Friday, February 10, 2012

A Case of Substance Over Style: Milosz's Provinces

     Off and on for the past few years, I've been working my way through a voluminous edition of collected poems of the late, great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. While I might post my impressions of the whole collection later, I've recently been thinking about some of his later poems. At present, I'm working my way through his 1991 volume Provinces. The poems are obviously the work of an old man (though he'd continue to publish for 10 more years), and the book came over a decade after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
     This later work is still characteristic Milosz both stylistically and thematically. Indeed, it's remarkable that Milosz's work stayed so steadily consistent in quality over such a long period. Working over such a long period as Milosz did, however, will inevitably bring some changes, and to my eye at least, his later work did display some subtle differences from his earlier pieces. Most notably, I found Milosz's earlier work to be much more appealing artistically - it had an energy and imagery that really propelled the work forward in a way you don't always find in his later poems. That said, however, I still oddly enough seem to be enjoying some of his later poems as much, if not more, than some of his earlier ones.
     I believe this is largely due to the subject matter of Milosz's work in Provinces. By and large, these poems are the philisophical musings of an old man pondering the transience of our mortal world and what happens when we pass from it. If you don't think mortality and aging is on his mind, then just look at a sampling of some of the lines that open poems in this volume: "You would like to hear how it is in old age?" ("A New Province"), "Your unhappy and silly youth" ("Youth"), "Listen, perhaps you will hear me, young man" ("Inheritor"), "In my old age I decided to visit places where I wandered long ago in my early youth" ("Return"), "When I die, I will see the lining of the world" ("Meaning").   
It's a theme common enough to poetry, granted, but Milosz here is grappling with the lofty subject with an apparent sincerity that is much more rare. It is this grappling that makes these poems so interesting, to me at least, even if the verse itself lacks some of the artistic integrity of his earlier pieces.
     You see, one of the things that bothers me about contemporary poetry is that often it's the opposite case. Many of the talented poets today, particularly those being cranked out by some of these MFA programs, seem to care more about the style of their poetry than the message that so often gets pushed to the background or diluted by their obscure renderings. Oftentimes, I even get the distinct impression that some of these poems start with the stylistic structure and then finds a subject to incorporate into it. It's a pet peeve when I read many literary journals today.
     Some of these later poems of Milosz are the complete opposite, and it's refreshing. In fact, let me close with one of the poems Milosz writes that seems to be just about that subject. It's called "Good Night," and in it, one senses that the poet is glad that he's at the stage of his career where he doesn't need to worry about the artistic reception to his poetry:

No duties. I don't have to be profound.
I don't have to be artistically perfect.
Or sublime. Or edifying.
I just wander. I say: "You were running,
That's fine. It was the thing to do."
And now the music of the worlds transforms me.
My planet enters a different house.
Trees and lawns become more distinct.
Philosophies one after another go out.
Everything is lighter yet not less odd.
Sauces, wine vintages, dishes of meat.
We talk a little of district fairs,
Of travels in a covered wagon with a cloud of dust behind,
Of how rivers once were, what the scent of calamus is.
That's better than examining one's private dreams.
And meanwhile it has arrived. It's here, invisible.
Who can guess how it got here, everywhere.
Let others take care of it. Time for me to play hooky.
Buena notte. Ciao. Farewell.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pierre Peuchmaurd, Apparently Part of the 97%

