Monday, September 19, 2011

Paul Legault, The Other Poems



Two things came into conjunction recently as I was reading Paul Legault’s excellent new book of poetry, The Other Poems. 

First, I was captivated by the voice Legault achieves.  It’s as if Beckett was trying to write Berryman’s Dream Songs as reported by Kenneth Koch.  It’s antic, therefore, and appears to be evading overt earnestness, even as the content continues to fold in all manner of attitudes and characters.  The Other Poems picks at the darkness that surrounds the vaudevillian spectacle, or it simply presents it. Or it talks with it.  Or lets it talk.

The second, was that these are formal poems.  They have fourteen lines, so there’s a sonnet echo, but further than that, there’s something that they’re doing that seems repeatable, a form.  I tried to do a rhetorical analysis of some as I was reading, and came up with a few stabs at the form, but it wasn’t until I got to the end of the book and saw that Legault wrote a version of one of the poems as an illustration of the form, that it became (somewhat) clear.  (As you will see it's a rather antic set of rules.) As all good poems do, many of the poems in the collection violate (I think) the form in minor ways, but the form stands, and offers variability within structure. 

I’m interested in what would/will happen when and if other poets take up the form, especially someone from a different aesthetic position.  I’d really like to see that. 

Here’s his illustration of/directions for the form:


[TITLE PRESENTING A SITUATION USED TO MULTIPLY THE LINES OF THOUGHT]


[Prepositional statement opening into the continuation
of the second line to the end of the first sentence]

SUBJECT: (descriptor) [Statement of personal action]
OBJECT: [Apology]
COUNTER-OBJECT: [Counter-statement]
NEW THOUGHT: [Order

put forth to
the ambient audience

addressed to perform a new action]
IMPLIED SUBJECT: [Agreement]

MEDIATOR: [Question without interrogative punctuation]
FUTURE SUBJECT: [Directions

on how to place the verbal processes
in relationship to the reader’s final adjustment of the text]


Here’s an example of how he interprets the form in a poem:


THE SENSES


Then they made another garden
but differently.

FRAGRANCE: There’s always something in color. 
TEXTURE: There are always bird walks. 
SOUND: There are turkeys on these grounds
                and José the Beaver
                far off in the forest without thoughts.
AUDIO TOUR GUIDE: There is almost always

an irregular ball
                about two feet high
described on this phone-line. 

In the future, or in three months, the plants will change,
                or else they will be about to have to.
THE FUTURE: Who senses me when I’m not there?

LAVENDER: The bed is knee-high
                and lined with a single wall.
WANT: You want to grow your own food,

annihilating all that’s made,
and live in Paradise alone. 


And here’s another, because I like typing these poems out:


“NOODLES ARE FOREVER”


By order of everything,
there are a lot of low expectations.

CELIBACY: People are like children.
THINGS: We can always go wrong.
SOUTHERN PEOPLE: What I ain’t ain’t much. 
A WET STRING: That’s what you sound like. 

The landscape is holy if its braids take to water.
The foam curls at the sea beast’s feet. 

I don’t even know who you are most of the time. 
BEAR-CHANDRA: You were going to be me. 

MOLLY: Take me away
                through the mud’s black speculum. 
ORGANS: One thing at a time. 

Nothing’s not normal.  Never mind
how you were thinking about not thinking about it. 

29 Comments:

At 9/19/2011 12:53 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Paul sent me some poems under the pretense that I'd get the second issue of FAJ out this year, which looks like it may not happen. I too noticed they had a kind of form to them, though not as detailed as you've laid out. I love how the various objects/subjects speak and respond to each other. It's such a genius, simple way to come at some of these bigger themes without getting too serious.

 
At 9/19/2011 4:42 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

This reminds me of a game like Jim Simmerman's "20 Little Poetry Projects." I love such games. If I found a book of them, I'd do them all. Though you can make up your own little poetry projects: "Write a line in which the subject is a celebrity and the main verb begins with the same letter as the celebrity's surname." So you write, "Lindsay Lohan lowed at the cow-shaped creamer," and then you move on to the next, not trying to connect the line you just wrote to anything after or before it. But when you're done, "It connects up," as Ashbery says. How did that happen?

 
At 9/19/2011 5:07 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

At some website there's a list--compiled by Elisa Gabbert, I think--of "moves in contemporary poetry." It'd be deck to make each of these moves a little poetry project. Line one would have an unexpectedly goofy modifier; line two would have parataxis; etc.

