Monday, March 30, 2009

In Defense Of Punning, NY Times column by Joseph Tartakovsky.

"Universal experience confirms the adage that puns don’t make us laugh, but groan." --Tartakovsky.

That's the point, the groaning amplifies the creator's joy and unabashed laughter. I'd even say the effective pun often makes a sober, sane, witless, grown man cry. (Is fucking another term for ingrown foreskin? And there's, at times, an awful lot of groaning going on in that act.) Ahh, I can't stop! ....

"It is said that Caligula ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun." -- Tartakovsky.

It's interesting that a contemporary "roasting" of someone involves puns as endearment and respect, something the crankypants Tartakovsky can't recognise in his churlish jeremiad.

"Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion."-- Tartakovsky

So what? The average human male orgasm lasts for 4 seconds, yet that hasn't stopped the practise of sexual intercourse to lag not far behind in popularity than television surfing. And punning, like orgasms from the fairer sex, can be serial before they're toast.

"Most resemble mathematical formulas: clever, perhaps, but hardly occasion for knee-slapping."--Tartakovsky

Logical formulas? Perhaps the groanery is a result of realized obtuseness on the part of the hearer. The best puns are created out of lively, quick wit. And why should every joke be a "knee-slapper"? I should think that terminology would more appropriately fit a cracker hooked on Roseanne Barr or Jerry Springer. You know, the kinda guy or gal who supposedly delights in punning.

"The worst smack of tawdriness, even indecency, which is why puns, like off-color jokes, are often followed by apologies."--Tartakovsky

Not in my experience. Off-colour jokes are only embarassing if they're unfunny, which has nothing to do with their level of propriety. Trinkets can be tawdry, as can the kink-set of those who stifle social silliness only to have it turn up in bizarre, repressed actions when the corsets and high collars are inevitably unbuttoned.

"Shakespeare, however, does [use puns]. Many are bawdy: puns operate, after all, on double entendre. Yet the poet is guilty less of punning than wordplay..."--Tartakovsky

Hmmm, so his prior argument seems a little inane: Twain and Wodehouse didn't pun, so punning is beneath literary esteem. But Shakespeeare .... well, his wordplay was more common (or, rather, "common", ironically). Face it, Tartakovsky, lit gents and ladies often dislike punning because they can't reconcile the tactic with "great" literature, which is just another euphemism for pretentiousness and marketing ambition. I'd like to see any of Shakespeare's fools (from his darkest tragedies) turn up in those narratives, unannounced and bemused.

"the least intolerable puns are those that avoid the pun’s essential puerility."--Tartakovsky.

Au contraire, Mr T. Puerility, like groan-inducement, is often the point. Puerility is a useful strategy when a conversation becomes pompous and somber. Again, Shakespeare's Malvolio, here, is a good example. Would you rather have a beer with that Twelfth Night drudge, or with any of hundreds of counter-forces in S's works?

"Surely puns silence conversation before they animate it."--Tartakovsky.

See my last point, above. Sometimes it's a very good thing when a conversation is silenced, if for no other reason than the self-preservation for those present who have imagination and wit. It's a law of physics that inertia is self-perpetuating. How else to break things up than by shock, in this case the non-harmful punning kind. The bores aren't insulted, and hopefully the conversation can change direction from how the fourth footnote of a religious transcriber was misrepresented in a Thoma a Kempis' sleep-inducing treatise. Then again, sometimes there's no other alternative than to head for the exits prematurely after your attempt at immature humour falls on superior ears.

"the similitude between puns and fruit flies, both of which die practically the instant they are born, but not before breeding others."--Tartakovsky.

Ah ha! The inmates are punning the asylum! They're breeding like rats!

Will Tartakovsky's column engineer its way into the soul of the NY Times reader for more than a millisecond?

"But low as puns may be, they have been known to appeal to the loftiest minds."--Tartakovsky.

Thank you very much, sir.

"Punning, it seems, like every non-deadly sin, is easier to excuse than to resist."--Tartakovsky.

