Having committed myself very willingly to a position that ranks Keats’ lyrical gift (for melopoeia, prosody, etc) above all others in the history of the English language, I have now gotten around to configuring what I call a Prosody Meter to posit other rankings. It begins with the supposition that Keats’ gift supersedes all other competitors, and the 100% of the scale is the 100% of Keats’ prosodic achievements. On the level of 75-80%, I would place (at their respective prosodic pinnacles) Donne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, all of whom create and sustain exquisite poetic music, but lack Keats’ edge of fulsome solidity, of loading lines from every angle with ore. When Keats, for example, offers “mortality/ Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,” the effect of assonant sounds repeated so that almost every word in the line is included has no echo in Donne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. At the level of 66.66% I place myself and Shelley. “Clustering,” as I call my prosodic method, has the advantage of clearing up narrative-thematic ground so that I am not chained to my own music at the expense of narrative or intellectual interests, but also loosens a chunk of what could be formally golden into a purgatorial realm where what sticks, sticks and what is lost cannot be retrieved. Shelley I deign (as Keats did) to be a competent but rather lazy craftsman, who falls (despite a substantial lyrical gift) into lazy phrases and inappropriate repetitions: no one who reads the Romantics seriously can quite forgive “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and its like. The lowest, 50% rung of the Prosody Meter has on it a cluster of poets habitually formally lazy enough that “ore,” in the Keatsian sense for them, is always over or under-employed: Byron, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Yeats, and Eliot. All of these poets can be “jingly,” facile the wrong way round, and prosodic bells ring perfunctorily.
Back to Keats: if I do pick nits with some of Keats’ sonnets, it is because, by the time he begins writing the major ones in 1816, his “chops” are so developed that, in his innocent delight with his own magnificent technical facility, he sometimes undercooks his voltas (the volta in a sonnet occurs around line 9, which is supposed to turn or torque the narrative of the opening octave.) Keats’ early voltas can be “auto-pilot” contrivances:
O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep—
Nature’s observatory— whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of humankind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
The volta here undercuts, weakens the octave, by making the protagonist seem irresolute, and also unimaginative; in other words, it would have been more challenging for Keats to find in his solitude some objective correlative in nature to express what he wanted to express, rather than giving us the affective data nose on the face. It is, in American MFA parlance again, “telling” rather than “showing.” The irony of American MFA-land is that American poetry before me displays so little prosodic heft that American poetry gamers should worship the ground Keats walks on; but, in American MFA programs, the Romantics are little touched on. American poetry until now has been written uniformly by cretins. The gifted poets in the American canon are none. But back to Keats and his voltas: his more successful sonnets have structural dynamics that make the major turn interesting:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love!- then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
The double crescendo here— the revelation of Fanny Brawne, and Keats’ deeply felt passion for her, and then the plummet into the visionary locale of “the shore of the wide world” where Keats is confronted by his own powerlessness in the face of mortality (Keats’ Scorpionic courage in confronting extinction being one of his great poetic strengths), take us, with the requisite magisterial music (assonances like “of unreflecting love” backed/solidified by strong end-rhymes, and anaphora from “of” as well), to a place of complete, totalized textual fulfillment, where an extreme gift is made to serve genuine narrative-thematic gravitas. That is genius in major high art consonant poetry.
Apparition Poems: Ambient Ghettos of North Philly Pt. 2
North Philly is about, not only the charm of dilapidation, but the eerie charm of the desolate. One reason Apparition Poems got its title is that, between the spatiality of different sectors of Philly and its ornate architectural elegance, one gets the sense of ghosts, specters, and apparitions here, hanging in the air in a way that some find intoxicating, some do not. Like I said about Temple University and the Eris Temple, those who find an interest in attraction/repulsion circuits (things, ocular vistas or otherwise, which attract and repel at the same time) will have much to ponder as they walk Philly streets. Attraction/repulsion also leads, circuitously, to thoughts of salvation and damnation; and who the saved and who the damned are is another pertinent PFS subtext, in our art and in our lives. If Philly has an interesting relationship (also) to philosophy, it is because the relationship of our architectural constructs to the sky, the heavens, and to a widely disparate scene on the ground, lends a sense of transcendentalism to the city, and to attempts to forge higher worlds, aesthetic and otherwise, from it. This is all leading to this Apparition Poem:
There are gusty showers
in Philadelphia, showers
that beat up empty lots,
down in sooty Kensington,
you could almost believe
what the books say about
being-in-the-world, I mean
being in a damned world, it
really does seem that day
on greasy days in Philadelphia.
The circular nature of the poem around Philadelphia-as-topos gives it an air of being self-enclosed, self-completed, a whole, round circuit. The circle has to do with time, temporality, which has as one of its more graceful manifestations the temporal circle, where (in whatever context) you finish where you started. One of the grand subtexts of Philadelphia— architecture versus time/the temporal, is mirrored here, as the scaffolding of the poem creates a square around the circle of the poem’s temporal conceit. The “gusty showers” and “greasy days” of North Philly depend, if we posit some aesthetic satisfaction in them, on a broadening of viewpoints towards a recognition that surfaces belie interiors, and what looks damned might actually be saved, and vice versa. This is Baudelairian territory— salvation and damnation are not up the alley of the Romantics that much— and the Philadelphian Prowler may well be more, in his/her Noir orientation, simpatico with the Symbolists then with those consonant with the replenishing powers of trees, birds, and flowers. To be forced into a kind of Purgatory, against century XX, by architecture— such is the fate (through PFS and otherwise) of Philadelphia in 2014. Yet I am no poet maudit; and inscribed in this Apparition Poem is the sense of hidden depths filling in spaces which surfaces cannot.
