“YOUR AVANT-GARDE IS NOT AVANT-GARDE” MAZER, ARCHAMBEAU, AND BURT AT THE GROLIER

“In  speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound.” —Edgar Poe

Last Friday evening at the Grolier poetry bookshop, Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, and Ben Mazer each read a paper on ‘Poetry: What’s Next?’ Wise man Henry Gould, up from RI, was in the audience, as was Philip Nikolayev, extraordinary poet and translator. Scarriet, fortunate the Grolier is in our own backyard, attended out of mere curiosity and a certain low motive pertaining to literary friendship.

Archambeau, Burt, and Mazer are powerhouses of Letters: they are scholars and authors we need to know about.

Mazer is a scowler; Archambeau, a smiler; and Burt simply harangues, mouth perpetually open. But do not be fooled by these superficial observations, which we make with affection; all three, when one moves into their personal orbit, are as sweet as can be, civilized by poetry in that conspiracy which outsiders must feel is the purpose of poetry: to strive to make manners and politeness supreme. Those educated by Letters are nice. The poet with low morals belongs to another era, and something tells us the lacking morals part was always a myth. With poets, a handshake is never a handshake; or it may be one, or less of one, or more of one, and one never knows this, and that is the whole point, and the joy, or the despair, of the poet and their poetry. But they do, finally, shake hands like everyone else, even the most philosophical of them.

But to the presentation itself: the three papers stuck to poetry, and thus were not about poetry.

To properly discuss a thing, one must discuss its parts. The parts, however, because they are parts, do not resemble the thing, and discussing parts is to stray from the thing, like being in the ocean away from the island (it can be scary), and none of the speakers, as witty as they were, had the intellectual courage to do this. They were all very much aware that they were to speak on poetry—poetry as it is always generally discussed by their contemporaries, and this is what they did.

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

Archambeau pointed out the post-modern marketing phenomenon of naming an electronic device a Blackberry, saying this was an act of Symbolist Poetry, and here this author and critic, a brilliant man of substance with a shy smile, was, in his cleverness, feeling his way towards the principle.

But alas, the tendency to discuss actual parts, so we might better familiarize ourselves with the actual thing comes up against that which most hinders it: poetry—in this case, Symbolist Poetry, one of many self-contained stars in a modernist firmament with astronomers obsessed with “what’s next?” and leaving “what is it?” to the old-fashioned, like Aristotle, Plato, and Shelley, who knew that “what’s next” cannot be discussed if we don’t wonder “what is it?” and that we should never take the latter for granted.

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

“What’s next?” belongs only to Modernism’s sleight-of-hand.

But back to Blackberry. Archambeau gave us the wonderful counter-example, “Murphy’s Oil,” the old way of naming before Mallarme’s allusiveness fired up the imagination of the market; yet weren’t they calling baseball teams Giants back in the 19th century?

Archambeau also claimed that in the near future poets were going to rhyme like they had never rhymed before. A rhyme would become like a dare-devil “stunt,” Archambeau happily assured us, quoting some Jay-Z, and as we were swept up in this prophecy of euphoria, we still managed to wonder: where were the edifying examples? What makes a good rhyme and a bad rhyme? For to ask, “what is it?” implies the good: What is good poetry? What is good rhyme? We don’t want the bad, whether it’s behind us or before us.

The three gentlemen unconsciously pursued this course, as well: it was assumed all that was coming was good. Mazer, perhaps, escaped this, for he spoke on what poetry should be, in general; his was more an ought than a prophecy: Burt and Archambeau hewed to ‘this is a particular thing that is actually going to happen if it is not sort of happening already,’ predictions without much daring, saying only: we will see more of this already fully developed type of poetry.

None seemed conscious of it, but all three, we were rather pleased to hear, struck a concerted blow against the “what’s next?” trope.

Mazer fought the good fight with his scornful, “your avant-garde is not avant-garde.”

Burt, blurting “if I see one more book on Conceptualism or Flarf, I will…refuse to read it!” was another sign that there is a rebellion brewing against the whole blind, played-out, modernist, “what’s next?” syndrome, and a desire to get off the ‘what’s new’ treadmill for a moment.