It's irresistable, naturally so. Let yourself go, tart tongue. Sprinkle on a pun, life is sweet.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Zach Wells' "Heron, False Creek"


There, Heron, you stand
in my shadow, stick pegs
and twigged feet steeped
in the freezing Creek’s

shallows, scissor-beaked
slink neck stapled
to a feathered bundle.
There, Heron, you stand,

avatar of angler’s
waiting, waiting, calm
as monks praying, steeped
in the shitty Creek’s

tide-drained stink—
then tensile—blink—
like a Singer’s
stainless needle,

that scissor beak
stabs the reeking
Creek, springs back
with silver, flipping,

flashing in the seawall
lamp standard’s
glare. With a slurp
and a shake, like

a puffy glutton
at Monk’s Oyster Bar
(stilted in False Creek’s
salted shallows)

sucking a shucked mollusk
from its crusted
shell, you swallow,
Heron, stand there

in my shadow, stare
up at the seawall,
skronk, and awkwardly
flop up into the air.


On a first read, I was put off by the direct address of speaker to heron; it seemed stilted, to use a key word from Wells' poem. But as the poem unfolds, and stabs its musical epiphany through stark circumstance, the relationship of speaker to environment is bridged by the procedure of the heron.

What of that speaker? I'm always curious when a poem -- and "Heron, False Creek" fits, to this point, perfectly -- uses the speaker sparingly, but suggestively. The first person singular comes up just twice (many poems are either saturated with "I", "me", "my", or avoid those pronouns entirely, by purposeful diffusion or programmed and hostile anti-Romanticism), in the first stanza's "my shadow", and in the illuminated and rounded identical phrase in the final quatrain. The speaker is implicated in the first "shadow", but, after the intervening text, is actually identified -- both in acceptance and (perhaps) horror -- with the actions of the predator.

The creek is "false" not only in name, but in vigour, marine and spiritual. The cross is that it spears, ala the heron, a busy residential inlet. The creek is "shitty" not just in a high-fecal coliform count, but in aesthetic and "shallow[s]" transmission. So the speaker realizes a flight (nicely and accurately drawn as "awkward") after a hard patience, a "waiting, waiting". "Monks praying" is an effective simile, here, though not in an easy, stereotypical sense. Monks are just as confused as the rest of us; it's only their persistence and ardour for truth that may set them apart from those who blithely go on their way, both happy but (troublingly) untransformed. We have a reverse rounding (from "my shadow") with the praying monks and the later (only teasingly sketched) denizens of the upscale "Monk's Oyster Bar". The parallels should be obvious: the heron's job is one in which its life depends for a successful completion; the "puffy glutton[s]" have performed their sleepwalking gulp hundreds of times with compromised pleasure, a pleasure of diminishing returns. The first aggression is from necessity (primal, in the heron's case; spiritual and artistic, in the speaker's evolution); the restaurant patrons' aggression is from clouded repetition. Only the speaker and the heron can take flight, though they still have to return to the mundane and polluted creek.

A few words on the rhythm and sound of this poem. Wells' aural and phrasal compression is memorable and mimetic of the action, here. Though the anecdote takes place outside, the tenor of the action is microscopic (with -- contrasting --brief suggestive similes and the Monk metaphor) in nature, even claustrophobic. The tight call-and-echo lines are effective, the assonantal repetitions mesmeric in the way both speaker and heron proceed (the first on the latter; the latter on the speared fish).

In other poems, this particular Wells' strength can be his limitation. It's impressive to stickhandle successfully in a phone booth, but line freedom, in a creative narrative nonlinearity, and in contrasting mood and tone and syntactic surprise/variance, could vault him above the highly accomplished, yet procedurally similar, poems of his greatest standard. And he has the intelligence and wit to bring it off at some point. One roadblock for a lot of poets, perhaps, is the (rightful) shrinking from Ginsberg's overblown mantra of "first thought, best thought". That bumper sticker -- which results from, and is influential to, Zen dabblers who misunderstand spiritual truths -- has resulted in more sloppy, self-indulgent verses than I'd care to count. But, like any influential creed, it holds a kernel of truth: all thoughts are first thoughts, including the reworked and laboured-over ones.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tim Fletcher's "Icons fastened"

This is from the Great Works site:

Icons fastened

icons fastened
in our shadows
are alienated
collapse and re-configure

bodies broken on rocks
emit flights of diaphanous wings

armoured plating beaten into tectonic mirrors
cannot encase the ferment
that rips seeps out
melting steel into new reflections

we have wilfully honed and marshalled
have hunted desolation to slip from venerable strictures

but we are captivated by the iniquity
of labelling the inconstant so that we can enter the eternal

there is much exaltation in the purity of the self-contained
but opulence escapes without the perception and reverie
of the magician's crucible

organic gestalt or schizoid meltdown
both entwine in infinite venom and mutuality

I assume I am my own
therefore I am

from out of my damnation flows iconic hubris


Two reviews, just to show I have an open, albeit cloudy, mind:

1) I don't know how icons can be tied to "shadows". I know that poetic license is like crack to one with floating mind flotsam, but I can't draw any parallels here. I can't even "transcend" metaphor to see this as deeper identification. And what about that "our", those "we"s. Perhaps my biggest peeve in current verse is this phony-holy group profundity, the first person plural presumption, elevating banalities into universal experience by bogus "I can relate to that!" authority.

