Pecchenino on the Poetry of Los Angeles

Naturalized Angeleno and TGR editor Dan Pecchenino has a new review essay in DIALOGIST. It considers a fascinating new anthology of poetry about Los Angeles. RIYL good writing in general.

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Stevens

As the Mad Hatter says, we all have 364 un-birthdays. But for Wallace Stevens, the greatest American poet who ever lived–epic like Whitman, possessed of Dickinson’s lyric intricacies, fleshier than Bishop, more national than Eliot, beautiful unlike Pound–October 2 isn’t one of those. This year he would have been 136. It’s too bad cryogenics haven’t advanced as much as sci-fi movies suggest.

I am lucky that during the 1990s and 2000s my home state, Virginia, had a superb public education system from K to college. In 1999, when I was seventeen, I spent a summer in the state Arts and Humanities Governor’s School at the University of Richmond, where I took strange, exhilarating classes on things like Critical Imagination and hung out with dancers, poets, painters, photographers, actors, and other weirdos.

In one of those classes we read poets like Yeats, Rimbaud (whom I was really getting into at the time, having discovered Enid Starkie’s biography of him), and Stevens. I remember reading the poem below, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and feeling immediately, before I understood a word, that it was otherwordly, like Pedro Martinez’s change-up, a text uninterested in anything like philosophical or ideological Content and yet scenically intelligible and eager to show me something pleasingly, oddly beautiful. It wobbled and reverberated with magic Yeats and mad Rimbaud:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

In 2005 a dear friend gave me a hardcover copy of Stevens’s Collected Poems (the 1954 Knopf edition, still the standard). I’ve read the shit out of it ever since, that husky, taped-up, note-tattooed volume. My favorite poem is still, I think, at least in most moods, “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which just vaporizes the century’s poetic competition. By turns soulful, satirical, straight-faced, erotic, and cinematic, long but brisk, with a continuous lyric intelligence underlying everything, “Peter Quince” was first published a century ago, in 1915, but it remains strikingly contemporary. You can imagine the guy in jeans, taking a selfie of the pool where Susanna . . . well, you’ll see. Full text here; final amazing stanza below. Happy weekend, y’all.

Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
And let us remember: Stevens was an insurance executive at the company now known as The Hartford. An insurance exec!

Weekend Verse: Major Jackson’s “New Sphere of Influence”

If you’ve read any of my criticism on this site, you may recall that profuse obscurity in a poem bugs me. If I read a text multiple times and still can’t grasp, or even begin to intuitively sense, what human instance of thinking or action is going on, I lose my appetite. This is a critical attitude I slowly learned in graduate school, by figuring out that when I couldn’t comprehend some piece of post-structural literary theory, that didn’t mean I was dense–it meant the writer sucked. Inscrutability is not complexity. It’s poor, thin-spirited writing, indulging the author at the expense of a reader’s desire for some discernible meaning. In freshman comp classes at my university we call it egocentric writing, and I don’t see why we should not also disparage it in grown-up professional poetry written by people who win awards and get visiting fellowships. (*cough, Jorie Graham and fellow travelers, cough*)

But if you’ve read any of my criticism on this site, you also might remember that I ride for Wallace Stevens, James Tate, Marianne Moore, and other modern weirdos whose poems resist easy explication. (Tate’s “Fuck the Astronauts” may be an exception, but even that blast is characteristically surreal in a homegrown mid-century American way.) So what is the distinction between an obscurantist charlatan and a poet whose work is pleasantly strange and challenging?

The poet I come here to praise (not bury), Major Jackson, is instructive. Jackson’s best and most recent collection, Holding Company (2010), comprises eighty poems that each consist of ten lines, these lines mostly being ten to fifteen syllables long. The book demonstrates some forms of structural control and discursive guidance that prevent its lyrics from becoming unintelligible blobs.

At the highest architectural level, the eighty poems are organized into four groups of twenty; with its 800 lines held to a tight range of lengths, the book is evenly weighted. Now look at a single poem, “New Sphere of Influence”:

This is the year I’ll contemplate the fire-fangled sky
over the isle of Pag, authored by my lover’s eyes.
A crimson rambler uncurls its petals, and I am whistling
a dusty concerto, “Hope with Roadside Flowers.”
I want to unfurl in the sodden fields of her daydreams.
Who wants immortality if she must die?
Once I thought stars were everlasting, only dying
behind a cerulean curtain, cloudy rains at dawn.
My lover’s lips are twin geniuses. I’ve trashed the movie stubs
of my past. I’ve front row seats to her mumbling sleep.