But what did they say was coming?

We already mentioned that Archambeau sees a revival of rhyme, together with a counter movement of Symbolist “nuance,” and spent the rest of his twenty minutes naming familiar poetries in recent history: the Fireside Poets, featuring Longfellow, and their poetry of “middle class values” (and thus deserving, we assume, oblivion), Gertrude Stein foregrounding language for its own sake, with a ‘poetry only’ sub-culture of magazines and bookstores growing in the wake of poetry detaching itself from middle class values, giving rise to Vanessa Place and Conceptualism, as poetry against middle class values (and capitalism) replaces poetry for middle class values. And then we come full circle as Archambeau reminds us the modernist Frost is a poet of middle class values and really, so are the current poets of the Ethnic, Gender, Racial, Regional, Disability, micro-communities.

Archambeau ended with the epigrammatic observation that ‘what’s next’ is a revival of the past and it is “hard to predict the past.”

It is even harder to say what the past is, and what poetry is. This we did not get. “Rhyme” and “middle class values” satisfy a superficial hunger; the salted popcorn we eat forever without getting close to what poetry is, exactly.

Burt came next, and Burt, who has read more than anyone else, seemed determined to give us not only the forest and the trees, but a command to protect both: the big thing on the horizon for Burt is a big thing: poems of “area study,” which are “reported facts of a place,” grounding the poet in geographical reality, and one has to admire the ambition and the practicality, not to mention the many neo-classical, Romantic, and Modernist precedents. Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s Gloucester, as Burt quickly concedes, may fail in the “elegance and concision” departments, but what better way to talk about Climate Change?

Burt, a Harvard professor, pays homage, consciously, or not, to his institution’s illustrious poetic tradition: Emerson through Jorie Graham (her recent acute concern for the planet is her expansive-lyric trump card) champion America’s and the World’s Wilderness; this was explicit in Burt’s talk: “Area Study” poetry ought not to be “a cultural center,” Burt warned, like “Brooklyn or San Francisco;” a poet like Ammons should record planetary destruction where the public might not notice.

The other vital development for Burt will be poetry that, unlike “Area Study,” does embrace “ornament,” in poetry that is “uselessly beautiful.” And again, Stephen Burt makes sure his political sensitivity is on display: women are doing this kind of poetry, he tells us.

Burt is mad for the Eternal Feminine, embracing the earth in Area Study and, in his counter trend, women’s work that is “elaborate without worrying about the past,” and “not efficient or war-like.” This is the passive, receptive Muse of Shelley; this is Archambeau’s New Rhyme movement, but Burt is completely female, and so no dead white male “revivalist” interest is allowed; he mentions Angie Estes, “not a New Formalist of the 80s” and quotes her in perhaps the best example offered in an evening with few examples: “scent of a sentence which is ready to speak.” Note the absence of rhyme’s muscle, and instead the liquid alliteration.

Burt is ready for the pastoral and the pretty, the rustic and the raw. Burt is the female sprawl to Archambeau’s male all. Burt cannot abide the gallery and its Conceptual, urbane cleverness and really seems to want to leave the past behind; the closest he comes to cultural centrality is a nod to what he sees as a “smarter performance poetry” on the horizon, a “de-centered, tweetable, slam poetry, far from the literary past.” The poets Burt cites in this third movement are women, too: Ariana Reines, Patricia Lockwood, and Daniella Pafunda.

Mazer followed, and he was the rock rising above the fire and the water, rather glum compared to the first two, arguing for abiding truths like “empathic imagination” and “divine oracularity,” quoting early 20th century figures not to signal revolutionary beginnings, but to eulogize trends fizzling out in the “de-radicalization” and ahistorical “creative writing boon” and “awards” obsessed present. Mazer was playing the real poet in the room, intoning a dark warning to the glib critics. He did not mention any contemporary poets. Archambeau pointed to the fire in the sky, Burt showed us the chuckling streams hidden around the mountain. Mazer, by implication, was the mountain.

No one spoke on the anthology; and what possible role that would play in the future of poetry.

