Monday, November 04, 2013

Thin Waters

Yeats, the bardic lord, foretold the condition
of modern poetry when he said, "Things fall apart,
the center cannot hold." He was foretelling the breakdown
of the centers of civilization, but it was really
as always about poetry. I've read enough
Gertrude Stein now to realize that she was right
in her self-assessment that she was shallow actually.
Words glorious words about nothing much at all.
If you get under the surface of her plays, they're parlor
plays with little drama. Still, a good pun is a good pun.
A phrase well-turned, she is the darling of the language
that that nothing poetic to say except about itself.
There's a golden maple outside my window, blown
in bleak gusts, half its leaves on the ground
shed like words or worlds, its branches still
half-leaved. It's not that shallowness is bad, unless
there's no center to hold, but that these word players
glory in their inanity. They don't even want more meat.
Robert Duncan, whose word tangles were at least as
exotic never lost the center of his purpose, which
was bardic. Bards, skalds, tellers of the insistent news
of other lands, travelers between small kingdoms
more cultural than geographic, small minds in large halls
firelit with retellings of the oldest Anglo-Saxon epics,
lust and battle and pointless deaths albeit monstrous.
Put that in your meerschaum and scribe it. I wish,
as everyone probably does, that life had some kind of
meaning or purpose, even an invented tradition rife
with accumulated verbal fossils. These vintage lake beds
are very shallow, many layers but all very thin. Not enough
time to compress them to solidity. Word-play is no bad thing.
It's just that like Duncan meaning lurks below the scintillation
of the surface tension. To glory in one's tepid ordinary,
no mass, seems shale. I keep looking for the dark matter
hidden behind the facade of words, but telescope not
wit nor jot. A list-poem of fashionable name-checks even Whitman
would reject. I ramble incoherent, here myself at play with words.
More leaves fall like words in the wind. Apples and maples all fall.
I find I cannot go along with embracing pointlessness as being
the point. Some part of me yearns for dragon's teeth in the warp
and weft, handspun yarn uneven and clumped, not perfect
but dangling with threads of connection. Go to, young language.
You can be small-scale, explore domestic mysteries, or overblown,
making a life mythic because resonant with archetypes. What else
is "Beowulf" but a cautionary tale of hubris and self-deceit?
If I name-check other poets it's to weave them not deceive them.
My own word-hoard is darker than you think.

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Blogger Art Durkee said...

A few days ago I was in a thrift store, and saw that someone had dumped an entire library of Language Poetry and similar contemporary poetry books. There were titles by Ron Silliman, Gertrude Stein (lauded as a precursor by some), Robert Creeley (who is a Black Mountain Poet but not really a LangPoet), and several minor language poets, a couple of books of criticism, one of which was entertaining while the other was frankly unreadable, and so on. I brought home a few of these, what the hell, they're cheap so I'll give them a read, even though I basically have no use for LangPo or conceptual poetics or any of their post-modernist ilk.

I was reading Stein and Creeley this morning (and liking Creeley more). I've read most of Stein, finally, having previously read all of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, etc., that whole generation a century ago that began the Modernist trend in literature.

And I found myself writing this in response: a critical-poem, a poem-criticism, an essay-in-poetic-form, whatever. I'll let others who care more about labels pick one.

11:04 AM  

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