Wednesday, February 25, 2009

 

Some of my favorite poets are individuals whose work tends to be opaque to me in the sense that I can tell that they think, literally process information, very differently from the way I do, but do so in ways that make it manifestly evident that they accomplish this with a high order of discrimination. That was how I first experienced the work of Louis Zukofsky, confronting it on Richard Moore’s TV series on KQED in San Francisco in 1966. My first thought was something like “That man is from outer space!” followed very quickly by the realization that “They’re very smart on his planet.” Another poet who fits this sense – I think of it as the Big Other – is Tom Raworth. They’re really sharp on his planet also. Now over the years, the influence of Zukofsky has had a huge, shaping influence on me – he doesn’t seem nearly so alien now, but I realize that it’s me who has done the changing, driven by my constant admiration for the values of his poetry. I’ve known Tom Raworth at least going back to the days when we both lived in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. I’m not all that sure that I’ve become more like him over time, but I have found those nooks & crannies in my own writing that seem to me closest to what I find in his poetry. I treasure those moments a lot.

A third poet who fits this profile is someone I’ve known quite well for decades – Kit Robinson. In the American Tree takes its title from a poem – and a radio show – of Kit’s; we’ve worked for the same employers; I once even took over an apartment of his after he’d moved out. I could inhabit his space, but there is no way I could ever have written his poems. They puzzle & fascinate me, even as they delight.

I knew this early on, as early say as The Dolch Stanzas, Robinson’s 1976 series of short lyrics that take their vocabularies entirely from a list of 220 words identified by E.W. Dolch in 1936 as generally constituting “up from 50 to 75 percent of the reading material encountered by students.” It’s a brilliant strategy, but what’s brilliant about it isn’t the idea of using a restricted or found vocabulary, not even one so compellingly “simple.” What’s brilliant about it is the actual poems composed, viz:

put it away
he gave it to him
she thought it over

they ended up at brown’s
little was said of
each and every one

at six the sun jumps down
little by little
in its place

and you can see into
what’s left
of what there is to do

There are a lot of different ways to read a poem like this – as reportage, as the representation of speech, as narrative per se (not plot, but the unfolding of meaning over time). Today, reading this poem for what must be the 300th time in my life, what thrills me most is its prosodic intelligence. Robinson has one of the best ears ever. Watch the by-no-means-accidental positioning of two- & three-syllable words & how they set up, almost shape, the one-syllable terms that are the absolute gut of this text. These more complex words are as important as line breaks & serve a not dissimilar rhythmic function. Indeed, you can hear how they play off of, or against, the line breaks, the way a bass plays off against brushed drums in the high-hat set of a jazz quartet.

Another sonic element, no less intentional, is the letter “t,” both in its hard & soft manifestations (there’s that jazz drum parallel again). That letter occurs in every line but one, which just so happens to be right at the middle of the text, a moment of stillness that makes that line – each and every one – come across as positively liquid.

You will already have noticed the nouns & pronouns. No pronoun that could be imagined as referring to human beings occurs twice in this text. The two nouns that could be envisioned by what is said in the text – brown’s & the sun – are each approached at some angle. Brown is a Dolch word alright, but it could be a name as well as the designation of a color & the name could be a possessive such as one might find at a tavern or club. You might say that brown’s anchors the first line of one of the poem’s two interior stanzas, just as the sun does the second. And that whole verb phrase the sun jumps down leaps out as the one moment of figurative hoo-hah in the entire piece. It’s one of the poems many tiny moments of elegance – not unlike, say, the way it appears in every line of the first stanza, each time moving a little further to the right.

But what totally blows me away about these last two stanzas continues to be their organization of sound. They flow as if a single movement, but a complex one built from very simple parts – a line all of one-syllable words, then that very compact line of five syllables (two beats, one beat, two beats), then the flow into three words all of one syllable. That leaves you just perched for what’s about to come, that long first line of the final stanza which arrives at the only two-syllable word in what feels like miles.¹ And then that beautiful downhill sequence of the two lines, each anchored by the word what.

