Friday, July 9, 2010

Another interview

This time it's David Kosub interviewing Lorri Neilsen Glenn about her poem "You Think of Meister Eckhart." I haven't seen the book this poem came from, but I agree with David that it's a very good piece. Interesting to hear Glenn talk about coming late to poetry. I really couldn't find much to like in her previous collection, which seemed to have been written more by Canadian Poetry than by an individual poet.

A couple of other things struck me in the interview. At one point, LNG says:

as a poet it’s harder still in contemporary culture to write about concepts such as ‘heart’ or ‘soul.’ Those discussions are too squishy for some people; they make the cynical squeamish and dismissive. I think that’s a certain kind of fear that’s talking, and I’ve felt that fear. Increasingly, I find that cynicism and ironic stances – or masks, I suppose --are no comfort or retreat; in fact, they sadden me when I see them in myself and in others.

She's right. It is very hard to write about these concepts. It's a fallacy, however, that it has something to do with contemporary culture, per se. It's that these concepts overlap considerably the Hallmark realm of kitschy spiritual verse and always have. I've criticised many poems and books over the years for taking the shortcut of saying "heart" or "soul" instead of finding some original or oblique way into the concepts. This has nothing to do with cynicism on my part. I've been equally critical, if not more so, of such profoundly cynical--or "terminally ironic" as I put it--books as Brian Joseph Davis' Portable Altamont. Such books are to me less interesting than a bad book of lyric verse because in the latter, much more is ventured, however ineptly: the author at least takes the risk of looking foolish in public. In the former, all the author does is act the class clown. I know there are people out there--Christian Bok comes to mind--who are suspicious of anything resembling lyric expression, but I think it's unwise for a poet to think that any critique of lyric expression comes from this kind of antipathy to lyricism as such.

Something else Glenn said struck me:

At some level, I think the couplets in this poem worked as staves for me – they were the right containers for rhythm. I play around with form often; this poem morphed over several revisions from short lines, to prose, to couplets and back again. And then, once a poem is near its last draft, there can be publishing constraints (page width, for example).

I may be misunderstanding her here, but it sounds as though she's saying that if the page isn't wide enough to accommodate her line, she'd change it. Which to me says that the formal choices she has made are, ultimately, quite arbitrary. Reading the poem confirms this, as there's no discernible pattern behind the very loose couplet structure. Why set it in lines at all if something so random as page width would affect the structure. I like the writing in her poem for the most part, but I almost never understand why poets go for these ultra-long lines. With poets like Whitman, Sandburg and Ginsberg, there are syntactic reasons for it, hearkening back to the parallelism used to structure Biblicial verse. But without such syntactic structures, which don't predominate in Glenn's poem, a line over 14 syllables is bound to be prosodically arbitrary. Blake, an important precursor to Whitman's line, often wrote in fourteeners, but as has been pointed out by many prosodists, his line most often breaks down into the ballad meter of a tetrameter and trimeter, split by a caesura. Even hexameters are hard to maintain over any stretch without the lines splitting, aurally. This is why the pentameter line has had such currency in English; it's a flexible, versatile form. Poets like Muldoon and Ogden Nash have done really neat things by stretching and compressing lines in such a way as to disrupt readers' expectations, but there is clearly no such playful effect intended here. So, while I think what LNG has written is poetry, I'm far from sure, in its present form, that it can be called verse in any meaningful sense of the term.

1 comment:

David Kosub said...

I think she's saying that in addition to finding the right form for her poem, publishing constraints kicked in, not that these were the sole arbiter. Should these be permitted to dicate verse form at all? Ideally, no. But we see how well the ideal is treated by the publishing industry in many other matters, too.

Love the prosodic analysis, Zach. Wish we saw more of this from others.