Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is it even meaningful?

This discussion of Robert Hass's poetry has occasioned a mild brouhaha in the world of poetry. I have mixed feelings about both the reviewer and the poet (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add I worked with briefly in grad school), but I think it's generally a thought-provoking piece.

Sample excerpt:
The first line of Robert Hass’s first collection, Field Guide, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973, is “I won’t say much for the sea.” This offhand repurposing of idiom, funny and insightful, is characteristic of his poems—of course he goes on to say a million things for and about the sea. Field Guide was acclaimed, as each succeeding book would be, for Hass’s facility in translating into poems what is ridiculously referred to as the “natural world.” In the first three poems alone, we find: steelhead, mushrooms, apricots, gulls, sea cucumbers, slugs, a walnut tree, ironwood, waxwings, pyracantha, cliffs, bluffs, artichokes, a salt creek, owl’s clover, lupine, berries, hawthorns, laurels, “clams, abalones, cockles, chitons, crabs,” salmon, swamp grass, and a skunk. The preoccupation with nonhuman life is inextricable from a compulsive onomamania: “Earth-wet, slithery, / we drifted toward the names of things”; “I recite the hard/explosive names of birds: / egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.” This impulse is explained, sort of, in “Maps”:

Of all the laws 
that bind us to the past
the names of things are

When Hass’s pintails and blue-winged teals are lined up in a row, the deftness of his observations almost rivals that of the haiku masters he has so memorably translated: in a restaurant’s tank, “coppery lobsters scuttling over lobsters.” But as the above verse suggests, Hass is also given to pedantic soothsaying, telling the reader how it is in tones that suggest he is just slightly winded from having jogged down the slopes of Parnassus. The poetry takes on the tenor of the lecture hall, the quality of prose statement: Of all the laws that bind us to the past, the names of things are stubbornest. Is this true? Is it even meaningful?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ruin, I Promise, Won't be Mentioned Again

My friend and mentor, Dean Young is currently in the hospital, waiting for a heart transplant.  I publish these two poems as a miniature ode to Dean, who is not only a great poet, but a great man.  (For more information on Dean's health, including a link that will let you donate to help Dean's medical costs, go here.)

Acceptance Speech

This time I’m not going to say a thing   
about deity. It’s not the blizzard,
it’s three days after. Trinkle from thawing   
roofs, ruined crocus pronging through.   
Ruin, I promise, won’t be mentioned again.   
Trees, sure, still begging in the road, split
to the bole but this isn’t about the chainsaw.   
A pruning saw will have to do. The puppets   
aren’t hanging themselves in each other’s   
strings. Everyone’s easily identifiable
beneath the funny mask. Somewhere in Oregon,
Mary has another month to go, she’s comfortable   
in any position for thirty-five seconds. Lulu,   
we know you’re in there but no one’s   
blaming you for reluctance to come out.   
Poetry is the grinding of a multiplicity   
throwing off sparks, wrote Artaud
and look what that got him: toothlessness
and shock therapy. Your dad, who has the worst   
teeth of anyone I know, once ordered eggplant   
in a steakhouse. Do not order eggplant   
in a steakhouse turned out to be more   
than aphoristicly true. Do not spend a lot   
of time in an asylum writing cruel poems   
if you can help it, one Artaud is enough.   
In Kandinsky’s Blue 2, there’s a shape   
in two rows of shapes that seems okay   
although to the right’s a capsized canoe   
full of mathematicians, to the left a bow   
about to launch the killer astrolabe.   
By what manner is the soul joined to
the body? How about climbing a ladder   
of fire? No thanks. On TV, a rhino’s
lying in some red dust, munching a thorn.   
You wouldn’t think he could ejaculate
for half an hour straight, but you’d be wrong.   
See that cloud, it might weigh 10,000 pounds   
which is about average for a cloud.   
Happy birthday, happy birthday to you.
Tony says Mary is always writing about the sacred.   
Talcum powder, binoculars, this decimated   
planet. I know, a promise has been made   
but Tony’s been sick for years and no one   
knows with what. Flax oil, bark tinctures,   
corticosteroids. He’s not exactly someone   
you’d trust to drive your car, but still.
Something awful’s coming, isn’t it?   
Would it help if I said Amen?

Sean Penn Anti-Ode

Must Sean Penn always look like he’s squeezing
the last drops out of a sponge and the sponge
is his face? Even the back of his head grimaces.
Just the pressure in his little finger alone
could kill a gorilla. Remember that kid
whose whole trick was forcing blood into his head
until he looked like the universe’s own cherry bomb
so he’d get the first whack at the piƱata?
He’s grown up to straighten us all out
about weapons of mass destruction
but whatever you do, don’t ding his car door with yours.
Don’t ask about his girlfriend’s cat.
Somewhere a garbage truck beeps backing up
and in these circumstances counts as a triumph of sanity.
Sleet in the face, no toilet paper,
regrets over an argument, not investing wisely,
internment of the crazy mother, mistreatment
of laboratory animals.
Life, my friends, is ordinary crap.
Pineapple slices on tutu-wearing toothpicks.
Those puke bags in the seatback you might need.
The second DVD only the witlessly bored watch.
Some architectural details about Batman’s cape.
Music videos about hairdos, tattoos, implants and bling.
The crew cracking up over some actor’s flub.