That last line also just happens to have the only caesura in the entire poem, that pause between is and to do. Reading it, I always feel like I’ve been shot from a cannon at the end of that last line.

I always think that the painstaking detail of any poem’s formal features is problematic. Talking about it is never the same as reading it. But I want to make a point here, which is just how much is taking place within a text of such a simple surface. I could go on for awhile as well.

But an important part of how Robinson’s poetry functions isn’t by what goes on so much as what doesn’t. The best way to show this is to look at something that appears on the surface to be all but completely artless, the sequence Ice Cubes, a series of poems composed of quatrains where every line has but a single word, hence:

then
begin
over
and

sleep
to
control
costs

no
overhead
no
inventory

but
dreams
count
you

among
the
players
in

the
all
universe
commodities

sweepstakes
where
futures
rise

and
fall
breathing
normally

One can trace the origin of this poem easily enough back to an ad for a mattress outlet, but again what matters are all the ways in which it is not that, at least not any more. It is worth noting that these are the first lines of the work, yet it starts as if already in process (an echo literally of The Cantos?) before picking up its quotation from what may have been a radio commercial – the one stanza where this comes through clearly is no / overhead / no / inventory. But that is because it’s the exception. What this text profoundly is not is simply broken up prose & in this regard Ice Cubes strikes me as almost antithetical to a lot of, say, hay(na)ku, another form that depends on strict word counts. Not that hay(na)ku need be such, just that a lot of it is. The entire secret to such forms as these, Robinson’s work implies, lies instead in controlling the shifts & gaps. He wants – even needs – the edits to be visible. Consider the second work in this sequence::

by
doing
something
I

could
figure
in
nature

This text is almost reminiscent of The Dolch Stanzas, insisting not at all on any referential frame. Yet notice what a difference it makes when half the words have more than one syllable. And notice it’s very fragmentary existence, like a portrait of an individual that shows you only an ear. We recognize right away the logic of graphic extension in the first three lines, each longer than the one before, so that the single letter “I” feels rather like dropping off a cliff.

The second stanza contains both a balance & a joke, one that might not work if we could not see/hear all the linguistic parallels and contrasts between figure & nature, and if the one-syllable words here didn’t recede.

Each stanza has a shape, a logic that works on several levels & they’re quite different. This is true of course with the first poem from the sequence as well, but it gets foregrounded more clearly in this miniature frame.

There is of course much more to Kit Robinson’s poetry, so much of which is happily included in The Messianic Trees, just out from Adventures in Poetry. In fact, I think it’s possible to argue that I’ve just selected the two least representative works Robinson has. But, in fact, this leads to another aspect of Robinson’s work that makes him, like Raworth or Zukofsky, a part of the Big Other for me. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “typical” Kit Robinson poem. Even as he maintains a completely recognizable authorial persona throughout his entire career, The Messianic Trees is a selected poems composed virtually entirely of “unrepresentative” works. Consider, for example, just how far the two examples above are from “Line 56,” a poem that taps more of Robinson’s sympathy for the New York School (extra points if you know the two reasons why that poem is so named), or the prose poem sequence “Autochthonous Redaction,” or the brooding twin prose works “Verdigris” and “Trial de Novo,” these last three from his 1985 collection Windows.

Another discussion one could have entirely is the role of the job in the poetry of Kit Robinson. He is, I am convinced, the finest chronicler we have had of the cultural surfaces of the corporate office, and especially of the high tech environment. Having some access into that world myself – indeed, having worked in some of those exact same offices – I stand in awe at just how right he gets it, and especially his ability to be both ruthless & gentle at the same time. Twenty or 50 or 100 years from now, people will come back to The Messianic Trees because it is one of the most exact social portraits of the last quarter of the last century and the opening decade of this one. This is one great book.

 

¹ There are seven words with more than one syllable in the poem’s first eight lines, but just one in the last four. It completely changes the tone of the text.

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