Early last month, as I cleaned my glasses before settling in for the evening with Mrs. Dalloway–as if I were that doting dolt, Peter Walsh–my frames snapped like a twig. Efforts to repair them myself, however nerdy or valiant, were in vain, as Scotch tape proved futile & over the next couple of weeks, I was forced to wear “loaner” frames (I never knew such things existed--they were like ligers, cockapoos & sewer gators all rolled into one) fashioned not from titanium like my lightweight pair, but from cast-iron salvaged from the Titanic, heavy & ironic. Anyway, despite the obstacle of impaired vision, here are the poets I read in February as part of My ABC of Poetry experience.
David Ignatow, Poems: 1934-1969. Lots of poems here–266 pages worth–jammed into this volume however they fit, two or sometimes three to a page, spanning the poet’s work over four decades. Ignatow has impressive literary credentials, having served as editor of American Poetry Review & poetry editor of The Nation, but the book’s layout does nothing to enhance his work. Not that I dislike it, but Ignatow’s poetry often seems rhythmically flat & in terms of imagery, trite at times, so the reading becomes tedious. For instance, the volume includes several unfortunate poems about being on stage–all the world’s one, ya know–at which times weird, often violent, scenes ensue. Generally speaking, I like the later work in which Ignatow appears less inhibited, a reflection of changes all-around in poetics during the late 50s & throughout the 60s.
By the way, you may be surprised at how few poets have surnames that begin with “I” Other than Ignatow there’s maybe three. Honestly, I’m considering changing my name so I won’t have to contend with the multitudes of Matt Morrises out there. But Matt Imperial sounds too snooty. Matt Incognito–too phony. Matt Imus–uh, no. Matt Idle, brother to Eric, or Matt Idol, cousin to Billy–decide, decide! Matt Ignatius–I’d need a stupid hat with ear flaps. Matt Irani–no, my life’s difficult enough already. Irons–too hard. Infante–too juvenile. Ives–too “Burl”-y. Ix–too icky! Maybe I should sleep on it.
Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish. Winner of the 1995 Minnesota Book Award, this selection of prose poems, some new, some from Jenkins’ two prior books (much like my Greatest Hits, recently published by Pudding House) include “Football,” “War Surplus,” “Appointed Rounds,” “Violence on TV” & “After School.” I know I don’t write it, but prose poetry is a choice & I’m pro-choice. Personally, I see enjambment as one of my strengths, but I also get that in free verse line breaks, if not quite arbitrary, are discretionary–so, one may think, why bother? After all, while at a reading, do you hear line breaks? If not, does the work cease being a poem when read aloud? Poetry remains, whether written in lines or paragraphs, more economical, more musical than most prose, Virginia Woolf excepted.
Kenneth Koch, Seasons on Earth. This book features Koch’s two mock epic poems, Ko, A Season on Earth & its–kaff–sequel–kaff–The Duplications, as well as a preface, each written in terza rima. Each has moments of Koch’s playful genius, such as when he writes: “If you are wondering about Aqua’s age,/Since she is young and gorgeous, though Etruscan,/And how she got her name, don’t skip this page.” But too often the rhymes seem forced, the storylines predicated by the rudder of rhymes, which Koch admits in the preface, "Seasons on Earth." Sometimes this strategy proves fun & funny, watching the corners Koch paints himself in & then, like a cartoonist with a magic brush, paint his way out of. At other times, he goes on at length, amusing only himself with stanzas of uninteresting or sophomoric rhymes that serve no purpose other than to illustrate Koch’s ability to write terza rima ad nauseam. I recommend this volume for Koch fans, but the unenlightened would find greater delight in other Koch works, such as The Pleasures of Peace, Thank You & Other Poems, The Art of Love, One Train, etc.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. You can’t escape trochaic tetrameter, poetry’s Alcatraz. Even if you scale the walls, you’ll drown in the frigid water before you reach shore. In a way, however, it actually makes the piece easier to read. Like listening to Van Halen while riding a stationary bike, you may think it sucks, particularly with Sammy Hagar singing, but the tempo keeps you moving, so you almost forget that you’re bored or that you’d read Hiawatha in an undergraduate class about myth & folklore, which is kind of odd considering the stories are mostly Longfellow’s own literary–so to speak–creations. (Spoiler alert–the final section, “Hiawatha’s Departure,” is not only condescending but also surprisingly anti-Semitic!)
Cate Marvin, World’s Tallest Disaster.“Maybe you didn’t hear me so good," Joe Flaherty says in SCTV's Irwin Allen parody, "TOWERING INFERNO!” Whether Marvin had the one time king of disaster flicks in mind–or SCTV, for that matter–when she titled her book is idle speculation on my part. Winner of the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize, it’s thankfully not about 9/11. The title poem employs the same metaphoric equation (body + desire = building on fire) as Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers,” but tallest? Is it a tribute to Anna Swan? Gheorghe Muresan? Is the poet herself abnormally tall? In the introduction, Robert Pinsky compares Marvin to George Herbert & Philip Sidney, which sounds nice, I suppose, but I’d probably slug someone for saying that about me. In my favorite poem from this collection, “On Parting,” Marvin wishes a plague of misfortunes upon her ex, stated with such a light touch that even he’d have to admit, in spite of being mugged or lying dead at the bottom of a lake, that she’s got a keen sense of humor. If I have a complaint–obviously, yes–it’s that nothing particularly distinguishes Marvin from any number of good poets writing today.
Pablo Neruda, Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. What can I say that hasn’t been said? Neruda transforms the commonplace, breathing new life into everyday items. For him, a book is a “minuscule forest,” the wine glass curves like the hips of a lover, the artichoke has its own mythology, each living thing (excluding racehorses & their whining) possesses its own language the poet wants to learn so that he can “be intimate with this world.” But you know all that already. Instead, let me comment on Stephen Mitchell, the translator. From what I can discern from this bilingual text–keep in mind I know next to nada about Spanish–Mitchell seems not to stray far from the original. I’ve also read Mitchell’s translations of Rilke–all of them–& I’m almost ashamed to admit, but before his translations, I never really liked Rilke. Now I sport an artsy Rilke tattoo–just like Lady Gaga!
To be continued . . .