The Posit Trilogy: Ambient Ghettos of North Philly
Connoisseurs of urban areas and urban life know: dilapidation, in urban contexts, has its own kind of glamour and ambience. There is a richness and a decadent glamour to dilapidated neighborhoods simply from the sense of solid time, decades and even centuries, passing through them, hollowing things out towards a kind of perfection; especially if the architecture is interesting. North Philly is mostly ghettos, mostly dilapidation: but the nicer bits of North Philly are so potent with ambience that, for PFS, North Philly would always be one of our Ops. Part of the PFS vibe was a certain kind of laissez faire around where we would go in Philly, which was anywhere, at any time. We were not hemmed in by fear, because Aughts Philly was not a fearful place. So that, when my friends Radio Eris set up shop at 52nd and Cedar in the mid-Aughts, smack in the middle of a North-West Philly ghetto, and called their shared, co-op abode The Eris Temple, it became natural for my routes to begin to include The Temple and its environs. The Eris Temple is where the two Apparition Poems videos were shot; and the site of endless readings, performances, and adventures. It’s not like the violent undercurrents of that particular ‘hood were invisible to us; but we moved within the charmed circle of a germane time which subsisted for flaneurs, art-heads, and misfits. I also have to say that the glamorous dilapidation of North Philly (and West Philly, too) supersedes the closest NYC analogue, which is Brooklyn, most of which is merely hideously ugly, sans the elegant architecture which distinguishes almost all of Philly, for all time, from other cities. This poem from The Posit Trilogy, “Tranny Dream,” catches the sense I have that, as the Aughts wore into the Teens, impending doom in the form of a Sword of Damocles hung over all of our heads here, even as I did not manage to write/publish this until 2013:
I find myself in bed with a woman
with a man’s crotch, & find this
unacceptable, & so excuse myself
into an autumn evening in North
Philadelphia, looking for a train
station, finding more nudie bars.
I get trapped in an enclosed space
with a stripper, done with her work
for the night, who counsels me
against taking the train home, that
I can sleep with her backstage at
her bar. I push past, into the night
again, & am assailed on all sides.
The first person orientation of the poem aligns it with, not only the original Posit, but Opera Bufa; what is even more important, on a narrative-thematic level, is the association with autumn, and its harbinger of winter, which amounts to a confrontation with mortality. As in, the way North Philly subsists in 2014, even for all its ambience (which includes also, a sense of the spectral or apparitional), has become unmanageable for those of us who remember the frisson of being there pre-Great Recession. I wrote the poem from a dream, and from the ‘burbs; pining, as usual these days, for a precious era which is now past. I will always be haunted by what Philly was both for me, and for all of my friends and lovers in the Aughts, and by the sense that we managed to capture, from Philly, another, higher world out of the ambience and architecture here. The second poem I would like to share is more nose on the face about the sort of goings-on which transpired at The Eris Temple in the Aughts, is a sonnet, and bears the simple moniker “Eris Temple”:
That night I got raped by a brunette
chanteuse, I lay on the linoleum floor
of the front room sans blanket, & thought
I could hack it among the raw subalterns
of the Eris Temple, who could never
include me in their ranks, owing to my
posh education; outside, on Cedar Street,
October gave a last breath of heat before
the homeless had to hit rock bottom again, &
as Natalie lay next to me I calculated
my chances of surviving at the dive bar
directly across from the Temple for the
length of a Jack & Coke, North Philly
concrete mixed into it like so many notes—
As to what the “notes” here are or might constitute, that there was a raucous charm even to the violent undercurrents which create North Philly’s ambience, and the “concrete” of man’s desire to kill, maim, and dismember man, was never far from my thoughts while I patronized the Temple at any time. Speaking of Temples, Temple University, where I held the University Fellowship from 2006 to 2011, is a North Philadelphia establishment, and is every bit as garishly lurid as the Temple is. What you can see from Anderson Building, where the English Department is located, is quite frightening in its stark attraction-repulsion circuit. To be on campus all day was to be challenged by a harsh landscape to find charm in a fracas, and to embrace a kind of alienation built into what Temple had to offer on ocular levels. Why it should be that this dynamic, attraction-repulsion, is so important to an appreciation of the ambient ghettos of North Philly, is that it takes a certain kind of sensibility to be magnetized by sites that are simultaneously attractive and repulsive; and PFS, especially the painting branch of PFS, were all heads for this kind of contradictory approach to the city we lived in, and loved.