Right now on my TV Jack Nicholson is typing "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy."

 
At 9/20/2011 1:21 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

God bless my mother. She taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say then you shouldn't say anything at all.

That is to say, some things are just too ridiculous to even comment about.

Funny...even Ashbery is looking better and better to me.

(please don't get mad at me).

 
At 9/20/2011 1:29 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

People like and dislike all sorts of things, so simply to state your displeasure is nothing to which I could have much of a response. I find these poems fascinating. So there we are. Call it an impasse.

But the form itself, or perhaps even the idea of this sort of form, one that is built not on sound (rhyme) and counting (syllables) but rather on rhetorical gestures should be / could be taken as a new approach to form. In your hands, or in the hands of a poet you admire, something different might happen. Something you might find interesting. Try writing that poem on the topic of Texas rain, say. Call it TEXAS RAIN if you wish.

 
At 9/20/2011 1:39 PM, Blogger Johannes said...

I think these poems look really intriguing.

Johannes

 
At 9/20/2011 1:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Johannes,

The whole book's like this. Some of the character exchanges are magnificent.

I'm doubtful the form is one that could be done by anyone else but Legault, though. I tried writing one to see how it might change from writer to writer, but what I came up with sounded like I was trying to write like this book. It might be a personal form then. But still, I'm very glad I came across it.

 
At 9/20/2011 1:52 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Ashbery never looked bad, Gary. I mean, to each their own, but you've yet to make any serious case for why you don't like him supported with examples. Likewise, you've not articulated why these poems are not "good".

John, I think that's a good way to describe Paul's tone in this, rhetorical gestures. For some reason that phrase has never come up in trying to articulate some of my compositional moves, but I think this is something we'll be seeing more of in the future.

I look forward to it.

 
At 9/20/2011 2:06 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

My favorite way to look at poetry (when trying to talk about it, especially difficult poetry) is through rhetorical analysis. So many people get caught up on the first level content question (the "What does this mean?" of scene and character), right?

For me that's much less interesting than the opening of the poem's rhetorical possibilities. I guess it's Deconstruction's second move, the move into construction.

In Legault, I find his form allows him to pick at rhetorical situations, these "Prepositional statement(s)" in a way that gets at some of what they both allow and obscure. Here, for instance, how the senses made another garden, but differently, then, through the workings of the idea through the characters, it becomes these senses "annihilating all that’s made, and live in Paradise alone."

 
At 9/21/2011 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The poems look fun, and I'd like to read more. I just don't think they're that unique or, at all, like Beckett, Koch, and Berryman (whoah--not too much pressure, there, JG). I also don't think it's at all unique to build a poem on rhetorical gestures--and who cares! That it's not unique. I'm sick of uniquers. I think, John, sometimes you (gently)constrict reading/liking poems into battle your cry--AVANT GARDE! PROGRESS! These poems seem delightfully regressive, written by someone who's smart and funny and aware of Mallarme and his 10,000 blossoms, and so, he has a contemporary twist. It's a silent film script. But, thanks for sharing--I do like these, more and more--I just hate the uniforms and helmets everyone puts on when discussing them. Percussing them, really. --Susan W

 
At 9/21/2011 8:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Susan!

Sure, I’ll grant you all of those points. But, now you’ve now compared him to Mallarme! It’s shorthand, and I shouldn’t’ do it so much, to mention prior writers when talking about something I like. But I didn’t intend to say “Avant Garde!” or “Progress!”. I don’t believe in either of them in the arts, not if pressed on it. At least not in poetry. And, I guess, to further clarify, not in many, many decades, if ever.

So apologies for giving that impression. I really just meant something more like what you were saying. These poems are wonderfully dwelling in an awareness of what’s been done, and having a lot of serious fun with it.

 
At 9/21/2011 8:01 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

No, they're not like B, K, and B. They sound like a Google translation of an imitation of Hannah Weiner by Hikmet. If Richard Crashaw took a peyote hit, put on some Dragonfly, and wrote ghazals with a porcupine quill dipped in squid ink, the result might sound like these poems.

 
At 9/21/2011 8:06 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Not that this has any bearing on your own interpretations, but I believe Paul said he thought these were in conversation with Apollinaire when he sent them to me.