Can anyone see anything here? Four concrete nouns I counted, on a reread. They're thrown in as general objects in an abstract gumbo. Context? Your guess is as good as mine, or as good as the next person, or anyone. Something dark and IMPORTANT, though, no doubt, since "we" have those reverent words: "iniquity", "eternal", "exaltation", "purity", "gestalt", "captivated", "diaphanous". Speaking of diaphanous, "flights of diaphanous wings" seems both redundant and cliched, and the cliche can't be excused by irony since, whatever the tone imparted, irony isn't among the top options.

2) This brave poem fearlessly rips through the self-deceptions we all experience, and compassionately presents us the "diaphanous wings" of our best hopes and wishes. The author acknowledges our failures, but reassures us that "venom and mutuality" coexist, and can only be faced, equally, with precision and lucidity, in order to free us of unearned paradise on our one hand of the Father, or spiralling furnace-stokerdom on the Debbill's horn of dilemma-dipping frenzy.


"Iconic hubris", did the man say?

"Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"

Until the other day, I thought Obama's "change" mantra was a lie, and should've been "amplify". That was the accurate term until this announcement >> Change, indeed.

"When the next stock decline comes, and even lower lows are carved, once more the USTreasurys will be chased as safe haven. We will be much closer to the arrival of price inflation by that time. No longer can one say that the dominant flow of USGovt funds is only to Wall Street firms, AIG, and Fannie Mae. Big USGovt spending packages are being agreed upon. Whether efficiently assigned or not, massive money is soon to hit Main Street." -- Jim Willie

"In total the commitment to counterfeit over a trillion dollars leaves only $682 trillion dollars worth of derivatives to sort out." -- Bob Moriarty

"Just last week, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao voiced concern about his country's massive investments in U.S. government debt. In the most unequivocal statement yet by the Chinese leadership on this issue, Wen made it plain that he was concerned with depreciation, not default. With his fears now officially confirmed by the Fed statement, we must wonder when the Chinese will finally change course." -- Peter Schiff

"This latest development of the Federal Reserve monetising debt is inflationary and confirmation that the Federal Reserve wants to debase the US Dollar. It is worth noting that the total debt in the US now exceeds US$60 trillion and its economy is around US$14 trillion. So, the US is already bankrupt and the only way it can ever hope to repay this gigantic sum is through monetary inflation and debasement." -- Puru Saxena

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jack Spicer's "Improvisations On A Sentence By Poe"

"Indefiniteness is an element of the true music."
The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition. The seagull
Alone on the pier cawing its head off
Over no fish, no other seagull,
No ocean. As absolutely devoid of meaning
As a French horn.
It is not even an orchestra. Concord
Alone on a pier. The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition. No fish
No other seagull, no ocean—the true


Twelve lines, the first being a quote by Poe, and the last being one word (to emphasize the hushed importance of the "topic"?). So ... essentially a ten-line poem. Four of those lines are repeated verbatim, broken up by "The seagull/Alone on the pier cawing its head off/Over", in the initial setting down. Why the repetition? Beats me. Has Spicer so little faith in the attention span of the reader that he has to repeat it? Or is the repetition a ploy to emphasize the similarity between the seagull and "the true/Music"? (laughably pompous phrase). If it's the former, why not repeat it a few more times? If once won't do the trick of making his facile point, why should only one repeat succeed in it? If it's the latter, why not go for a direct, compressed metaphor between seagull-music?

Spicer takes fourteen lines of self-important claptrap when all it should take to make his simplistic point is seven lines (leaving out "Concord" in the original line 8. And the first line quote could and should be put into a sub-header).

