Friday, September 01, 2006

Sally Ball, Sarah Manguso and the Dramatic Monologue

The (Impolite) Dramatic Monologue Since Browning!

OK, not really, but Browning is where a lot of poets really get thinking of the potential power of an “I” speaking impolite truths about itself. To be impolite, then, which has a long history in art, is hard to resist. Think of the power of confessional poetry. Robert Lowell. Sylvia Plath. Or the beat poets. “Howl,” etc. These were (are) just another form of the dramatic monologue, of course, but they acted like non-fiction, like they were something confessed, or even more shocking to many, something celebrated (think Allen Ginsberg, and to problematize it further, think of Walt Whitman [but I’m trying to keep this manageable]).

Many poets are still using the “pure” (for want of a better term) form of the dramatic monologue . . . Frank Bidart, Norman Dubie, Kathy Fagan, among many others, including Sally Ball, whose recent book Annus Mirabilis is a wealth of allusion and dramatic monologues. Her book is an interesting pivot point between “pure” dramatic monologue and what I’m thinking of as the de-re-contextualized contemporary dramatic monologue.

Leibniz Under House Arrest

Oh how I love that he should be a George,
my valet, who knows perfectly well

where we have been, where we find ourselves now.

George, King of the wood market.
George, King of the rued philosophers.

The trouble with intelligence
comes when curiosity has withered.

I shall not wither much more.

I have been so many places. I have tried to solve
real problems in the world—not identify, not bemoan.
It is hard to love
and be loved
when you are thinking all the time.

I shall try
to be alive like this. Alive here.
With George, with a good library.

The move from the historical realism of the title to the much more subjective and layered (doubled) “I shall try / to be alive like this” is the special strength of this form, and why I like dramatic monologues so much. Reading the poem without knowledge of Leibniz, and the King he found himself on the wrong side of, heightens the dislocations of an “I” speaking both across history and from the present of the poem’s action (and then of course layered with the voice, the desire [why chose a historical character?] of the poet. It’s a lovely layering.

There has been a shattering power in that move of “I” disclosure from the 1950s onward in American poetry, until now, where (pseudo?) autobiographical moves are a major force in contemporary poetry (very non-fictionish). Many do it, but usually in a lower register, and rarely to confess, or shock, or otherwise employ the impolite. Most poets using the “I” pretend in the poem, as is the period style, that the poem is not a construct of the “I,” but a “real” voice disclosing social content.

There is, recently though, an energetic group of poets who employ the “I” in interesting, shifting, ways. I’m quite interested in what they do, because there is a desire to state things, to tell, and a desire to suggest things, to show, in the creation of poetry. The “I” doing visible things in a poem (or the “you,” as some poets employ it) has a certain possibility that “she/ he/ we/ they” can’t quite match. And poets who use this method mostly do get to have it both ways in these poems, as the surreal, the imagined, the actual, and the absurd, mix into a froth that can’t be finally put to the “did she or he really do that?” test. But, at the same time, they get to have most of the impolite power of disclosure.

So abstract and actual exist as one! Perhaps. Which is why the current wave of ambivalent dramatic monologues is rather popular (at least I think so this morning). It’s an interesting revision of the confessional poem filtered through postmodern veils mixed with a little cultural desirability model (sex appeal), or some such. And what is the power of disclosure in a first person poem anyway?

Here’s an example of one of the poems I'm thinking of in this regard, from Sarah Manguso’s excellent book Siste Viator.

Kitty in the Snow

Meanwhile I fuck this sculpture
In my mind until it melts, then stop.
Mmm, cold.
At the party I talk to everyone’s honey
And sip poison and then go home,
Get shitfaced, and get it on with myself.
I’m so good, I give it to myself every bad way I know.
I whisper in my ear as I come:
Sarah Manguso, you’re a damn fine lover.
Maybe someday we can be together, too.


At 9/02/2006 11:32 AM, Blogger Charles said...

I love Sally Ball.


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