Saturday, April 26, 2003

Notes on 60 at MIT
Opening Night: Part One

I arrived a bit late having decided to take the commuter rail from Gloucester to North Station and then having decided to take the Green Line to Hynes/ICA so I could walk across the Mass Ave bridge to MIT. I arrived in a good frame of mind so I suppose the decision was a good one. {Pre-reading habits for readers and listeners might be the topic for a future column at Polis is Eyes. The subject came up twice last night: first with John Mulrooney [reading Sunday the 27th at 2:45] and then with Aaron Tieger [Sunday 3:15] and Michael Carr [Sunday 2pm]. For me it is best to take the train and walk as much of the way as possible. It is also best to eat something small before the reading and to avoid too much coffee, though a few pints before hand is often helpful.}

Bill Corbett gave the invocation, so to speak. Having arrived in the middle of his talk I decided to wait until he had finished. On the outside of a classroom door with a translucent window, I saw the shapes of the audience and listened to the characteristic rhythms of Bill’s speech though I couldn’t make out any of the words. After the invocation Bill left through the very door I entered. {Such passings always put me in mind of Ulysses but particularly so last night since I had recently purchased a little book of photographs circa 1960 of Joyce’s Dublin. I’ve finally seen the railing of 7 Eccles Street. I’d also been thinking of rivers while crossing the Charles. I’ve lived within sight of four: the Fore in Weymouth, the Jones in Kingston, the Charles in Boston, and the Annisquam in Gloucester.}

Mike Chiumiento was the first reader. It wasn’t until the third reader that I decided to take notes for a column so my recollection of Mike’s reading will be shadowy at best. Mike’s poems as I recall were held together by anaphora and epistrophe. The repeated phrases gave my mind a place to alight for a moment before being pushed on by one perception leading on to another. He finished by reading a song by the wonderfully eccentric singer-songwriter Vic Chestnut. (The couplets of his The Salesman and Bernadette are worth a listen for their haunted charm.)

Beth Woodcome, whom I’d heard read before but to whom I hadn’t been introduced until last night {thank you Jim Behrle}, read second. Beth’s poems intrigued me because of my recent involvement with the poetry of Heather McHugh and Seamus Heaney. Heaney—I’ll get into this more in a later column—seems to evade some of the limitations of the confessional-romantic tradition by centering many of his poems around the self’s relationship with history and landscape. From a romantic rather than projective position he seems interested in what Olson calls the “secrets objects share.” He digs into the mystery but doesn’t quite enter the objects to do so. He is locked in the self, locked within the romantic tradition. This has many implications and raises many questions. {Is it possible to leave the self? Or since there are multiple selves—and/or consciousnesses—can one leave any of these? Can one invent knew ones? Aren’t these then anchored still in our limited experiences? Can the poet transcend the limits of the person in whom the poet resides? What are the resources in language itself—which is beyond any self—that aid creative acts beyond one’s individual limits?} But back to Seamus (and then finally to Beth’s poems) the romantic selves of his poems exist within a context and so he avoids mere solipsism. Another limitation of many romantic-confessional poems is their use of poeticized narratives. These are convention memoir-narratives that have been written using language that gropes in the dark as it were for radiant metaphoric-imagery. I say “in the dark” because the radiance is not found. I say “gropes” because the poet seems involved with a kind of “irritable reaching” perhaps not after “fact and reason” but after “P=O=E=T=R=Y”. Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” comes to mind. There are images in that poem—a poem that I like for its familiarity and for what it attempts—that seem groped for in the dark, lacking radiance. Or to put it another way Lowell seems not to have transformed bread of the commonplace—back to Joyce again, from his epicleti letter to Stanislaus—into a Eucharist of art. {Biographically the image of transubstantiation is apt: one lapsed Catholic writing about another and a convert.} In Beth’s poems the (fictional?) confessional-narratives are fragmented. This often allows the images to have their say as themselves instead of trying to radiate, to be important or meaningful. Also Beth bends language. Nouns are used as verbs. And abstractions like “a persuasion of doctors” appear. The poems then are not about the narrators, the narratives, and the resultant ruminations. The poems instead have what could be called a shifting surface.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

romantic-confessional & the projective/surrealist poems about language

Heaney & McHugh

On the recommendation of a friend I sought out some Heather McHugh among the anthologies on my shelf. I found three poems in A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, editors Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. At the end of the brief introduction to her work by the editors, Seamus Heaney gets the last word, quoted as having said something about “impulse and energy” in McHugh’s work. I felt little “energy” and felt no urgency or propulsion that might be characterized by “impulse” but whatever Heaney meant by the phrase I think his admiration for McHugh is itself instructive. Heaney’s presence—which I hadn’t considered relevant at first—loomed large once I read “I Knew I’d Sing,” the first of the three poems.
In the poem, words from McHugh’s youth are the matter at hand (from the beginning stanzas):