          The most recent issue of Gulf Coast has an international bent to it, with several poems, stories, essays, artwork, and interviews either by or about international authors and artists. I plan to write a bit more about the issue later, but for now, I just wanted to discuss briefly the late Pierre Peuchmaurd (1948-2009), a French poet I encountered for the first time in this issue.
          Peuchmaurd had two poems in the journal, both translated by E. C. Belli – “It Will Come in My Left Lung” and “A Few of the Words I Was Mysteriously Allowed Until Now.” Both were very good. In fact, they’re two of my favorite pieces in the issue so far (though I’m only about halfway through). Like other French poets I’ve read, he shows a mastery for imagery and the subtleties of language. According to his contributor’s bio, early in his life he encountered AndrĂ© Breton, a large reason he spent his life creating surrealist pieces (although, to be honest, the two poems in Gulf Coast didn’t strike me as overly surrealist in the traditional sense of the word – a good thing, since I’m personally not always a fan of the movement).
          And, well . . . that’s about the extent I can write about him. Pierre Peuchmaurd is a good example of one of those international poets we don’t currently have a lot of access to here in the United States. Even trying to Google him – the old failsafe way of finding obscure information in this day and age – brought up practically nothing in English. I also searched Amazon to see what titles might be available by Peuchmaurd, and the site actually listed several, only all in French.
Like many other American poetry readers, I know I have trouble just keeping up with the many good poets we have writing in English here stateside. Yet sometimes I come across a good international poet like Peuchmaurd, and it just reminds me that there’s a whole world of poets out there and by limiting ourselves to those writing only in English, we are missing out on some great work.
This actually is a good opportunity for me to plug a blog I sometimes check out. The Three Percent Blog is a blog dedicated to modern and contemporary international literature. It takes its name from the fact that of the books published in the United States, only 3% of it is work in translation. And as the blog further points out, in terms of literary fiction and poetry, that number actually drops to around 0.7%. These numbers certainly are indicative of how self-contained we’ve become in our reading habits. To help break this habit, I certainly encourage everyone to go check out Three Percent. Whenever I head over there, I’m always finding cool new books I need to add to my list. They do some great work.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Order Out of the Chaos (Or Maybe Not): Scouring the Lists of 2011's Best Poetry Books

     Happy 2012, everyone!
     With the proliferation of lists that the year end brings, I got to wondering: why is it we're so obsessed with top 10 lists? Seriously, the media is full of them come December.
     On the one hand, I think the lists are places to focus debate and discussion. As readers, we like looking at these lists that distill the best of the best into a compact form and subsequently either having our views verified or else arguing against the compiler for their oversights. In today's online world, we even increasingly become a part of this debate, entering our comments and arguments underneath the original list for others to read and discuss.
     More importantly, however, I think these lists are helpful to us in an information-burdened society to try to bring some order out of the chaos. In terms of sheer volume, there simply is too much being put out there for any one human being to possibly get to it all. But look now - some helpful reviewer has brought together his or her top choices for books/cds/movies/whatever for the year! Now maybe we can be a reasonably informed citizen and at least know about these top releases. Maybe we can even find time in our schedule to check out at a couple of those that appeal to us. Personally, I know I've had friends who have decided they're going to make their way through the top 100 films of all time or similar lists. I think people like lists like these because they quickly and succinctly tell us (in that one source's opinion, at least) what we need to be aware of if we're cutting the crap and getting to the creme de la creme.
     At least that's the idea.
     But it doesn't always end up that way. Take, for example, the various lists that came out in the past few weeks describing the top poetry books of 2011. I actually initially came across just one of them (I can't remember which one). I know how tough it is keeping up with all the new releases, so I was interested to see what some of the top titles were in the past year. After reading the one list, I thought I'd check out some of others. Here's a sampling of some of the "best of" lists I encountered:

The interesting thing about these lists is the decided lack of consensus. Hardly any one list mentioned a book that was on another. I don't have exact figures, but say I looked at lists that added together included about 50 books. Of those, if you took out any repeat offenders, I would still say there were about 45 unique titles.
     Obviously, lists like these are subject to the tastes and whims of the reviewer(s). But still, the lack of consensus on these lists was somewhat surprising to me. Was it just an unusual year for poetry with no heavyweight titles that stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, or does it have something more to do with the poetry field in general, which is notably broad and diverse in its tastes? I'm guessing it's more the latter, as one's individual taste in poetry, as with certain other fields, is exceptionally subjective.
      Note that I don't think this is a bad thing. In fact, I find the poetry titles I often enjoy the most are ones that elicit groans in others. I just found the lack of consensus interesting, considering what these lists usually are intended for. The few titles that did show up on multiple lists were thus somewhat conspicuous and caught my eye. Just wanted to run over a couple of them briefly here. . .

