Have you ever written - and published - a line that later gives you a hot blush of shame? For me it's always some cheap trick of rhetoric that seemed like a good idea when it spewed off my fingertips into TexEdit, some utterly dorktastic 9th grade journalism thing, a throwaway bit of demogoguery that mixes the trite and pompous. I can think of two of them right now that I'd love, love, love, to delete from the face of the earth.
Other lines I've written stick in my head more pleasantly. I'm in love with them despite their technical flaws, and I don't want to abandon their imperfections.
This happened to me today. I was driving along, thinking about poetry. A poem I wrote 10 years ago, "White Horse," started running through my head. I haven't thought of it or looked at it for quite a while, though I tried reading it aloud at a poetry slam in San Jose once - my first and only poetry slam, and it was the wrong kind of poem and I hadn't memorized it.
Things bothered me about this poem: I kept plonking back and forth between prosy explaining-language that embarrasses me, like:
her children fight, complain, scream,
her mother and sisters bicker
far into the night, chainsmoking,
and dense stuff that I approve of still, like:
Resignation bright as a trumpet, victim-shiny,
It became completely obvious to me how I wanted to fix the poem and save it from my own clumsiness. Because it's good, really, especially the very end:
Your hands, Diana, pull the life
from his warm animal eyes, his skin
collapses, the bones protruding
unwind, unwrap themselves into crackling
mummy bandages, deeds to property, car
registrations, proof of insurance, diplomas,
credit reports, all fluttering up and around your hands
like paper doves, and the moon dissolves into its own
beams. My wet puddle self is drawn up in the same
life-line, into the horse's skin, which,
reanimate, boneless, sways to accept her weight,
all fluid and alert, and we are together
rollicking off into the moonless night.
"Off into" bothers me, and yet I don't want to abandon it, for its trueness to my own speech patterns and for its rhythm and emphasis.
There's other poems I know I can't rewrite. I have to start over, and start somewhere else.
At that time 10 years ago my poetics were focused around narrative movement. I wanted each poem, without being prose, to have something happen. The mood and images had to be in a story, and that story had to be something beyond "Oooo, look, I just had a vague epiphany." I wrestled with that one for a while.
But later, I spouted off thusly, in one of my "Hot Air" essays. I think this one was in Caesura magazine:
Poetry swirls and leaps and turns in on itself. It should be dense, rich, layered. Dense poetry rewards study and thought. It should not pace – not even long narrative poetry. It changes state. It boils and sublimates.
A prose poem is something different; a vignette, or a collage, not an excerpt from a novel.
Look at the poem. If it can be written out as a paragraph – with a paragraph's pacing and sensibility – then make it so.
(You see what I mean about my tendency to bombast... But I was trying to say something steely-eyed about Bad Poetry, without citing any actual examples of bad poetry, those ones I'd been hearing that were driving me crazy...)
And then suddenly I moved on to writing very long poems, listening to the structure of long poems. I love how certain poems move in and out of a subject, returning to touch base and then spinning out into the distance, never quite letting you go - but you have to pay attention! But no, actually, you don't. The long poem allows space for spacing out. You can listen to it, and as in listening to baroque music, your mind can spin out into some fascinating direction and then be reeled or yanked back in, back into the present of the poet's voice. At readings at Waverley Writers, and then later at Art21, and the Saturday Poets, I heard Steve Arntson recite his long, long poems about the coast of Oregon and Kirk and Spock and the Wizard of Oz, and immediately classed him with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Grahn, in his mastery of the form of the long poem. It was instructive for me. I have his CD, "Poem Dreams with Imaginary Companions" and another huge audio tape with the oregon poems.
At the time I was translating a poem that takes 20 minutes to read aloud, that is all in rhymed couplets and mean to be sung: "Florentino y el Diablo." Now, I am translating Nestor Perlongher's long poem "Cadáveres", which spins off in baroque fashion and "yanks" you back with repetition. Each verse - and the lengths and rhythms vary - ends with the words, "Hay Cadáveres". In a way I felt... Oh, this is so rude ... but I'm a snob and I love the clusterfuck density of Perlongher's shorter, more cryptic poems where many things happen at once, like a 10-dimensional cryptogram, and I remember first reading "Cadáveres" and thinking "Ha. That's a cheap trick. Here's his popular poem." But really I love that poem.
Believe it or not, I have a point I'm winding up to make. Recently I was talking to someone, I think Serene who does the Nomad Cafe reading series, about our love of "that 70s thing" that is sort of like beat poets, or like the next generation of poets who obviously love the beats but who are not quite beats, and we think of ourselves as continuing in that vein. I am about ready to declare that whole Thing to be part of what Cuban and Argentinian critics call the neobarroque. At some point last year, Hilary Kaplan turned me on to her translation of Alexei Bueno's amazing long poem, "The Decomposition of Johann Sebastian Bach", so there's a Brazilian neobarroco writer for you.... Once I started reading about neobarroco, I realized that's what I'm doing. For a year I've been thinking of my own poetics as part of the neobaroque, but it's been a private process of consideration. I should write this up more thoroughly, with examples.
It is like the beautiful moment during Quetzalcoatl's version of "El Gabán y el gavilán" where the song is interrupted by the harp spiralling off into something hesitant, like a haze of a chain of thought that's almost broken...
Anyway, I really hate it when people call me a language poet. I'm a neobaroque poet. And in the best of my nascent traditions, I will promise to write about all this tomorrow. Then tomorrow, I'll have a new and shinier thought.
I will also promise to discuss Steve Arntson's work in detail. It's astonishing to me when I'm in a room full of people who seem not to realize that whenever he reads it's a Momentous Occasion. If I ever help to get his poems published or collected or recorded I will be very, very happy. The world is missing out and I can't stand for his work to disappear into the fog of memory.