Monday, November 17, 2008

Collectible words

In the poem 'Francis Bacon's Studio' appearing on Justin Lowe's BluePepper blog, Mark O'Flynn kicks off with the words "From the perspex doorway" ... setting aside the problem of how a doorway (as opposed to a door) can be perspex, the use of the word 'perspex' acts to pin down the poem's temporal setting. O'Flynn also uses the word 'bloodshot' - which also has something of a contemporary feel to it, although it was used by Keats and Matthew Arnold and Hart Crane, & always coupled with the word 'eye', O'Flynn also uses it to describe an eye, whereas Peter Porter has used the word more imaginatively in the phrase "the bloodshot hills". There are moments when O'Flynn seem to tap into what the language is using us for ... the phrase 'holy, primal mess' is interesting: "holy mess" plays with the colloquial "unholy mess" but also carries with it echoes of "holy messengers", so the words acquire a resonance beyond their literal meaning.

The word 'perspex' appears in poems by both Peter Porter and Roy Fuller. Porter uses it as a prop to give a sense of the contemporary or futuristic - "watch the the cuckoo in your perspex panel"; whereas Fuller uses it to find a fresh image, a fresh comparison "the rain had stopped and through the perspex air", which is the sort of thing Auden was up to when he likened the chimneys of a power house to recently fired rifles. This drive to capture the details of the physical world, all its detritus, reminds me of the title poem of Donald Platt's 'Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, Guns'

Mozart once said that he wrote music
    by finding the notes
that love one another and putting them

    together. But remembering how
the dissonant opening bars of his string quartet
    in C major grate

against each other and yet somehow cohere,
    I like to think
he found a different kind of order,

    the same principle
of musical composition that inspired the roadside sign
    I saw on Rt. 29:

Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns.
    It makes me do a U
-turn pull over, and park among the rusted-out

    pick-ups. ...

Browning had a magpie's approach to grabbing the shiny new bits of language and putting them to use ... he used the word 'cocktail' and referred to the striking of a match only about a decade after matches were first introduced to Britain. But whether it's Platt on Route 29, or Auden with his goal post, wind-gauge, pylon & bobbing buoy, or Adam Kirsch with his humvee - the collective project of using poems as Cornell boxes of contemporary nouns is clear. A recent debut collection by Kathryn Simmonds, Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren 2008, winner of the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection) displays the same tendency. In one short poem, appropriately entitled 'News', she mentions the tube, the night bus, Woolworths, flatmates & fake Chanel. In another poem (which was featured at Todd Swift's Eyewear in August) Simmonds' category of human types - hillwalkers, Hare Krishna followers, war photographers, ambassadors, sous chefs, surveillance officers, apprentice pharmacists - takes us right back to Horace's Ode I,i, which Donald Hall reimagined in The Museum of Clear Ideas.

... I know that some people
require fame as athletes; still others demand
election to office or every gadget
for sale on 42nd Street; Tanaquil
enjoys dozing in the British Museum
and its pub; she prefers them to Disney World,
while her Chair, who won an all-expenses-paid
weekend in Rome, Italy, would have favored
Las Vegas. Marvin enjoys drinking himself
quadriplegic, Joan backpacks through Toledo,
Kim helicopters into Iranian
deserts, and Flaccus shoots tame wild antelope
in a hired game preserve. ...

Of course it's not just the nouns ... those verbs 'to backpack' 'to helicopter' do a lot of the work. Hall concludes his rendition of Horace I,i

I know that some people exist to look thin,
others stare at television sets all day
until they die, and others expend their lives
to redeem the dying. As for Horsecollar,
Decius, he'll take this desk, this blank paper,
this Bic, and the fragile possibility
that, with your support, the Muse may favor him.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Billy Collins latest book - Ballistics (Random House, 2008) - continues his line of light accessible wit. Lines from his poem on Liu Yong (柳永) "If only he appreciated life / in eleventh-century China as much as I do" illustrate well the charm of the self-mocking tone he typically adopts. The slightness or lightness of the occasion of some poems reminds me a little of John Ciardi (for example Ciardi's poem on a neighbour complaining about his dog soiling her garden). Collins' title poem is in the entertaining tradition of poems on the less-than-charitable thoughts a poet might harbour towards other poets. Clive James' psalm-like 'The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered' is one of the best of this mini-genre; there's also August Kleinzahler's 'An Autumnal Sketch' which describes professors, "sensitive men paunchy with drink" parked where the suburb ends waiting like hunters for a duck:

They will take it and make it their own,
something both more than a duck
and less.

They so badly want a poem,
these cagey and disheartened men

Collins describes a photograph of a bullet passing through a book; the poem ends:

But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written

by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance

at twenty-eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world

and then through the author's photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet's hat he loves to wear.

The Georgia State University digital archive contains a version of this poem where the penultimate stanza is missing. Presumably the stanza was added later, and it brings an energy and vividness to the close of the poem both in focusing on the violence of the bullet by describing its velocity in precise mathematical language, and also in depicting the conventional subjects of the target's work.