Space, in Chains, by Laura Kasischke - This one has actually been on my radar for a few months now. When I got the Copper Canyon Press catalog/reader this past fall, I really liked the brief description and excerpt. The simple fact that it's a Copper Canyon release didn't hurt any either, as my two favorite poetry volumes from the last five years (Craig Arnold's Made Flesh and Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path) have both been CCP publications. I was sold right there. There's apparently been some buzz about this book as well, and it actually did show up on a few of these end-of-year lists. Plus, isn't that a Rothko painting on the cover? What's not to like? Freshly armed with an Amazon gift card from Christmas, I just ordered this book.

Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith - I confess that I'm fascinated by space, so naturally I'm a sucker for poems about space, especially when they sound as well done as these poems do. All reviews of Smith's volume indicate that it also rates high on the hipness scale.

Devotions, by Bruce Smith - Judging from the write-ups, this volume is one of those ones that seems difficult to describe to make it stand out (wouldn't it suck to have to try to write book descriptions for poetry books for a living?). Nonetheless, this is another book that has received consistently good praise across the board.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dan Beachy-Quick's Poetry Off the Shelf Podcast: On Memory, Originality, and Influence

          Poetry Off the Shelf had an interesting podcast the other week. Host Curtis Fox interviewed poet Dan Beachy-Quick about his proclivity for memorizing poems he admires. This topic alone is one I find intriguing. These days, I’m not aware of much poetry memorization that goes on outside of a classroom setting, and the podcast mentions a trend that I’ve also noticed and found interesting – how the process of memorization in general has gotten pushed to the margins in the age when so much information is easily accessible via the Internet. Thus just to hear a major contemporary poet speaking of his habit of memorizing poetry is reason enough to check out this podcast.
          But what really interested me most was when Beachy-Quick describes the reasons why he memorized poems. He describes a process of assimilation that takes place during the procedure, through which by setting the poems to memory, they become a part of him (hence the title of the podcast installment – “Inscribe the poem on yourself”). He likes having every little bit of these memorized poems incorporated inside him so that whenever he feels he needs some bit of the language or sentiment, it’s readily accessible. (Listen to the podcast and you’ll hear that Beachy-Quick does a much better job describing this process; my paraphrase is butchering it here.)
          One tangent my thoughts took after hearing this podcast was to musing about Harold Bloom’s influential and well-known 1973 poetic theory work, The Anxiety of Influence, one of the few theory works I actually remember by name. Before proceeding, be forewarned that I’ve never actually read the work in its entirety and only know the basic gist of it. But from what I understand, Bloom’s premise is that poets are inevitably influenced by the writings of their predecessors. Since their work is consequently derivative, the originality of their poetic visions are automatically compromised. Only the strongest poetic voices of each generation is able to survive and demonstrate a truly original poetic vision, and the rest becomes merely white noise. It’s an interesting theory, and the logic behind it does make some sense. I feel at some point in my life I’ll need to read Bloom’s book fully to learn the details and see to what extent I agree with him. . .
          At any rate, you can probably see now where I’m going with this. I think it’s interesting to compare Bloom’s theory side-by-side with Beachy-Quick’s comments. No matter how you feel about Bloom’s critical thoughts, most of us would probably think it’s safe to say that poets as a whole prefer to focus on their originality more than anything else. Thus, it’s refreshing to hear about a major poet speaking of willingly incorporating others’ works so thoroughly into his psyche, where he may, on occasion, pick up little snippets of influence to work into his own verse either intentionally or unintentionally.
          Of course, based on the few poems I’ve read by Beachy-Quick, it seems clear he’s a confident and original poet whose work does not, to my eye, risk falling headfirst into derivative imitations. Maybe it’s this confidence that allows him to so fully incorporate the thoughts of others into his subconscious without subsequent anxiety as to their influence encroaching upon his own originality. However, I prefer to think that he welcomes whatever influence may come. After all, poetry in many ways is an ongoing conversation, and if it is not building upon the past, then there is only so far originality can take us.
          Well, yet again, here’s another random post that doesn’t really bring us to anywhere in particular, but which nonetheless contains a few interesting thoughts that have popped into my head. I’d be interested to hear somebody else’s thoughts on the topic.
Finally, a brief side note to anyone in the area – Dan Beachy-Quick is scheduled to give a reading in Alabama this upcoming spring (in Tuscaloosa on April 5). I’m hoping I’ll be able to see it – we only have a few readings of that stature that take place in the area each year, so you have to take advantage when you can.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grappling with Dylan Thomas

