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