Sunday, April 29, 2007

If I Had a Hammer

My late father was good at many things and could build anything from wood but he was no carpenter. Everything he constructed was functional but it was mostly without form. Since he had the tools, the ability, and the will to build a bookshelf or an entertainment center, he did. His intention was good, but his “accomplishment which resolves the complexity of detail into a single object” was a bit lacking. When I was growing up our house was filled with ill-conceived furniture that served a purpose but did nothing to improve the aesthetics of our home—a hodge-podge of different designs and colors (which were probably more reflective of the stains and paints that he had on hand rather than what would be appropriate for the room). If only he had emphasized detail “130 times over” I wouldn’t have been so embarrassed to bring my girlfriends over and explain the mustard-colored plywood stereo cabinet in a room filled with dark walnuts, light oaks, and faux-wood paneling.

Louis Zukofsky, in his essay Prepositions +, is building upon the ideas of both Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa when he talks about the means of poetry: words—the syllables, phones, and letters "that were once graphic symbols" which eventually became the images (phanopoeia), sounds (melopoeia), and interplay of concepts (logopoeia). Most of us possess the language (the tools of poetry), so why is it that so few of us are able to construct “good poetry”? If there has been a running thread through the essays we’ve read so far (I believe there have actually been many) it is the idea that poetry and language can be objectified—that the organization of words is every bit as “real” as the things that they represent. Even Zukofsky admits that poetry becomes less when “good” is placed in front of it (good being, in his words, “an unnecessary adjective”)—so how then do we construct poetry that is a fully-formed object—on which we don’t see the “joints” at all? Zukofsky tells us that it isn’t enough to simply have vision; one must also “emphasize detail.” By not developing the skill there will be no “poetic object.”

I have been struggling lately to write “good poetry.” Much like my father’s stereo cabinet, my poems have been functional (that is, they have the components of poetry) but the joints are showing. I want to carve the coffee table (or hammer handle) from that block of wood—I can see it in my mind—but I don’t feel like I’m fully able to realize it. Fortunately, the essays of Zukofsky, Shelley, Olsen, Pound, and (for me), especially, Fenollosa are helping. Like the instructions that came with my IKEA bookshelf—they are a manual that is guiding me to, hopefully one day, being able to create “seamless” poetry with the skill of a Thomas Chippendale rather than my well-meaning, but carpentry-challenged father.

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