Thematically speaking, this is pretty obviously a love poem, one that cross-breeds the modern (e.g., the closing metaphor of movie theaters) with the Elizabethan. Even if “Who wants immortality if she must die?” did not end with emphatic iambs, the organizing trope of a mistress’ eventual decline and death (and the poet’s self-conscious awareness of this) is a structural principle in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sonnets, which in turn frequently situate poetry as a partial defeat of death, an uneasy preservation of experience.

Note also the pervasive lyricism, something often missing from Difficult, prose-fingered contemporary poems. “New Sphere of Influence” isn’t lyrical just because it is short; it is lyrical because it is musically textured. Jackson doesn’t use a strict pattern of feet, but in places the text momentarily adopts a metrical rhythm (“authored by my lover’s eyes”). The lines are about the length of a full breath. Inhale, exhale, line break. There are no true end rhymes, but Jackson includes some partial rhymes, like sky/eyes, and the poem’s innards employ assonance (“seats to her mumbling sleep”) and alliteration, as in “My lover’s lips.” There are also some resonances between the middles of lines, as with three and five: “rambler uncurls” gets picked up by “I want to unfurl.” The poem quivers with sounds.

The images, meanwhile, are dreamlike and associative–one suspects the speaker is on the border of sleep–yet they also deliver intelligible scenes of human love. I’m sure the sky over Pag, a real Croatian isle where no doubt many lovers vacation, is sometimes “fire-fangled,” even if that is a Stevens-esque neologism; “sodden fields of her daydreams” is a visually lucid metaphor; and the “twin geniuses” of the beloved’s lips are likewise easily pictured.

This is a mind running with the body abed. The poem is not a facile lesson or narrative scenario–not straightforward, it is strange, like the mind–but it does record (or create) a genuine experience that most readers will recognize. Lyric poetry is especially good at this, and Major Jackson is especially good at lyric poetry.

Sonnets, Twitter, and Sunburn’d Brains

One of the coolest things the Renaissance gave us, besides heliocentrism and The Prince, was the sonnet sequence. All the hot boys had one in the 1500s: Edmund Spenser did (much less boring than The Faerie Queene), Sir Philip Sidney did, Shakespeare did, of course. Jump forward to the Victorian era, and you’ve got Modern Love, George Meredith’s queasy portrait of a dead marriage (it’s like a Noah Baumbach film) that is almost unknown by contemporary readers. Around the same time, Elizabeth Barrett Browning dropped Sonnets from the Portugese, which is admittedly kind of disappointing next to the intermittently awesome novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh. But still, sonnets!

Many keystrokes have been devoted to poetry’s death in modernity. We don’t, the narrative goes, have the patience to read and savor it anymore; we would rather be on social media or watching Netflix. We can’t sit down and pay attention. But even if you buy this story–and I’m not always sure I do–you can’t deny that lyric poetry, in some forms at least, is structurally similar to a dominant media platform, Twitter. In the sonnet and the tweet, compression of rhetoric, wit, and image is what matters; in a nice bit of mathematical coincidence, sonnets have 14 lines, while tweets can’t go over 140 characters. (At a weird, half-articulate limbic level, I don’t even think it is a coincidence.)

Brevity might be poetry’s evolutionary advantage in the contemporary media ecosystem. Most readers are no longer able to stomach Bleak House, but at least some still have energy to read a fourteen-line tidbit. Some might even re-read: while Twitter infects you with the urge to obsessively check for new content, sonnets urge you to go back over the territory, and you can, because sonnets are so compact.