On to the content. Music has no meaning, whether it's the raucous, usually unwanted (by humans) sounds of a seagull, or the glorious sounds from an orchestra. I disagree. Spicer doesn't elaborate, preferring instead to substitute sledgehammer unmusical ( more on this irony later) redundancy -- "absolutely devoid of meaning" -- for intricate exploration of what constitutes meaning. Ralph Gustafson would also disagree: "Perhaps that was the craziness brought Chopin/In my head", as would Shostakovich, who once responded to an interviewer's question of meaning with: "It's all in my music". What a wonderful answer. He doesn't explicate it in pedantic fashion, yet he also doesn't negate that it has meaning (not a meaning, as the falsely simple would have it).

To return to my ironical aside, music is not poetry, and if Spicer is trying to glue the two together by a bald, false, unsupported claim of meaninglessness as to the former, then his conclusion is not only empty of authority, but intellectually dishonest. Yes, music sans song is obviously more suggestive, ambiguous, and open to wide perspectives and legitimate (on both sides) debate. That doesn't mean meaning is unresolvable or gauche. Also, meaning (as in poetry) has often to be made ambiguous for artistic purposes, but also at times for self-protective political reasons. Shostakovich wrote his fifth symphony to save his life (after being raked over the coals by Khrennikov for his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opera in those horrific Russian years of 1936-7), inscribing it as a composer's "response to just criticism". Now, the irony of that brilliant terseness is right in the title. It's "just" criticism. I haven't heard any musicologist remark on that before, but it seems worthy of discussion. In any event, all one has to do is listen to the minor-key quaverings surrounding the "triumphant" flourishes (culminating in the climax) to know what Shostakovich was up to. But to a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E obsessive (what, words don't have meaning in schools of poetics?), meaning is a dirty word. Hypocritical, no?

Well, so much for content. Let's turn to form, and it'll be a shorter exploration. "no fish, no other seagull,/ No ocean." -- Does meaning only have merit with other objects? As in my Gustafson quote, musical meaning can take on emotional qualities which don't always attach themselves to objects of physical closeness. "No ocean" is rhythmically awkward, and why stop at three? Surely, if the design is to awe the reader with just how "meaningless" the sound is, it would be more impressive to emphasize it with a longer list, including, but not limited to, people on the shore (isn't this Spicer's main point-- human hearing?), the sky, drifting garbage, the wind .... The meaning in poetry is encoded in its music, but to the lead-eared reader, incomprehension results in the pre-emptive "no meaning in words" arrogance.

In the work of Spicer, his antecedents, and especially his followers, poetry not only is drenched in poetics, but is synonymous with it. That's why boring, lengthy explanatory justifications are frequent in live readings of poets obsessed with the "limits or impossibilities" of language-- those writers and readers aren't really interested in poetry, just in talking about it. (I recall not too long ago clicking on a podcast of a Calgary language poet giving, supposedly, a reading of his verse. The length of the recording was an hour; I listened to twenty minutes, and he --don't recall the name-- was still explaining what was to come. I finally clicked off.) I like talking about poetry, too. But it ain't poetry.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leland Jamieson's "Nowhere to Plant the Feet"

Caught this sonnet online some time ago by Leland Jamieson.


The contrast, at the turn, is obviously sharply realized. The idea is a chestnut -- the old revered over the modern -- but it's the language, and the clever, sardonic juxtapositions of image and meaning, that energizes the lines in a poetic etymology, if you will.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Praise song for the bankers.

Each day they go about their chicanery, scamming the scammers, catching each others' eyes or not, bullshitting or about to bullshit. All about us is greed. All greed and scramble, corn-pone targetted sin, each one of them with oiled tongues. One is bitching on CNN, damning a saver, stashing a flier, repairing the PR flack-shredded shield.

All are creating cacophony with credit default swaps, mortgage brokered carry traded bond Ponzi floats, Fed bedding, five hundred eighty-six trillion in derivatives, Congressional nod-nod-wink-wink, stimulus scams, and, above all, the promise of "change".

A woman and her son don't wait to cuss.

A farmer looks at the noisy sky where helicopters drop pesos in bundles bigger than cotton squares, and notes Bernanke's wave. A teacher says: "Take out your calculators. You have only a year to solve the problem."

We encounter each other like hasty promissory notes, promises reserved as napkins under leaky punch bowls.

Why did Madoff and the AIG team cross the road? They ran out of dupes to scam on one side.

We walk into that place we cannot yet see, and call it hope.