There were a few questions from the audience afterwards: Henry Gould wondered about the Balkanization of poetry; obsessed with movements and trends, aren’t we watering down what should be a poetry of the best combination of all possible parts?

Gould is right, of course. If Burt, for instance, is unwilling to clear a space where even Global Warming Deniers can participate, then, rightly or wrongly, the whole thing is finally about Global Warming, not poetry.

Poetry should have one, and only one, political rule: inclusivity.  The inclusivity should be radical; that is, we should all be included right now; a participatory government may say: your candidate lost—work, work, work, and come back in four years; poetry is more inclusive, still.  No subject gets special treatment in poetry. Will certain political beliefs lend themselves better to the poetic enterprisePerhaps. But we need to find out only when the example is before us, and cooly examined.

We have a feeling only Mazer, standing aloof from contemporary clamor, would really judge a new poem solely on its poetic merit. Brilliant Burt and artful Archambeau, immersed as they are in pluralistic poetics, would pigeon-hole first, and then judge. This we feel, even as we confess to being more entertained by Burt and Archambeau’s presentations.

THE VERSE DRAMA: BEN MAZER

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At the Grolier: Amanda Maciel Antunes; Michael Healy; Robert Chalfen; Julia Kleyman; Zachary Bos; Ben Mazer; Allison Vanouse; Jenna Dee; Philip Nikolayev

The verse drama ought to wear the crown, but as it happens so often in life with worthy things, is neglected; the verse drama’s combination of entertainment (drama) and fine art (poetry) should carry the day for all conceivable reasons except for the inconceivable reason that it does not.

To give an audience to a poet and poetry to audiences!  And for this noble purpose, to spring poetry from books so it might escape into, and live in, sound! To give entertainment the soul of art and art, the charm of entertainment! To put intricate music into story! To insert character and plot into intricate music!

These are worthy goals, and they must have excited Shakespeare, the playwright and poet, to give us the best literature in the world, etc.

The audience may boo, as it booed Henry James, so the poetry better entertain and the drama better fit the shades and hues of the words. Plays are not for the faint of heart.

T.S. Eliot, the modern who bemoaned verse drama’s fall as a popular art form,  says on the practical matters of verse drama:

Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants “poetry.” (“Novices,” says Aristotle, “in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.”) The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.  —The Possibility of Poetic Drama, T.S. Eliot

We are happy to report that Ben Mazer, the poet, treats the task of creating verse drama, in his “A City of Angels,” neither too solemnly, nor as a joke; perhaps superficially, the scene at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop recently resembled a “small public” assembled for “poetry,” and perhaps due to the “temper of the age,” this is the only social milieu possible for verse drama, but Mazer, we feel, succeeds wildly with his 3 act play.

Mazer fulfills what Eliot, in “Rhetoric and Poetic Drama,” wanted:

A speech in a play should never appear to be intended to move us as it might conceivably move other characters in the play, for it is essential that we should preserve our position of spectators, and observe always from the outside though with complete understanding.

There is nothing worse than art that has a “palpable design” on us, and Mazer, by avoiding this common error, has a chance to give us true art.  And he does.

In more general terms, Oscar Wilde is a spokesman witty and elegant enough to convince us of the importance of poetry performed.

Wilde’s The Critic As Artist is illustrative of that great debate—is poetic language sign (writing) or sound (music)?

The 19th century was still imbued with the spirit of the Greeks and sound was the high-brow choice; but in the 20th century, Imagism, Constructionism, Deconstructionism, Fluxus, Visual Poetry and Language Poetry have made poetry on the page more important to scholars and academic poets.

There is no question where Wilde stands in his marvelous document, The Critic As Artist:

Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear, which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons of pleasure it should abide always. Even the work of Mr. Pater, who is, on the whole, the most perfect master of English prose now creating amongst us, is often far more like a piece of mosaic than a passage in music, and seems, here and there, to lack the true rhythmical life of words  and the fine freedom and richness of effect that such rhythmical life produces. We, in fact, have made writing a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate design. The Greeks, upon the other hand, regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling. Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations. The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.  I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth, created in critical days, and serving to remind us, not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but that he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again to himself till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.  Certainly, whether this be so or not, it was to his blindness, as an occasion if not as a cause, that England’s great  poet owed much of the majestic movement and sonorous splendor of his later verse.  When Milton could no longer write, he began to sing.  …Yes: writing has done much harm to writers. We must return to the voice. That must be our test, and perhaps then we shall be able to appreciate some of the subtleties of Greek art criticism.

