Literarisches Events (in and around Lawrence KS)

  • PATRICIA LOCKWOOD. Lawrence. Thursday, September 11, 7:00 p.m., Spooner Hall, KU Campus.
  • PATRICIA LOCKWOOD. Lawrence. Friday, September 19, 7:00 p.m. Lawrence Public Library. Sponsored by Raven Bookstore.
  • DENNIS ETZEL, JR. & RACHEL CROSS. Lawrence. Thursday, September 25, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.
  • TONY TRIGILIO. Lawrence. Thursday, Oct. 2, 4:00 p.m., English Room, Kansas Union, KU Campus. FREE.
  • CALEB PUCKETT & JUSTIN RUNGE. Lawrence. Thursday, October 16, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.
  • BEN LERNER. Kansas City, MO. Thursday, October 23, 7:00 p.m., Epperson Auditorium, Vanderslice Hall on the KCAI campus, 4415 Warwick Blvd.
  • KRISTIN LOCKRIDGE & ROBERT DAY. Lawrence. Thursday, December 4, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"No layoff from this condensary" (NOT!)

--> So, I wrote a curmudgeonly Facebook post: “Sometimes I think that most poems are just too damn long.” This ostensibly harmless superannuated harrumph garnered an impressive string of comments whose implications ranged from Bronze-Age Greece to neoliberal globalization.

I guess what I had in mind is the recent proliferation of “lyric” poems that go on for two, three, or more pages (often as part of books that go on for 100+ pages), but don’t go anywhere, do anything, or say anything new within those pages. Even some famous poets. I mean, I like a bowl of oatmeal every now and then, but not a vat. You’re going to have to at least throw in some damn raisins or brown sugar or whatever, somewhere in there.

Or, to switch the metaphor: Frank O'Hara said "only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies." And Spicer went him one better and said should be more entertaining than TV. But much contemporary “experimental” lyric is like watching a TV test pattern for an hour, instead of a show. It’s a damn good test pattern, mind you. If you enjoy that sort of thing.

There are concise long poems. Read late Niedecker, for some great examples. Or Homer. But then, he’s got narrative to carry you along (what today we might call “blow-up action”). True, there’s the catalogs (esp. the “catalog of ships problem,” as Ed Sanders calls it). But the function of those is to immortalize the warriors, so that current and future warriors would want to keep serving the “gore-goons” in order to assure their own poetic immortality, too.

However, it is exceedingly hard to write a long lyric poem of any sort, IMO.

Ashbery does it. In fact, I don’t care for his shorter poems, because his poetry works by process of accretion. And it thematizes meandering. You can’t meander much in 14 lines. You can’t forget where you were going, or set down in a completely different place than you had intended, which I take to be his point. The Language Poets wrote some very long texts with a high degree of formal internal similarity; but I finally realized that, if you reject closure, you can’t stop writing!

But how many poems make long-ness a topic? Or are even aware that their readers experience them as long – TOO long? Maybe Berryman’s mother was right about boredom evincing a lack of inner resources, but I have to sympathize with the guy. (Notice how short the segments of Dream Songs are, btw. This is why I like the serial poem – you can keep going, but any given segment doesn’t put you to sleep).

Part of the problem may be the poetic-industrial establishment. People who write poems want to get jobs teaching poetry – jobs that might even reward them for writing and publishing poetry. But they have to publish poetry in order to get those jobs. And like all things within neoliberal capitalism, size matters. Production, baby – that’s the name of the game. “My book is 30 pages longer than your book. And those 30 pages are a lyric poem that doesn’t use the vowel ‘o.’ So there!” Number of degrees, number of pages, number of books. An arms race.

[And of course, all this is happening as the economy is imploding, the climate is going haywire, an increasing percentage of an exploding population is in increasing misery, and the entire world is sinking into high-tech neo-feudalism. But whatever – back to our rant:]

The “Slow Poetry” movement (don’t blink or you missed it) emphasized production: handmade, letterpress editions rather than print-on-demand, mass produced verse. That’s fine. But the bigger issue, it seems to me, is consumption. In the accelerating world of po-biz (and every other biz), everybody has to read (or pretend to read) more and more, just to keep up. Given that the SIZE of poems seems to be increasing, this situation makes for some pretty shallow speed-reading of poems. Which is, of course, fucking ridiculous. Speed read economics textbooks, how-to books, engineering manuals even – but poetry?? What’s the point?

If you’re telling the story of a twenty-year war and sea voyage, then, sure, you’re going to need some space. But Paradise Lost?? I’m sorry – Dr. Johnson was right. And Ronald Johnson was right, too. Have you read any of Keats’ odes? OK. Have you read “Endymion”? More than once?

There are poems I like that are too long. There are long poems that contain passages that are to die for (when the rest is dross). There are books that contain many long poems, where the shorter poems shine like diamonds in the - well, oatmeal. Any time I’ve written a poem longer than a page, I compulsively grab my wallet. And then start cutting. I’m notorious – ask my students. I’m the psycho poet text-slasher.

And I like word-play as much as the next guy, up to a point. But look: if you’re clever, we’ll realize it after half a page. You don’t have to go on and on to convince us. Too many younger poets engage in endless verbal acrobatics that seem as desperate as a group of 4th-year MFA students at the AWP book fair.

And you know what? If you send a short poem into the slush pile – it might just get read, for a change.

Now – got to get back to writing my epic.