Say it plain, that China owns us. Sing the names of those who've brought us here: Nixon and the yellow allergy (gold, that is) and the press (printing, that is); Clinton's Glass-Steagall amnesia; Greenspan's decade-long national  Viagra  allowance leaving us limp and dry; Bush's "shop till you drop"; Paulson's rate slash-and-burn; Pelosi's feckless hypocrisy; greedy and paid-off and scammed lenders; greedy and gullible and scammed buyers.

Some live by: "scam him before he scams me."

Others by "create the hedge rules, then you don't have to worry about how much you take."

What if the mightiest word is energy? Spiritual, fossil fuel, intellectual, electrical, windy, oceanic, physical. Energy that identifies, remembers, and acts on grievances.

In today's false sparkle, this start of winter, anything can happen, any sentence served.

Blessings, as the Chinese say, for these "interesting times";
No lobby'll round up bankers/Fed for their century crimes.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tom Wayman's High Speed Through Shoaling Water

The last collection of Tom Wayman's poetry I read was approximately a quarter-century ago. None of it entered my bloodstream or memory, except for a ghostly residue of "words for the people". Wayman, the prole poet. But -- and I'm being serious -- who are these "common people" beloved by populist wordsmiths? It always struck me as an uproarious irony that anyone would dare to assume the voice of poet-laureate-of-the-silent/dependable-worker when the latter camp (minus the author's condescending assumptions) is as diversified as the multilingual, multi-experienced, multi-tempered, multi-spiritually attuned, multi-power scaled populace that makes up the entire Oh!-Canadiana. To the book.

High Speed Through Shoaling Water (2007) has the consistency, taste, and fluidity of lumpy porridge. And, the biggest fault of all, it's devoid of raisins. The horrors of bad porridge, sans raisins. No salt, either. No wonder cookbooks sell more than poetry. The ingredients in the latter texts are often lacking or wrong or wrongly combined. Despite my underwhelming experience with this author's much earlier work, the above reaction came as a surprise since I was led to believe (back cover) that Wayman was a contemporary "Beowulf, a Homer" (The Globe and Mail) and "Canadian Neruda" (Prairie Fire).

The first two sections of this transgressively verbose book concerns the speaker, Wayman (no masks for this honest relater) as nature's sober recorder: "I climbed through dense conifers and brush/gradually thinning to subalpine/meadows". The observations lie as linguistically and rhythmically flat as the page that allows the type. And "Alps Alturas: Sixty" says nothing, or rather, as with any throwaway effort, is forced to scramble for an awkward profundity in the closing lines as a way of throwing dust in the reader's eyes after an unconvincing pantheistic sermon. Hence: "around whose shore/nothing is made by hands."

Tongue-scrunching abutments are legion, rhythmic killers only were there a rhythm in previous lines to create a death: "scribbled tasks/rested", "blasts trigger", "aloft into the thermals" are just a few examples, Olympic figure-skating preliminary trials where the fall occurs on a simple test, thus cancelling any chance to nail the triple lutz.

Before leaving the first two sections, a few words on what I consider to be one of among a handful of worst poems I read the last years: "Grove". Its conceit -- trees as "dignified parents" -- is embarassing in its ersatz surface psychology. Groaners abound: "Like all parents", "quietude of these trees" (I suppose this redundancy was a highfalutin way of hammering home the earlier "silence and patience" -- more on Wayman's rampant redundancies later), and the final, "respectfully/wish to raise/to a larger life". Among the twenty publications that accepted one or more of the efforts in this volume is Horsefly, which allowed "Grove". I wonder what else was in that particular edition.

Part three involves social concerns, and here Wayman is on familiar footing. And, if possible, here is where he descends even further because -- on top of uninteresting diction, musical misunderstanding and neglect, line-break confusion, overly reverential emotion -- the plodding, sincere spokesman for the people re-emerges. "Outrider" is a representative manifesto, here: "preservers and shapers of/uninstituted truths/oracles keeping up, keeping pace/singers of another road". So in this nauseating final quatrain one's made to understand, by the most unironic of stances, that there are two distinct sets of forces (political? artistic only? spiritual?) in (Western? world? Canadian?) society -- the other, fashionably new tribe, and the faithful, traditional, underdog clan. Leaving aside the fact that tribes and clans are unsophisticated, crudely antagonistic towards anyone not "like them", one could stampede an army of horses over the argument of the halo-self-placing outrider. "[T]ruths/oracles", "shapers", "singers": it's wonderfully easy to throw up impressive labels, identify yourself (without particulars) with those labels, at once both smug and humble in self-regard. The only reason, it seems to me, this is accepted as "ennobling", is, again, because it's not promulgating a Romantic "egocentricity", but an "inclusive" superiority. Which just means ego, here, is collective, and therefore more dangerous.