Wilde is writing in the late 19th century, before Modernism killed the Greek spirit which Wilde breathed as the very air.  Perhaps the death of Oscar Wilde (1900) should mark the beginning of Modernism/Post-Modernism—with its emphasis on poetry as writing, and even design, as opposed to poetry of speaking, singing, and winged thought.

The Verse Play, A City of Angels, by Ben Mazer, twice performed recently in Harvard Square, leaps over the heavy mosaic of writing into a heaven of sound.   Why ideality is better ushered into our minds by the ear is a mystery all unsolvable; the inspired poet himself is but a vessel and cannot explain it.

We might, at this point, make some self-evident observations.

The poetry of sound works in a medium more suited to poetry itself.

Enlightenment and pleasure, however misty, enter us by definite steps; this is how the material world experiences itself. Spoken language requires steps to imaginative reality, and those steps are at once accessible and elevating in the hands of the gifted poet; most poets strive for elevation but their steps are hidden, or their steps are accessible but they do not lead anywhere.

Ben Mazer’s poem is accessible and mystical at once.  We could use the word genius to describe how simply Mazer swims in the deep.

Music, or self-consciously musical language, allows us to travel to a place; both the traveling to the place and the place itself are provided by the music.

With all due respect to visual artists, we can see at once how musical poetry is superior to what the design or picture does, for the visual artist merely give us the place but not the traveling to the place—only the movement of temporal art can do that.

The poem that imitates painting and provides imagery is doing only a small part of what it can do, and even when providing imagery, the poet must ‘stretch it’ in the temporal rendering. Every tool has a self-imposed limit as well as a certain thing it can do.  Mazer understands this on many levels, and especially in this: his imagery always serves his music.

The painter will use distance for an effect, the poet, time, but the poet’s time is so much more immense and important.  So many things will mark the poet’s temporal journey: exactly what he is saying, exactly what he is painting, the rhythm of what is said, the suggestive vistas large or small, bright, dappled, or dark; the journey can be accumulative or sudden, the steps, a whole paragraph of thought, or a single arch rhyme. The skillful poet builds thought itself with mood on mood, and the Verse Drama is a form which lends itself to this and which seems to find Mazer in his element.

When it comes to temporality, Mazer does not languish in A City, but stresses movement for the sake of movement:

where much is predicated to unfold
when in the morning I unleash the thoughts
that brought me to return as if to break
the patterns of the time that came before
and sever all connections to the past
when time moves forward into a new day,
and motion stirs in the awaking town
to find that all is new, is a blank slate
where history shall properly begin
groping to find its new identity
innocently as it looks around
to find that all is moving forward now

We quote but a part of this tour-de-force, John Crick’s monologue which opens the play; is it over the top?  A lesser poet would trim the speech, fearing excess, but temporal excess is precisely how Mazer’s genius asserts itself in the medium he has chosen.

If Crick merely asserted in a briefer format, “here I am, waiting for a new day,” the whole thing would be a failure; Mazer instinctively makes onward movement the rhetorical form of Crick’s speech on mutability and novelty.

Crick’s passion for the new is soon put to the test by the friendly, small-town, skeptical Mary; she is the human lens of the play, modifying Crick’s light; she is “we the audience” who puzzle over Crick’s mystical, forward-looking, optimism.

Mary: “I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.”

Meanwhile, John questions her; John and Mary’s dialogue (Act I, Scene 2) skillfully enhances the content of Crick’s monologue in the play’s first scene.

Crick: But why were you not sleeping at this hour?

Mary: I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.

Crick: I promise that I’ll tell, but answer me.

Mary: Why am I up? I was asleep awhile
but then I had a dream I can’t recall
which stirred and shook me and I was awake.

