Last week, William Zanzinger died in Richmond, Virginia. Who, you may ask, was William Zanzinger? Well, William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, as Bob Dylan sang, and got off with 6 months - b/c, the ballad explains, he was rich and white, and she was a poor black servant woman. This is one form of historic commemoration - or commemoration of "current events" - the way the news traveled and the way legends were preserved, back in the day. If you couldn't read, you listened to someone who could. If you could read and not sing, you read it to someone who could (to the tune of . . .). And the broadsides which the ballads were printed on cost a penny, ha'penny, or less.
Another form of poetic commemoration is on view in the poems of God Bless, by H.L. Hix (Etruscan Press, 2007), which "are constructed entirely of passages from speeches, executive orders, and other public statements of George W. Bush" - or, in some cases, Osama bin Laden. So sure, there are some juicy bushisms. But, by and large, Hix has done a yeomanlike job of making poems (sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, no less) out of what must be some of the most incredibly boring discourse ever devised by the mind of man (or lack thereof). For instance, the title is a phrase that was repeated obsessively by the President, in multiple variants - not to mention other tedious iterations of every conceivable reference to an already overworked Deity:
We honor their service to America and we pray
their families will receive God's comfort and God's grace.
We pray for their speedy and safe return.
May God bless our country and all who defend her.
We pray for those families who mourn the loss of life.
We believe freedom is - is a gift from the Almighty God.
And so on. There is something about staying "on message" that seems inherently inimical to poetry (interesting poetry, anyway), and Hix has done about as well as I could imagine anyone doing in trying to turn this stuff into something resembling art. The stuff from bin Laden is also predictable, but it's such a nice break. When you go into the next Bush poem, you think, O - him again!
But it certainly gets the message across - or rather the distilled and concentrated flavor of those days of officialdom from the beginning of 2001 through 2004. The repetition (NOT insistence) is the rhetoric of running in circles - not inappropriate prosody for the war of terror.
Another, subsidiary question, this volume raises is: can this kind of found poetry be "political" by itself, without commentary? And if so, how? Hix follows the poems by a series of interviews that deal with both his poems and other people's books that deal with similar themes. This is perhaps the same issue Benjamin deals with in the "Matter-of-Fact" school of photography. In "The Artist as Producer," he comes to the conclusion that, without the caption, the image is open to appropriation by any political tendency - not least of all "apolitical" art. For much experimental poetry of the last 200+ years, prefaces, manifestos, interviews, etc., have functioned as "captions" - alleviating the burden of Art to convey the Message. That is why Lyrical Ballads had to be explained first, in 1800, but Dylan's ballad lyrics do not, in the 1960s or 2000s.
Kevin Varrone's BOX SCORE: An Autobiography of Zeroes - [I'll be delivering this talk in Ottawa, Kansas on Friday. In the meantime, I highly recommend Kevin's book; I've read it a dozen times now, and it has rew...
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