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elegy

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.

Ben Lerner is damn smart. In case you aren’t convinced by my saying so, you need only stop and examine one his books the next time you have a chance. Just the titles of The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and most recently, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) suggest that the enclosed works have elaborate scholarly underpinnings. Lerner’s cerebral poetry isn’t chip-on-the-shoulder intellectualism or self-conscious hipsterism, however, and to shy away from his books because of their rigorous erudition would be to miss a difficult, witty, utterly sincere contemporary writer.

Lerner’s latest project is a sensitive exploration of how our inherited war- and commerce-freighted language might be capable of intimate expression. According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the book, which is the most succinct explanation I could find of the title: “In physics, the “mean free path” of a particle is the average distance it travels before colliding with another particle.” In adopting this phrase as his title, Lerner appears to be making an analogy to our language: particular words and phrases bear residues of prior use. For example, since “shock” and “awe” were appropriated by 1996 military doctrine and then repeated all over news media in 2003 as the U.S. military bombed Iraq, we may not use these words (and certainly not the phrase “shock and awe”) without the tarnish of the over 6,600 casualties—many of them civilians—of the “invasion phase” of the U.S. campaign. And this is just one example involving rather commonplace words—night vision green, this time with feeling, perfect world, prisoner, and a host of other problematic phrases and words recur throughout Lerner’s book. They do so, however, in the interest of expressing himself to a particular addressee—his wife—in a manner that creates fresh intimacy for the reader. Surprisingly, through fracture, repetition, collision, and repeated recontextualization of particular words and phrases, Lerner’s new poems work to liberate love poetry, elegy, and poetry in general from commercial and military connotation.

This project is full of surprise, including humor. Lerner can’t seem to help but barb his poems with sometimes-desperate, dry wit and knuckleball pop reference. The first poem, a “Dedication” to his wife, whose name lovingly recurs throughout, reads, after its central break:

    For I felt nothing,
        which was cool,
    totally cool with me.
    For my blood was cola.
    For my authority was small,
    involuntary muscles
        in my face.
    For I had had some work done
        on my face.

The idiomatic use of “cool,” the surprising, practically Objectivist (insert your own long sequence of analysis here, à la Zukofsky, whose name appears at the end of the first section) use of “cola,” and the sudden reference to plastic surgery all constitute a deixis to the commercialization of language (not to mention the ominous suggestion of “authority”), in a personalized, loving frame. How can these bits of language belong in a love poem, if not to say, “I care so much about you, let me use my terrible inherited palette self-consciously, athletically, and baring my preoccupations. It’s all I have.”

In the end, however, extrapolated earnestness is not all Lerner offers his wife and reader. These poems are also absorbingly formally innovative. The book is divided into five sections. Following “Dedication” (which is a doubling of the “Doppler Elegy” form)—the second and fourth sections are called “Mean Free Path” and the third and fifth “Doppler Elegies.” Both “Mean Free Path” sections are comprised of sequences of 36 stanzas. It’s hard to call these stanzas individual poems, as none are marked by a title. Each is nine lines of relatively similar length, somewhat akin to Spenserian stanzas, although not patterned by stress or meter. These stanzas are challenging bits of poetry, however. Each line of “Mean Free Path” may or may not enjamb sensibly with the next, and enjambment may break a given phrase off from its expected, idiomatic conclusion. There is never punctuation at the end of a line, and often as we read the meanings of fractured phrases are transformed through Lerner’s collage-like stanzas, which are part of a great mosaic of repetition, fracture, juxtaposition, and ellipsis. The reader must work to make sense of the leaps in subject, tense, grammar, lost predicates, or might read smoothly from one line to the next. This game of making, not making, and changing sense continues over the marked breaks between stanzas. For example, the second section of “Mean Free Path” opens:

    What if I made you hear this as music
    But not how you mean that. The slow beam
    Opened me up. Walls walked through me
    Like resonant waves. I thought that maybe
    If you aren’t too busy, we could spend our lives
    Parting in stations, promising to write
    War and Peace, this time with feeling
    As bullets leave their luminous traces across
    Wait, I wasn’t finished, I was going to say
    Breakwaters echo long lines of cloud

    µ

    Rununciation scales. Exhibits shade
    Imperceptibly into gift shops. The death of a friend
    Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
    Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
    Resonant waves. It’s hard not to take
    When your eye is at the vertex of a cone
    Autumn personally. My past becomes
    Of lines extending to each leaf
    Citable in all its moments: parting, rain

A similar game of meaning-making and -breaking is afoot in Lerner’s “Doppler Elegies,” which formally attempt to mimic the “shifts” that Christian Doppler described in terms of the frequency of waves for an observer moving relative the source of the wave—the source, of course, may be the mover, too, and the effect may also be created by a change in medium through which waves travel. In addition to this scientific framing, Lerner’s “Doppler Elegy” form is comprised of three nine-line stanzas, the second, seventh, and ninth lines indented and shortened to create a sense of shift. The shorter lines of these pieces—some of which are very short—create an even more dramatic effect on readability as one proceeds through each piece. The difficulty of making sense in these poems by amplified in Lerner’s process of fracture and juxtaposition—essentially collage. Self-reference is even more insistent and intense, as well. The penultimate “Doppler Elegy” of the book’s third section reads:

    µ

    Somewhere in this book I broke
        There is a passage
    with a friend. I regret it now
    lifted verbatim from
    Then began again, my focus on
    moving the lips, failures in
        The fuselage glows red against
    rinsed skies. Rehearsing sleep
        I think of him from time

    in a competitive field
        facedown, a familiar scene
    composed entirely of stills
    to time. It’s hard to believe
    When he calls, I pretend
    he’s gone. He was letting himself go
        I’m on the other line
    in a cluster of eight poems
    all winter. The tenses disagreed

    for Ari. Sorry if I’ve seemed
        distant, it’s been a difficult
    period, striking as many keys
    with the flat of the hand
    as possible, then leaning the head
    against the window, unable to recall
        April, like overheard speech
    at the time of writing
        soaked into its length

And the poem continues into another challenging section. I would love to keep going with such fascinating (to me) examples, but I believe this is a book worth owning and spending a fair amount of time with. Novel, exciting, sometimes funny and always strangely intimate, Mean Free Path is constantly and repeatedly intriguing. Lerner’s deep well of scholarship and charming wit are marshaled toward a sincere, personal mission (military connotations inescapable) here, and the result is a difficult, winning book of poems that, rather like Nabokov’s best work—although nothing like Nabokov’s best work—are endlessly rich with discovery. If you aren’t familiar with this astonishing 31 year-old poet, it’s in your interest to become so, as his past and future work will be with us for a long time.

I’m don’t consider myself a comfortable elegist (is anyone?), but reading of Alexander McQueen’s death this morning forces me to take up the mantle. I’m not a huge fashion-buff, but I made the walk past the McQueen store on 14th Street a highlight of my daily commute when I worked in Chelsea. His clothes seemed to me wild and well-tailored in the English way. His suits would have fit beautifully in this show at the V&A in London a few years back; he’s one of the only contemporary designers who would have fit, I think; and I mean fit while also doing his own, completely contemporary thing. That show, by the way, was a revelation.

So, Mr McQueen, we are sad that you are not with us anymore. Here is a tribute, from the inimitable Stevie Nicks as she gets done up for a Rolling Stone photo shoot.

Godspeed.