Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Poem in Reprint Poetry

A poem of mine is online at the site of the journal Reprint Poetry. (The pic appears there as an accompanying image.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Bukowski’s Form

The poet Adam Fieled recently posted an essay about Charles Bukowski on the As/Is blog (and later added it to his Red Room profile) . Titled “Learning from Bukowski,” it argues for the value of Bukowski’s poems as “triumphs of logopoeia, articulating serious, universal problems and finding consoling resolutions in solitude, seriousness, literature, and memory.” Ezra Pound defined logopoeia as the way a poet “employs words not only for their direct meaning, but [...] takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word” — or to put it another way, the directly assumed meaning of the word, the content of a poem as opposed to its form. Thus, while Fieled accepts the criticisms of those who see Bukowski’s writing as rough and “lack[ing] of formal skill” (indeed, Fieled writes, “I do not deny that Bukowski’s lack of formal skill is a serious flaw”), he challenges those who dismiss Bukowski for his emphasis on a particular kind of content. For Fieled, Bukowski’s value need not be bound up with formal concerns. Much more important is the “precision of his worldview and its presentation-in-verse.” And certainly, this is what seems to be foregrounded in most of his work, at least from a certain point onward.

Further, Fieled claims,
More important even than logopoeia is rhetopoeia, the rhetorical impact or heft of any given poem. We must be convinced by any given poem’s rhetopoeia that it needs to exist, is a necessary entity. This Bukowski is able to do, time and time again, because (in his best poems) he has something substantial to say. Bukowski is a relevant poet because, while form can be faked, content cannot. You either have something substantial to express (whether it is on an emotional, psychological, aesthetic or any other level) or you don’t. In considering Bukowski and form, give the man at least the credit of volition — his writing career spanned forty-odd years, if he’d wanted to learn form, he would’ve. Content was obviously so important to him that form was (mostly) superfluous; and who’s to say he wasn’t right?
I find Fieled’s essay intriguing, and as a Bukowski fan myself I like the fact that he has taken such a bold approach. It’s as if he is saying, “Okay, so maybe Bukowski isn’t that great on a technical level, but there is so much more going on with him that is of even greater importance.” I like that he argues for this alternative way of gauging the value of poetry and poets, a sort of “screw you” to academic elitists who see form as the be-all-and-end-all. In doing so, he looks to the precedent of Whitman (who was similarly attacked in his own day) and to the fact of Bukowski’s very real popular acclaim as a redeeming factor. It is an audacious and original argument, and one that I can only wholeheartedly support, within the assumptions that it sets for itself.

However, I think that it also possible to make an argument for Bukowski on the basis of form. Contrary to Fieled’s (and others’) portrait of a poet who couldn’t be bothered to “learn form,” Bukowski’s own early work suggests otherwise. The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966 (Black Sparrow Press, 1988) shows us quite a different poet than the more usual, later Bukowski many of us are familiar with. In the earlier poems, sound devices such as alliteration and assonance are to the fore; word choice is anything but “boring” and diction is anything but “flat.” Take these lines from “22,000 Dollars in 3 Months”:
night has come like something crawling
up the bannister, sticking out its tongue
of fire, and I remember the
missionaries up to their knees in muck
retreating across the beautiful blue river
and the machine gun slugs flicking spots of
fountain and Jones drunk on the shore...
Alliteration is present in the “beautiful blue river,” while the assonance of “gun,” “slugs,” and “drunk” cannot be lost on the attuned reader. There are the further poetic devices of simile (“like something crawling/ up the bannister”) and metaphor (“tongue/ of fire”), while the poem ends with the anaphoric sequence of “dead communists, dead fascists, dead democrats, dead gods and/ back in what was left of the hut Jones/ had his dead black arm around her dead blue waist.” Bukowski knew what he was doing, and any number of examples from this volume could be further cited as evidence for his skills as poetic craftsman.

In 1987, Bukowski himself wrote in the introduction to The Roominghouse Madrigals that
The early poems are more lyrical than where I am at now. I like these poems but I disagree with some who claim, “Bukowski’s early work was much better.” Some have made these claims in critical reviews, others in parlors of gossip. [....] In my present poetry, I go at matters more directly, land on them and then get out. I don’t believe that my early methods and my late methods are either inferior or superior to one another. They are different, that’s all.
What Bukowski posits here is a conscious shift in style. He admits that his own earlier work was “more lyrical,” with all the attendant strategies that lyric poetry implies. It is therefore clear that his later style was not that of mere “technical incompetence” (as Fieled describes it), but indeed a chosen stance. Even a perceived disregard for form is inherently a kind of form in itself. I agree with Fieled that Bukowski’s (seeming) anti-formalism allows him to more readily “bare himself whole” and thus more easily facilitates a sense of “catharsis” for his audience. But, for me anyway, the idea that he isn’t eminently aware of all this is a bit hard to believe.