As of late 2014, I am, in some ways, in a relatively fortunate position: more than half of what I would like to be widely in print circulation and/or officially released on a high level is. Nonetheless, only patience can make it so that all the books find the right home (hopefully) at the right time. The Posit Trilogy, which begins with Posit and was completed in 2013, and also consolidated into this year’s e-book Two Teens Trilogies, has its own unique identity as (like Equations) a possible dialectic in poetry/literature. I am looking into the way that Deposit and Re-Posit complete the Trilogy, and attempting to discern whether or not the dialectical form of discourse (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) is properly fulfilled. One thing I will say about The Posit Trilogy is that, in its fanciful sense of characterization and levels of imagination, it reads to me like a more advanced, subtler version of Opera Bufa. For instance, the absurdist chiasmus between Saint Augustine and Dracula as propelling the Trilogy forward; and that the manner in which Dracula, who is allowed air-time in precisely two persona poems which end (respectively) Deposit and Re-Posit, girds himself around with rhetorical heft against both Augustine, purity, and confession, and then the purity and potential transparency of major high art consonant literature, demonstrates that The Posit Trilogy is playing games both with pop culture, with poetry-as-theater and texts as “staged,” with intellectual seriousness being balanced with playful vistas opening, and with a deconstructive interrogation of literary seriousness itself, on guard against overrating texts and textuality. Here is how Dracula closes The Posit Trilogy, as though onstage:
You can’t tell me
you don’t feed on
the mysterious disappearance
of the need to do this—
that raw life & blood
would suffice to
satisfy, & gird you
against the grinding
you fancy you make.
I’ve lived a thousand
years among human
souls, all in need of
blood, little else, and
words are no blood
at all— what suffices
for such as you is
(as you say) a
simulacrum of blood,
with limited flow-
potential, & as such
I counsel you (if
you ask) to feed on
something more wholesome-
don’t scoff— wholesome
is not relative
for the human species,
& your words are dirt,
feeding no one directly,
& those who feed are
suspect, chilled by
exposure to terminal
frosts, unable to bite
what might suffice in the end…
We may or may not choose to take Dracula’s critique seriously; The Posit Trilogy in steeped in investigations of subjectivity, and Dracula’s “I,” his sense of himself, is manifestly abased. There is also the sense that the ironies of us, a human audience, reckoning a vampire who hopes to convince us of the obsolescence of textuality, are potent ones: Dracula can stand in, however whimsical he seems, for mechanistic, brutish, repetitive, materialistic society, as a kind of door slamming shut, warning us not to take the textual action here too seriously, that menacing forces hover behind even what texts are germane to us. That, ultimately, Dracula (and those masses he is a synecdoche for) is an “anti-I,” and thus the greatest threat to the poetic “I” when properly employed, is another subtext beneath the whimsy. However, I must admit that it will take many more readings for me to fully plumb the textual depths of The Posit Trilogy, to discover if the dialectical form is seriously at work in it. Equations goes out of its way to make its essential dialectic explicit, which bodes well for its surface-level popularity at all times; The Posit Trilogy is more shadowy, and until I investigate and/or interrogate all the shadows as fully as possible, I cannot fully refute Dracula the way I would like to. When Dracula wins, in a context like this, it may be a sign of the times.
Translation is another key issue my body of work needs to face. The truth is simple: prose tends to translate better than poetry. That is why, on a world level, Flaubert is read more than Baudelaire; musical language, melopoeia, etc, which animates poetry, infuses it with vital life, tends to be at least partially lost in translation, while prose remains intact. So, if you cannot read The Flowers of Evil in French, there would seem to be no reason to read it; while reading Madame Bovary in translation may be as edifying as reading it in its original dialect. One advantage Equations has in my canon is this (and it is shared by Letters To Dead Masters); another is that Equations, through ending on an affirmative note, may be more companionable than Apparition Poems and Cheltenham, with their philosophical musings, conundrums, and elegiac remembrances. Equations affirms, in its precise dialectic, that human relationships are worth investing time and energy in, that love is real and a powerful force for good among the human race, and that sex need not be the only issue on the table for men and women (or men and men, or women and women). Oddly, the protagonist of Equations ends the narrative in a state of solitude:
When you get in a train, you transcend an entire life you leave
behind. Yet every human life has to balance stasis and movement. It’s
something Trish never learned— how to move and not move
simultaneously. Trish demands absolutes— absolute movements, absolute
stillness. I have learned that the only absolute in the universe is existence
itself— something will always exist. I don’t pretend to know how, or
what, or why. I’ve left all the shot-glasses out; Jade forgot her cigarettes,
American Spirits. I fish one out of her pack and light it.
With the memory of Jade still strong in his mind, he is free to affirm, rather than negate, all the sensory data he sees before him, and his responses are free to be warm and lively. Opera Bufa and When You Bit also end on comparative, affirmative high notes; all are steeped in dynamic energy around human growth and progress towards different forms of enlightenment— about love, sex, the body, art, and textuality itself. Equations has the advantage over the other two of being heavily prose-based; thus, a text which can translate into other cultures and do other dances in other (or Other) contexts. Against the triumphant solitude of the Equations protagonist by the end of the book is this Cheltenham Elegy, and the tragic interaction it recollects in visionary tranquility:
Huddled in the back of a red
Jetta, I thought we were in a
Springsteen song. But there are
no backstreets in Cheltenham.
It’s only the strip-mall to house
and back circuit. Anyone could’ve
seen us. It wasn’t a full consummation—
for want of a graceful phrase, we
were too smart to fuck. There was
no playing hero for me. Nor did I
force you to confess. What could you say?
Cheltenham was soft, and all too infested.
Whether the deeper truth is latent in the Equations or in the Cheltenham Elegies brings to the surface what the ultimate nature of humanity as a whole is. Equations artfully affirms, and the Cheltenham Elegies artfully deny. As the composer of both, I predict that the numbers will always lean towards Equations, both for its being (mostly) prose and for its being affirmative; even as I know that the more profound and terrible truths hidden in the Elegies will draw in those brave enough to face the darkness and the emptiness of raw humanity at its very worst.
