I'm thinking tonight about Charlie Jensen's post just after AWP (3.04.07) which seemed to me a defense of poetry, an ars poetica, a few sentences built to explain his approach to his own writing which might be autobiographical and narrative, a post entitled "The Poetics of Never Forgetting":
"the rest of the world, so transient to me, must be kept somewhere. I put these things in poems. . . the rise of the AIDS crisis . . .a book about my ex-boyfriend's suicide . . . a book about losing other people: another man, a boy in Wyoming. I don't want to forget how whole things once were. I think the world is a winnowing place . . . so I share the never-forgetting. This is all I can do. I don't write history, I write subjectivity."
I'm chopping him up here and I hope he forgives it. I love this post because it makes an argument for saying something clearly in a poem. I hesitate here. Saying an honest thing about lived experience. His post almost reads like a defense of confessionalism. Our experiences are what we have, why not save them in poems. . .
I think about Jensen's post as a kind of response to, or in a kind of dialogue with Joshua Corey's brilliant essay "Notes Toward the Dramatic Lyric" at sidereality.com (or through his blog Cahiers de Corey). What I love about Corey's essay is that, like the Russian Futurists, he demands of his language a political certitude. If language fails us, then how we go about "saying an honest thing" is by using the language to its ultimate ability, that is, demanding that it be more than conventional, self-indulgent, vulnerable to melodrama, as we see happening in so much narrative confessional work. He insists instead that it be provocative, offensive, that it wake up a real reader inside of us, an ardent consciousness.
One can't help think of a poet like Paul Celan, who I love, who's work is at once direct and elusive, but a work in which the langauge itself demands our heightened, even political, attention:
"Day freed from demons.
Disenchanted, the powers-that-be
sew up the stabbed lung.
Blood pours back in.
In Bocklemund Cemetery, the
races over the
shallow inscription on the front,
also over you,
deep Brother Letter."
I love this poem, and though I've had to live with it for a time to feel as though I can "read" it, it is something that I understand immdediately as an address to mortality, the wind over the letters engraved in a headstone. Still, it's frought with symbolism, both difficult and elusive, lyric, filled with intuitive but not narrative clarity. It's demanding in a way that much contemporary narrative, especially in the confessional mode, is not.
Here is how Corey addresses a narrative poetry of consumerism:
"even those poets who commit to raising readers' social consciousness are hamstrung by their commitments to narrative and the poet-identified 'I.' However vibrant their language, the formal decisions these poets make confine experience to the easily recognized, easily digested packages of meaning that can be swallowed without thinking. The resulting poem is anesthetized and anesthetizing. And poetry as a means of speaking the true and difficult is supplanted by a poetry of reassurance and distraction, of matter-of-fact mimesis, of easy identity politics."
Well. Jensen and Corey are two poets with opposing philosophies of language, and somehow I feel torn between them. I always have. I suppose a desire to make a poetry that is accessible to my family opposed with a poetry that is dramatic, intensely metaphoric, one that drowns itself with a pure delight in language and meaning. One devoid of a responsibility to narrate and explain. A poetry of fantasy, but one of real feeling, a real response to a spiritual existence, which is a vision plagued by signs--I suppose my approach has been to pursue an inversion of the real for the really real. Well, whatever that means is what I mean. It seems to me that both Jensen and Corey have a similar goal, but I'm interested in the certainty of their differing approaches. Mostly because I seem to war between them. On the one hand, I'm bored out of my mind with practically everything conventional in our journals, filled with poems of journalistic precision--as if poetry were journalism!
Except that it might be! A journalism of the hiddenside of experience, the welling of the truth that is about us, but not easily articulated. But clean narrative bores the hell out of me. It makes me want to vomit on myself if it can't accomplish something interesting in the language, something delicious in its approach. Saying something. How do we? Do we even want to? Or do we need poems to be just that: poems, pieces of delight in themselves, and not necessarily records, markers, artifacts. And yet. That's what they are. How much do I love Charlie Simic's work, which is just that: small visionary wallet-sized photos. Maybe I don't need to compare his poem to Celan's, since they both accomplish something unsayable.
So this entry is entirely folded in on itself, circular, pointless, except to draw the poles I am drawn by. Yes, I have a crush on Charlie Jensen and a hard-on for Josh Corey. One doesn't impair my heart-on for the other. I'm greatly promiscuous. I'm somewhere between a love for the confessional narrative and the postmodernist abstract lyric. Poetry, it seems to me, is an attempt to speak to the question of deep recognition in the world.
I guess one question we might ask ourselves is what part of the reader we are trying to reach, the part that will easily recognize us, or that part that must sleep to recognize us? Of course to really sleep is not to encounter the monotony of our consumerist culture, but to face a dreamlife that is at first senseless. A life bound by desire and how it is transforming us somewhere within. Remember lines from Lucille Clifton: "children / when they ask you / why is your mama so funny / say / she is a poet / she don't have no sense."
Still, I cannot deny my love for someone like Louise Gluck, who's AVERNO I've just finished reading. She really felt me up with that one. Really got me undressed and undone and helpless and ruined. God it was good. Braingasm. Filled with quietude and sense. When I think of this book, I think about what Jensen says in his post about poetry being a kind of remembrance that witnesses and saves us from the "never-forgetting." Gluck has written that "poetry is autobiography stripped of context and commentary" which perhaps supplements Jensen, perhaps transforms him. Perhaps confines his topics to versions of himself. Which is fine, because for me Guck is intensely compelling. A kind of bareness that is terrifying, even though it is given to us in a narrative of clear, unassuming, even confessional, language:
I was trying to love matter.
I taped a sign over the mirror.
You cannot hate matter and love form.
It was a beautiful day, though cold.
This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.
. . . . . . . your poem:
tried, but could not.
I taped a sign over the first sign:
Cry, weep, thrash yourself, rend your garments--
List of things to love:
dirt, food, shells, human hair.
. . . . . . .said
tasteless excess. Then I
rent the signs.
the naked mirror.
Here is narrative description that works on the level of metaphor. It reminds us that this is exactly what experience is. Poetry, if we're awake enough.
I want my poems delirious! Even if the language is clean as still life, it has to deliver duende. It has to. Since language is dangerous in itself. Both Jensen and Corey's approaches seem prone to different flaws, different challenges. I'm not sure where I exist between them. I don't know that I can clearly save experience, to recount and remember, without losing myself into some abstract and meaningless well. I also don't know that abstract lines, even when charged with meaning, do enough for me without the context of narrated thinking. I guess I've written all this tonight as an attempt at understanding what my own poetics are, a navigation between these influences, the narrative and the abstract. For me, every poem seems to ask for a reconciliation between them.
This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
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