Thursday, December 29, 2005


Since finding Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave by accident in a used book store last year, I've had the vague sense that it is a foil for my poetics.

V. S. Pritchett's blurb pegs it as "a modern egotist's anthology" and Connolly himself says in the introduction that its plot turns on "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within." It's main strength is really to present this mood, without (convincingly) arguing for its validity.

Connolly published The Unquiet Grave under the pseudonym Palinurus. I want to say that the poetry that I'm reading these days, the poetry that pleases me, is strongly marked by anti-palinuroid tendencies (turning a phrase from Connolly's postscript). Palinurus was Aeneas' pilot; and my contact with contemporary American poetry begins precisely with Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot".

A few weeks back, there was a bit of an incident about calling my aesthetic response to this poem "flarfy". I want now to suggest that it was really anti-palinurian, though it's an unhappy term (negative contrast). To show what I mean, consider a poem of Ben Lerner's from The Lichtenberg Figures, also published in Ploughshares (Winter 2002-3):

I’m going to kill the president.
I promise. I surrender. I’m sorry.
I’m gay. I’m pregnant. I’m dying.
I’m not your father. You’re fired.
Fire. I forgot your birthday.
You will have to lose the leg.
She was asking for it.
It ran right under the car.
It looked like a gun. It’s contagious.
She’s with God now.
Help me. I don’t have a problem.
I’ve swallowed a bottle of aspirin.
I’m a doctor. I’m leaving you.
I love you. Fuck you. I’ll change.

First, recall the Palinurian plot -- "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" -- and recognize the sense in which this poem seems to actively engage with and deconstruct it (or just takes it apart). Second, consider the following very Palinurian sentiment:

We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there. (Connolly, p. 2)

I think Ben Lerner and Tony Tost are saying (and doing) the very opposite. They refuse to lament their point of departure. More importantly, they will not allow the reader to valorize the act of simply reading a poem. The "materials" that are used in Lerner's poem are as "cheap" as anything we find in journalism, but the effect of putting them together as he does is, I would say, permanent. He co-ordinates what is there.

This application of ostensibly cheap materials to poetry, I suspect, is also what I immediately appreciate in Kasey Mohammad's Deer Head Nation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a really fantastic concept, Thomas. For various personal reasons right now I've found myself feeling and thinking "Palinurian", and feeling desparate, in a way, because I don't have the emotional space right now to be able to engage with a great deal of the poetry I've loved in the past.

But you are totally right to acknoledge, and I am happy to see this named, almost in a theraputic sense for me right now, the fact that there can be poetry that is written not only out of emotional exhaustion, but also for, or towards, someone in that state.

So much of my poetry education in college was focused around the idea of a poem as a "ride", something that you get on when you don't have anything better to do, something to -- as in Stevens -- give you a little emotional kick when your day at the insurance office is killing your soul.

I think you are also correct to say that the use of "cheap" materials is crucial to the act of writing for and out of the distraught. Because that is where the distraught leaves us. I am thinking here a little about Elaine Scarry's book On Pain, where she describes the suffering of torture to be an act of deconstructing (not mean in a capital D way) language, taking it apart, rendering it meaningless.

She takes as an example a report from Amnesty International, where she describes how a particular torturer (I believe in South America) used the ordinary implements of human life -- the "Cheap" -- to conduct his torture.

For example, people were bludgeoned with (full) liter bottles of soda, turning the mundane into the terribly painful, and various horrific practices were described using the language of football (e.g., "offsides" meant that the victim would receive some kind of, let's say, electric shock, and a "goal" might mean that you would be executed -- I forget the exact circumstances.)

Now, of course, poetry is not written solely for, and cannot answer solely for, the victims of such extreme torture, but it seems to me that the effect of the much more minor tortures of everyday life is to render a person's existence into these cheap components: soda bottles and newspaper speak and suicide threats and asprin bottles and so forth.

And so a poem that can answer to that is going to have to take up those things, address them, and address, as Lerner does, the ways in which they are emptied of meaning by pain, and can be filled again.

I don't know -- I'm not a scholar -- but the core of the "Palinurian" seems to be the romantics, who painted art as a kind of escape into a second world. But escape is not possible precisely to those who need it most, those for whom the emotional power of a huge amount of poetry is infinitely distant, whose anguish scares away the Nightingale.

That Ben Lerner poem is just a thrill to read, and I mean not a thrill in the rollercoaster sense, but a thrilling moment for me this afternoon.