Granted, given their gender politics and all-male authorship, sixteenth-century lyrics can sometimes sound like men’s-rights activist blogs in verse, but that is only if you read them as a blunt presentist, expecting four-hundred-year-old sonnets to accord with contemporary progressive thought instead of viewing each text’s motifs (e.g. the scornful, icy, or oblivious beloved) as rhetorical equipment shared by European poets of the period. While you can do some biographical mapping–Whom was Sidney in love with? Who is Shakespeare’s “Mr. W.H.”? Was Poet X trying to tup Poet Y’s mistress? et cetera–ultimately these aren’t texts about the lives of real people, but performances within (and individual reworkings of) a literary tradition. Still, I understand why Sonnet #31 from Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, for instance, might grate a little. When the speaker’s “long-with-love-acquainted eyes” survey the “sad steps” and “wan” face of the moon in the night sky, he concludes that the earth’s satellite knows what’s up. The sonnet’s sestet is elegant whining:

Then, even of fellowship, O moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call “virtue” there, ungratefulness?

I’ve enjoyed Astrophel and Stella‘s opener since I first read it ten years ago, sitting in my back yard in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a poetic spring day. The speaker’s partly ironic faith in a spontaneous, organic afflatus–a natural lyric style–a anticipates the Romantics and Walt Whitman; the pregnancy metaphor for artistic creation is arresting; and I love the image of a “sunburn’d brain.” Come to think of it, that’s what Twitter does to the mind. To paraphrase the Clipse, it gets hot ’round here, so when you come to the Reader, bring your sunblock.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but stranger in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write!”

General Ephemera: Post-Christmas Scraps, Tidbits, Recos, Trinkets, Footnotes, Scattershots, and Noble Rags

Somewhere deep in his Letters, Wallace Stevens admits that he never liked Christmas much because the holiday never lives up to advance billing. Being of a similar mind, I’m glad the man is not alive to see that Samsung commercial where this minor actor named Dax Shepard (yes, sentient human parents named him Dax) and his pregnant wife decorate their awful Silver Lake hill cube. (Google it if you want to rot inside a little.) And for a variety of boring reasons I’m not drinking this go-round, which makes the season even more tedious, so to stave off boredom-induced madness, I’ve scrawled some things on the digital wall . Get out your knife and fork and dig in.

  • Eliza Griswold is a wonderful young American poet. Like most poets, her readership is appallingly limited. This is her page at the Poetry (magazine) Foundation. You can buy her debut volume, Wideawake Field, here.
  • Turns out Twitter isn’t just for beefing about sports and harassing female journalists. Some writers have started experimenting with it as a platform for bursts that are worth reading closely, and right now the best Twitter scrivener going is Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet). Here is a link to his aptly titled “A Twitter Essay about Twitter Essays.” Writes Heer: “These are essays in the classical French sense of the word: essaying a topic: an attempt, a provisional thought, a notebook entry.” Imagine if Montaigne had an iPhone!
  • Denis Johnson has a new book out. Set in post-9/11 Africa, it is called The Laughing Monsters. Just ordered my copy. It will be very good. Do you know how I know that? Because Denis Johnson wrote it.
  • Sickened by all the Christmas saccharinalia on the radio? Here is TGR favorite Dwight Yoakam covering a Tom Jones song:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson has turned Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice into what looks like a pretty good movie. But you should still read the book. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow–it won’t kill you, unlike GR, which is much duller than its fame suggests. Want to read a huge Pynchon? Pick up Mason & Dixon.
  • Oh hey, David Lynch is rebooting Twin Peaks. Guess who has two thumbs and doesn’t care? *raises and tilts both thumbs* This guy! The show was leaden and lethargic the first time, but I had to pretend to like it during college and grad school, because all my friends said they adored it. Spoiler alert: Audrey died of meta-boredom.
  • After putting off Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) for years, I’m finally thigh-deep in its cold currents. Theory as to at least part of Greene’s genius: no novelist is better–though a few are just as good–at subtly using his characters’ psychological states to form the epistemological tenor of the narrative universe, without employing first-person narration or hammy metaphors. For stretches of his best books, a mind shades a world that is still far more than that single mind. This is not Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy: the encompassing world remains ontologically other, it is just that we access it through such masterful filtrations. In other words, Greene takes free indirect style to the VIP level.
  • Before Tinder and OK Cupid and the less libidinous social-media platforms arose to try and distract us from our natural state of crawling loneliness, some mad souls kept the lights on by writing stuff like Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky’s idealist jilted and horrified by the impossibility of perfecting mankind) and In Memoriam A.H.H., Lord Tennyson’s at-times-unbearable cry of anguish over the early death of his best friend. While some associate professors might disagree regarding the latter, neither text is sexual or romantic; both speak to and from within the marrow-grade loneliness one feels when sitting in front of a Mark Rothko painting or listening to Astral Weeks. If you can get through In Memoriam without weeping a couple times, get thee to a doctor.
  • You’ll weep for the sins–the ongoing sins–of America if you read “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay that announced Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of the language’s great young essayists. Erudite, methodical, heart-stopping.
  • Check out my former colleague Robert Samuels’s eminently readable Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (2013). Samuels’s core thesis is that instead of funneling billions into colleges and universities via federal loans, grants, and byzantine tax breaks which individual students then use to pay tuition, the money could be given directly to schools, who would in turn offer tuition-free education. Sounds bracingly simple, right? But then creditors, including the federal government, would lose that deep, swift stream of interest payments on all those loans, loans that, unlike every other form of consumer debt, cannot be refinanced or discharged in bankruptcy. (My own from graduate school are locked in at 6.8 percent, more than double the prime rate as reported by the Wall Street Journal.) If you die, your next of kin are on the hook for the balance. And that’s why Samuels’s book, smart and humane as it is, will never affect education policy in the current American political economy.
  • The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has the best journalist name, and his book Rise of the Warrior Cop will scare the bejesus out of you. It is a chilling chronicle of the United States’ ongoing decline into a threadbare security state where carbines, tear gas, and razor wire protect the ruling ten percent from the rest of us when we aren’t busy fighting over Black Friday sales.
  • Finally, here is a thing that is funny, one of the best sight/editing gags from The Simpsons

