On Representation

It’s taxing, these attempts to figure out how everything’s gone so wrong.

I’ll start with Scott Cairns: “A poem must not be about an event; it must occasion an event of its own,” which nicely echoes Wallace Stevens: “The poem is the cry of its occasion…”

As a reader I’m just lucky enough to be struck occasionally by a skillfully delivered poem (as those coveted “dozen or two dozen times” that Randall Jarrell ascribes to great poets standing patiently outside during thunderstorms). Here’s one from Julio Martinez Mesanza, translated by Don Bogen:

Horses Die in Battle Too

Horses die in battle too. They do it

slowly as the wounds they accumulate

come from arrows that have missed their marks.

They bleed to death, their suffering noble

and calm. A look of superiority

and distance claims their motionless eyes,

while their ears must undergo the raging,

disproportionate agony of men.

I’m at a slight loss, relying on Bogen for a fair amount of accuracy, since I lack the original version in Spanish. I’m going to sidestep explication. Save that for the classroom. All that’s required, ultimately, is a voice—a speaking voice. Slow down. Get it out loud.

Here’s another example of exquisitely rendered imagery, from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

I see before me the Gladiator lie:

He leans upon his hand—his manly brow

Consents to death, but conquers agony,

And his drooped head sinks gradually low—

And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow

From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,

Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now

The arena swims around him: he is gone,

Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hailed the wretch who won.

In both examples we have forceful engagement. We can’t ignore what’s been said, for how it’s been crafted. We must reflect (dreadful apprehension—most likely few have witnessed horses shot multiple times with arrows, yet we can hear the terrified whinnying); we must recall (vivid dash—the increasing rapidity of swollen raindrops ushering a downpour). These things are made present. Palpable, palpitant. Lines advance, kinetic, then cut back, drastic, with torque and tension compelling, teasing out the image. They repay our persistence. Such accommodating delight. I rejoice.

Back to Scott Cairns:

“Most of the mediocrity is the result of too many poets and editors mistaking poetry for a species of denotative art. Most of the mediocrity is the result of too many poets thinking that poetry is an expressive art. My sense of poetry is that it must be recognized as a means of concurrently constructing and discerning reality; it is not a means by which we communicate matter or narrative events we think we already understand. I may have experienced an interesting event, but if I were to understand my poem as simply a document of that event the result would not be an interesting poem.”

Very little surprises me, given the current deterioration of the arts. It’s prudent to ask Cui bono? when unsophisticated, unadorned prose captures first place and secures a publication deal in a poetry contest. Simply put, there’s no relation to poetry in the next example beyond the blasphemous allusion to Andrew Marvell in the title.

Michelle Brooks, from her winning book, Make Yourself Small:

To His Coy Mistress in Detroit

Some guy in line at CVS starts

babbling about the end times, rapture

yelling, Do you watch the news?

Do you see how everything is going

to hell? The checker says, Fool, look

around you. The end times already

come and gone in Detroit and we still

here. I hand her the vodka that I’ve

been clutching as if it might save me,

if from myself if nothing else. End

times, the checker says, I heard that

one before. Men always saying some

shit to get you into bed, and I shake

my head and say, Don’t I know it.

If you can’t see the difference, quit now.

Mark Anthony Signorelli, in “The Continuing Tyranny of Modernism”:

“Thus we see the hopeless, deplorable condition of poetry in our time: a hermetic refuge for scores upon scores of untalented poseurs, all ridiculously unaware that whatever they are doing does not bear the slightest resemblance to the practice which formerly went under the name of poetry. They are various in their approaches, to be sure, but perfectly uniform in their dreadfulness. Some present their trivial reflections about table condiments, while others offer vulgar rants about their favorite body parts; some combine meter and rhyme with the most un-poetic, quotidian idiom, while others employ the un-poetic idiom without the rhyme and meter; some retreat into the last extremes of esotericism, while others write stuff so simple and sappy it would be rejected by the editors at Hallmark. But what none of these people do – what none of them can do, what none of them has the slightest idea how to do – is raise language to that pitch of intensity which carries us out of the quotidian and stuns us into the contemplation of important truths; that is to say, to do the sort of thing that poets did for centuries, and which for centuries they regarded as the essential end of their craft.”

The goal for today is brand recognition. Why else would a start-up literary magazine in its inaugural issue, wishing to distinguish itself, feature another diarrhetic discharge from Lyn Lifshin? Or the senseless, indecipherable ramblings of Simon Perchik? What possible credibility could these poets provide? It may be advisable to skip the contents of most literary magazines, as readers—and particularly so-called emerging writers—are mainly interested in perusing the list of contributors and pedigreed bios. Their aim is true. They know that’s the ticket.

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