 
At 9/21/2011 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But the form itself, or perhaps even the idea of this sort of form, one that is built not on sound (rhyme) and counting (syllables) but rather on rhetorical gestures should be / could be taken as a new approach to form."

Would you put Rusty Morrison's "Please Advise Stop" in this category?

Paul

 
At 9/21/2011 8:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Susan, again,

Sorry for a second comment, but I just looked back on everything I’ve said about this book here in this post, and I don’t’ see anywhere where I link Legault to any Avant Garde or Progressive art movement. I think I mostly was just showing enthusiasm for his antic interpretation of form. Double sorry then, for whatever tone I had that allowed you to read my comments as a military campaign.

You’re right about the rhetorical form not being the very first rhetorical form. I even have a short essay where I write up a rhetorical form for a poem in the Wilkinson book. And I by no means came to that as a discovery. I got it from others, as well. So I guess I was just being enthusiastic.

David,

How about Spicer in Alice in Wonderland as told by Alice B. Toklas?

Paul,

Absolutely I would. I shouldn’t have said NEW in that way. That gives the impression no one’s done anything before, and I didn’t mean that. Maybe I should have said “another”, or “one of the fun” or just said I like it and then exit left, pursued by the Avant Garde.

 
At 9/21/2011 11:53 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

.
Fuzz Against Junk said:

"Ashbery never looked bad, Gary. I mean, to each their own, but you've yet to make any serious case for why you don't like him supported with examples. Likewise, you've not articulated why these poems are not 'good'."


This is a fair question and ultimately, of course, it is purely subjective, no more than an opinion (and we know what people say about them). The Beatles vs. Mozart. Rembrandt vs. Rothko. And, before you say it, I agree that there is no reason why we shouldn’t appreciate any version or style of a creative work. However, there is more to it than simply personal taste. There is an underlying philosophy of purpose and design (content & form?) that, especially in poetry, should not be lost sight of. In my case, I feel that poetry has a purpose greater than its simple existence. To me “difficult poetry” is almost an oxymoron. Poetry should illuminate, open doors of thought regarding what is, in my opinion, the only really important thing to consider: being alive, and here, and why. Poetry is our greatest tool for honestly addressing ontological mysteries.

A pretty poem about a pretty bird is nice and all, but a poem should help us understand that bird and what its existence tells us about the world. It was an egg. It will soon be bones and feathers. It will create other birds. It will eat other things and maybe be eaten itself. To me, poetry has a purpose, a responsibility even, to help us understand our world, and therefore ourselves, to bring us the ‘big picture’ for our contemplation. If we are just playing word games for novelty’s sake, punning around, trying to make new forms without a new message, it’s just a waste of time. Might as well go to the puzzle page in your newspaper. There is also the aspect of skill. In my opinion one can go to any internet poetry ‘forum’ and see how easy it is to write an ‘Ashbery’ poem.

But, a poem should be beautiful at the same time. The art of poetry has evolved over many centuries in order to make it enjoyable to the eye and ear and so to more effectively and efficiently convey its message. Back in the seventies, in college, I went through an ‘experimental’ poetry phase. I produced some pretty weird stuff (still to be seen in my book ‘Evolving’), but one day I sat up and said to myself: This is stupid! What’s the point of making a reader work so hard to get the point? This is a poem, not an Aptitude test. To coin a phrase, if “the medium is the message”, then I may appreciate how beautifully woven the basket is but also can’t help but notice that the basket is, unfortunately, empty.

GBF

 
At 9/21/2011 1:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Gary,

I mean this absolutely sincerely. What you have written right here, with only minor changes, would be exactly what I would say in support of Ashbery. You’re right, it is more than simply taste. It’s what we mean (the ways in which we mean different things when we think we mean the same thing) when we say such things as this:

“There is an underlying philosophy of purpose and design (content & form?) that, especially in poetry, should not be lost sight of. In my case, I feel that poetry has a purpose greater than its simple existence. To me “difficult poetry” is almost an oxymoron. Poetry should illuminate, open doors of thought regarding what is, in my opinion, the only really important thing to consider: being alive, and here, and why. Poetry is our greatest tool for honestly addressing ontological mysteries.”

So you must fight against Ashbery, believing this. And I must fight for Ashbery, believing this same thing.

