Not Alfred Prufrock’s fog, the little yellow neighborhood cat come smelling, touching, and arching once, wags, then slinks furtively off and licks herself to sleep, the house warm and safe in her arms. But the fog that falls from a hairball night, wet and thick, as sleazy as the backuped drains running up the gutters down on skidrow. A light that illuminates nothing. And the only sound one hears is the tinkle of a bell like the carriage return signal on a fin de siè·cle typewriter, the kind T. S. Eliot might have used.
“April is the cruelest month,” Eliot told
Pound all about it, Easter tide out,
but why brood on our days
unless we are made
of dry wood and worry,
each ring a memory of rain?
Does any month feel pity?
You called her a primrose,
your spiral spring shell.
The land tired of playing possum
opened in lavish blossom.
Meantime, you go from a funeral
to a game of chess?
No wonder you’re so depressed.
Hurry up! Indeed, it is time,
and there is no more time
for revisions of decisions and such.
Spit it out, that tooth that broke
on the hardtack bread.
Yes, the river, its currency
seems to bother you,
crossing the rough bar
in your tipsy canoe,
sipping sweet wine from a shoe.
Why do you drift so? Maybe
it’s time to seize the falling
yellow forsythia, catch and bundle
the candied pink camellia calling
a day a day alack-a-day day.
No, I won’t say we’re wasting time,
working up a dry thirst over an old city,
lamenting the past. We might have called
Big Dada and asked for a blessing,
a holy water sprinkling, and asked,
“Dada, how’s Nana?”
“Dada! Dada! Dada!”
Maybe we’ll see you in May.
Hopefully you’ll be feeling better,
and we can all spend a day
going a Maying,
if Corinna comes to town, everyone
looking forward to ordinary time,
the grassy bed spread with garlic greens.
What happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?
In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.
The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.
Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.
When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?
Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?
I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.
Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”
Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”
What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:
INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.
In the failing fog the Prufrocked cat froms and froes,
catcher of mice and men,
leaving not a trace of trance or dance
with which we were once familiar,
catabolic feline with contractible claws.
A hiss as from a match declares this driven cat with drawn claws.
This hideous hipstress wears no frown.
Nevermind, nevermore, familiar
tuna must suffice; in fact,
I’m opening the can as fast as I can.
Fiend, your mane is mean!
Man knows not your true menace,
the deceitful pale rose of your delicate claws
clinking ice to a theremin dance,
an idle locomotive meowing to and fro,
the moves of this domestic cat’s
imagery eerily familiar.
In what lonely lair was sired this queen of liars?
Did He who made thee amid mice make men?
How came you back from the cataclysm?
Did I hear you in the catacombs caterwauling?
Yet now you come in dress frolicsome,
singing, “Do you wanna dance….”
Though the salty leap gives rise to a contra dance,
the caryatid looks familiar,
a choreography of calligraphy, dancing to and fro,
a sweating menagerie.
Mind those mendacious claws.
This mendicant needs no frilly silly cat
messmate out to act
some tunahall cancan.
I too should have been a pair of claws,
a crawling cat on the lam,
whose unreadable bedlam mien
strikes mayhem then saunters off to and fro.
One more clause regarding this catachresis:
Whether to or fro on this floor dancing,
Prufrock’s cat is the cat of a family man.
Perhaps there are only two kinds of poetry, still only two kinds of poems. Dichotomy makes for easy argument by eliminating all other possible alternatives. We often hear there are two schools of thought, and any ambiguity is quickly brushed away. The one poetry might be represented by T. S. Eliot, and is characterized by recondite allusion, objects removed to libraries for safe keeping, the other poetry represented by William Carlos Williams, and characterized by everyday objects close at hand, the red wheelbarrow, the icebox. How quickly though this argument ignores the actual words, as we forget Eliot’s elusive but simple, figurative cat hidden in the fog of Prufrock’s meandering thoughts, and we forget too Williams’s “The Yachts,” a poem that discourages an easy swim.
Leslie Fiedler, in his essay for Liberations (1971), “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry,” argues that there are two kinds of poetry, or poetics, identified by the poems we sing and get by heart, and the poems we must read and read again to recall, for the latter can exist only on a page, poems that Fiedler says are “…dictated by typography…; for it is a truly post-Gutenberg poetry, a kind of verse not merely reproduced but in some sense produced by movable type” (150). These poems are contrasted with popular song lyrics, automatically memorized, that simply don’t work when typed on a page. To illustrate, one goes to a poetry reading, where the poet himself appears not to have his poems by heart, since he must read them from pages; or one goes to a Bob Dylan concert, where the wandering minstrel still has all the words by heart. But Dylan Thomas, reciting from memory, singing unaccompanied, disposes the either/or fallacy of the poetry reading/pop-concert argument.
Speaking of either/or, last night’s snow, still a surprise this morning, has us thinking of our south Santa Monica Bay home again, where we were surprised and nostalgically saddened on a visit to Hermosa some time ago to find the old Either/Or bookstore closed. But then again, not surprised, for the either/or fallacy often leaves too much unresolved, fails to reach the heart of any poem, fails to hear the coming of the end of one song, and the beginning of another. The bookstore was now a clothing store; apparently someone fell into the old either/or fallacy of either books or clothes, but not both.