Equations, like Opera Bufa, is a prose/poetry hybrid. The difference is simple: while Opera Bufa leans towards poetry and the poetic, setting up camp in an abstract, surrealistic realm of riffs and images which need not cohere in particular ways the way the novelistic prose does, Equations leans towards being straight prose, as it has a narrative structure built around precise representations of particular, complex human situations, without a hinge towards abstraction or surreal games (operas). The “I” in Equations is not lyric, but a concrete protagonist, moving through a decipherable world. Furthermore, Equations is built around a precise dialectic: the thesis arrives instantly, that sex and sexuality are what make us most human, the antithesis arrives when the protagonist meets and courts Jade, and the synthesis at the end of the book decides that the thesis is partially correct, no more. Yet, the Equations prose poems have just enough poetry in them to make the cadences and rhythms noticeably not what you might hear in a novelistic context:
Here’s my equation: sex is more human than everything else. Let me put
sex to the left of me and you to the right of me. In the interstices between
me and sex, I have achieved my greatest consonance with humanity. In
the interstices between me and you, I can (hopefully) give you a greater
consonance with humanity, just by showing you the seams, the zippers,
the ruffles, the cuffs, all the accoutrements that dress us up to be naked,
in a text with its own nakedness.
The little catalogue (seams, zippers, ruffles, cuffs) gives a hint of the incantatory, as do the parallel structures and semi-chiasmus formations. Meanwhile, the fanciful world of Opera Bufa is free to do whirling dervish tricks that the Equations prose poems cannot, though it also loses solid grounding enough not to be able to hold, harness, and consolidate serious dialectic energies, imperatives, and motivations:
I am beginning an inventory. I am in
possession of songs. I am in possession of
labor, and love’s labors lost. I am capable of
experiencing Mini-Marts. I inhabit an operatic
landscape. I have loved a girl. I have also
loved a Maria. I am noticing a strange poverty
in richness. I am cleaning up the stage for this
to happen again. I am counting on scones to
butter themselves. I am haunted by remorse
for missed notes. I am nonetheless proud to
have escaped the flatted fifth, el Diablo en
musica. I am lucky because the Devil paid for
my stage props. I have torn up our contract. I
have contacted my attorney.
Joyous, comic, operatic noise for its own sake, and for its own amusement: that’s Opera Bufa. It’s light on its textual feet. Equations is heavier, and denser, steeped in prose necessities. Yet both are hybrids, in a new mode of textual hybridity. Sequences of prose poems have never been asked to carry this much cognitive depth before. As always, an educated audience are free to decide for themselves whether hybrids can maintain the same level of gravitas that straightforward poems, like the Apparition Poems and the Cheltenham Elegies do, and also what other hybrid forms might arise out of necessity as the century progresses.
As to how conventional prosody functions in unconventional contexts: Opera Bufa, my first full-length from 2007, consists of a comic opera (such its conceit runs) in sixty prose poems. Prose poetry, as a hybrid form, must lose from prosodic richness what line-breaks, end-rhymes, and other lineation games like projective verse might add; even as the constraint of line-breaks, end-rhymes, and projective verse being lifted frees up a space for new conglomerates of narrative-thematic and formal richness. The semi-lyric “I” of the When You Bit sonnets is replaced by what might be called a “hybrid I,” a way or manner of presenting the first person singular in poetic language loosened from certain kinds of formal confinement by an engagement with the rules/stipulations of raw prose:
I was a cadaver in a copse until a cop arrested
me. I was a convict in a jumpsuit until I
jumped bail. I was a hitchhiker under galactic
moon dust until I saw the sun. I was the sun
as it rose and I shone on my dead self. I was a
copse under the sun. I was a convict and a
copse. I was all of this until I learned that you
are what you see. I was what I saw until I saw
that my eyes were shut. I opened my eyes to a
kind of vacancy. I opened my arms to
delinquency. I do not see anything now, and it
Important to note: the line-breaks here were created by the size of the print book. They could be anywhere. But notice how a kind of absurd incantatory rhythm is created by “I” and “I was”; if confined by a necessity of line-breaks and (intermittently) end-rhymes, or other artful effects like enjambments, the piece would not have the loose, free-wheeling quality that makes it a kind of adequate operatic crescendo in the context of this textual opera bufa. Some writers enjoy employing hybrid forms, some find that, falling between two aesthetic stools, they create an unpleasant chasm to tumble into. Hybrid forms are widely used as an expression of avant-gardism and for the avant-garde; it is no accident that Opera Bufa was released by a small overseas avant-garde press in 2007. What remains “prosy” about the piece is that it reads more like a soliloquy than a poem, something to be staged (or made operatic). The When You Bit sonnets most caught up in drama have inhering in them a traditional formality that is not so free-wheeling, but emphasizes formal precision and the punctiliousness of refined prosody in a way the Opera Bufa pieces cannot:
I want you to be like a bull.
I want you to call me a fool.
I want to be ass-proud for you.
I want you to call me to screw.
I know this iambic is dry.
I know this excess has to stop.
I know I can laughably cry.
I know blood can come drop by drop.
I come for you kicking my ass.
I’ve come to be making a pass.
I’ve come undistracted by “I.”
I killed off my “I” as its dry.
I start off these lines in the sand.
I want to end up in your hand.
Audiences can decide for themselves whether nouveau hybridity or extreme traditionalism is more to the point as in 2014. The quid pro quo: freedom for formal precision: is an equation worth investigating for all time.