          You may have started to pick up on it in my post a couple weeks ago, but I was not overly enthusiastic about Dylan Thomas at the time. I’ve actually had this volume of his poems (New Directions' Collected Poems 1934-1952) for about 15 years or so, and I’ve tried a couple of times in the past to read it only to put it down after a few poems in frustration. I decided a few months ago to try again, and knowing what to expect this time, I was determined not to permit the unfinished book to continue hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles (as you can tell from the analogy, leaving books unfinished does not sit well with me). I’m happy to say I made it all the way through this time. I can also say that, as with most things, a little more familiarity did breed a fair bit more appreciation of the poems. And while I still can’t quite call myself a Dylan Thomas fan, I have at least come to the point where I can admit a grudging admiration for the man.
          A good portion of my way through the book, I actually decided to look up a little information about Thomas. Typically, I avoid doing this, preferring to let my first reading remain as unbiased by outside sources as possible, but I couldn’t help myself in this case. I consider myself a fairly good reader of poetry, and the frustration I felt reading Thomas was beginning to wear on me. Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to realize such a reaction is by no means uncommon. In fact, I ran across Elder Olson’s 1954 review of the Collected Poems (originally published in Poetry), which opens, “There is some evidence that even well-equipped readers have found the poetry of Dylan Thomas difficult; and one would be surprised, considering the nature of his work, if the case were otherwise.” Olson then spends the remainder of the lengthy opening paragraph explaining some of the various reasons for this difficulty. Suitably relieved to find it wasn’t just me, I toughed it through the remainder of the volume.
          The consensus on Thomas’s poetry more or less tends to be that it’s full of powerful, unique language that can captivate the reader, even while some of its exact meaning remains clouded beneath surreal and fantastic imagery. I tend to agree with this assessment. In fact, it seems Thomas wishes more to engage with the reader on an emotional level and is not overly concerned about his poems’ literal interpretation. When Thomas’s confident voice and striking imagery and rhythm all work together, the result is some fantastic poetry, as in one of my favorites, “All all and all the dry world’s lever,” which opens:

                   All all and all the dry world’s lever,
                   Stage of the ice, the solid ocean,
                   All from the oil, the pound of lava.
                   City of spring, the governed flower,
                   Turns in the earth that turns the ashen
                   Towns around on a wheel of fire.

                   How now my flesh, my naked fellow,
                   Dug of the sea, the glanded morrow,
                   Worm in the scalp, the staked and fallow.
                   All all and all, the corpse’s lover,
                   Skinny as sin, the foaming marrow,
                   All of the flesh, the dry world’s lever.

It’s moments like these I really enjoy in Thomas. There’s a vitality and originality to the language and imagery that sticks to you. Even if you have trouble getting your exact bearings at any one point in this poem, the piling on of images in this section and the ones that follow make it clear Thomas is describing the simultaneous fruitless and regenerative processes of the mortal world.
          Unfortunately, for every poem I found like this, I also would find one along these lines:

                   And from the windy West came two-gunned Gabriel,
                   From Jesu’s sleeve trumped up the king of spots,
                   The sheath-decked jacks, queen with a shuffled heart;
                   Said the fake gentleman in suit of spades,
                   Black-tongued and tipsy from salvation’s bottle.
                   Rose my Byzantine Adam in the night.
                   For loss of blood I fell on Ishmael’s plain,
                   Under the milky mushrooms slew my hunger,
                   A climbing sea from Asia had me down
                   And Jonah’s Moby snatched me by the hair,
                   Cross-stroked salt Adam to the frozen angel
                   Pin-legged on pole-hills with a black medusa
                   By waste seas where the white bear quoted Virgil
                   And sirens singing from our lady’s sea-straw.