"In The Dumper" is a "speaking for the working masses" poem, which contradicts his besieged, lone wolves stance in "Outrider". In this verselet, the quoted eleven lines are from a hard-bitten, long-time employee to a greenhorn. In all my years of blue-collar labour, in companies with or without unions, I never heard anyone talk like this. "Crap" is a euphemism. How many bricklayers, galvanizers, carpenters, construction workers, glaziers, tool-and-dye makers, welders, forklift drivers have you ever met who've referred to pinching a loaf, laying a steaming three-coiler, taking a dump or shit (the latter of which is redundantly employed, to diluted effect) as "tak[ing] a crap"? This may seem ridiculously picky of me, but since Wayman bases his polemic(s) on plain speech, on unambiguous honesty, it's not only right but necessary to call him out on these inaccuracies. And why would the speaker tell the newbie to "bring a paper"? (Wayman misses a good opportunity here for a joke -- with a pertinent point.) Ah, but the irony of "democracy and freedom" in the news was just too tempting to pass up. How that relates to an employer who needs employees to produce rather than goof off is beyond me. But then, as is easily observed by anyone who's lived long enough in the varied work world, there are fair and unfair employers as well as salt-of-the-earth and nasty workers. But complexity isn't a good approach for a "people's spokesman".

There's much more. The unintentional humour in "Love Loss Ballad": "I stand yet again in the self-serve to pump/into the tank"; the constant unrevelatory vagaries, one example from "Young Claus": "His second wife was a classmate/and into weird stuff"; the atrocious redundancies, examples of which could be lifted from every single poem, one of them (two in one line!) being "Autumn Secrets": "swirl out in a cascade". Why swirl "out"? Swirling involves curling, twisting, which by definiton is an outward movement. And "cascade" is an imaginative conclusion the reader should reach if the preceding is clear and effective. Despite the attempts at imagery in this poem, I couldn't see a thing. Naming, and unfocussed suggestion.

Well, it's a day off from that hardscrabble proletarian nose-to-the-grindstone silent (in one hundred and fifty-two pages or so) oppressee witnessing. Think I'll pick up my weathered copy of The Iliad for a spell, for corrective enjoyment, and to make any link, however faint, with what I just read, keeping an open mind of course, just to see what that unnamed writer of the G&M saw in the prolific egalitarian voice of all (or most?) of us that I may have missed.

The author of High Speed Through Shoaling Water has nothing to say, and no way of saying it. Will I read another of his books a quarter-century hence? No way, man.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sharon McCartney's The Love Song Of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The quantity of Canadian book-length poem sequences and narratives has exploded lately. Steven Price's Anatomy Of Keys and Stephanie Bolster's White Stone are just two of the volumes that make fictional left and right turns from the biographical arteries of the historical figures which engender those authors' concerns. Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid is an obvious antecedent, still influential, if for no other reason than belonging to the academic canon. But whereas Ondaatje's popular creative slant on the outlaw was cinematic in procedure (highly influenced by the great Western, "Once Upon A Time In The West", directed by Sergio Leone), the contemporary reenactments of this encompassing approach focus more on character complexity and depth while using that depth to both mirror and comment upon the social entrenchments of the time and place. Billy wanted to splash images in the collected mindscape (as opposed to Hopkins' inscape) in an attempt to imprint those visuals in the readers' memory, and since the language and psychological means Ondaatje employed were consistently ill-formed and shallow, the cinematographic impatience acted as unidimensional dramatic seduction rather than revelatory dance. ("Once Upon A Time In The West" transcended its images to make profound statements on historical inevitability, accomplished and physical vision, honour, and greed.)

