Thursday, July 09, 2009

 

What drives a poem? One of the acknowledged difficulties for the position of laureate, as traditionally conceived, is the implicit requirement to pen poems on demand, situations for which the poet presumably may feel little real passion. Andrew Motion produced just eight official poems during his ten years as Britain’s laureate. These included poems on the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday, on her passing, on Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowes, on the Queen’s golden jubilee as well as for her diamond wedding anniversary. These acts of literary obsequiousness did little to enhance Motion’s motley literary reputation even if they did result in a knighthood for the author, who to some degree had auditioned for the job by penning a cringe-worthy elegy for Princess Diana before he was formally appointed to the position.

In her less than two-full months as Motion’s successor, Carol Ann Duffy has already shown a very different sense of what the post demands, writing one poem about the scandal of parliament members using public moneys to pay for personal expenses, from vacations to home improvements, and a second poem more recently celebrating Oxfam, the international aid organization created by the Quakers. While such works may not get her sacked – as was John Dryden – they do reveal a very different perspective as to what a public poet might be.

At the very other end of the spectrum are poets who are driven to writing works by the events in their lives. These poems are compelled, virtually involuntary on the part of their authors. The compulsion here tends to be internal, even if the events that trigger them – often the loss of a loved one – are thoroughly externalized. Volumes such as Donald Hall’s Without, about the death of his wife Jane Kenyon, or Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, about the loss of her son, have been among the most celebrated books in their authors’ respective careers.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door falls into this latter category. Like Bang’s Elegy, it is an account of any parent’s worst nightmare, the death of a child.Six years ago this week, Leidy (pronounced Lady) Bonanno was strangled in her apartment by a coworker & one-time lover. The 41 poems of this slender volume recount the events from the moments leading up to the discovery of her body through (and maybe just a little beyond) the conviction of her killer.

Each poem is a narrative vignette, capturing the elements of the tale in the sparest free verse imaginable. Many of the sections are thoroughly predictable, but no less searing for that fact. Much of what makes this book powerful, rather than sentimental, is precisely its stripped-down detail. A poem taken almost entirely from the newspaper report in the Reading Eagle reads as if it has been written by George Oppen channeling Charles Reznikoff:

Leidy S. Bonanno, 21,
was found dead
late Tuesday
inside her first floor apartment . . . .
The killer used
Bonanno’s telephone cord
to choke her
then left her body on her bed.
[He] covered her face
with a bed pillow,
and locked the apartment
doors [before he] left,
police said.

Elision and brackets in the original. Even the poems that deal entirely with emotional responses (and responses to responses) have this same quality:

What Not to Say

Don’t say that you choked
on a chicken bone once,
and then make the sound,
kuh, kuh, and say
you bet that’s how she felt.

Don’t ask in horror
why we cremated her.

And when I stand
in the receiving line
like Jackie Kennedy
without her pillbox hat,
if Jackie were fat
and had taken
enough Klonopin
to still an ox,

and you whisper,
I think of you
every day,

don’t finish with
because I’ve been going
to Weight Watchers
on Tuesday and wonder
if you want to go too.

The allusion to Jacqueline Kennedy, which is really part of the set-up for the image of the author, is about as much embellishment as you’re going to find in these pages, that and some anaphor (another effect out of George Oppen’s toolkit). The humor here is both part of the horror that is at the heart of this book & a leavening of it, the inappropriateness of friends who imagine they’re reaching out to comfort or help.

The spare nature of these texts is really what makes this book possible. It never gets more figurative than in the use of the figure of the ladybug we see portrayed on the book’s cover, the victim’s nickname growing up. Bonanno’s ambivalence throughout toward “healing” comes across as profoundly honest. And so far as I can tell, Bonanno changed only one detail in the entire telling: two consonants in the killer’s last name.¹ Much of the book’s power comes from such understatement. You can read the entire volume in an hour – in fact, it is virtually impossible to put down until you do so.

Bonanno is a first-time author – Slamming received the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Book’s contest for first books – but not a naïf when it comes to poetry. She teaches English in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia suburb where Benjamin Netanyahu, Ezra Pound & Reggie Jackson all grew up. Her husband, David, is a poet & co-editor of the American Book Review. It’s not at all clear whether or not she will go on to write other books on other themes. But even if this is the only volume she should ever publish, it is a substantial accomplishment. Still, I’d wager that she would give anything – her life – never to have written it at all.

