This week I have been dipping a bit into the creepy stories of H.P. Lovecraft and delighting in the sensation of having the hair on the back of my neck stand up through the sheer electricity of words. I recently read a poem that had the same effect, in the current issue of The Hudson Review. I’m referring to Ernest Hilbert’s masterful “Insomnia Redux,” which aside from being beautifully wrought (the beam of a flashlight passing over a chair casts “a harp of shadows”) is genuinely eerie and unsettling. I’ll let you get to the chilling denouement on your own.
Tonight I returned to a passage that has stuck with me for years, from an introduction to the poet Chimako Tada in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (J.D. McClatchy, Ed.) The passage quotes Tada’s philosophy of poetry and expresses why poetry has such a spellbinding effect on some of us.
In poetry…all the elements work functionally, each word having a numerical value that changes constantly along with the changes of syntax. When dealing with even a short poem the reader must engage his intellectual energy to follow an equation of almost infinite complexity. How does such difficult work come to be experienced as pleasure? Because the concrete images and situations and structures presented by the poem satisfy not only the senses and the emotions but also the brain’s capacity for performing intellectually delicate work. And when to that satisfaction with decoding is added the poetic impact of glimpses of the utterly unexpected, of some other world, the resulting pleasure can approach that bliss which is among the most sublime experiences available to humans.
I do not know if the “numerical value” of words she evokes relates somehow to Japanese prosody, to some more mystical quantification, or something else entirely, but I can say that I have sensed this kind of intellectual work going on when I have become deeply engaged in reading poems. It happens after several read-throughs, when the words have begun to adhere to the mind through repetition, and new senses become apparent, or one notices felicities of sound that were missed in earlier readings. There will always be, in our enjoyment of good poems, an infinite progression of pleasures extending just beyond the reach of our ability to comprehend them.
It’s only natural that contemporary poets would adopt the rhetoric of school exams into their work. Virtually everyone these days has a ready familiarity with the tropes of multiple choice, show your work, time’s up, etc. And there’s a dialectic of ambivalence surrounding tests and testing that’s made for poetic treatment. We are told that test scores don’t mean anything, and yet are warned that our future depends upon passing at the top. The exam is both a trifle and a trial, a measure of merit and an arbitrary milestone on a path that leads into the white glare of FUTURE the bored student has heard so damn much about.
Eve Adamson plays with this dual nature of the exam in her poem, “Being 101: Final Exam.” There’s a call-and-response feel to this most unusual of sonnets in which the student’s answers out-whimsy the perplexing questions. She answers the question, “How many stars?” with “Cylindrical obsess,” which I read as a non-sequiter with a defiantly dismissive tone, as if to say, “If I don’t like the question, I’m not going to give a direct answer.”
My favorite question/answer? “Where does the river go? Inside the heron’s footprint.” You’ll have to read the poem (and listen to Adamson’s wonderful recitation) to find out just who this heron is.
Raymond Chandler. Every now and again, I pick up one of his books and get lost in the fast-talking, whisky-swilling swagger of it all. Last night I was thumbing through Trouble Is My Business (probably not one of his most memorable works) and came upon the following passage in his introduction about writing for pulp magazines. In a world drenched in overly sweet platitudes about writing well, this little nugget works because of its hard-nosed matter-of-factness:
…if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
This past Sunday was Walt Whitman’s birthday. A friend sent me this review of In Walt We Trust by John Marsh, which promises to be a fascinating read that I will have to commit some time to very soon. Accompanying the review is a marvelous comic by Sabrina Jones which illustrates one of my favorite passages from “Song of Myself.” It is often said that Whitman is all ego. I’ve always felt that to be a gross mischaracterization. It would be more accurate to say that Whitman’s ego is All. After all, as he says, “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
I am taken by this poem by Karen Volkman over at Omniverse. I would classify it as an ekphrastic of dance, which, though not unheard of, is probably not as common as poems about paintings, or even film. What I think Volkman does so well here is evoke the experience of watching dancers through a scrim: “the seem-stain of its edging” is a beautiful image–seeing objects diffused by translucent cloth is like looking at a stain of seeming, a not-quite-solid, not-quite shadow form. “Seem-stain” calls attention to the otherworldliness of the diffused silhouettes, exploring the line between precision of image and abstraction.
The legs of the dancers speak, describing their dance: “This is kind of a step, kind of/sideways flying. This likes defying//space and what defines it.”
I often entertain the idea that all poems are an ars poetica–or, that most poems contain at least one moment where it may be said that they comment on their own making. “Defying space and what defines it” seems to be the aim of this poem, which it achieves with great, gravity-defying aplomb.