CROWDED PROSE: SHARON OLDS AND GARY SOTO IN A SWEET 16 BATTLE

Sharon Olds: the frankest poet ever?

Rita Dove gave Sharon Olds two poems in her anthology: Olds is easy to anthologize: pick an Olds poem and you’ve got Olds.  Some of the poets in Dove’s book feel poorly represented, but Olds’ two poems are her.  Olds’ first poem beat Li-Young Lee in a close contest.  Here’s the one she hopes will defeat Gary Soto:

THE LIFTING
 
Suddenly my father lifted up his nightie, I
turned my head away but he cried out
Shar!,
my nickname, so I turned and looked.
He was sitting in the high cranked-up bed with the
gown up, around his neck,
to show me the weight he had lost. I looked
where his solid ruddy stomach had been
and I saw the skin fallen into loose
soft hairy rippled folds
lying in a pool of folds
down at the base of his abdomen,
the gaunt torso of a big man
who will die soon. Right away
I saw how much his hips are like mine,
the long, white angles, and then
how much his pelvis is shaped like my daughter’s,
a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out,
I saw the folds of skin like something
poured, a thick batter, I saw
his rueful smile, the cast-up eyes as he
shows me his old body, he knows
I will be interested, he knows I will find him
appealing. If anyone had ever told me
I would sit by him and he would pull up his nightie
and I would look at him, at his naked body,
at the thick bud of his penis in all that
dark hair, look at him
in affection and uneasy wonder
I would not have believed it. But now I can still
see the tiny snowflakes, white and
night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it
rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
 
If art succeeds as art, there is one thing it is required to have: perspective.
 
It is the last thing any artist, any painter, any poet, masters.
 
Perspective is expressed geometrically in painting and grammatically in poetry.
 
The poem above relies on phrases which establish arcs of space and time, such as “lifted up…I turned my head away…he cried out…so I turned  and looked…If anyone had ever told me I would…and he would…I would not have believed it…But now I can still see…the way we were promised…would rise…would fall…would know everything.
 
Modern critics take for granted the way various and complex uses of grammar contribute to the physical, formal qualities of a poem—especially the modern prose poem in the Whitman tradition.  The impact of Olds’ poem relies as much on her use of “would” as on her strict content: the father’s naked, dying body which elicits a certain naked disgust.
 
Grammar, or intricate speech, simultaneously explains and distances any subject in powerful poetic ways.  One might call this style, or method, crowded prose.  The density of intricate grammar, the crowding  into a small vessel (“would” repeated over and over) is similar to the effect of meter and rhyme—which works (when it does work) in that similar crowding manner of “fine excess.” (Keats)
 
Soto has three poems in Dove’s anthology.  He battles Olds with this one:
 

BLACK HAIR

At eight I was brilliant with my body.
In July, that ring of heat
We all jumped through, I sat in the bleachers
Of Romain Playground, in the lengthening
Shade that rose from our dirty feet.
The game before us was more than baseball.
It was a figure–Hector Moreno
Quick and hard with turned muscles,
His crouch the one I assumed before an altar of worn baseball cards in my room.

I came here because I was Mexican, a stick
Of brown light in love with those
who could do it–the triple and hard slide,
The gloves eating balls into double plays.
What could I do with 50 pounds, my shyness,
My black torch of hair, about to go out?
Father was dead, his face no longer
Hanging over the table or our sleep
And Mother was the terror of mouths
Twisting hurt by butter knives.

In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body,
Waving players in and stomping my feet,
Growing sweaty in the presence of white shirts.
I chewed sunflower seeds. I drank water
And bit my arm through the late innings.
When Hector lined balls into deep
Center, in my mind I rounded the bases
With him, my face flared, my hair lifting
Beautifully, because we were coming home to the arms of brown people.

Soto’s poem describes (“eight” “July” “I came here” “Father was dead”) without perspective—his poem is a flat list of items: a game is played, “bases are rounded,” “balls are lined into deep center” but we don’t really see it happening in any context; time and space do not come alive for us: the poem is mostly rhetoric.

 
Olds 99 Soto 83

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE 32 POETS MOVING ON!

Enrique Simonet’s “Judgement of Paris”

They fought, they battled, they elbowed, they rebounded, they shot, they sweated, they passed, they jumped, they fell into seats trying to save a ball going out-of-bounds.  You know what they did.   Here’s the winners and their margins of victory:

East:

Ben Mazer (d. Ashbery 102-101, 3 OT)
Seamus Heaney (d. Carolyn Forche 65-61)
Franz Wright (d. Geoffrey Hill 58-42)
Billy Collins (d. Carol Ann Duffy 90-77)
Marie Howe (d. Jorie Graham 63-60)
Robert Pinsky (d. Charles Bernstein 80-47)
Mary Oliver (d. Charles Simic 67-53)
James Tate (d. Paul Muldoon 71-51)

Summary:  The beasts are in the East: Collins, Heaney, Pinsky, Oliver, Tate, Franz Wright, plus the upstart Ben Mazer, who has an aura of invincibility after knocking off Ashbery in triple overtime—but only one can survive to enter the Final Four!

