Monday, February 20, 2006

Poetry on the ground

Michael Peverett made a useful comment to that last line of thinking (which has also been picked up by Bob Archambeau at some length, and with some witty schematicism). Michael remarks,
Seems to me Mark that there's a subterranean train of thought going on in your blog, from Thoreau's joyously disenchanting meditation on how literature that starts off "out there" turns into our comfort zone, then via Frankfurt, to the huge success of poetics as a sexy subject with students and as an institutionalized shaper of good citizens.
(I like that last phrase – "an institutionalized shaper of good citizens" – very much. It reminds me precisely how strongly the last century's crop of poet-theorists were theorizing with the ultimate end of making society something that one might be proud to be a citizen of, whether that might be a neo-renaissance fascist arcadia, a "polis" of connected and wide-awake townspeople, or some more ill-defined utopia: whatever they were working towards, it wasn't the colorless tenure-track "collegiality" that Michael's acid "good citizens" perfectly captures. [Michael is a sharp fellow, with an eye for a lot of things around him that aren't on pages: check out his blog.])

Michael's quite right about how grum and pissy Culture Industry gets when I try to think about contemporary poetry in the amalgam, its institutionalized forms, its networks and linkages and chains of power, whether pobiz or alt-pobiz. When I think about poetry in practice, when I turn to individual poems and books, then I'm altogether more sanguine. There's rarely a week when I don't read a poem or a book, by someone whose works I've known a long time, or by someone of whom I've never heard, that makes me say "Wow! how'd she do that? that's beautiful/compelling/totally surprising!" Latest cases in point:

Prageeta Sharma's Bliss to Fill (2000, reprinted subpress collective 2005): an entirely invigorating collection of poems that revolve around matters that one would think are entirely played out: youth, love, desire – all that stuff. But there's a wonderful, almost awkward obliquity to Sharma's turns of phrase that make one's distant youth come alive again. For instance "Paper II" (one of the collection's more straightforward moments):
There had been enough time for her to become an adult
without it having too much of an effect on her parents'

nervous system. She had certainly told them in a slow,
honest way, with a pre-planned epiphany – that she had lovers.

Madhu and Raju, her parents, out of their arranged marriage
grew a rhyme. And their daughter grew into a poet.

Or she grew into a lover which was taking up all her time
and poetry was only a series of mistakes worth claiming

to a page and not a lover.

Or Stephen Collis's second full-length collection, Anarchive (New Star Books, 2005). (Bloody brilliant title, and one that I'd certainly have used first if I'd had the gumption to think it up.) Collis (whom I consider a young poet only because he's a few months younger than me) works in what I like to think of as "late modernist" mode, writing poems that deform syntax and resist straightforward reading, but that still revolve around clear "subject matters." Mine, his first book, reads a bit like Robert Duncan presenting a history of the Vancouver Island coal mining industry. (In other words, nothing like Clark Coolidge's Mine, but quite as alluring in a very different way.) Anarchive plays over the matter of Republican Spain in the 1930s, a moment when the anarchist ideals that were so attractive to Joyce and others looked like they might actually get road-tested (until they were run over by the Fascism so attractive to Pound and others). Collis casts a wide net over the Anarchist archive – even the Clash and the Pogues make it into this book – and draws up a gleaming, idealist catch. This is political poetry, make no mistake, but political poetry that melds idealism with resignation, that steers its way from agit-prop to elegy:
If we are alone with the word

it is because wells
spring from all eyes

how is it learned
but through follies

naked we enter the bed
of their eternal wars

our hands intruding love
where blind fortunes hate

we become the penumbra
of powers know

death is certain
inconstancy distracting rage

as they would order nature
while nature must into its own orders fall

and we would keep to the chaos of growth
open at the top and

lifting from the bottom

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