Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing About Not Writing

Of the handful of poems I’ve blogged about here, this one is the first that I can truly associate with. Brehm manages to appeal to an audience that is not often overtly marketed to: the aspiring writer. Christian Lander over at Stuff White People Like sums it up pretty well on his entry for writer’s workshops.

This market not only signs up for writer’s workshops, they also apply for MFA programs, purchase charming leather-bound journals, and have folders of abandoned creative writing on their computer desktops. I know these things because I am one of these people and because I am friends with a lot of these people.

Our reasons for keeping the “aspiring” moniker vary from lack of time, talent, or patience to fear of failure, risk, or exposure. Whatever each member’s reason for not pursuing the dream further, we are a curious sort in that we are categorized by our lack of production. In my case, reading a poem like this refreshes me and alleviates some of the aforementioned lacks and fears.

Somebody told me that poetry is about the poet, whereas novels are about other people. This generalization, albeit a broad stroke covering literature’s nuanced nooks, holds true for most cases. The poems discussed on this blog, with the exception of Auden’s “James Honeyman,” have been personal. They have grasped at explaining their inner thoughts to the reader, but have had to use complex metaphor to do so. Brehm’s poem, I hope, blows fresh air through these digital pages by calling on universal experience to explain himself. It is about him, but it is also about me, and some of you, and millions of others who carry the “aspiring” around with them.

The Poems I’ve Not Written – John Brehm

I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: "Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections." Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. "Take me,"
they would say, "and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise."
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

The opening line of this poem tickles me with its thought of being “wildly unprolific.” Since it denotes not producing much, “unprolific” is somewhat allergic to modifiers of degree, especially those that magnify, as “wildly” does. The most wildly unprolific you could possibly be is to write nothing, whereas the only limit to one’s proflicacy (it is a word—I just looked it up) is the length of the day. This nonsense winks at the reader at the outset, hinting at the fun he will have over the coming stanzas.

Brehm goes on with a list of jokes that describe his unwritten poetry in the format of playing the dozens, the originally African-American tradition of humor that entered popular culture through the wondrous world of “your mom” jokes. Brehm’s poem, by association, inherits a great deal of spontaneity despite being a poem, an art form notorious for its meticulous composition.

These jokes outline the structure of this poem, starting with the clichéd idea of something stretching over a large geographical distance (it is, by the way, a large distance, since Brehm resides in Brooklyn). From here, though, each new round of the dozens brings something new to the table. The Tower of Babel simile in round two operates first on the magnitude of unwritten poems, but Brehm refines his simile by adding the idea of the poems “saying nothing / and everything / in a thousand different tongues.”

Perhaps my favorite moment of the poem, Brehm’s third round opens with a delicious tricolon crescendo of participial phrases in which the hyperbolic ridiculousness of the poem becomes apparent. These poems are both “filled with” and then “emptied of” suffering, which I’m pretty sure does not make sense, but makes you think that they must be incredibly powerful poems. Then there’s the even more ridiculous final participial phrase, “so steeped in the music of a voice / speechless before the truth.” Something tells me that Brehm would win if I tried to unpack that one, that I’d be playing the lit crit game he is poking fun at.

Immediately afterwards, though, Brehm steers his poem back onto firmer, more literal ground with all his talk of breaking the hearts of his ex-lovers. Such a move reveals the control he has over this poem, because he satisfies a much broader audience with it. For instance, say I was to read this poem to my sixth grade students. Most of them would have no clue what was going on with those participial phrases mentioned in the previous paragraph on account of the metaphors and hyperbolic contradictions employed. However, once we arrived at the independent clause, they would be right there with me. They might not find it funny, but they would know what was going on in the poem.

Once we get into the hypothetical speech uttered by lesser poets and then trees, the volume has been pushed up to eleven. The use of trees, the material that is graced with the honor of holding the ink of Brehm’s unwritten masterpieces, takes the humor in a different direction, towards the likes of Calvino and other postmodernists. Poets have contemplated their audiences, lovers, and competitors for centuries, but drawing attention to the very materials of writing is a more recent innovation.

Then we come to the final round: the wind. The end of this poem reminds me of the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude. If Brehm was aiming to satirize such a style, then he excelled. But the ending also somewhat problematically floors me with its own elegance. Brehm says that he might have written eloquently about the wind, then he does write eloquently about the wind. In my enjoyment of the final stanzas, I fear I am falling into a trap of sorts.