 
At 9/21/2011 2:52 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Gary,

You still haven't done what I asked. What you have done is given a rubric on what you judge to be good poetry without citing any examples at all. What's ironic about this, as John pointed out, is that many of your criteria are things people see fulfilled in Ashbery's work.

I guess this brings us to the first part of your post. How this is really all subjective. I'm not going to waste any time trying to get you to like Ashbery. However, if you're going to continually post about how he's not good, overrated, or whatever you want to denounce him as, you could at least provide examples. That you haven't after the umpteenth comment about this is more than disingenuous.

 
At 9/21/2011 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like and dislike--nod to barks by G F (and yes I agree with the critiques of these barks)--are difficult grounds for evaluation because it is extremely easy/common/perhaps even logical
that one doesn't actually know why one dislikes or likes; and hence there's the useful approach of not saying like, dislike, but trying to look at what appears to be happening in a given network of words. Like and dislike as reading is perhaps sollipsistic/telling of the liker/disliker, but not necessarily useful for seeing the words at hand.

adam s

btw: for years I was not a fan of Ashbery; and I may not be now; but I do think he can be interesting; and yah well some of his poems I really do love--but they tend to be like 5o years old.

 
At 9/21/2011 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...if you're going to continually post about how he's not good, overrated, or whatever you want to denounce him as, you could at least provide examples."

I don't know. It's really easy to make anyone look dumb or insignificant with the right (wrong) choice of examples.

I don't see the point of this yay / boo Ashbery fight anymore. Gary is refusing to accept that he just doesn't get Ashbery, and that maybe this isn't Ashbery's problem. It might not even be a problem at all, but he's making it one.

If I don't like someone's work, and it's work that is revered by countless people who I know damn well are more experienced and better studied than me, then I find it pretty easy to say, "my loss," or better yet, "my challenge."

Some people let their egos get in the way, though, and take up the never-ending fight to discredit something that's over their heads.

Paul

 
At 9/21/2011 6:33 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I often think of something Sontag said about intelligence: it's taste in ideas. You have a taste in ideas as well as a taste in clothes. It follows that you can sharpen your intelligence by improving your taste in ideas. By altering your sensibility, you can raise the altitude of your head.

William Stafford: "God has put a safety factor in here. You are unable to read up to a standard greater than the standard of yourself...you don't realize how good [a good poem] is until you are worthy of it."

 
At 9/21/2011 7:06 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

There is a lot to read and think about in all the comments here. I have printed it all out to read and opened a cold beer. But before I go and digest all this and try to come up with an intelligent response, I want to reply to the complaints about not providing "examples".

That was my first response. I remember a few Ashbery poems I particularly disliked in 'The New Yorker'. I started to download them to be my "examples". It then occurred to me that I could get myself and Mr. Gallaher in deep doo-doo and get us sued under a bridge.

If anyone has the nerve, post a poem by John A. I will comment. But I just don't have the resources to go up against the copyright ownership of major poets, publishers or magazines.

 
At 9/21/2011 7:29 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Paul said:

“I don't see the point of this yay / boo Ashbery fight anymore. Gary is refusing to accept that he just doesn't get Ashbery, and that maybe this isn't Ashbery's problem. It might not even be a problem at all, but he's making it one.”

And

“If I don't like someone's work, and it's work that is revered by countless people who I know damn well are more experienced and better studied than me, then I find it pretty easy to say, ‘my loss,’ or better yet, ‘my challenge’.”

Paul:

You appear to be very well read. You should know, then, that many people more recognized and respectable and famous than me feel exactly the same way that I do about Ashbery. It’s not fair to pick on poor little me. You should pick on Joan Houlihan, Anis Shivani, Tony Hoagland and Dana Gioia. I would say that they are “more experienced and better studied” than you.

Being "revered by countless people" means nothing. Hitler and Stalin were revered by countless people.

Careful...

 
At 9/21/2011 8:07 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

C'mon Gary. That's a pretty weak argument, and a great way to discourage serious debate. For one, you're contradicting yourself. Why would those other writers, whom are more studied and famous than yourself, be of any relevance if how much someone is liked is of no import? Does it work differently because this is Ashbery?

I can understand the reaction though. I don't think any argument that amounts to "you just don't understand it," is condescending and further widens this gulf.

David's paraphrase of Sontag, however, is right on the money. You obviously come from a tradition that has equipped you with certain tools to work through a poem, like anyone else here. Ashbery's poetry seems to be at odds with how you're used to reading, but that doesn't make it bad or un-graspable.