In examining prosodic structures in my body of work, it is noticeable that discrepancies present themselves in how prosody in general is approached. One interesting dichotomy subsists between the When You Bit sonnets and the Cheltenham Elegies. Where melopoeia is concerned, the WYB sonnets are lavish leaning towards overripe: they cluster end-rhymes with internal rhymes, assonances, and the rest to heighten the carnival sensation of overwhelming romance, sexuality, intrigue, and transgression:
I ache: dull, sharp,
in a heap of paper.
All paper: picture,
bright, bold, dark.
I have nailed you
to a piece: black.
I darken touched
things: I’m used.
I write you, you,
you, as if kissed
by a fresh body,
I drowse: numb
as cocaine gums.
The nods to Shelley (“I pant, I tremble, I expire…”) and to Romanticism and the lyric “I” in general are right on the surface, and the whole game is the consummation of total aesthetic richness. It is a sense of wanting something, and getting it. The consolidation of end-rhymes with internal rhymes heightens this process. This is 2007 (the book was published in ’08, but much of it was written in the autumn of ’07). Four years later, and with the added encumbrance of a deepening national (and global) recession, I was ready to write the Cheltenham Elegies, and the note of lacrimae rerum was placed into them by impersonal circumstances becoming personalized. The melopoeiac dimension of the Cheltenham Elegies, next to the When You Bit sonnets, is hollowed out, emptied, reflecting a state of impoverishment; internal rhymes must suffice to color the poems, while end-rhymes are left out to preclude the rosy sense of ravishment in the earlier poems. Elegies, as a poetic form, need to be hollowed out, to reflect a narrative-thematic sense of loss and (again) impoverishment; what is hewn in granite must be against the “half-lyricism” of a construct like When You Bit, towards elegiac restraint with its elegant elisions:
And out of this nexus, O sacred
scribe, came absolutely no one.
I don’t know what you expected
to find here. This warm, safe,
comforting suburb has a smother
button by which souls are unraveled.
Who would know better than you?
Even if you’re only in the back of
your mind asphyxiating. He looked
out the window— cars dashed by
on Limekiln Pike. What is it, he said,
are you dead or do you think you’re Shakespeare?
Different audiences over a long period of time will find mete to embrace different kinds of prosody. For myself, I would tend to value the hollowed out starkness of the Elegies, their implicit vow against the traditional ripeness of end-rhymes, against the twisted, torqued half-lyricism of the sonnets (if I call them half-lyrical, it is because they are welded to a narrative structure which is book-length and involves other characters, rather than the traditional lyric, which sticks to a first person perspective.)
The formality of the When You Bit… sonnets hinges on an original admixture of formal elements. Rather than usual pentameter line structures, here I tend to favor five beats per line, or what I call “halved pentameter.” What chopping standard pentameter lines in half will do to a sonnet would seem to be an open question; but certainly the formal nod is to brevity, concision, and the impulse to compress poetic data:
(a) Three sets of teeth: who
(b) can check for cavities?
(a) A three-way circuit: who
(b) will start the striptease?
(c) Three lovers in three ways:
(d) how merrily the dance
(e) begins. We spin, we spin,
(f) we forget our instincts,
(b) anima, the part of teeth
(h) that cuts. We are sluts.
(d) There is an “I” here that
(h) stands for all of us, but
(b) its eyes are shut. Sleep
(b) lulls it to rest, not think. Or speak.
Besides the Ops feature of halved pentameter here, there is also a system of internal rhymes inset to enrich the end-rhyme scheme, which is (again) unconventional. Thus, (for instance), “three” and “teeth” in line 1 work with “cavities” in line 2; just as “three” twice in line 5 reinforce the end-rhymes of lines 2 and 4, “cavities,” “striptease.” Keats called this kind of melopoeiac reinforcement “loading” lines “with ore”; and he complained to Shelley in a famous missive how scant Shelley’s reinforcement techniques were. Surely, if the regular number of beats per line is halved, it stands to poetic reason that what is left must be as loaded with prosodic ore as possible, and I attempted to accomplish that here. It is also a feature of this particular sonnet (“Three Sets of Teeth,” which opens the initial third of the book called Sister Lovers) that the first quatrain (four line stanza) is written in the Shakespearean manner— Shakespearean sonnets tend to begin with a/b/a/b. Shakespearean rhyme-schemes in sonnets are dramatic to the point of being overripe; Shakespeare liking to imagine his sonnets being read from onstage, perhaps. The “sturm und drang” facet of Shakespearean sonnets is not answered by the Petrarchan mold employed by Keats (and, of course, Petrarch), which is subtler, more intricate, more about interstitial craft then dynamic fervor and bloody passion. That, through the first quatrain, this sonnet emerges as “semi-Shakespearean” is something I would like to posit. In being semi-Shakespearean, I attempt to open the book in as dramatic a fashion as I possibly can; even as the last, “clustered” ten lines, in all their irregularity, move the sonnet into uncharted formal territory, towards a kind of wilderness zone which mirrors the narrative-thematic wilderness zone the protagonist of the book inhabits in his ménage with his two Chicago Muses in the first twenty sonnets of the book, which emerge also to mix convention and innovation in all kinds of “semis.”
