Sunday, April 17, 2005

Second Thoughts

Is it my imagination, or does blogging breed rapid changes of mind?

I've been mulling over my remarks from "Fighting Words" and wondering if I was really telling the truth when I said "I just don't know what to say in a poem unless there's a rhyme to lead me from one line to the next". Perhaps I simply haven't tried hard enough to imagine what a non-rhyming poem by me would say. Maybe I was just too pleased to be writing anything resembling a poem to question the devices that were generating certain lines in my brain and excluding others. Maybe I have been living for too long in the prelapserian world of Dylan Thomas and Willy Shakespeare, and failed to grasp the nettle of historical reality. Maybe it's time to join contemporary poetry as it limps along in Dick Cheney's America, purged of ecstasy but mature in its limitations.

So I've written a poem that avoids rhyme for the most part. Of course, it also comments on itself as a non-rhyming poem. If you can't be self-reflexive in a blog, where can you be? Here it is:

                 Wasted Gifts

The album you never had to hear
because I forgot it on my way
to see you (when your birthday came
around again, it was out of style);
the book I ordered in advance
and later saw you'd bought for yourself;
the box of chocolates I ate
alone in my bedroom every evening
for a week, until I knew
there was nothing to do but hide
the fact that it had ever existed;
the three thousand poems I wrote in rhyme
when nobody wanted to hear those echoes
in those places, then or ever:
I'd like to send them all out now
to find their destined recipients
at last. At least those absent tributes
will no longer be an excuse
to see myself as a generous man
misunderstood, or thwarted by fate.
My wasted gifts will be recognized
for what they were: self-portraits in miniature.
Vanishing and indistinct,
they were half-way to oblivion
even as I called them mine
and martyred them in a lopsided trade
with someone I would think about
at night until I'd found the objects
I could give them to be at peace.
Then I stopped my conscious concern—
it was an effort, distracting, most
of the time. I could rest, having found my offerings
and made them bear that burden of dreams.

This time, I'm not going to do any of my friend Victor Schnickelfritz's critical work for him (see the comments section for his response to "The Fighting Horses"). Besides, I think my concerns will be obvious to anyone who's tried a new way of writing.


Blogger Victor Schnickelfritz said...

Maybe it's time to join contemporary poetry as it limps along in Dick Cheney's America, purged of ecstasy but mature in its limitations.

Great line, but I hardly think this administration acknowledges its limitations.

This animal you have presented has a very different feel. That's for sure.

Up to "to find their destined recipients
at last." there is a very genuine aspect to the voice (and I do perceive this poem as a "voice" poem).

However, in the next line you do something that you have a penchant for. I think it is one of your real strengths. You come up with a very compressed thought that has been brought on by philosophical meditation. It is there that the poem moves inward towards contemplation. For this reason, it slows down the poem at that point. As a reader I have to really stop and puzzle out what is being said. It reminds me of the last line of your "fathers" poem where (how did you say it again) you were willing to risk the immediate comprehension of the line in order to preserve the sound of truth in the turn of phrase.

I admit I slow down and have to figure that line out and never really come to a complete comprehension. That's OK, almost Ashberian.

Then you proceed and I, as a reader hit another snag at the end of this long phrase:

I called them mine
and martyred them in a lopsided trade with someone I would think about at night until I'd found the objects

I had to climb back up several lines in the poem to see what the antecedent for "them" was. Again, almost an Ashberian flourish. But whereas Ashbery might make that antecedent vanish into thin air, here the "them" refers to the "self-portraits in miniature" which are equated to the "wasted gifts."

That's a lot to swallow there. Clearly the reader has a lot to put together in order to get the sense, and I'm not sure I ever arrive compeletely there. Again, you do that kind of thing really well. There's almost a kind of deconstructionist teasing going on.

conscious concern as a distraction? I love it, but we're into deep psychological space, a long way from the breezy catalog of "absent tributes" that opened the poem. That catalog was experiential and is readily perceived. As a reader, I'm having to work hard at this end of the poem. This unevenness could be a distraction for some editors, I think.

With "Offerings bearing the burden of dreams" are you saying that those artifacts made by the wasted talents must be the items that prolong dreams? Is this the gist? Or again, is it one of those philosophical nuts that the reader gets to crack open only half way.

The poem becomes more internal as it goes on. Instead of reflection, I wonder if it couldn't stand to face the world again. Make the last line an observation about the world, not the self?

There are definitely some lit crit tendencies here. Deep down the theorist is gnawing to get out. Well, at least the psychoanalyst is gnawing.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

I seem to be using my strengths against my own poem here, somehow, and I think I know what you mean. The meditation takes over the poem, but rankly, the actual gifts were pretty much only ever going to be a vehicle for saying a lot of other things. I like the idea of returning to something concrete at the end, though I wonder how to do that without pathos turning to bathos.

I also wonder what you mean by "a 'voice' poem." At first I was happy to hear this, since it suggested to me I hadn't completely lost whatever "voice" I fondly believe I had (despite constructing a new style of sorts), but then I started to suspect that you're talking about a poem that goes out of its way to comment on itself as a kind of "ars poetica." I always want to add an "e" to ars, for reasons that escape me. I guess I'm content to have the poem work that way, but hope that the genre hasn't been labelled and dismissed by the lit-crit crowd (of whom I suppose I must still technically be one, as you say).

I really hope you're overstating the Ashberian qualities here. I tried pretty hard to be clear...

7:38 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

That should be "frankly" not "rankly" but I accept the implications of my error.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I'll take the fact that we still have poetry as evidence that this has not yet completely become Dick Cheney's America.

The idea of this as a "voice poem" seems to be clicking. As Victor (or as they might say in Vienna, "Weektore") says, the poem becomes more internalized as it goes along. We completely lose contact with the apostrophized "you" after the first quarter of the poem, and my inclination is to want some closure to that aspect of the poem, and I don't think it's there for me.

I do, however, get the parallels of the wasted gifts to the addressee with the speaker's under-recognized gifts of poetry to the world. By the way, I really like this double - or perhaps triple - entendre in the word, "gifts." In one sense there is the literal gifts (album, book, etc.); in another sense there are the speaker's poems; and in a third sense there is the speaker's giftedness as a poet that he feels is being wasted.

I also want to comment on some damn fine enjambment in the lines "there was nothing to do but hide / the fact that it had ever existed;" - I love it when I expect an end-stop (after "hide"), but instead get treated to the expanded meaning of the following line. I don't know if that comment makes sense, but I like the effect those lines have on me as a reader.

I had a similar reaction to "them" as Schnickelfritz does, but more toward the end of the poem.

When I read: "and martyred them in a lopsided trade / with someone I would think about / at night until I'd found the objects / I could give them to be at peace," I wondered if the "them" was still the "wasted gifts" or the "someone." Grammatically, I guess I want to keep pointing to the wasted gifts, but if it's the person being thought about at night, it helps me to tie back to the poem's beginning and the gifts given to the apostrophized addressee.

I feel like I've rambled myself into a corner by now, so I'll shut up now and move on to the next poem.

11:18 PM  

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