Lastly, you're not going to get sued for posting an Ashbery poem. Several times they've been posted by John on the blog and in this comment stream. This seems like an attempt to dodge the issue, really.

 
At 9/21/2011 8:32 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

If anyone liked what I wrote, I'm glad; but I wasn't really arguing with Gary. Just throwing an idea on the porch to see if the cat would lick it up.

Taste is funny. It reminds me of people with religious faith who say, "Don't try to make sense of it; believe it first, and then it'll make sense." Back in the night, I didn't like grunge. Didn't care for Nirvana, and if I'd heard The Melvins,I probably would've thought they sucked. For a while I listened to stuff like Mozart and Chet Baker. Then I got a girlfriend who was into new rock, so I had to pretend to like her music. At some point I acquired a taste for grunge, and I've never lost it. I love Nirvana.

Auden wrote about this somewhere. If you want to acquire a taste for something you don't like but suspect is good, you can pretend to like it. You may end up really liking it.

I like rhubarb pie; one of my uncles doesn't. That's okay, but my enjoyment of the world is larger than his by the size of a pie.

 
At 9/21/2011 8:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" It’s not fair to pick on poor little me. You should pick on Joan Houlihan, Anis Shivani, Tony Hoagland and Dana Gioia. I would say that they are “more experienced and better studied” than you."

Indeed they are, but I'm not picking on you as much as on the mode of criticism, which is likewise embodied by by Shivani and Hoagland. I'd much rather pick on them because they're much louder about it.

At any rate, I find the approach by all three of you to be without intellectual merit. This would be the case even if the criticism were levied at at a poet that I dislike. It's less about the work in question or the stature of the person slinging the arrows than the leap from dislike to dismissal without doing the intermediate work of understanding.

As far as Houlihan and Gioia, I'm not lumping them in here because I can't find any negative words by either about Ashbery, and I don't want to risk saying something innacurate.

"Being "revered by countless people" means nothing. Hitler and Stalin were revered by countless people."

You lopped off the end of the sentence, which implied people whose opinions and analyses I respect. Few such people revered Hitler or Stalin.

Ok, Heidegger had some really questionable years, but that's a digression.

At any rate, I've never read Stalin's poetry. Who knows, it might be charming.

Paul

 
At 9/21/2011 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thought, Gary:

I think with the tools of good criticism, we can indeed get beyond (boring, pointless) debates about taste.

For some relevant examples, I'd suggest doing a search for some of John's remarks on Billy Collins (I know he appologizes for using Collins as a perpetual whipping boy, but Collins somehow serves the purpose so well).

John looks at actual poems and finds failings based on ideas which are either John's (and therefore admitedly subjective) or suggested by the poem itself (and therefore implicit).

The standards that are John's own are presented as such. I don't recall him saying anything as grandiose as "The purpose of all poetry is to ... "

In other words, you are welcome to disagree with him without also disagreeing with God Almighty.

On the particular isue of Ashbery, why don't you find one of John's (positive) readings of his poems? If you disagree with any of the specific points he raises, then great ... you'll be able to argue with something specific.

Paul

 
At 9/23/2011 11:24 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

EEK! Talk about a black man at a Klan meeting. I guess I wandered into the wrong bar.

For the record, though, I dislike Billy Collins even more than I do Ashbery...but for the same reasons. I don't believe either of them give serious poetry the effort, thought or respect it deserves!

I have already stated that if someone posts an Ashbery poem here I will comment on it. Post a Collins poem as well, if you like.

I ain't skeered!

Let me say that I don't mean to be rude or disagreeable, but some of these comments are just too silly to respond to. I have no animosity towards anybody here, or their preferences. I just enjoy people who truly love poetry as I do and, as is obvious, those of you here do. No offense. However, if we all agreed on everything it would basically be the Rush Limbaugh show, wouldn't it?

GBF

 
At 9/23/2011 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Relax. This is the NEW Klan.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q4txN1ut20

"I have already stated that if someone posts an Ashbery poem here I will comment on it."

Many to choose from already:

http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2011/07/happy-birthday-to-john-ashbery.html#links

Paul
http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2011/07/john-ashbery-one-thing-that-can-save.html#links

http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2011/06/avant-garde-is-marketing-strategy.html#links

 

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