Since Fortune tends to favor the bold, I am going to make a bold assertion: until me, there is no serious prosody in American poetry. Frost and Dickinson write Hallmark-level jingles; Whitman’s use of anaphora is cheap and barbaric the wrong way round; and even semi-Americans Pound and Eliot do not build the kind of melopoeia into their poetic constructs to vie with the Romantics and those who preceded them. I call my wonted prosodic manner “clustering”— that is, I avoid regular end-rhyme structures and build in melopoeiac devices (rhymes, near-rhymes, off-rhymes, assonances, alliterations, anaphora, etc) in a clustered fashion, where the devices fall in the poem where they will, which grants me much greater narrative-thematic freedom as a quid pro quo for musical solidarity and traditional poetic scaffolding techniques. In terms of my books, When You Bit… from 2008 is the most musically rich, with an intense focus on melopoeia in the context of a traditional form, the sonnet. Sonnet means “little song”: and the When You Bit… sonnets are crazy little songs indeed, with sonic webs inhering which look and sound like they were spun by a spider (or scorpion) on LSD. It will be informative here to compare a sonnet from When You Bit… to one of Keats’ early sonnets. Keats, for my money, is the supreme English-language lyric poet of all time; and audiences can judge for themselves how his exquisite lyricism compares to my wild, wayward approach to music in poetic structure:
(a) My spirit is too weak— mortality
(b) Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
(b) And each imagined pinnacle and steep
(a) Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
(a) Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
(b) Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep
(b) That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
(a) Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
(c) Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
(d) Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
(c) So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
(d) That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
(c) Wasting of old time— with a billowy main—
(d) A sun— a shadow of a magnitude.
(a) Asinine, as is, this ass is:
(b) ass I zip down into zero:
(a) anal, a null, a void this is.
(c) I’m behind a behind that
(d) sits smoking, rubbing, pink-
(e) tipped, tender, butt, button.
(f) She watches me watching as
(e) I go brown-nose in another.
(g) Only her car-ness, averted by
(g) eyes to the wall, seems happy.
(h) Only she can stomach rubs
(h) of the kind that want plugs.
(h) Sparked tank, here comes
(h) no come, & aggravation.
Keats’ Elgin Marbles sonnet here conforms tightly to the Petrarchan mold— both in the end-rhyme scheme, and in the way the volta (turn after the first eight lines, a sonnet convention) plays against the first portion of the poem. My “spider on LSD” rhyme scheme demonstrates how cluster-forms of prosody can work— the end rhymes fall in and out, and the last four lines sharing an end-rhyme have a sense both of (potentially) absurdizing the poem and giving it an adequate crescendo.
Another twentieth century lesson: New York is a fool’s paradise. Anyone in America, especially along the Eastern seaboard, who lives past thirty-five will probably notice that, despite a tremendous press build-up to reinforce the “mega” quality of New York City, New York has no more material power in America than several other commensurate, or more than commensurate, cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, and, of course, Philadelphia. Indeed, the inversion between Philly and New York is almost perfect: i.e., Philly is precisely what New York is supposed to be, and vice versa. Philadelphians over thirty-five will usually have discovered the labyrinthine dimensions and depths of Philly, reaching out in myriad directions (including why the press has to put up NYC at our expense), and touching Philly’s tremendous, forcibly underrated material and spiritual power in the United States. There are few American power-structures without Philly roots somewhere; yet, this structuring is largely “operative,” and not directly verbalized. So, older Philadelphians must live with what we can and cannot express on the surface, the way in which, in Philly and out, we must be criminally misrepresented in the media, and also the false luster of NYC (and LA) lording over us their empty, bloated narratives and mythologies.
New Yorkers, in comparison, are a naïve race, who understand little of what they see, and make every attempt to stay on the surface and embrace the false idol which is the city where they live. Yet, as they age, there will always be something missing for them, a sense that everything they see is a mirage, and that New York is the kind of city where fools rush in and almost no one else. New York art stinks. And, to the extent that I am winding this around to note something about the poem “Le Chat Noir” from the Posit chapbook, it stands to reason that I should express where I feel New York School poetry needs to go: into the garbage forever, with all the other gamer crap from century XX. What I’ve discovered is that “Le Chat Noir” can be taken as a heave-ho to the New York School, if we take the protagonist of the poem to be spry, pop-culture consonant, semi-hysterical, never profound or verbally gifted Frank O’ Hara (and this poem improves on his stunted prosody):
I pressed a frozen face
forward into an alley off
of Cedar St., herb blowing
bubbles (am I too high?) in
melting head I walked &
it was freezing & I walked
freezing into pitch (where’s
the) blackness around a
cat leapt out & I almost
collapsed a black cat I
was panting & I almost
collapsed I swear from
the cold but look a cat
a black cat le chat noir oh no
The poem is a sonnet, but the form doesn’t seem to be as important here as the thematic gist and the spin I want to put on that particular ball. If this is Frank O’ Hara, stuck in the bowels of North-West Philadelphia (the Eris Temple was located at 52nd and Cedar in the Aughts), and he imitates a Lana Turner-ish (for those who know his poems) collapse, it may be because the real decadent glamour on the East Coast is not where it’s supposed to be, in the West Village or Soho, but in Philly. I would like to argue that the real glamour has always been in Philly for the truly hip and worldly-wise, and O’Hara’s New York is a non-existent joke in comparison. People forget what Le Chat Noir was in Paris in the 1890s— a Bohemian haunt where artists like baby Picasso and Lau Trek used to hang out, in absinthe-laden, concupiscent decadence. So that, if the real Le Chat Noir vibe on the East Coast is here, in Philly, then all the NYC stooge celebrations in the world can’t redeem O’Hara from knowing that his aesthetic number is up, and we’ve got it.