 

¹ No doubt to avoid any lawsuits from an incarcerated felon with nothing better to do with his time for the next several decades. And perhaps out of sympathy toward the killer’s mother & children, towards whom she expresses complex modes of empathy for the ways in which their pain is wedded to her own.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

 

Something Kenny Goldsmith wrote in the current issue of Poetry has been nagging at me:

Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

This is the first paragraph of Kenny G’s introduction to the current issue of Poetry’s collection of flarf & conceptual writing, a follow-up to Geof Huth’s portfolio of vispo last November, primary evidence that Poetry – the magazine, that is – is gradually catching up with Poetry the website in showing off American poetics in all its glorious diversity, something that the magazine hasn’t even aspired toward since the untimely death of Henry Rago some 40 years ago. I’m happy to see all these kinds of writing suddenly appear in its pages after decades of relegating all modes of the post-avant to the status on the disappeared. So my basic response to the current issue of the magazine is pure joy.

Or would be if I didn’t have this nagging feeling. In a word, I think Kenny is right about one thing here: no one means a word of it. Or at least he doesn’t. Kenneth Goldsmith has been the king of disjunction. He means his poetry to represent a rupture with whatever has come before. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he’s well versed in the marketing principles that underscore the contemporary art world, and is convinced it would seem that they will work as well in the capital-starved demi-monde of verse as the galleries of Chelsea or 57th Street. If anything, Goldsmith is more 57th Street than Chelsea (let alone Brooklyn). So it’s worth watching the sleight of hand whenever he asks you to identify which shell contains the prize (in this case, The New).

The ringer – or at least the first one – in that paragraph is the second sentence, Goldsmith’s topic sentence, his attempt to shout a la Robert Grenier “I HATE SPEECH.” Is there any poet anywhere who has depended more, or benefitted more, from disjunction than Kenny G? Consider his masterwork Day, published in 2003 by The Figures. A transcription – a scanning, really – of The New York Times of September 1, 2000, Goldsmith makes it new precisely by his erasure of print’s little borders, so that story jams against story or ends even mid-sentence as with this example from page 13:

All this week, Mr. Bush has criti-
Continued on Page A22
PRESIDENT VETOES EFFORT TO REPEAL TAXES ON ESTATES

A part of what Goldsmith is doing here recognizes that readers have dealt with the abrupt changes of the new sentence for decades. One whole rationale for USA Today is that it only lets one or two articles in each edition “jump” to another page. Most newspapers, like the Times, routinely disrupt the reading experience to force the poor reader to shift from A1 (from which the example above was taken) to A22, coming across in the process all of the day’s ads that occur in the front section of the paper. The whole point of the Times & its peers in the rapidly dying world of print is to get you to turn the page. But even in 1982, when USA Today first appeared, the disjunction of the jump was being attacked from within the field of journalism itself.¹ To have noticed this in 2003 is not quite as earth-shattering as Goldsmith’s overheated prose makes it sound.

Furthermore, what is Goldsmith suggesting is so all-fired new? The use of found language being folded, spindled & mutilated in a variety of fashions, many of which look precisely like older poetic forms. How does this differ from Jackson Mac Low’s use of insurance texts in Stanzas for Iris Lezak, or Kathy Acker’s appropriation of the work of Harold Robbins or in re Van Geldern in the 1970s? Is Goldsmith arguing that the primary difference between K. Silem Mohammad & Bruce Andrews is that Andrews is sincere?

I don’t think so. But I don’t think he’s arguing against disjunction either. Rather, he’s pointing out ways in which disjunction is occuring at different levels than, say, just the sentence-by-sentence nature one finds in some language poetry. Its reach has expanded. Still, it’s hard to see precisely what the difference is between a flarfy text that is so bad it’s good (or vice versa) and the more writerly work of, say, Tony Lopez, whose Darwin, just out from Acts of Language, just might be the most beautiful book of poems ever written. Both make extensive use of language as material, a concept I dare say that is as old as The Cantos.

So disjunction is not dead. If anything, it’s more active – being used in more ways to more ends – than ever. And exhibit A is none other than Kenneth Goldsmith himself.

 

¹ It’s worth noting that Goldsmith’s claim to transforming the Times rests almost entirely on his run-together presentation of one page after the next. So you get to read sizeable chunks of stories before you get to the “Continued on…” He could have, as easily, truly run the pages together, line by line, so that a single line might take you through four or five stories, depending on the number of columns. But Goldsmith isn’t reproducing the New York Times so much as he is the experience of the Times & the truth is that any reader follows the text in chunks.

It’s also worth noting that USA Today is one of the major reasons why today’s dailies feel permitted to drop some home editions each week as they confront the fiscal limits of their death-spiral. Publishing just five days a week, USA Today has grown into the second-most-widely distributed English language paper in the world, after the Times of India.

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