Monday, June 16, 2003
he began Fait Accompli,
What made me think of this was an unusual experience that I had this week of reading an almost perfect blog in the form of a chapbook, Loss by Ben Friedlander, just out from Pressed Wafer, one of the most prolific & useful presses we have. Loss consists of a close reading of the poem “Loss,” by John Wieners, a poem Friedlander first encountered in a recording of the same reading you will hear should you click on that link.* While I’ve listened to that recording a few times, I’ve done so I must admit less for the poem itself than for the way that particular piece captures perfectly the qualities I was enraptured by the one time I heard Wieners read at the San Francisco Art Museum many years ago – simultaneously rushed, breathless & with his voice trailing off as though distracted by a surfeit of emotion.
Friedlander offers us a 12-paragraph critique of a 12-line poem,
primarily addressing it in terms of the relative positions staked out for poet,
reader & referent in its use of pronouns. It’s a tour de force of
intelligence & balance – Friedlander’s always been an excellent critic. But
at one dozen paragraphs, it would make a perfect blog, possibly even more so
than as a miniature book. Friedlander dates the project right down to the day,
But in 1999 relatively few people had begun to figure out the power of blogs – the most notable example at that point was Matt Drudge, impersonating the worst journalist imaginable, right down to the pork pie hat. & I’ve noticed how, even now, relatively few of the poetry bloggers work as professors, a job famous for sucking intellectual energy.
Friedlander builds his analysis around what he characterizes as the poem’s two sentences, each marked by a terminating period. & even though Ben goes so far as to claim that the “formal precision of this writing belies the poet’s apparently unrehearsed outburst of direct address at the end,” these are not by any stretch of the imagination formal sentences. Here’s the poem:
To live without the one you love
an empty dream never known
true happiness except as such youth
watching snow at window
listening to old music through morning.
Riding down that deserted street
by evening in a lonely cab
past a blighted theatre
oh god yes, I missed the chance of my life
when I gasped, when I got up and
rushed out the room
away from you.
Friedlander addresses the grammatical idiosyncrasies of this text only in passing:
Enjambed lines lacking punctuation, the words slip away in a blur, their meaning lost in a series of overlapping syntactic possibilities.
That’s not exactly how I hear these lines, because the elisions & aspects of torque created by the redaction of punctuation do far more than create a “blur” of lost meaning. The first such instance occurs around the phrase never known at the end of the second line. The phrase itself can be read both as referring back to an empty dream & forward to true happiness. As such, never known functions not just as condition extending both the emptiness & dreamlike qualities of the previous phrase or as part of a complex qualifier to true happiness, but also as a conjunction. Even normally, conjunctions tend to reflect kinship both with prepositions & verbs – thus that last phrase requires the presence not only of with but of &, asserting a relationship that is always a mode of closeted predication.
Consider the next line, perhaps the most complex in the poem: true happiness except as such youth. Friedlander’s pronoun driven analysis picks up the you in youth, but doesn’t address the way in which this line is governed first by a powerful series of vowels, a classic instance of the tone leading aspect of vowels. Part of what makes them so powerful is the contrast with the consonants of the line: the first phrase consists of two words that end on open, flowing sounds, while the next three units** end on sounds that begin with a full hard stop (pt), then one almost as hard (ch) & finally one (th) that mutes – but doesn’t reverse – its hardness.
The line integrates into at least three concurrent readings – I think a good reader will sense all three – that can be stratified thus:
· true happiness
· true happiness except as such
· true happiness except as such youth
Only the first of these can be called simple or uncompromised. The second reinforces the linkage back to the previous line, while the third suggests, among other things, that youth itself is a necessary condition forth happiness. The most interesting aspect of these variants, at least to my mind, is the gap that occurs between the second & third. If the gap exists – occasioned by the relatively hard consonant stop within such – then one linkage that can then occur is youth / watching snow at window, an image. Yet youth can also be read in a standalone fashion which would make it a broad abstraction.
The compression enacted through the absent articles of the fourth line – watching snow at window – does a couple of different things simultaneously. At one level, it renders both nouns as abstract as the preceding youth. At another it functions as a governor of the poem’s rhythm, the first line since the first stanza that can be read without sensing the splice of anything that redirects the reader’s attention. The degree to which this works can be felt in the next line by how much old jolts us into sensing its additive function on top of the bare bones narrative.
Old serves no less than three other functions in the fifth line. One is to accentuate the presence of o sounds generally, the second – aided by this emphasis – can be heard in the pun in morning. The emphasis on that vowel, especially conjoined with the l, returns us to the sound organization of the poem’s first line, which is built around l, o & v.***
Based on the period alone, Friedlander calls this the first of two sentences, yet it is worth noting that this predicate, if it is one, everything from lines two through four, occurs without a main verb. Grammatically, it is an independent clause, followed by a series of dependent ones, a sentence fragment. The second unit or sentence is as idiosyncratic as the first, but in very different ways – there are at least four verb phrases, arguable five, that will be experienced as such, so that the static landscape (watching snow at window) is now replaced with the frenetic throb of action. The first of these – & the one I think is least likely to be experienced simply as a verb is Riding down. The other four occur in rapid succession right after the exclamation oh god yes. At some level, it’s as though the poem has delayed action all this time only to unleash here in the four last lines.
Between god, gasped & got, the sound of air being explosively expelled is the dominant reiterative mode of this passage, leading to the radically unlike sound of rushed. The absent preposition in the middle of this next-to-last line, rushed out the room, both enacts the breathless, hurried prosody & harks back symmetrically to the poem’s second line, an empty dream never known.
Yet it is two other preposition out & away are what dictate the movement of the final two lines, in part because of the dramatic placement of away in the last line, but also in part because the liquid r of rushed is anchored in the echo of room. Out & away are significantly different movements, especially tonally, thus conveying the movement as centrifugal.
There is one other element of the Wieners’ poem that Friedlander lets pass without comment that strikes me as notable – its use of adjectives. Consider this sequence: empty, true, old, deserted, lonely, blighted. With the notable – indeed shocking by its contrast – exception of true, the emotional baggage associated with the other five is profound. Not one occurs after the exclamation of oh god yes in the 9th line.
The poem “Loss” is extraordinary. Written in 1968 – that reading at St. Marks dates from January, 1971 – the poem is still the work of Wieners’ early period, prior to the disruptive works that dominate his writing from the 1970s onward. It shows Wieners both totally in control of his medium & totally unafraid to take serious liberties & risks in the service of his poem. Friedlander’s reading, the book Loss, is itself excellent, & there’s relatively little in the way of overlap between his approach & my own here. But as I said, or wrote, at the outset, Friedlander’s book would have made a perfect blog. It is in fact shorter than this note.
** I definitely hear as such as a single unit.
*** This also accounts for the choice of known at the end of the second line, which serves not only to bind our hearing back to the first line, but sets up the beautiful vowel progression of youth in the next line’s last slot. Remember that, in free verse, the emphasis almost invariably falls to the very beginning and end of the line, with the interior syllables carrying less aural weight.