Sharon McCartney's The Love Song Of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007) is in the best bracket of this tradition. Not content or interested in transcribing Wilder's and Lane's (the creators of the Little House books) narrative, McCartney uses the source material as a way to explore silent -- no, rather, repressed -- connections. I was very surprised to stumble onto the math of the list of individual voices: only 13 of the 54 poems have a human speaker. As for the rest, we hear from animals, but also from bugles, churns, even the appendages of the various characters -- "Pa's Penis", "Mr. Clewett's Feet". Now this is a hilariously cheeky way not simply to circumvent, but to defrock the sometimes stuffy remonstrances of Ruskin's pathetic fallacy. I often sympathize with the latter admonition when reading of "crying rain" or "angry sun", but when the poem's procedure exists as a first-"person" horse assessing a life-long relationship, the only pathetic attribute should be the one ascribed to the smug poetic churl beefing about "expropriation" and "wild fancy".

That said, the danger here is that it's not easy to enter into the interior passions of fires and boards and horses. From the latter, "Lady, to Prince", a more serious psychological fallacy occurs. Horses, after breaking, are not unhappy unless they're mistreated. And "the world must be benign" also misunderstands equine emotion: after the biological fears of fire and falling, the horse's most pervasive problem is boredom. Hence, in those that succumb, withdrawal, cribbing, and crankiness.

Of course, McCartney is using not only the Little House books as jumping off points. Her speakers' generational, sweeping histories are coloured and delineated for deeper purposes, as well. But jumping off into what? There are many exciting analogies, even mini-allegories. "Uncle George's Bugle" is soaked in nostalgia, but also present passion, a transcending sexual play, simultaneously hilarious and sad: "to be tongued again,/ .... a new melody/piercing the unpopulated woods."

It's a credit to McCartney that she's able to imbue such feeling into inanimate household necessities and structures. Unfortunately, the aggregate personalities accrue towards either stoic resignation or grumpy resentment ("Wolf in Moonlight" is a gorgeous exception, overrunning with power and stance). With a seeming prairie-stacked cast of original actors, I would have loved to have experienced more emotional variation. And the author has the talent to have brought that out.

Still, I'm cavilling more than my overall feelings warrant. There are many passages of effective sound mated with sense: "zigzagging, ears flat, a panicked glance/backward" (from "One of Pa's Traps"); "a sip of port with each sigh,/his respite from rote insipidity --/no pain" (from "Mr. Clewett's Feet"); "I can't bear a weakness/as debilitating as rust, blistering my blade." (from "Pa's Ax").

I never watched Michael Landon strolling down the hill with branch across shoulder to carry twin bucket scales of familial justice, nor did I read the (I'm assuming) antiseptic takes on pioneer life as prairie romanticism as penned by Wilder and Lane (O.E. Rolvaag's Giants In The Earth would make for a dour corrective), but I can't see as how those prior creations would be more interesting than McCartney's . It's all fiction. In this case, as in any other, for that matter, imagination and craft beat moral prescription.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Mocks, kills a vitiable gloaming, sparse
In conclusion, antipodal lovers
Breaking silences while, working, they parse
For clues, legendary or nondescript,
Regaling recall, envying others
Who rise in their slumbers, wise and wide-lipped.
Often I stop and sway at the syntax
Whose coin, lyric pleasure, blasts cold facts.

So bless us, John! as we coil your bon mots
In sedulous hiving, this reader salutes
Your word-play, brave un-grandeur, formations,
While sounds, like heliacal weathered knots,
Unravel, open in sea-swelled cahoots
With flawed gambols and imagination.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Ethereal Beauty #100

I was the ultimate lonely hydrogen atom
Clinging to whichever deluded body was open.
A thin stripped beam of silver wire streaming
Through two boxes, forever apart,
Fired sparkless charges.
Alchemical misfit turning gold to zinc to dross, air-spasm,
I puffed my opus pipe, lines
Precious, ash-strewn, palled.
I was always in Amontillado's tomb,
Each of the six-thousand-plus bricks
My perfect seal.

Ethereal Beauty #99

Columns of yellow-gold smoke
In harbours of air rise in forests
Where graves fold in fresh loam.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Comments on My Review of Robert Duncan's "Bow"

Thank gawd I finally corrected one small part of my technical ineptness by allowing, two weeks ago, comments to show up in my email. Otherwise, I probably never would have seen a comment on my review of Duncan's Bending The Bow. Here's a link to that Jan 27 post, with its attendant dialogue.

If you've read Duncan, either that volume or anything else by him, please jump in. He's obviously still important in contemporary influence and concern. But rather than an academic connect-the-dots influence puzzle, I'd rather deal with the poems, which often get ignored or, at best, glossed over, when talking about "new styles or forms".