South/Midwest:

Yusef Komunyakaa (d. A.E. Stallings 81-75)
Derek Walcott (d. C.D. Wright 91-47)
Patricia Smith (d. Mark Doty 80-69)
Rita Dove (d. Sandra Cisneros 64-60)
W.S. Merwin (d. Kevin Young 78-72)
Elizabeth Alexander (d. Carl Phillips 79-76)
Natasha Trethewey (d. Andrew Hudgins 69-68)
Terrance Hayes (d. Charles Wright 67-54)

Summary: the veteran Merwin is the only white poet to move on in this brackett.  Walcott is the Nobel Prize Winner, Patricia Smith, the Slam wild card, and Rita Dove, the Anthology editor.

North:

Philip Levine (d. Joanna Klink 88-67)
Richard Wilbur (d. Anne Waldman 101-70)
Dana Gioia (d. Brenda Shaughnessy 78-66)
Margaret Atwood (d. Bin Ramke 70-68)
Stephen Dunn (d. Glyn Maxwell 89-83)
Louise Gluck (d. Peter Gizzi 67-62)
Alice Oswald (d. Frank Bidart 55-54)
Cornelius Eady (d. Mark Strand 65-59)

Summary: Old school Richard Wilbur has to be the one to watch, after his dismantling of Waldman; also favored, the highly accessible Atwood, plus the imposing Dunn and Levine.

West:

Robert Hass (d. Cathy Song 67-63)
Sharon Olds (d. Li-Young Lee 79-77)
Gary Snyder (d. Sherman Alexie 80-72)
Heather McHugh (d. Rae Armantrout 66-54)
Kay Ryan (d. Cole Swensen 90-59)
Gary Soto (d. Ron Silliman 81-60)
Marilyn Chin (d. Michael Dickman 90-78)
Matthew Dickman (d. Joy Harjo 88-67)

Summary: Kay Ryan and Sharon Olds are strong women in this brackett; Gary Snyder has the savvy and experience to go all the way, and don’t count out young Dickman.

The raw numbers: 44% of the 32 poets still in the hunt are white males, and  41% are women.

The third annual Scarriet March Madness Tournament is using a different rule this year: winning poets bring a new poem with them into the next round.

Previously, Lehman’s  Best American Poetry, and Stephen Berg’s American Poetry Review were Scarriet sources; this year it is Dove’s 20th Century Poetry anthology (Penguin), with some exceptions (mostly British), and all living poets.

RON SILLIMAN TAKES ON GARY SOTO IN WEST BRACKET FIRST ROUND BATTLE

A younger Gary Soto, long before his 2012 March Madness contest with Silliman

Rita Dove chose one of Ron Silliman’s poems, “Albany,” for her Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.  Silliman is a crazy white poet who runs a blog—which used to have reader comments but now no longer allows them.  Gary Soto is Mexican.  He has three poems in Dove’s anthology, Silliman, just the one.

Time destroys us: we get old and die.  Time reveals truth: effects spring from prior causes.  Poetry belongs to time: it is a temporal art, and its temporality belongs to the sober truth of time the destroyer: the deception, the life, the poem must end.

The question is: does it just end, or does it end? 

This might be the chief difference between the so-called “quietist school” (old-fashioned poetry, in Silliman’s mind) and whatever Silliman deems “new.” 

Quietist poetry embraces temporality and always has the end in mind.  The Silliman poem below has no temporality; it just ends; Silliman is afraid to look into the truth of things, the life of things, the death of things, the ending of things—and why shouldn’t he be afraid of the death of things?  We are all afraid of this; even Shelley, who wrote “all that endures is mutability,” but poets like Silliman are so afraid they ignore the role of poetry itself, which is to not be afraid.  This is why poetry scares so many people; poetry is braver than we are. The poet himself is sometimes so afraid, that his poems are afraid, too, and they flee temporality and run to the safey of being round objects without end—which is precisely what Silliman’s poem is:

ALBANY

for Cliff Silliman

If the function of writing is to “express the world.” My father withheld child support. forcing my mother to live with her parents. my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing “We shall not be moved.” My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle. kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable1 though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the comer store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord’s control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-ceIling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry’s father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can’t read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the harelip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison. a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus. cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and “in defense” the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

Gary Soto, like Silliman, writes of the past, and he does it this way:

ORANGES

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
About.

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Poetry is a recitation of a memory—is this what poetry, finally is?  Memories do not live in our minds in a strictly linear way, especially as we tend to forget the details—memories revolve around a theme, and go forwards and backwards in our minds.  Memories can also be a search for a theme—and again, time can get all mixed up.

But the poem, materially, must march forward—both in content and form.  This is the poem’s face, and this fact can’t be faked with excuses such as: my memories of this event are all scrambled up, so why shouldn’t my poem be scrambled up? 

This is not to say that just because a poem proceeds in one direction that it will be a good poem.  But this is the minimum of what it has to do.

The poem can be scrambled, but then your poem will not have a face.

A person does not have to have a face.  But we would prefer one.

Soto 81, Silliman 60

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