Paradoxically, Brehm’s humor is both self-deprecating and self-assuring. With one full collection, I’d like to think that he has plenty of unwritten poems left in him. Unlike so many other poets that sink into themselves and rely on the reader to dig their way out, Brehm wants to play games with his reader. And, in the end, even if he can speak the voice of all those aspirings, he has dropped the moniker himself.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wilbur's Layer Cake

Since blogging about not blogging might attract the attention of the blog-cliché police, let’s focus on the job at hand. My relationship with Wilbur’s poetry says a great deal about the state of poetry today. During a freshman year world literature course, I read Wilbur’s translation of Racine’s play Phaedra. That was five and a half years ago, and in the interim, the work of Richard Wilbur, undoubtedly among the greatest by a living poet, was never brought to my attention.

Sadly, the poetical canon is quickly being sealed off as if it is already full. I have very little hope of the likes of Wilbur and Hecht being studied in a hundred years. Even today, to pass as well-read, or at least well-informed about literature, you don’t need to know much of anything written in verse after 1950.

Jazz is headed the same way, incidentally. There is no need for an avid music fan to know anything about jazz after Miles Davis and John Coltrane; it is a marginal element of our culture. As a fan of both, I feel like a cultural fossil. Perhaps there is a museum that will put me on show, where I could stand in dark jeans and a black turtleneck. My weight would lie firmly on my right foot, right hand akimbo, left hand groping vaguely at my facial hair. My forehead would be held in an eternal crinkle, a less-intense take on Rodin. They would insist upon me donning a beret, and a stale espresso would slowly evaporate on a nearby table.

But if I’m going to be entombed in a dusty display case, who on earth will appreciate Richard Wilbur? Who will stop to think about how he manages to capture the juxtaposed moments of life that are too subtle to make their way into pop songs? For the time being, I’m still here.

The Beautiful Changes

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

This poem provides proof that we still need poets to observe and unpack the smaller moments in life. In “The Beautiful Changes,” Wilbur desperately needs the worldly language held in the two similes that occupy the first two stanzas. What is unexpected and somewhat challenging in this first poem is the way Wilbur balances these similes. In the first stanza, the experience tangible to the reader occupies the literal half of the simile. Wilbur relies on us being able to picture the watery walk that opens the poem.

In the second stanza’s simile, the title of the poem has occupied the literal position of the simile, even though it cannot possibly be literal to the reader; the images of the chameleon and the mantis appear vividly, making this simile something more like a generalization followed two specific examples.

This literal, observable, imaginable material forms the base layer of the poem. What makes Wilbur such an effective poet is that he builds more personal and unconventional material on top.

The addressee of the poem occupies the next layer, since the images of her, first her shade, then the way she holds roses, cannot be glimpsed by the reader. In particular, we should struggle with the way he nouns his nouns. (We can do it too, Mr. Wilbur!). By that I mean he uses the noun “valley” as a verb. It is precisely this sort of thing that we will miss if we stop reading poetry. Nobody save the poet can reshape language such.

As we come to the top of our Wilbur layer cake, we arrive at the title, the generalization if you will. This top layer bookends the poem (I did it again, Mr. Wilbur!) in that you cannot ignore the title. The title of the poem exposes us to this top layer before we even begin reading. Then, when we reach the end, we find the summary of the previous two layers. Its success derives from Wilbur’s exclusive use of abstractions here. From “the beautiful changes / In such kind ways” to the end of the poem, I defy you to find a word that you can draw a picture of. Sure, you could draw an example of something changing, of something beautiful, of something being sundered, of wonder; but you cannot capture the essence of any of these abstractions.

Wilbur then gives us an abstract thesis in his title which he expands upon at the end of the poem. Layered underneath, he stacks examples of this thesis according to their ability to be understood by the reader who doesn’t have the benefit of being a close personal friend of Mr. Wilbur and the addressee of this poem. This poem deserves to be called a poem because it combines unique, metaphorical ideas with a practiced, rhetorical structure to produce a clear, organized reading experience.

Over the course of this entry, I have found that the beautiful has changed for me as well. Under the light of examination, an elegant poem has transformed into a meticulously crafted poem that yet keeps its cards close to its chest. It does not want to tell us how organized, how planned it is. Instead, it flashes in front of our eyes a handful of fascinating images that grab our attention and help us to believe that we know something of what Richard Wilbur meant.