Mary, unlike the town that is sleeping, is awake, and discovers Crick outside her window in the street (he has come to work for her father, the president of the college.)  Mary is made unique and has her dramatic presence heightened by this simple device, and the dream which she relates hints at Crick’s mysterious visit.  So as Mary questions Crick, he then questions her—and she reveals him more than he does himself.

But she continues to press him:

Mary: But more concretely, what have you in mind?
With what do you propose to fill each day?

Crick: With wonderment and with discovery.
Briefly that is the outline of my plan.
To find virginity in each new day,
a spirit of adventure not restrained.
An openness to what’s not been before.

Mary: Concretely speaking, John, what would that be?

The audience notices the self-aware nature of the play; the playwright knows Crick is not being “concrete” (even though he has put Crick in a dramatically real situation: visiting a snowy city at night for a job, etc).  But the critique of Crick’s vagueness is not a simple one; he parries Mary in such an idiot savant sort of way that one cannot help but emotionally identify with the profound visitor:

Crick: Nothing concrete at all, but something that
remains to be discovered.

Mary:  Well, we’ll see.

Crick’s logic is masterful.  The “something that remains to be discovered” is just that exciting secret which cannot be revealed, for then it would lose its allure.  This is nothing less than a dramatic evocation of the Socratic desire for not only truth—but desire itself.

And with Socrates, we return to the Greek spirit which Wilde, the wit, saw as so important (Eliot, too, lauds Plato in “The Possibility of Poetic Drama”).  And as Wilde made clear in The Critic As Artist, the Greek spirit is the critical spirit:

Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation…

Each new school…cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces.

There has never been a creative age that has not been critical also.  For it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms. The tendency of creation is to repeat itself. It is to the critical instinct that we owe each new school that springs up, each new mould that art finds ready to its hand.

Wilde was a wit, so why wouldn’t he take the side of criticism:  wit is closer to criticism than to creativity.  Some reject Plato, Socrates, the Critical impulse, in favor of a not-so-carefully-considered-creativity.

Mazer’s self-critical mastery of the medium of verse drama is nicely expressed in the Act 3, Scene 1 meeting between the thuggish Tom and Sam Cross—who belong to the the rival clan of the Cricks.  When they caustically speak of “this play,” it probably refers to a play in the play, but there’s just enough of an absurdist hint that the “play” referred to is, in fact, Mazer’s play.

They’ve got one newspaper, one magazine of any value, a literary magazine, and this is where this play will receive a favorable review, and it will be trusted and admired by intellectuals, and we’ve got one shit Crick up our ass.  (Tom Cross)

The rhetorical style of the Cross brothers scene stretches meaning even as it condenses it; the rather brief scene is entirely effective, with just the right black comic menace.  The scene is a perfect vehicle for character actors to have a delightful time, removed, and yet threatening, the romantic world of John Crick and Mary.  Mazer knows how to build, define and separate a play’s elements—we don’t need a lot of interaction to see what is essential move forward.

What “moves forward” in Mazer’s play is fairly simple—but lest we think this a fault, we should remember what T.S. Eliot says (very wisely) in his essay “The Possibility of Poetic Drama:”

The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world—a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a complete process of simplification.

And again, keeping with the whole critical tenor of creation, Mazer in “A City of Angels” is cognizant of Eliot’s profound statement (in the same essay) on the economy of great literature, which, according to Eliot, puts “into the statement enough to make reflection unnecessary.”

“To make reflection unnecessary” returns us to that accessibility we need in temporal art—as we pitch forward with that “precise statement of life” “essential to get upon the stage.”

Another issue dogging the verse drama is the “conversational” v. “oratorical” debate; doesn’t poetry automatically sound too artificial for the “direct speech” we expect from actors on the stage?  Mazer succeeds here, too.  His blank verse play, which occasionally rhymes, mostly sounds like speech.  Either the obstacle is not as great as supposed, or Mazer has found a secret key.

Verse drama has not been popular for a long time.  When is the last time someone quoted Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party?”

Ben Mazer’s A City of Angels, which we feel is better than Yeats or Eliot’s efforts in the genre, gives us hope for the form, and for poetry.

Mazer, with the help of some talented friends, has done at the Grolier what Oscar Wilde asked: returned fine literature to the voice.

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