Monday, September 21, 2009

A string of one-night stands

An interesting interview with Jason Guriel. I'm totally with him on his valuation of the single poem over the book of poetry. And it's refreshing to hear anyone champion the entertainment value of poetry.


Michael Lista said...

I find that distinction--the poem over the book-- spurious. It's hinged on an assumption that doesn't hold much water: that the individual poems in a thematically or narratively linked collection must suffer from their intra-textual cohesion. It's the same argument, really, that some make about "formalism"--that the strictures of form stunt utterance. A book-length conceit done well is really poem-scale form writ large; it provides an opportunity for meaning, which is what writing good verse is all about. And why shouldn't poets strive to have it both ways: rollicking-fine poems that harmonize? I think it just increases the likeliness that you'll manifest what Auden called "one infallible symptom of greatness": "the capacity for double focus."

Zachariah Wells said...

I agree with you, Michael. What I mean is that, in most of the concept albums/long poems/thematic sequences I come across, there are some good individual poems, but the sequence as a whole feels like a toffee-like stretching of the material to fit too large a frame. Most of these books would have been better--or not books at all--had their authors worked at condensing instead of expanding. Randall Maggs' much-lauded Sawchuk book is a recent, glaring example of this.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Hey, did you just diss my ms?

You liked Steven Price's Anatomy of Keys. And Steffler's The Grey Islands, if I remember right. Both very good books with no toffee-stretching at all.

As far as condensing instead of expanding goes, doesn't the same apply to collections? You frequently speak of flabbiness. Perhaps that's not the exact term you use, but toffee-stretching is toffee stretching.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Oops! I forgot the :) after the initial question mark.

Zachariah Wells said...

I also like Rachel Lebowitz's Hannus and Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, to say nothing of The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and Fredy Neptune, to name a few.

To clarify, it's not that I think Jason has it right and that a single poem is better or more important than a book. It's that I appreciate him shifting the emphasis away from the collection towards the single poem, since it seems to me far too much weight in our culture is placed on the book as unit of composition/publication.

This is to say that a single great poem is a far greater legacy than 20 mediocre books.

And to pick up on what Michael's saying: I think that every book should, ideally, be approached as one approaches a poem, ideally. That is: making sure that every component contributes something crucial and non-redundant to the whole. In assembling my own new collection, I included some poems and excluded others not necessarily because they were better or worse poems, but because they contributed to the book's overall form, or they didn't. Jason's book shows similar attention to the shape of the book. I don't think he is saying--and I know I'm not--that the shape of a book doesn't matter. Rather, that the shape of the book depends, first and foremost, on the shape of the poems it contains.

The problem with a book like Maggs', which I mentioned above, is that it privileges information over form. An awful lot of the writing feels like diligent spadework. Okay, now must write a poem about episode X. Check. On to episode Y. Poetry tends not to accommodate itself to that sort of prosaic procedure. The result, in this case, is a big baggy book with a few shining moments of real poetry and a whole lot of versified data.

Michael Lista said...

No doubt the Sawchuck book is a mess. But--and here is my over-arching point--that is the author's fault, and not the form's. The form--the thematically sustained collection--has its pitfalls, and Maggs stumbles over nearly every one, including the toffee-stretch (a point I appreciate) and what you call privileging information over poetry. But that's not the form's fault. Again, people make the same argument about a sonnet's failing; it failed because the poet forced a rhyme where required, because the meter is dictatorial, because of the length, etc., stunting an utterance that would have benefitted from a more organic shape. But you can't fault the form because it's hard to master. To take Guriel's argument one further would be to say, "There are so many bad poems out there, and because the poem is the primary unit of publication/composition, I think we should start focusing more on the individual line than on the whole poem." Sure, but...what? The argument is as ludicrous to me as someone declaring "I like leaves more than trees," and suggesting, from now on, that we only look at them in bushels. I just happen to think they look pretty good on the tree.

Zachariah Wells said...

Michael, the problem isn't that "there are so many bad books," it's that there are so many institutional paradigms and incentives emphasizing the book as poetic goal. In MFA programmes, the goal is a book. In grant proposals, the "project" is a book. Books win the big prize money. Books get you better grants and more PLR money.

We have so many books of such great girth in large part because that's what is constantly being rewarded. I meet lots of people who want to publish a book. Met one last night in fact. I meet very few who want to write an immortal poem. Which makes sense, since publishing a book is a much easier task. Especially in this country.

Frost said, beware of the sound, let sense take care of itself. I think a sensible extension of that is beware of the poem, let books take care of themselves. And really, any poet serious about the craft doesn't stop at the line, but goes straight to the word, if not the syllable or phoneme, as the radical unit of construction.

So no, of course it's not the form's fault. But the culture has a lot to do with how much and how badly the form is misused. And it's very useful to remind people that there are other ways, as Jason has on many occasions.