Sunday, March 28, 2010

Everywhere, that Trickster

Have you ever written something, spontaneously spilling out what maybe might best have been left unsaid ... and then the next morning, quite randomly and unexpectedly falling upon a string of words on the computer screen that seem related, that jump right out and hit you in the eyes with the impact of a sledgehammer?  In context, they don't apply to you.  (Or do they?)   But they seem like they do, and it's jarring.

Yesterday I had been verbally scolding myself for wasting so much time "playing" my little word-games (as in the day-before-yesterday's engaging but time-consuming 8-8-8-6 exercise)--that is, instead of writing seriously, I get too caught up in distractions, neglecting my housework, being buried in paper up to my chin, at my desk.  Anyway, this morning I'm link-hopping and land on two unrelated pieces whose words jump right out at me, before I've even begun to read:

Twisting syntax and abusing grammar are a poet's prerogative, but these techniques are also always a game of roulette: the lines may clunk through such contrivance, or the wonder of novelty fade.

[From a review of Joan Houlihans' The Us, by Jacob A. Bennett in The Critical Flame.]

"Twisting syntax", "abusing grammar", lines that "clunk" through forced "contrivances", ouch.

I'd begun to sense, on my own, that the "wonder of novelty" (of self-imposed word-playing exercises, for example) was "fading" for me.  You don't have to rub it in, I said to the printed words that jumped out from the page.  They seemed puzzled. They hadn't a clue what I was talking about.

After Bennett's book review I wandered on over to Henry Gould's essay "On Reading Gabriel Gudding."  And it happened again! 

I would say we live in a time of near-systemic obfuscation — political, economic, educational — amid which the sphere of poetry hovers with an air of insouciant and facetious cleverness. Poetry per se has evolved, it seems, into light verse: an occasion for admirable displays of a poet’s intellectual graces (wit, charm, technical facility, humor, thoughtfulness, etc.).

There it was again, words that seemed to be talking--directly to me:  "Obfuscation", "insouciant" and "facetious cleverness", suggesting an occasion in which a poet, instead of creating a real poem, might work feverishly instead to find and/or triangulate and/or juxtapose words to "display" his or her "wit, charm, technical facility, humor, thoughtfulness, etc," passing it off as a real poem.  Double ouch.  

Gudding, writes Gould, "is a star of large magnitude in the current pantheon of witty versifiers" (Are you a real poet, self whispers to Self--or just a "witty versifier"?).  Gould continues, writing that Gudding's tale is:

both absurd and terrible (sublimely so), of the snake shedding its skin, of the emergence of a New World self: a self as Prodigal, lost in the wilderness, and desiring wilderness.

I all but collapsed at this one.  Especially the "sublimely terrible".  They referred to Gudding's tale, but seemed equally applicable to some of the wordplay poems I've at times produced.  Darn words.  What a coincidence:  "snake shedding its skin" (Writers, I had written yesterday, should sometimes shed their skin).   And "self as Prodigal" (I'd referred to voices telling you to leave; a voice that calls you back).  How about "lost in the wilderness, desiring wilderness".   Like my implying that one is lost in poetrydom sometimes, wondering where one fits, or if one is qualified to hang with the masters, so to speak--and despite the occasional unexpected spotlight, shrinks and retreats, ultimately prefering "wilderness".  Man, it's like the little buggers (words) were having fun with me.

Nah.  It was the Trickster.  The Trickster is everywhere.  The Trickster is a pain in the butt.  He wakes you up.   He gets in your face, assails you with your own absurdity.  (Thanks, I needed that.....  I think.)  So it was just another run-o'-the-mill online catharsis confirming the need to be reminded sometimes that you need to get back on the path.  It's almost Buddhistic:  the very thing you find the hardest to do (requiring the sacrifice and immersion and attention of the self, while acutely conscious of the difficulty and strains on Self) is also the thing that can bring you real happiness, when you eliminate the obsession with the selfness of the Self, if that makes any sense.  In context, it meant simply, climb outta yourself and focus on something else for a while:  clean the papers off the desk, go for a walk, go help someone do something, stop shuffling words, the writer you is not the all of you. Poorly expressed, but that was what it implied.

I blame Bloggerdom for this.  Before, I'd just ... write.  In Blogland you have an audience. Now it's like you have to do little dress rehearsals, make sure the presentation is flawless (or at least not completely outrageous), so you won't get laughed off the stage (that is if anyone actually arrives)..  You feel pressured to come up with new skits, if only to show you've still got it in you, can still pass the test of clever.  I think Tom Montag over at The Midwesterner is right, though.  "If carpenters fussed as much as poets/ we'd all fall through the floor."   And Joe (Perpetual Bird) Hutchison's "Diagnosis" of trends OULIPOian suggests that some poets may actually be in danger of OCDing on wordplay.

I honestly had no idea mere occasional wordshuffles, engaged in as a pleasant pastime, might eventually become an actual poetic movement, with its own theories and newletters and competition between practitioners, let alone be capable of driving one maniacal. Ouliponizing Wallace Stevens's snow bird into an unintelligible soap mandible was enough to make me rush to decompulsivate any word-play tendencies I might have, Cold Turkey, ha ha.  (Notice my sentences are getting longer and more sesquipedalian.  I've definitely been infected!) 

How, excuse me, is this "poetry"?  I mean "real" (as in It-means-something-to-me) poetry?  It seems to me the evolution they speak of vis-a-vis poetry has more to do with emphasis on process and form.  For the sake of Entertainment.  Whatever happened to worth of content?  Artful manipulation that focuses the reader's attention on the artful process, and by consequence on its inventor, can be poetic.  You can love a poem you don't completely understand, because of the language, imagery, metaphors, rhythm, and what it says to you that resonates as you're reading it. But cleverness aside, contemporary avant garde poetry like Chance Operations, however,  that produce lines like those in Jackson MacLow's poem "Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair":

reason is sullenness: it's there that practices left when six into
nothing narrow, resolute, suggests all beside that plain seam./
Pencils, mutton, asparagus: the table there. [1]

leave me hungry for substance.  Yes, it's interesting, creating unusual syntax and images and poetic experiences that the reader can take part in, but does it mean anything to them?  I find, in reading certain examples of contemporary poetry, that the stagecraft too often gets in the way.  I can't get past it to get to the kernel of the thing.  Remove the costume, the backdrops, and there's nothing there.  But it was a clever, well sewn costume, an amazing production. Definitely innovative.  Colorful, even.  But would I go back for a repeat performance--that's the question.   "What was it about?" someone asks as the curtain closes.  "I have no idea," you say. "But it was interesting."

Trickster says:  Untangle thyself.  Simplify.  Climb back on the train.  Keep going.

Anyway, I'm done with this [subject].  (Thank goodness! the words chime, in chorus, rolling their i's).  Dang buggers.  They're everybloodywhere!

*And of course,  the resolutions made yesterday, about no more word-tweaking or my inherent aversion to de-verbosifying -- have all just been broken.  Oddly enough, I've become enamored of haiku lately.  And the shorter, semi-minimalist, less-than-five-line poem.  To condense what might normally take me 12 lines to say--into three or four.  And have it make sense.  And still allow for alternate meanings.  Now that's a real challenge.

I still like wordplay, though.  "Light" verse, even.  But I don't consider it "real" poetry.  Or that the ruminations above are anything but ruminations.  They'll only lead to ruination, though, if I don't learn to zip it up.


No comments: