April 15th, 2011 22:47 EST
Let's Hear It for Ball-Busting Poetry About a World Men Have Ruined!
Thoughts for National Poetry Month
Let`s have dangerous, troublemaking, side-sinister, cantankerous, mean poetry. Let`s have pure-damn evil poetry.
Looking out my kitchen window, having watched a red-tailed hawk stoop and carry off a baby rabbit, I thought of safe, anecdotal glop moved around with a spatula into something resembling a poetics and I thought, We have to talk about the bloody carcass that little bunny has become. And, yes, the magnificence of the hawk`s swoop and implacability of his yellow eye.
But then I put such thoughts aside, studied the daffodils poking through the dirty snow, hoped my sides would stop aching from the exertions of shoveling snow, and forgot the horror in the window and the surfeit of harmless and inoffensive poetry "
Until, that is, my favorite literary gazette, The Times Literary Supplement, arrived with NB`s back-of-the-book reminder that the language poet and critic Charles Bernstein had once declared that April is the cruelest month for poetry, referring to the American National Poetry Month.
In spite of its dalliances with the doxies Smug, Arch and Snide, I revere the TLS and rely on it to challenge my mind. Sometimes I even smile along with the occasional adolescent meanness of some of its reviewers. So I read the NB lead piece with growing amusement. It tweaks the popularizing O, The Oprah Magazine, for having joined Garrison Keillor in his campaign to bring us accessible " poetry. This, of course, implies that he and the O editors get to define what is inaccessible for us. It is rather like the mainstream media defining news by what they omit.
I`m 76 and used to this sort of thing. When I was at Columbia I had instructors who disparaged Hart Crane for his inaccessibility. Today, reading his work, I mutter, What the hell were they talking about? But they sure did put on a good show of knowing. As do all critics and professors, to our detriment, I think. The keepers of the adytum get to define the adytum, which is why it so often goes to their heads. Crane was taking up where Walt Whitman had left off, singing of tunnels, bridges and dead Iroquois warriors. He was singing our song, telling us about ourselves, and those who didn`t trouble to hear it painted him into a critical corner and called him opaque and difficult. Who was being difficult, after all? Crane or the lazy minds that refused to be challenged by his nobly rhymed and also his blank verse?
It was the 50s when I attended college. We were to be called the Silent Generation. I suppose we were rather buttoned down and complacent. We trusted a government run by Smiling Ike, seemingly from the golf course. I was hugely enamored of Grayson Kirk`s having told our class, When you graduate four years hence I hope you will have some small idea of how much you don`t know. I was enthralled by all I didn`t know, more enthralled, I think, than so many Americans are today with what they think they know. My ignorance seemed astrophysical and grand. I think it`s the job of our schools to teach us our ignorance, but of they don`t agree.
So perhaps it was only natural I would miss the Beat Era. It drove by me as unassuming as a freight train, even though it was anything but unassuming. I just didn`t bother to assume anything about it except the luxury of missing it. I regarded Ginsberg`s Howl, when compared to the grandeur of Crane`s The Bridge, as pretentious and whiny. I regarded the Beats as creepy. They were drunk on wonderful substances, some of which remain uncategorized today. I was drunk on Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. If I regarded the Beats as an exhibitionistic lot I regarded Rimbaud as truly dangerous, a subversive of the first order. I loved him. He should have been on Joe McCarthy`s list, but imagination wasn`t Senator Sleaze`s suit. And Rimbaud, of course, was French, among many more interesting things.
Baudelaire`s idea of truth in decadence had me in its thrall, and New York City in the 50s was a very good place to ply that thrall. I saw flowers of evil everywhere, and I adored them all. How could the Beats, with their beefs about America, which sounded much as the tepid Coffee Party does today, compare with Rimbaud and Baudelaire and their kind of subversion, which was more like blood poisoning than polemic?
Charles Bernstein would be the one to grump about the bland celebration of poetry, because language poetry is inherently subversive, which is why it`s so exciting. It aims to blow language up and remake it. And it isn`t always what it seems to be, because once we think we know what it is we find its influences in poets like the Frenchwoman Valerie Rouzeau, who isn`t strictly speaking a language poet but certainly exhibits its most inspiring influences.
It might be useful to ask ourselves when we overuse the word accessible do we really mean acceptable? That is aside from the larger question, of course, of what we mean by accessible. Do we mean dumbed-down? Do we mean poetry that conforms to ideas introduced by William Carlos Williams, the Imagists and the New Critics, or has our original use of such terms degenerated to mean poetry that we get in a flash and can thereafter delete, disposable poetry? Not all the poetry I love and return to seduced me with easy entry, and much of what I thought was readily accessible [that dicey term again] proved later to be elusive. I think, particularly of Yeats`s marvelous last three lines in `Under Ben Bulben`:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
I don`t want to purge the least feel-good poem. I`m delighted that poets should write about the old homestead and the pleasures of parenthood and gardening. Why not? But their ilk should not rule. No one should. I want to hear from the poet-terrorist, the assassin of complacency, the bomber of smugness. I want handbooks on blowing things up, blowing up ideologies, religions, the givens, the received ideas, the nostrums, the lunacies. I`d like to hear about the swindling car mechanics, doctors, investment counselors, rapists, child abusers, usurers, elected liars, the reigning, savagely right-handed booboisie. But they`re predictable culprits; I`d like to hear more from the ball-breakers, them especially because the world has been ruined by men.
It`s what the Beats thought they were doing. It`s what we thought they were doing. But back then, child that I was, I thought they were posturing. I looked to Rimbaud for real revolt. I thought we would have had to invent the Beats if they hadn`t obliged us, because the unrelieved gray of my generation and the assumptions of the previous and wondrously heroic generation were holding out to us just the sort of silver-fox kleptocracy we have embraced. The Gilded Age redux.
The Beats stood up to it, and I`d like more of us to stand up to it, and much more dangerously, which will mean a poetry of reckless thinking, paranoid intent, and madly twirling bullshit detectors.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com