
But what are the poems like?
Fine gives meter and rhyme a go and for that I’m grateful, but the end-result is a superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson. Similar to Dickinson’s manner of writing, Fine dispenses with grammatical connectives, omitting definite articles, pronouns and propositions in the name of meter. Fine’s poetry often feels like its made from the limbs and shoots of a grammar tree, held together only by a poem’s thematic material. So you get stanzas like this:
was poor chronicler's lament is our mere finite sphere shall far sparkling firmament may be forever near labor least to reinvent worn world as it wanes here but by conjure and consent drown known orb in own globed tear coax Other to appear
What makes me guess this isn’t a peculiarity of Fine’s voice but a concession made to rhyme and meter is that in those poems where there’s neither rhyme nor meter, his grammar and syntax are perfectly normal (less the omission of punctuation):
we brought a box of chocolates we would have brought flowers but all the florists were closed oh what good are flowers? they only fade flowers are good because they fade
Much to my enjoyment, he also wrote a couple poems in German:
aus dem trauern flog ein r und wohnt der wunde bei ein ich fragt was es sei? sagt ein engel es war Er!
I was wondering if it should read ein(e)r? or if this was a kind of visual pun (the small ‘r’ corrected to the divine and capitalized ‘Er’)? — but anyways, what’s interesting is that Fine writes the same way in German as in English, the same sort of piecemeal grammar. I’m guessing most readers will simply accept this as a facet of his style. Since it’s something that I pay (possibly too much) attention to, I’m also probably going to be more critical than others. Even so, the downside is that it risks making the poetry feel altogether rhyme-driven and line-driven (the poem as a collection of lines rather than a whole). It risks trading the musicality of idiomatic English for something that sometimes sounds less playful than juvenile.
now west heeds east by eremite's beach here sweet tears teach why best needs least come share my tent in neither nor on this spare shore from came to went
Or later, he will write a line like “and wonder what this life be worth”. I’m not sure what Fine gains by using “be” instead of “is”. Is it a feint at poetic depth? Is this meant to make us treat the narrator as a pretentious poseur? As it was, I was suddenly finishing the poem in the voice of Hector Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean.
and wonder what this life be worth the dog returning brought for me a stag's domed skull laid at my heel she knows thought i memento mori though risen now there yet i kneel
It’s a trade off and a conscious one. Either the reader accepts the stilted syntax or one wishes he had simply written free verse. I personally find myself sometimes, it has to be said, spending more time trying to piece together his grammatical jigsaw puzzles than enjoying the poetry.
why try? could court worse failures draw blood? no more touch knife assailed by fear's familiars jailed in contracted life grow bold! quit taboo's ambit breathe freely having fled cold cell of concrete habit enforced by bar of dread
Compare this to one of Dickinson’s many inscrutable poems:
Reverse cannot befall That find Prosperity Whose Sources are interior As soon — Adversity A Diamond — overtake In far — Bolivian Ground — Misfortune hath no implement Could mar it — if it found — Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them p. 287
If one is going to be influenced by Dickinson (not just in grammar but hymn meter too) then I’m not sure poems like these represent Dickinson at her best. When Dickinson is read and remembered, and appreciated for her genius, it’s for the poetry that speaks to us in familiar ways and of a world that is not so synechdochic as to be indecipherable.
But enough of that. What about the content of Fine’s poetry? Once you get past the (probably too) seriousness with which I read poetry, one can also read his poems as playful, inventive and enthusiastic—in short, as light verse. The reader seeking traditional poetry that aims for any sort of sublimity won’t find it here. There’s lots of winking, nudging, coy question marks and exclamation points. And not all his poems have that expediently truncated feel to them. You get a little charmer like this:
a natural cat knows how to purr how to groom her winter fur how to choose the cutest mice and skate soft-shoe across new ice how to scratch how to sleep wholeheartedly but not too deep and when she meows her ninth goodbye a natural cat knows how to die.
But then at other times his humor can feel a little smug, like someone who laughs at his own joke a little too much and too long:
i knelt by a jamb that hung no door felt swung i am ajar got sung till i crossed through thought and ought at last past sense commence
It’s a mixed bag. Not only is Fine writing to entertain but also, it has to be said, show off. One does get the sense that he wishes to impress with cleverness—a cleverness that sometimes implodes in it’s own too much:
lose ego lose me lose smartphone what's dark what's whole what's hominid's? re-inspire spark runic sorcery impish futhork lyrical surge sanity enjoyed small's great while hearts turn be peace vaporize into outto blackwhite lighght
Writing humor isn’t easy. It’s a curious thing, for example, that Steve Martin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, has little talent for writing humor. Comedic timing means something completely different on the page than on the stage and I’m not sure that Fine altogether succeeds as a humorist or writer of light verse, but his poems do communicate a good-natured and engaging enthusiasm. Fine himself closes the book by writing:
my script now nears its end i'd love to ad-lib more
And that’s probably the spirit in which to read these poems—as ad-libbing. They’re high-spirited, and never longer than a page. There’s a touch of love and spirituality among them, but Fine doesn’t let either break the overall mood—a sort of pranksterish extroversion. In the end, I think he’d like to leave the reader as light-hearted as his poetry. That’s a wonderful thing, but there’s a serious art that underlies the art of light-heartedness. I think the reader is going to have to be a little indulgent with Fine to fully enjoy him, but I would discourage no one from giving his collection a try.
up in Vermont | March 31 2021