Monday, August 16, 2010

Poem up at Word Riot

Word riot has published my poem "object" in their August issue, which went online today. They've included an audio file of me reading the piece.

Friday, August 13, 2010

FLOOD SONG, by Sherwin Bitsui

At first these poems seem pretty accessible. They're mostly composed of standard subject verb object sentences, a familiar form, and often each line is a separate clause:

He wanted to hold back gas-soaked doves with a questioning glance;
he wanted the clock to tick downwind from this gavel and pew

(page 22)

I started reading and felt comfortable with the format. The rhythms were like rhythms from normal prose, only slightly exaggerated by the use of line breaks.

But as I continued reading, I realized something: I wasn't taking very much in. My eyes would flow over the words in each line, the lines on each page, and I'd finish one page and go on to another. Ten pages later I'd pause and realize I'd noticed hardly any of what I'd just read. A few disjointed images here and there, maybe the product of a dozen words. The rest completely failed to penetrate.

I started looking at the poems more closely. The superficially familiar structure lulled me, I decided. It made me read at a normal pace, but what I read wasn't familiar enough for my mind to absorb it at that rate. Despite my fluency in the form, the actual content is pretty foreign.

Part of this stems from, I think, a less linear, less event-oriented subject matter than what I am familiar with. FLOOD SONG isn't like, for example, Frost's "The Road Not Taken," in which we've got a definite subject (the narrator) in a definite place (a fork in a path) doing a definite action (considering which way to go). At first FLOOD SONG might seem that way, because so many of the lines have subjects performing actions. But Frost's poem keeps us grounded in one place, and we follow along as one thing is done. It's a reality-based sort of narrative. Bitsui, on the other hand, might give us someone doing something in one line, but the next line could be (and probably will be) someone else doing something else. And the things that are being done don't make logical sense.

Sometimes this becomes really complex:

In a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon,
wearing the gloves of this song tightly over closed ears;
the bursting sun presses licks of flame
into our throats swelling with ghost dogs
nibbling on hands that roped off our footprints
keeping what is outside ours tucked
beneath the warmth of their feet cooling to zero

(page 56)

What's happening here? First, in the first line, we're given a location: a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon. Then, in the next two lines, we're given a subject (the bursting sun, which is wearing 'the gloves of this song' over closed ears), and the subject is doing something (pressing licks of flame into our throats). But as soon as we're given that--a thing doing an action in a place--the next line further complicates the concept by having the thing that is being done to (our throats) also doing something (swelling with ghost dogs). And then the ghost dogs are doing something (nibbling on hands), and then the hands have done something (roped off our footprints), and then something else (I'm not sure what) is keeping what is outside ours (and what does 'ours' refer to?) tucked beneath the warmth of their feet (not the feet themselves, but the warmth of those feet) as they are cooling to zero.


Anyway, it's complicated. We've got concepts stacked inside of concepts stacked inside of other concepts, like the proverbial Russian nesting dolls, and if we just read over it at a regular pace we're not going to have a chance in hell of understanding, or even noticing, everything that's going on. Actually, even if we read slowly and deliberately, and break things down line by line, we still can't really come up with anything solid.

So reading for literary meaning doesn't really work with FLOOD SONG. What then are we supposed to harvest from this book? I didn't really find a lot of strong, descriptive language, so the poems didn't offer me vivid imagery. I might have noticed a mild tone of melancholy, but it didn't feel pronounced enough to really compel me to keep reading, so the poems don't communicate much emotion. Obviously, the poems yield a bit more if the reader puts work into the reading. But is what they yield worth the effort?

Not to me.

Maybe this reflects a shortcoming on my part, as a reader. Maybe I'm just not getting it, or maybe I'm too lazy. But in the end, no one is paying me to read poetry (or anything else, for that matter). I read for pleasure, I read to imbue my life with meaning. There are more books of poetry out there than I'd ever be able to read, so I might as well choose to read the books I find most rewarding. FLOOD SONG is not one of those books.

Makes me think of Bukowski's drunken speech at the start of POETRY IN MOTION. I'm often leery of Buk's macho posturing, and I'm not one to pronounce another's work as value-less. But from a personal perspective, I can relate to what he's saying.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Poetry Books

I've been reading a lot of poetry books recently. The library branch near my house has a decent selection. Libraries are really awesome, you know.

FIELD GUIDE by Robert Hass. I liked the nature aspects, but generally didn't connect with this book. Finished reading it only two weeks ago, and already its only remnant in my mind is the few lines describing the cabezone fish.

SELECTED POEMS OF ANNE SEXTON. A big book. I've only gotten through the first section, which is primarily drawn from her first collection: TO BEDLAM AND PARTWAY BACK. There's power in the imagery and the subject matter, but Slyvia Plath's ARIEL hits the same targets with more power. Many of the poems use rhyme schemes that at first you might not notice, but then when you do notice them they feel distracting. Also seems like she's letting her need for a rhyming word steer her poems for her, and that often results in poems that don't really go to the marrow. Her free verse poems are generally better.

THE BLIZZARD VOICES by Ted Kooser. Easy reading poems that look like, basically, transcriptions of quotes from folks recounting a really big blizzard that happened in 1888. Interesting from a story-perspective, but I'm not sure much is gained by putting them into 'poem' format. Really, all Kooser seems to have done is take quotes and break them up into lines on a page. Also raises questions in my mind about authorship; one could argue that Kooser's role is more editor than poet. Brings to mind Anna Deavere Smith's work. Regardless of these questions, I found it to be comparatively more rewarding to read than either of the first two books mentioned in this post.

THE DUMBBELL NEBULA by Steve Kowit. Probably one of the top five poetry books I've ever read. Maybe even one of the top three. Witty, eloquent, 'poetic' use of language, but still easily accessible and solidly grounded. Because of that ease of entry, and the emotional power Kowit wields, these poems remind me in some ways of Bukowski. But Kowit is a very different character than Bukowski, with a very different perspective: a sort of innocent, boyish exuberance and playfulness, but also an incredible empathy and capacity to communicate sorrow. Kowit also feels more daring than Bukowski, to me--while Bukowski hides behind an armor of machismo, Kowit's willing to really show his vulnerabilities, and he's not afraid to play the fool. Does raise some questions though, like "what the hell is poetry, anyway?" With just minor tweaking, a lot of these poems could probably pass into prose form.