Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Peter Gizzi, _The Outernationale_

I READ THIS years ago, before I was doing this blog, but I was revisiting it because it contains one of my favorite contemporary (say, last twenty years) poems, "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs." I read it first in Conjunctions, I think, then heard him read it at a reading, read it again in this volume, which I think I bought at that reading or soon after, and still read every now and again.

Hard to pin down what I like about it--as is so often the case--but for the sake of saying something rather than nothing about a poem I hope more people will read, it seems to be about both the urgency and the sacrifice of any art of witness--how one is obliged to try, but the trying is committing yourself to a vanishing.  The urgency of the moment will pass, and no one will know what to do with the archive it cost you so much to compile, that seemed so necessary it drove out whatever other artistic imperative you felt. It will all just evaporate, give itself up to oblivion, with a sweet cry. But it will somehow have mattered that you wanted to record something, wanted to show people something.

So, I recently picked up Gizzi's selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, which of course includes several poems from The Outernationale, and "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" is not there.

Oof. Damn. I wonder if Gizzi thought it was just too slight, or didn't like it anymore...whatever the reason, an occasion to let folks have another opportunity to read "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" has slipped.

I have often thought that it would make a dandy anthology poem--it's short and powerful--but that hasn't happened, either. Gizzi shows up in a few good anthologies (American Hybrid, the Rankine and Sewell, and, I just discovered, a volume called The New American Poetry of Engagement), but it's always other poems. Good ones, but not my favorite.

For that matter, while scouring through the tables of contents of a few anthologies of contemporary poetry, I noticed that consensus about which poems ought to be more circulated is elusive. Sometimes two anthologies may have no poets in common at all--I didn't do a rigorous check, but Paul Hoover's post-modern Norton anthology and Billy Collins's 180 Poems apparently do not overlap at all. Some poets show up often, like Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, but the poems selected are completely different in each case.

Is that a cause for worry? Should a canon be coalescing, or is it fine that a thousand flowers are blooming? Need we fear no frost?

Me, I'd like a few fragments to shore against my ruins. Well...I still have my copy of The Outernationale, and it's still a superb book. Engaged, to be sure--"Protest Song" from this book is the poem included in the aforementioned anthology of the new American poetry of engagement--painful, yes, as a lot of Gizzi's work is, but with a difference as well, a knowing, astringent joy, and astonishing beauty.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Miriam Toews, _All My Puny Sorrows_

THIS IS TOEWS'S sixth novel, but I had not even heard of her before I read Curtis Sittenfield's review of this one...perhaps because it's hard for Canadian novelists to get on the radar in the U.S. But if the others are even almost as good as this one, they must be excellent.

Our narrator, Yolanda (Yoli) Van Riesen, has arrived in mid-middle-age with a couple of kids, a couple of divorces, a sputtering career as a writer of children's fiction, an offer to produce an adult fiction manuscript that she is struggling to take advantage of, and a tendency to drink a little more than she should. Her life is teetering on the brink of chaos most of the time.

Her sister, and the primary object of her attention for most of the novel, is her sister Elfriede (Elf), an internationally renowned and beloved concert pianist whose high-achieving husband is utterly devoted to her.

So--which sister is suicidally depressed?


Can Yoli pull Elf out of it? Should she pull Elf out of it? Should she, as Elf so keenly desires, take Elf to Switzerland, where suicide is legal?

Yoli has an enormous deficit in managerial skills, but Toews is beyond deft is narratively toggling between Yoli's memories of growing up (in a small Mennonite-dominated town) with the prodigally gifted but always tortured Elf and Yoli's exhausting efforts in the novel's present to get Elf to see the Bright Side and Get On With Her Life.

Toews likewise excels in portraiture, particularly with Yoli's and Elf's parents and Elf's husband. It is Elf who is most profoundly unforgettable, for the reach of her mind, the energy of her artistic gift, and the depth of her suffering.

This may seem like backhanded praise, but this is a sort of young adult novel for adults. It has the tenderness and emotional wallop of a really good young adult novel, but the narrative depth of Alice Munro. It could take the books clubs of America by storm if word gets out.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ben Lerner, _The Hatred of Poetry_

A CURSORY SURVEY of online commentray suggests that quite a few people have one complaint or another about this book, but I thought it was very good--lucid, sensible, helpful.

Taking off, as anyone might expect, from Marianne Moore's most famous line, Lerner considers poetry's situation as one of those arts that, on the one hand, enjoys some prestige--prizes, professorships, hushed reverence within a few straitly-bound precincts--yet, on the other, gets routinely ignored even by people who pride themselves as keeping current with, say, film or fiction or  ambitious varieties of popular music. Like opera, ballet, and chamber music, poetry is sometimes dismissed as too abstruse, or antique, or solipsistic, or elitist...for some reason, no one loses much cred for saying they dislike poetry.

Lerner usefully points out that even poets themselves, like Moore, in a way dislike it, or are frustrated  with its or their own limitations. The poets we must honor today (Lerner mentions Dickinson and Whitman) were those who did their utmost to get beyond whatever the prevailing notion of poetry was in their own time. Poetry is language that tries to transcend the possibilities of language, as Lerner argues, and failure and disappointment await in nearly every attempt.

So the prestige, he says, in effect attaches to Poetry, the dislike (disdain, ridicule) to poems and, erm, poets: "Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too" (76). Given the frequency with which someone or other routinely gets a few thousand words in Harpers or The Atlantic or The [late] New Republic to lament that American poetry is moribund (even when, as Lerner points out, the someone or other betrays a near-perfect ignorance of contemporary poetry), I am glad to have Lerner's essay. The dislike--okay, the hatred--of poetry is, he shows us, the cradle of poetry, a kind of enabling circumstance, that helps bring forth the kind of work that at least some of us prize, even find indispensable.