For me, a more salient question is not the dichotomy between notions of a crucially important content versus a supposedly effete conception of form, but rather why Bukowski chose the form that he so obviously chose (“give the man at least the credit of volition”). I think that Fieled is on to something when he writes of “the thousands of normal people around the world who share in Bukowski’s alienation, solitude, and appreciation of the redemptive powers of poetry and the written word,” but I don’t think that such a sense of authenticity can only be arrived at by an ignorance of the techniques that Bukowski only later eschewed. Let’s give some credit to those thousands as well. Fieled posits the concept of rhetopoeia, and surely Bukowski’s later style is a rhetorical strategy. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, there is no escaping it. Everything that anyone puts into words, every form, or denial of form, is a rhetorical stance unto itself, as much as it also a “necessary entity.” Bukowski chose the form that he chose because it was necessary for him to both continue to move forward as an artist and to reach his readers in the way that he wanted to. I completely agree with Fieled on the importance of Bukowski as a poet with something substantial to say, yet surely Bukowski’s critical reputation (a primary concern in the piece under discussion) can only be enhanced by a tandem awareness of his deliberate formal choices.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Steve McQueen, Shame

Steve McQueen’s latest film Shame, like Hunger, features Michael Fassbender. I thought it was great. Later, I happened across a short review in Pittsburgh’s City Paper in which Harry Kloman damns the film with both faint praise and outright criticism. According to Kloman, “There are no new insights or emotions, and some choices do more to advance plot than character. It’s about sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his waifish visiting sister (Carey Mulligan), both of them damaged by circumstances that writer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger) never reveals, let alone explores.” On the contrary, I would suggest that there are indeed plenty of new insights here, but it’s the second sentence of this quote which really irked me. The lack of exploration of such circumstances is clearly deliberate and exactly McQueen’s point (among further points). He doesn’t need to explore yet another abusive childhood. We can quite easily imagine for ourselves what sort of things may have happened to these characters when they were kids or teens — we all know these stories by now. Instead, Shame is a psychological portrait of who they are in the present. Whatever one’s childhood, we all live in the here and now, and understanding the issues that have formed us rarely if ever alleviate them. In other words, McQueen knows full well that such an exploration would be boring and pointless.

What matters most is the immanence of the present moment: headlights of the subway gleaming on the painted iron posts in the station as the train approaches, the bleak westside docklands of Manhattan in the cold grey rain, the walk sign that has somehow fallen over, so that the lighted figure of the man is upside-down. One further point of this film is McQueen’s vision of New York. I thought of it as a contrast to the portrait of Manhattan put forward in Woody Allen’s films. The far western end of Chelsea is not exactly the obvious choice for a filmic Manhattan location. Annie Hall and Manhattan romanticized New York, even at the height of its decay (the late 70s), while Shame argues an alienating, hollow place in the cleaner, safer 2010s. In a recent interview, McQueen asserts, “You are always framed by the city. There’s always you and this huge metropolis. So what does it do, mentally? It must make you feel insignificant in a strange way.” This is crystallized in the scene where Carey Mulligan / Sissy performs the song “New York, New York.” It seems to echo the singing scenes in Annie Hall, but the piano accompaniment here breaks the song apart, and the vibe is more that of struggle than triumph. But sure, it also matters, the effects of whatever it is that makes us us — and clearly both the main characters in the film are struggling with this in different ways. But McQueen doesn’t have to explain every little thing. Kloman appears to think we need that explanation. I don’t.

Kloman ends his short review, “So I’m still waiting for a drama about people who can make endless love and not end up in a gutter” — as if McQueen were actually moralizing about sex (a charge also made in the longer and better review by A. O. Scott for the New York Times). Yet there is in fact no such moralism in Shame. There is a seemingly crucial moment toward the end, when Brandon is having sex with two prostitutes, when a look of anguish comes across his face. Later still, after his sister attempts suicide in a mess of red blood, he collapses onto the pavement in the rain. But at every moment (it seems to me, anyway) it is apparent that this is the story of two individual people, not a lesson for humanity. It is these particular people (and the performances are utterly convincing in this regard) who are going through these things; that’s it. Ultimately, we cannot be sure if their lives will really change. We think we see some kind of expression of shame on Brandon’s face for a second, but he might not recognize it as such himself. The message that Sissy leaves on Brandon’s phone before her suicide attempt (“We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”) on the surface appears to validate Kloman’s fixation on their past circumstances. But I think it’s the first part of the statement that is more important. Neither of these characters is a “bad” person; they are just people. Most of us come from a bad place in some way or another, probably, but what I’m more interested in is what life is like, through art, despite all that. What sort of things a filmmaker like McQueen notices when he’s thinking of these situations.