May the new year leave you in peace, dear general readers.

Topical Verse: Roethke’s Greenhouse Fraus

For a poet whose work is a major bridge from prewar Modernism to the martinis-and-visiting-professorships circuit of the Fifties and Sixties, Theodore Roethke does not deserve to have faded from view so much. He has fans here and there, squirreling away used paperbacks, but dude definitely doesn’t have the cultural tonnage of William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop (two poets in his extended family), and Dame Plath’s estate probably moves more books in a week than Roethke’s does in a year. Until graduate school I pronounced his name Roth-co, like the painter. He lingers in the Norton anthologies, but in actual conversation I hadn’t met anyone to correct me.

It’s a shame. Roethke isn’t a great, but he’s still pretty great, the poetry equivalent of an awesome singles band.

Coming from a line of gardeners and builders, I’m wired to love the greenhouse lyrics that make up the first section of his best book, The Lost Son (1948). Autobiographical resonance aside, I like how these poems form a DMZ between tendencies that sometimes weaken his writing.

On one side of the field, you’ve got his “confessional” impulse, the need to establish versions of one’s wounded self as the ultimate poetic reality, which can easily tip into self-mythologizing frenzy. As “Open House” (lame pun) has it, “My secrets cry aloud,” and thus often “Rage warps my clearest cry / To witless agony” (AWFUL rhyme). You get the sense he might not be the most fun person to hang out with some days.

On the other side of the field is a much more pervasive flaw, Roethke’s persistent desire to be a visionary like Yeats or Blake, with an attendant mimicry of the song-/chant-like prosody they often use. Even the wonderful “Epidermal Macabre” is like a B-side of Yeats’s “A Coat.” Gorgeous. I carry a handwritten copy in my wallet. But still a B-side. In his massive, intermittently luminous Lives of the Poets (1998), the critic Michael Schmidt calls it “partial ventriloquism.”

You get a lot of crap about vision and transcendence in Roethke, and all the time you also get the sense that he would be happier talking about daily activities and relationships. Google “The Geranium.” It is a fantastic friendship poem written by a frazzled loner. It exemplifies what Roethke was capable of when he wasn’t spinning out oracular stuff like the lines in this rogue’s gallery:

A pearl within the brain, / Secretion of the sense; / Around a central grain / New meaning grows immense. (“Genesis”)

The stones sang, / The little ones did, / And flowers jumped / Like small goats.
(“The Waking”—the other one, not the justly famous villanelle)

All’s known, all, all around: / The shape of things to be; / A green thing loves the green / And loves the living ground. / The deep shade gathers night; / She changed with changing light.
(“Light Listened”)

Oh, and from the “Love Poems” section of his 1953 volume The Waking, here is “The Dream.” This how it ends:

She held her body steady in the wind;
Our shadows met, and slowly swung around;
She turned the field into a glittering sea;
I played in flame and water like a boy [editorial note: !!!]
And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam;
Like a wet log, I sang within a flame.
In that last while, eternity’s confine,
I came to love, I came into my own.