A few sashay, a few finagle.
Some make whoopee, some
make good. But most make
diddly-squat. I tell you this

is what I love about
America—the words it puts
in my mouth, the mouth where once
my mother rubbed

a word away with the soap. The word
was cunt. She stuck that bar
of family-size in there
until there was no hole to speak of, so

she hoped. But still
I’m full of it—the cunt,
the prick, short u, short i
the words that stood

for her and him.

McHugh’s treatment of language as physical and with consequence is not unlike Heaney’s approach in many of his reflective, wordsworthian narratives that turn on words from his Derry youth. “Fodder” begins by revising the title: “Or, as we said,/fother . . .” Heaney often uses first lines to tune our ear to the speech-images of County Derry. “The Singer’s House” begins with “When they said Carrickfergus I could hear/the frosty echo of saltminers’ picks.” Later in the poem Heaney muses on another word: “So I say to myself Gweebarra/and its music hits off the place like water hitting off granite.” In Heaney, language, like history and the natural environment, are sites for, as his first mature poem attests, digging. There are many other Heaney poems in which particular words and their associations figure prominently—“bog” in “Kinship” for instance—and many others in which the language and accents are commented upon though some specific word may not be. His prose, too, is often obsessed with language-as-issue. Even his translation of Beowulf is marked by Derry speech (as his introduction brazenly reports). Heaney clearly still takes Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads proto-manifesto quite seriously.
McHugh’s “I Knew I’d Sing” is a reflective narrative in the romantic-confessional tradition. Like many poems in this tradition—Heaney’s included—the poem finds its roots in childhood. The poem begins by musing—somewhat playfully—on certain American colloquialisms. The poem does not use them as speech, but rather views them from the outside. To be more precise the words don’t seem to figure in the poet’s—or poet persona’s—own speech but rather seem to belong to some absent, previously observed Americans. Later, the word “cunt” becomes the source of the narrative’s conflict. “Cunt” is the poet’s word: “After my lunch of Ivory I said/vagina for a day or two, but knew/from that day forth which word struck home/the more like sex itself.” The poem is in a sense about the poet choosing her language, and her public stance toward the world: “nothing would be beneath me.” The poem is even in some sense about her choosing to become a poet: “I knew when I was big I’d sing/a song in praise of cunt.” It is therefore firmly within the romantic tradition of autobiographical revelation, a public declaration—performance even—of the revelation of the self to the self. (The poem makes the personal revelation—epiphany—a public one. The original Christian epiphany was, of course, itself a public showing forth. )

Language Poems in the Romantic Tradition: subjectivity & certainty

In Heaney’s work language induced epiphanies abound. These epiphanies are not, however, Joycean. Words do not show their (objective) whatnesses. Words cause subjective experiences in the poet. The poet hears things in words and names them:
“When they said Carrickfergus I could hear/the frosty echo of saltminers’ picks.”
“So I say to myself Gweebarra/and its music hits off the place like water hitting off granite.”
Except, it seems to me that Heaney does not hear the words so much as he hears through the words to something else, the echo of picks or water striking rock. Language is physical but transparent. Likewise, McHugh is not so much interested in “cunt” and “vagina” as physical signs—or even in how they operate in a broader context—as in what the use of the words say about her, who she is, and what she stands for. In the “I Knew I’d Sing” the words “cunt” and “prick” stand for “her and him” which leads to these lines:
. . . I loved
the thing they must have done,
the love they must have made, to make
an example of me.
She sees through the words to something else, the lovemaking that made her and her own liberation as poet.

What do “language poems” centered on subjective experience have to offer the reader? What are the limitations of such poems?