This is a sonnet from the sequence “Altarwise by owl-light,” an often-discussed Thomas piece that has to deal with religious experience. I found it frustrating, as was often the case in this book.
          As I typically do when encountering a difficult poem, I relied on subsequent close readings of this and other poems like it to try and open the door to Thomas. Sometimes these subsequent readings led to epiphanies, but often they didn’t, and that is where my main frustration with Thomas stemmed from. I enjoy challenging poets, but when their works are too obscure for me to confidently form any sort of interpretation, I get annoyed. At this point of opaqueness, the verse becomes less a mystery to be unlocked and more an intellectual puzzle to be solved. As a result, I find the lyrical rewards of the verse are greatly diluted – one is too distracted by the challenges of meaning to focus on anything else.
          But again, when Thomas hits the right balance and has everything working – music, imagery, originality – he is quite a poet, particularly when he doesn’t go over the deep end of obscurity. He does so in poems like the aforementioned “All all and all the dry world’s lever,” as well as others like “A saint about to fall,” “We lying by seasand,” and “Into her Lying Down Head.” It’s the promise I see in poems like these that I think frustrates me that he can’t demonstrate it more consistently throughout his work.
          All the same, I have to admit I’ve come a long way with Dylan Thomas. As I was nearing the end of the volume, I originally thought I would probably just pass it along to charity or something when I was done. But I have to admit, there’s a haunting quality about Thomas’s verse, and it really sticks with you. Now I don’t think I’m quite done with Thomas after all. I think I’m going to hang on to the book for a while and maybe one day revisit it. There may be some poems I skip the second time round, but the fact that I’m willing to give it another shot at all is a sign of how things have changed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

5 reasons I'm not buying an e-reader just yet

          OK, it’s not exactly a topic about poetry, but since I’ve written some in my short time here on technology and its effect on the written word, I thought it would still be relevant.
          We’ve come now to a time where more and more of the stalwarts who once stood beside me by the gates of the city have fallen to the onslaught of the new promising technology offered by readers such as Nooks and Kindles. They’ve stepped out of the line, deciding to forego their substantial tomes for lightweight, elegant handheld devices. Still standing guard, but now with only a few in front and around me, I can clearly see the flashing lights and sensuous functionality that tempted away so many a brave warrior. I waver. . .
          But I stand firm. Here, in the end, after some contemplation, is why I decided against jumping on the e-reader bandwagon just yet:

1. I still love books. It’s one of the arguments made most strongly by those not yet willing to make the jump to e-readers, but oddly, it’s probably the argument most difficult for them to defend. But yet, there is something to it.

Yes, I know that it’s what’s written inside a book that matters and that that part will stay the same regardless, but still. . . I’ve devoted a large part of my life to books and I’m just not quite ready to make the jump. Plus, without books, scenes like those displayed here – – just wouldn’t be possible.

2. I’m a late adopter when it comes to technology. Particularly considering the speed with which it changes nowadays, I prefer to wait it out on the sidelines a bit to see where the dust settles. I’m also not one who burns through different models or versions of the same technology – so once I finally get something, I plan on sticking with it for a while.

I was tempted to get an e-reader this year because it seemed like maybe it had come to a temporary stopping point where I was comfortable – i.e., it had made great jumps in the technology and the price had come down considerably. However, it seems like many more things might still occur in the next couple of years. For example, the lighting on the color readers might improve, making a purchase of a color reader possible without the annoying glare. Perhaps more importantly, I see the line between reader and tablet continuing to blur, so that in a short time one might get much more functionality out of a very basic reader (capability for email, apps, etc.) than one does today.

3. Hmmmm. . . I can think of no other way to put this one.

In my own personal circle, the few people I know who own e-readers at this time are not the ones I’d most like to emulate. In fact, they can be kind of annoying. I actually know very few very dedicated readers who own e-readers at this point. Most of the people I know who own them are actually more casual readers who are interested in technology. Once that dynamic starts to shift, I think peer opinion might bear more weight with me than it does now. Of course, I think this has much more to do with my limited sample than anything else, but still, it does have some bearing in my own personal decision.

4. Some of the most appealing aspects of an e-reader to me are its benefits to the environment and the reduction of “stuff” in my own personal space. I can save both trees and space.

A nightmare of clutter or a dream come true?
Well, thinking along those lines, there’s still plenty I can do without the aid of an e-reader. Over the course of the years, I’ve gathered many a book from friends, thrift stores, and bargain bins that I have yet to read. Many of these are books I’ll probably just read once and then be willing to pass along to charity. (Not to mention there are some books I’ve read in the past that I’ll likely never read again; I could jettison these as well, if I could just get over my biblio-attachment to them.) By making an effort to read and donate some of these, I can still be doing some service both environmentally and personally.