***this picture of me was taken by Abby Heller-Burnham in 2002***
The twentieth century didn’t bequeath us much, literature-wise. But I do like T. S. Eliot’s famous aphorism: “Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal.” The Cheltenham Elegy I would like to discuss does steal a crucial image from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes.” If you put the Elegy next to the relevant stanza of Keats’ longer narrative poem (not an Ode, but sharing the Odes preoccupation with celebrating oddities and inverting poetic clichés), what emerges is a paradigm model of where the last two hundred years have landed us, as regards what constitutes innocence and experience, virginity and consummation, expectancy and satiety, and what historians chose to call Romance against what I choose to call Noir:
The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, other. You spiteful little princess.
Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,
Passive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
Oddly enough, Eliot’s mermaids in “Prufrock” occupy a median space between Keats’ innocent, angelic Madeline, and my “spiteful little princess.” Eliot aside, both “St. Agnes” and 420 involve festivities— and the celebration of St. Agnes Eve in the Middle Ages (where Keats got his narrative plot) was just as garish and ostentatious as a Cheltenham Junior Prom. Yet, the Elegy and the semi-Ode share a preoccupation shared, as a concern, by myself and Keats— what happens in darkness, in hidden or concealed spaces, far from the proverbial madding crowd, against what would be known on the surface levels of society and its terms of acceptance or acknowledgment. Porphyro is asking for an elopement, and is accepted; the first person protagonist of 420 asks for solace, on any level, and is rebuffed. That both poems emerge as fully sexualized, on a hetero level, is fore-grounded by this comparison— a mermaid is a kind of siren, and carries feminine glamour with her wherever she goes, and even in darkness (underwater, perhaps, in this context). 420 foregrounds this ambiguity— is the protagonist asking for sex (a renewal of what has been extinguished, in the poem), or just a loving verbal interchange, or both? He receives, from his mermaid, neither, while Porphyro eventually receives both. That is a critical crux between Romanticism and Noir, as a new mode of visionary Realism— many stereotypically Romantic poems end happily, with a sense that conflicts have ended in a kind of fulfillment, textual or narrative, intellectual, emotional, or physical. The bleakness of Noir significations guarantees that what is anodyne in Romanticism can never appear— and readers may find either Noir airless and claustrophobic or Romanticism weak and cloying. Now, Romanticism is a major, vital, complex movement, so that variability of signification still applies; but, reliably, that the English Romantics, even the “Satanic” second generation (Keats, Byron, Shelley) were positivists in comparison to Noir Apparition Poems like the Cheltenham Elegies would be difficult to deny.
Back to the two poems: the two versions of adolescence, one British and one American, one in third-person omniscient and one in first, are a study between adolescence retaining its wonted luster of freshness, joy, surprise, self-discovery, and unselfconscious risk, or adolescence degenerating into the space of already-thwarted dreams, premature (even atrophied) adulthood, and a sense of the crepuscular towards realizations of mortality even before adulthood is officially reached. This is part of what the Cheltenham Elegies are for— to acknowledge the ludicrousness of adolescents leading their lives like little adults, fornicating, wheeling and dealing, wielding material power in inappropriate ways, and attempting to cope with these realities in the total darkness (“basement”) of non-existent family structures and no real guidance. It is an interesting torque, and one I did not necessarily plan, between Madeline emerging from her clothes “in” seaweed (while Porphyro watches her from her closet), while my antagonist emerges “from” the seaweed of what? Another shady business transaction, round of gossip, or dossier check that all the right Cheltenham heads are playing their parts correctly? Keats’ version of “seaweed” is merely an optical illusion (i.e. that’s how she looks to Porphyro from his vantage point in her closet), while my “seaweed” is a metaphor for an entire way of life— kids bedraggled by onerous, gross practical realities which cling to them whether they like it or not. The “mansion foul” where Madeline lives as a ward is (we may guess) no less corrupt than an average house in mostly upper-middle class Cheltenham; yet Madeline has retained her innocence. My anti-heroine swims through seaweed-strewn waters, and is far from innocent. If she is spiteful, it is because others are spiteful to her, leading to the usual nihilistic Cheltenham chain reaction. So that, the steal I made, to transpose something from the Romantic canon into a Noir reality, inverts but also sheds light on where English language poetry is willing to go in the twenty-first century, which is into the total darkness of the American landscape, where the only joy is telling the truth about what shadows you happen to encounter.
To recognize a nexus of cyclical energy in Posit, involving the poetic “I”— inhering, an association of asserted subjectivity with heterosexual sexual arousal and the phallic— specifically, the phallus in the act of sexual intercourse— I begin with “Come to the Point.” The poem “Come to the Point,” with its blatant/rhetorically dual-minded, subtle essence (to come to the point in an argumentative, discursive, or dialectical context, and to come as in to ejaculate), has a parallel structure inhering in the first and last line— “I am that I.” The line-breaks (“I am/come to the point”) emphasize the curious juxtaposition of discursive and phallic potency— that critical cruxes can (literally or figuratively) be seminal. Here, in this self-critical meta-crux, manifesting in the unlikely context of a work of verbal art, the positing has to do with a critical line (or self-perpetuated discourse/dialectic) in favor of the reemergence of first-person singular perspectives in order to inaugurate a new era of textual freedom and “I” propelled experimentation for poets and dialecticians. The first person singular, expressed in poetic language, is also revealed to encompass phallic energy— just as Posit courts the acknowledgment and embrace of certain forms/manners of phallocentrism. To Posit something, in this compressed matrix of interests, is to enact a textual pelvic thrust. The “slipping down” in “Come to the Point” is meant to convey both seduction/sensuality (the slipping down, perhaps, of underclothes), and a sense of ease and freedom in the slide back into first person perspectives in text.
