Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tomorrow’s Living Room -- A Review

Tomorrow’s Living Room
Poems by Jason Whitmarsh

This is Jason Whitmarsh’s first book. It is winner of the 2009 May Swenson Poetry Award. And it is a deserving collection. One that may at first mislead you with its wit and simplicity. His deft casualness makes it possible to breeze through these poems without thinking of the odd statements being made. Indeed, in his citation, Billy Collins, who chose the book for the award, points out the “pleasurable disorientation” of the language, its “mixture of directness and imaginative surprise.” And the back of the dust jacket describes them as “alternately wry and dark.” These are all accurate observations of the surface textures, but to some extent, miss the point, miss why these poems are such a surprising tonal blend.

The opening poem is called “Forecasts” and is a grouping of four quatrains, all involving some sort of evasion, distance or submerged emotion controlling the actual moment. For instance, the second quatrain goes,

The rock fell from a great and far-off height
and plummeted silently through the roof
into bed, where it replaced your heart.
That’s what I think. It’s why you’re so aloof.

This distance, heightened by the internal monologue, foretells the rest of the collection. Indeed, that insistent, “That’s what I think” is at the core of Whitmarsh’s linguistic landscape. The poems are often pivoting on people so involved in what they think, they fail to make any real connection with others. Another poem, early in the book, is “One Art.” It is a satire of the famous Bishop villanelle, brilliantly using the exact same rhymes in the sequence of Bishop’s original. But in this version, the speaker is talking about wishing to be Bruce Lee when he was young so he could hit his “way out of disaster.” The poem concludes,

It’s evident
why I wanted to be a kung fu master,
as though desire alone could prevent disaster.

This desire is at the heart of the original Bishop poem, a speaker who is aching to convince themselves of something they don’t truly believe. This resonates to the key struck by the rest of Whitmarsh’s collection, which, on the whole, addresses the disasters that come from entertaining our fantasies too much, the emotional traumas of too much indulgent daydreaming. It’s why the tone is such a peculiar blend of humor and loneliness.

The title of another poem is “He Said These Things, Not Even I Could Forgive Him.” The first line of this poem goes

I’m kind of reluctant to mention the superhero powers
I’ve acquired since last we talked.

This is an opening line that leaves one expecting to laugh the rest of the way through. But the poem ends with the speaker saying,

In my dream
I grabbed an electric fence and when I woke I said
how strange to be in pain in a dream and you said
I was lucky it wasn’t worse, those fences are dangerous.

Oddly, it seems, dream and reality are beginning to blend by the conclusion of the poem. The person spoken to is almost accepting the terms of the “superhero” who is speaking. However, we can’t forget the title. The person spoken to resents the speaker. Why? Perhaps for no other reason than that the superhero is talking about what should remain unspoken.

If Whitmarsh’s poems are about the dramas that result when our unspoken fantasy lives break in and distance us from our real lives, these unspoken fantasies are also the source of what drives us to need each other or what makes us interesting or even who we are. One poem says it’s

Better, maybe, to let the guilt metastasize
than to cancel by good intent
any chance to surprise.

A couplet says,

Everything weak in us survives. It’s meant to.
If not, not a day would go by where I’d want you.

This couplet is from a poem titled “Three Curses.” The implication is that this is a curse, that our weakness is what drives us to want others, to desire. It is also what creates our fantasies and the distances between us. Or as Whitmarsh says in another poem, “One begins ever after and ends upon a time.”

It is a wonderful debut collection, inventive in its forms, from villanelles, triolets, and ghazels to prose poems and all handled with a casual fluency. He writes with compressed intensity; only a handful of his poems are longer than half a page. But all glitter like well-cut gems.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rereading Walter Pater

Rereading Walter Pater’s The Renaissance I’m struck how the sheer pleasure of reading the book breaks hard against the abundance of thought it provokes. It makes it difficult to decide if I should rhapsodize about the beauty of his prose or delight in the many connections his work has to other writers and thinkers both before and after him. Perhaps a little of both.

His aesthetic, as he describes it at the beginning of his essay on Giorgione, accounts for how he allowed himself the luxury of such a poetic style. For Pater, the all important element in a work of art is its impression. When he says, “in its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall” he frees himself to enter a painting or poem or the life of an artist and permit his own reactions to form the meaning. He can suggest the sound of poured water mixing with played pipes in FĂȘte ChampĂȘter or the smile of the Mona Lisa “defining itself on the fabric of [Leonardo’s] dreams” and I take these in without any hesitation that they are not good scholarship since that is not the intention. Pater is not trying to get at some objective message or meaning, but at what it means to him to inhabit a certain space.

Pater argues that it’s neither the senses nor the intellect that art addresses, but the “imaginative reason.” I immediately understand this to correspond to what I call the sensibility. It is an odd organ of perception. But it is Pater’s effort to describe how this vague organ registers aesthetic reality that makes his descriptions so beautiful and why it is not accurate to understand him as simply a critic or hedonist. In fact, so many of his attitudes and ideas seem to foreshadow much in modernism and existentialism.