That’s an attempted bang that ends up being a whimper. In all of these you see Roethke elbowing his way toward the numinous through nature and women and his own psychodrama, forcing the stuff of consciousness into Very Significant existential patterns. This in turn produces some painfully simple-minded rhymes.

A cooler Roethke appears in his notebooks, which David Wagoner has edited for the Copper Canyon Press under the name Straw For the Fire (1974, 2006). “We need more barnyard poets,” Roethke declares on page 12, perhaps after several whiskies, “poets who depart from the patio, the penthouse, the palladium.” Modified roughnecks, of the kind Whitman admired. “What was the greenhouse?” asks a later entry, which then answers itself: “It was a jungle, and it was paradise; it was order and disorder: Was it an escape? No, for it was a reality harsher than reality” (page 145). “I wish I could photosynthesize,” he admits on the following page.

The same earthbound mensch shows up in the greenhouse poems from The Lost Son. Here, horticulture serves as a figuration of the poet act, being a partial re-engineering and attempted management of nature’s fecund otherness. The texts are personally rooted but not sutured to a biographical persona; they are self-oriented but not self-contained. Conversational but not slack, intimate without becoming maudlin, they employ free verse that is cut with patterned rhymes and unobtrusive meters in places.

These poems posit a dialectic between vision and the visual, between the fundamental arrogance of a poet’s imagination and the rank solidity of dirt, watering cans, and chlorophyll. A poet’s gotta dream. But then the real, grubby, frustrating, material universe will push back.

So this weekend’s poem is “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze.” Roethe’s dad owned some greenhouses in Michigan; and apparently Roethke senior’s pop was an official forester for Kaiser Wilhelm. Roethke worked in the greenhouses some summers, alongside the older women who maintained the sites year-round.

Refusing visionary leaps can be a feminist act. That is, refusing to twist actual humans from one’s past into a mythology that motivates one’s present is a gesture of respect for actual lives that, in this instance, are women’s lives. The three women in this poem are people, not a transcendentalist conduit or visionary metaphor. They chew tobacco, they sweat when they work. They aren’t pretty maidens, fertile mothers, or geriatric saints.

The poem does not pity the fraus for being childless “nurses of no one else.” It avoids the easy edginess of playing up a weird Freudian sexual angle. It likens the women to birds and witches (one detects a reference to Macbeth in there), but it nonetheless views them as earthbound, fascinating, actual Others, not symbols of Mother Nature or bit players in Roethke’s personal archives. Their flesh is working flesh, the stuff of labor: gardening in this case, the work of “Keeping creation at ease.” These three German ex-pats have a permanently reserved table in the poet’s memory, but they aren’t contractually bound to occupy it every night. After an initial feint at mythology (“three ancient ladies”) the text settles into a respect for their autonomy, their lives as material beings. We know them a little bit, through one remarkable, writing person’s fallible memory. This is it. We should all be so lucky.

Enjoy the read. Happy weekends, y’all.

Gone the three ancient ladies
Who creaked on the greenhouse ladders,
Reaching up white strings
To wind, to wind
The sweet-pea tendrils, the smilax,
Nasturtiums, the climbing
Roses, to straighten
Carnations, red
Chrysanthemums; the stiff
Stems jointed like corn,
They tied and tucked,—
These nurses of nobody else.
Quicker than birds, they dipped
Up and sifted the dirt;
They sprinkled and shook;
They stood astride pipes,
Their skirts billowing out wide into tents,
Their hands twinkling with wet;
Like witches they flew along rows
Keeping creation at ease;
With a tendril for needle
They sewed up the air with a stem;
They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—
All the coils, loops, and whorls.
They trellised the sun; they plotted for more than themselves.

I remember how they picked me up, a spindly kid,
Pinching and poking my thin ribs
Till I lay in their laps, laughing,
Weak as a whiffet;
Now, when I’m alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuff-laden breath blowing lightly over me in my first sleep.