I am that I
that stations metaphor
on a boat to
be carried across.
that makes little
songs on banisters,
which are slipped down.
that slips down
china cutlery and white.
I am coming to
the point. I am
come to the point.
I am that I.
“I” must climb up
from a whirlpool
but sans belief
“I” must say I
how or why
this can happen
“I” must believe
in my own
“I” must come back,
‘til this emptiness
is known, and shown.
I married into blood and
broken necks, endless
anemic privation, but
no regret. You see,
hunger fills me. I like
vampire hours (no
sleep), a blood-vessel
maidens about to
We know what sweetness
is in starvation. We’ve
is death’s approval stamp.
If you crave, there is
room left in you. If
you want, you are a
being finished is
a cadaver’s province.
Better to suck
The manner in which Posit slips down into “Dracula’s Bride” to conclude— what we see about the first person perspective being argued for or “crux’ed” in “Bill Allegrezza,” that the poetic “I” perpetually manifests a kind of emptiness, which needs to be known, and shown, leads to the revelation of a persona (Dracula’s Bride), whose relationship to the phallic first person is both vampiric (infantile, even) and subservient; to, as the poem ends, “suck/whatever comes.” The rhetorical heft of Dracula’s Bride and her perspective has to do with “sweetness in starvation,” against satiety, consonant with the worship of the first-person phallus (which needn’t be brandished only by males, this is all metaphor), which delivers both sweetness and emptiness in its mechanistic performance. The emptiness of the first person singular contradicts or baffles its own power to inseminate— but that contradiction, when applied to poetic language (emptiness/fullness, infertility/insemination), is the bizarre synthesis which is the telos of Posit as a textual dialectic. The positing, or discursive thrust, is into both empty textual space and whatever proverbial Dracula’s Bride can receive the full/empty seeds the right way— and Posit both empties and deconstructs itself in the same motion or positing. A possible allegorical overlay— better to starve (sweetly) then to enter (inseminate) third person places.
I am continuing to work within the parameters of developing connective tissue in a critical context/framework between Keats’ Odes and the Cheltenham Elegies. Taking “Nightingale” and 261 (“Never one to cut corners…”), and a shared visionary sequence between the two poems— Keats in his poem, through the process of composition (Poesy, and its “viewless” wings), is able to extend the reach of his vision into the dark woods to comingle/commiserate with his synecdoche; just as the protagonist of 261, on the viewless wings of Poesy again, is able to “pull a rough U-turn” (“Here’s where the fun starts…”) on Old York Road at midnight, and thus join the ambiguous hero/anti-hero of the poem. This, doubled between the two poems, enacts a transmigration process which is an outlet and a subtext of the visionary, and temporally freezes the sense that what the nightingale/ “rogue driver” of 261 signify— night, death, physical mortality, but also an inverse (perverse) owning of dark freedom and power— are matched by a negatively capable textual engagement.
Never one to cut corners about cutting
corners, you spun the Subaru into a rough
U-turn right in the middle of Old York Road
at midnight, scaring the shit out of this self-
declared “artist.” The issue, as ever, was
nothing particular to celebrate. We could
only connect nothing with nothing in our
private suburban waste land. Here’s where
the fun starts— I got out, motherfucker.
I made it. I say “I,” and it works. But Old
York Road at midnight is still what it is.
I still have to live there the same way you do.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Here’s an interesting discrepancy: the “I” in 261 (important, also, to note that the rogue driver’s U-turn being made in the poem may be turning back to Cheltenham) manages to turn the proverbial tables on his companion (rhetorically/textually) twice (“But Old York Road at midnight…”), thus re-living the U-turn twice, rather than Keats’ singular journey into the dark woods. Keats does not begin to develop any kind of bravado against his Muse; conversely, the two textual U-turns in 261 demonstrate first, an ostensible escape from Cheltenham (which amounts to an assertion of artistic success), and then a renascence to a position that what Cheltenham and Old York Road signify are omnipresent in the human continuum; and both express bravado in intellectual mastery. So does Keats enter the sensuous, shadowy paradise of the woods and then sink downwards, first into being grounded, then (as an extension) into Lethe-consonant (forgetful) despondency; and these are two textual journeys of visionary identification and self-transcendence. The possible inversion, in which Keats’ Ode, through its ultimate sense of lost, demeaned, defeated consciousness, against textual flights or “Fancies,” constitutes a kind of elegy, while the Cheltenham Elegy, through its ultimate air of sangfroid and mastery (empowerment over harsh circumstances) demonstrates, if not exactly odal joy, certainly a sense of a kind of tour de force (textual fireworks) being enacted in a compressed space, an ambience of the explosive, which is not in Keats. Yet, the nightingale and 261’s rogue driver are both phantoms, essentially: rhetorically addressed, evanescent. The negatively capable identification process occurs once in the present (Keats, appropriate for an ode) and once in a visioned/visionary past (261, appropriate for an elegy)— and it is merely textual, unperceived, unappreciated by one inhuman Other (the nightingale) and one human Other (the rogue driver). The ultimate destination, why the identification process is enacted, is for the reader-as-third party.