5. I tend to read some of the more specialized titles (as demonstrated in my interest in poetry). Many of the books I’m interested in are not currently available in e-reader formats, so switching to a reader would not benefit me in these instances. This trend is obviously going to be changing swiftly in the coming years, but for the present, a reader wouldn’t do me much good for many of the books I wish to read.

On a related note, my local library is surprisingly eclectic in its tastes and does often have these volumes on hand in a traditional print format. Thus, by utilizing its criminally underutilized resources, I can read many of the books I want and still be doing my “green” duty.

          I think that about covers the major points of my reasoning. I should point out that this is not a dig at e-readers. On the contrary, I think I’m finally caving to the fact that at some point in the future I will be acquiring one. In this post, I didn’t really say anything about the many benefits of these devices (such as their increasing functionality, the thousands of classic titles available free, the increasing library support of electronic formats, etc.), but maybe I will whenever I get to that point when I decide to purchase one.
          However, that point has not yet arrived for me. I’ll continue, for now, to stay true to my print books. Traditional, yes, but exciting nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Relativity of the Difficult Poem

          The best volume of poetry I read this year was probably Ben Lerner’s 2010 book Mean Free Path. I must admit that – though I was intrigued enough to buy it in the first place – I was somewhat surprised by how much I ended up liking it. To put it simply, my tastes tend toward the more accessible and less experimental in poetry, and Mean Free Path has a definitive lean towards the other end of the spectrum. It thrives on loose ends, disruption, and recursion (though this disjointedness is put together in a surprisingly musical manner). I was thus pleasantly surprised when I found it to be one of my favorite books of poetry I’ve read in recent years.
          Now fast forward to the present. I am currently struggling through Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems and finding myself quite frustrated on occasion. There are poems I just can’t make heads or tails of, no matter how many times I re-read them. I don’t think such a reaction on its own is surprising. Opaqueness of meaning is a trademark of many poets coming out of the Modernist era, and Thomas with his surreal imagery and remarkably dense language is no exception. However, when I started thinking of my reactions to both Lerner and Thomas, it did make me start to wonder about what makes a difficult poem difficult, and if there are any peculiar circumstances that makes certain poets even more difficult to individual readers.
          While most of the points I’m about to discuss are off-the-cuff and not strictly scientific, I do think there is something to this line of thinking.
First, and this is a somewhat elementary point, one needs to consider that poets are writing from a particular time and place. The more alien the time and place may be from the reader, the more difficult it is to understand the poet’s meaning. In the case of Thomas, the culture and language of twentieth-century Wales is not so alien as to make writing from that period difficult, but when one adds his occasional foreign-sounding word choice on top of his already thick poems, it certainly doesn’t help.
But to develop this point further, I think one needs to consider how personal the poetic vision might be when considering a poem’s difficulty. Thomas’s vision seems to me intensely personal, and his poems are laden with symbols and meanings that are originating out of this vision. If one compares this to the poetry of one of Thomas’s contemporaries, say T.S. Eliot, then perhaps what I’m saying becomes a little more evident. To my eyes, Eliot, another “difficult” poet, is much easier to read then Thomas. I think one could argue that part of this is due to Eliot’s verse dealing more with issues of broader cultural impact. Overall, I believe it’s much easier to relate to such verse and find points of access by which one can interpret the poetry.
          Now to return to Lerner. Not only am I reading poems by a contemporary whose peculiar cultural references are more or less familiar, but I believe he is also writing from within a certain zeitgeist to which many people can relate to – i.e., his writing overall deals with larger, more cultural themes than they do with uniquely personal visions. Even though stylistically Lerner might be difficult in many ways, he is writing on a peculiar fragmented, pre-packaged, and marketed culture that many of us can relate to. Personally, this was enough to give me a point of entry into the poetry, while I frequently found such an entry lacking in the verse of Thomas.
          Obviously, this discussion is only looking at a couple particular poets in very broad terms, and rereading it now, I’m already starting to think I'm somewhat off-base. I’m sure there are many exceptions to these points that can poke very large holes in whatever kind of theory I’m trying to craft here. If anyone has wandered over to this post and has any thoughts to share on the topic, please do so.