Saturday, May 5, 2007

Sarcasm and Sentimentality in Davie Does Dickinson

Much like Bryan, I was beginning to feel that these guys we’ve been studying—especially Fenollosa, Pound, and Zukofsky—were trying to strip away some of what, to me, makes poetry “poetic” by turning it into a science. The idea really appeals to me on one level (particularly in the case of Fenollosa) but then along comes Davie with another prescription for what makes “good” poetry. When he starts a line in an essay “In fact, I distinguish five kinds of poetic syntax, as follows…” you know you’re in for a long read. I was beginning to feel the walls closing in until I read Kasey’s example in his response to Bryan’s post where he contrasts Frank O’Hara’s verse with Jorie Graham’s. It really crystallized what I’ve been thinking for a while now—I already kind of know good poetry when I see it. I think Frank O’Hara gets away with it because he is being self-consciously ironic while Jorie Graham is being disingenuous (and, yes, calculated and maudlin). O’Hara is clearly having fun while Graham seems intent on manipulation. I can trust O’Hara—he’s giving it to me straight (because he’s so obviously being tongue-in-cheek). Maybe that’s what all these guys are saying about poetics, “just give it to us straight” but unfortunately it takes ten pages of mathematical calculations to get there. That’s why Emily Dickinson was so refreshing. It would be interesting to know what kind of “surgery” Higginson had performed on her poems and whether she took his advice or not (I kind of suspect that she did not). You can tell by her wonderful sarcasm and wit that Dickinson obviously knew good poetry when she saw it. She was writing what she wanted to write even though it bucked the conventions of her day. Maybe when the Fenollosas, Zukofskys, Pounds, and Davies of the world tell us how to write “good” poetry we can simply say “thank you for the surgery” and then strive to make our own poetry as fresh and as honest as O’Hara’s and Dickinson’s.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

This is great, Michael--except that I still maintain that Pound & Zuk at least are not telling us how to write poetry at all. For that matter, neither is Davie, I think: he's simply giving his account of his experience of reading.

In fact, the more I think about it, I'm sort of puzzled as to what seems like "math" in these poets' critical essays. Is it just that they write in complex and sometimes puzzling ways? Or are there really elements in their writing that are like equations and formulae? Pound, for example, talks about phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia, the last of which at least is admittedly kind of difficult to conceptualize, at least when you first start thinking about it. But he doesn't say "in order to write poetry, you must employ logopoeia," or anything like that. If anything, it's a diagnostic concept, a way to account for effects one perceives in poetry that one reads--effects that are not placed in the work by means of a formula or specific procedure, but that are after-the-fact signs that something has been "done right." If one goes into the poem thinking, "I'm going to make the phanopoetic plane dominant in this one," the results are almost certain to be contrived and dull. On the other hand, if one learns to be scrupulous about one's experience of reading poetry, about expressing what that experience is like on multiple levels, one sharpens one's aesthetic sensibility, becomes a more receptive vessel, and if one is lucky, becomes an intuitively more skillful writer as well.

Michael said...

I think that some of the essays only "seem" mathematical in the fact that after a while they begin to feel dense and complicated--perhaps I could have used a better analogy (I was just trying to compare it to something that makes my brain feel like it has been crushed in a vice and then pierced with the dull tines of a garden rake). I totally agree that they are giving their account of reading and, in essence, that was my point--I tend to get more from reading the actual poems than from reading someone else's account of reading the poems. For instance, I feel like I got more from Coolidge's 8 word poem about trilobites than I did from Davie's entire screed. And I'm not even saying that I didn't find value in it, but after Fenollosa, Pound, and Zukofsky I was jonesing for a bit more of Olsen and O'Hara (but I had to wade through Davie first--I mean, he "seems" like a nice enough guy but...) That's why it was nice to get to Dickinson and experience her wit(is it wrong to have a crush on someone who has been dead for over a century?)--I was definitely ready for something a little lighter. Thanks for the feedback!

Mike Young said...

I like this post, but I'm going to throw in the javelin about the O'Hara thing.

I don't think this is ironic or tongue-in-cheek:

"oh god it's wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much"

I think he does find all that perfectly wonderful because all that is particularly wonderful. But I get what you mean. His voice is self-conscious, self-doubting, self-deprecating, almost self-wriggling-out-of-self. Jorie Graham's voice--in the poem Kasey excerpted--seems self-consumed, self-cut-off-from-the-world, self-sinking-into-self. Like, if O'Hara's voice saw a bowl of ice cream on the table in the middle of a party, he would eat it, maybe, but worry about what the other people in the room were thinking of him or how he must look. Maybe he would make a little joke about it. Jorie Graham's voice would eat it and lavishly scrawl it up and down the tongue, dream up metaphors for the tactile sensation of ice cream's descent into soul.

What I mean, maybe, is that "ironic" seems a cold word for it. I think sincere is really more accurate. Self-aware, sure, but of the world. I don't think he's making fun of people who say simple things or something like that. This is from the same poem Steps, two stanzas earlier:

"the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building's no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)"

I mean, you can hear the irony pretty hard in a couple of those lines.

I don't know. It's very hard to describe. Fiercely cute. An honesty out of loyalty rather than image cultivation. Like the voice really likes you and it's going to talk to you because it really likes you. Jorie Graham's voice seems to really like--I'm not sure--painkillers? I don't know.

There is so much more to say here.

Michael said...


You're absolutely right--I based my assessment on my familiarity with some of O'Hara's other poems (and on Personism) and took the example completely out of context. Now that I've actually read "Steps," I completely agree with you that he is being sincere rather than ironic (that'll teach me to rush to post). Had I read it beforehand I think that I would have had an even stronger case. But, in the interest of wriggling out of this hole that I've dug for myself, I still believe that even when O'Hara is being tongue-in-cheek he IS being completely sincere.

I'm glad you busted me on this--now that I've read the poem I have an even greater appreciation for O'Hara. I love what you said about his voice having "an honesty out of loyalty rather than image cultivation"--totally brilliant!

To say more may mean that I would have to actually read Graham's poem which would, quite possibly, require me to take painkillers...