As I read him, I have strong but undefined feelings that he stands on the narrowest and subtlest bridge dividing what is Romantic from what is modern. Or that he breathes the air of both atmospheres without fully inhabiting either. Certainly, much of what is in the major existentialists and major modernists can be seen as the evolution of the Romantic stances, their natural consequence and end. When Blake asserts that the imagination is the Holy Spirit, there is no significant progress made when Stevens proclaims “God and the imagination are one.” When Keats said negative capability is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” he defined exclusively for artists what Camus would define as the absurd man. So when Pater describes Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin, it registers as more than an aesthetic disagreement, but a metaphysical one. That’s because Pater had already made a step toward that fragmented landscape of modern life. But he doesn’t seem to step fully into it or, if he does, he’s wearing some kind of protective armor, something that keeps his mind intact where later minds are in pieces. What Pater says of Goethe could be said of himself, “he defines, in clearest outline, the eternal problem of culture — balance, unity with one’s self.”

One sees his method of unity in how he portrays what the mind does to satisfy its need “to feel itself alive.” He said it “must see into the laws, the operation, the intellectual reward of every divided form of culture; but only that it may measure the relation between itself and them. It struggles with those forms till its secret is won from each, and then lets each fall back into its place.” This reaches back to Blake who said,

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

And it reaches forward to Simone de Beauvoir when she defines freedom as being “able to surpass the given toward an open future.” Between these two metaphysics of freedom, Pater defines his technique to give the intellect the completeness he said it demanded. However, this technique contains the seed of its own dissolution. In the very notion of the “divided form of culture” is everything that gives him his uniting focus and what transformed, for later minds, into a multiplicity that fragmented the psyche itself.

For Pater, there are discrete aesthetic moments offered to the intellect to construct its own unity, forms yielding definitions and boundaries of cultural discourse. But in the 20th century, the existentialists rejected the mere play of such forms. Again Simone de Beauvoir said, “We repudiate all idealisms, mysticism, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.” The divided object presented to the mind in the 20th century was not culture, but man himself, his fragmented psyche. As the poet George Oppen put it, “we have chosen the meaning, of being numerous.” The self no longer felt the unity it once did and could no longer contrive it. Walter Pater’s mentor, Matthew Arnold, exemplified this fragmentation quite dramatically. In fact, the teacher stood on the other side of that bridge dividing and distinguishing the Romantic sensibility from the modern one.

Pater was not driven, like his mentor, to proclaim, “I am fragments” because aesthetic appreciation was a uniting principle for him. He was not a hedonist, but an aesthete. In his famous conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater writes, “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, in this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendor of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” It is staggeringly beautiful and poignant, another of the infinite renderings of carpe diem. But we see here the idealism Beauvoir rejects; we see Pater’s unity in gathering together these moments. He is the central self bringing his singular experiences into the whole of his guiding intelligence. And this divides him from the 20th and 21st centuries; this keeps him from being wholly modern. As close to the doorstep as he comes, he remains outside. But he is so wonderfully there, an almost reassuring figure — if only we could be more like him — the favorite grandfather of many artists and intellectuals, a source of wisdom too remote to follow but close enough to relish quoting.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Sensible and the Meaningful

To begin June on my blog, I decided to post some current thoughts on poetry. Lately I’ve thought about Wallace Stevens’ remark that, “a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” It seems to me that a poem should actually succeed in this resistance, but only just. The intelligence should fail but be so consistently close to succeeding that it can’t resist renewing the effort to bring it under its dominion. A poem should be the perfect seduction of the intelligence. I think of a poem like Joseph Brodsky’s “Kalamaki” as a perfect example, at least for me. It is a poem I have felt always on the verge of fully comprehending. I could sense the boundaries of its meaning as I neared its end, just as it slipped away. It’s like someone whose hand is big enough to almost palm a basketball, but not quite. Portions of it leap out at me as I go along; I gather a thread here and a thread there. I’m about to tie them in a neat little bow when, right at the end, it unravels. And I never fail to return to the poem at some point and renew the journey because it is so amazing, so deeply meaningful, although inexplicable. And that is the subtle distinction that has brought me to this idea of how a poem should function.

Though a thesaurus will show them as synonyms, there is a difference between what makes sense and what is meaningful. Of course, the sensible has many definitions. What I mean by sensible here is: that which is of sound judgment or good sense, something that is fitting. But what we typically consider sensible is so only according to our given understanding of the world. However, the realm of possible meaning is much larger than this. That is, what is meaningful is larger than what is sensible. So, while everything that makes sense is meaningful, there are a vast number of things that are meaningful which make no sense. This is the realm poetry should explore. It is where such poets as John Ashbery, Marvin Bell, even Mallarme and sometimes Fernando Pessoa make their homes or pitch a tent.

It recalls another thought I’ve frequently had, a definition of a poem that has recurred to me throughout the years: that a poem is the clearest explanation of something. The consequence of this is that the explanation of a poem is both a movement away from clarity and a redundancy. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should abandon literary criticism, only that, the best literary criticism should, in itself, approach the nature of poetry. It’s why writers like Walter Pater and Edward Dalhberg are preferable to simple critics like Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler: as admirable and interesting as they are. It is in this spirit that I continue to write my own thoughts on poetry and poets and look forward to shortly publishing my thoughts on Walter Pater after having recently reread The Renaissance.