Friday, October 28, 2011

REPORT FROM THE PROVINCES: Poetry Alive and Well in Princeton

"That curious grey hopelessness  which always afflicts me
when I am confronted with literary people in the bulk..."
--  P.G. Wodehouse, Ukridge (1924)

Last night I attended a poetry reading at Micawber Books on Nassau.  The poet of the evening  was Mr. Jonathan Galassi, chairman of the American Academy of Poets and editor-in-chief of possibly the most respected publishing house in the literary world, Farrar Strauss & Giroux.  So you figure: it doesn't get much better than this.  At least not more anointed.
   This Galassi guy  turned out to be a very pleasant man, really the very soul of amiability; he spent the first scheduled half-hour  circulating around the rows of chairs and chatting with his many friends.  Those of us who could not count ourselves among that number  and who had come in the naïve expectation of a poetry-reading  passed the time thumbing through one of the many copies of his new and actually apparently only second collection, North Street, available later for purchase and fond autograph, about eighty pages of poetry -- rather quickly thumbed -- for $24.95 plus tax.  Really makes you want to weigh each word.  Worth its weight in greenbacks.
            And yet they heft uncertainly in the hand.  He has an ambling, rambling style with little concentration.  The first poem of the collection, "Water", lived up or rather down or rather exactly to the middle of its name:  cool, colorless, refreshing if that was what you were thirsty for, but an hour later you could not recall the savor.  They are the versified equivalent of polite conversation.

            Finally he made his way to the podium, and opened the slender volume. From this he read a slender selection, abstaining from textual exegesis  except to remark that the last poems should actually be first, and the first ones, correspondingly, last.  (An appreciative  murmur among the audience, at this self-deprecating insight.)  He would read, he told us, some "dithyrambs", a wild genre of ancient Greece.   A promise that might evoke the intercrural juices of an old maid.  Yet read, without looking up, occasionally stumbling over a word, in the mildest of tones, from the mildest of verse.  A dithyramb for eunuchs. 
                                    stopped ……

…   ?  …

……… …………   ………

A moment passed before it dawned on us  that the communion with the Muses was at an end,  the speaker’s fee already earned; at which point the Princetonian tips of fingers began to patter against fingertips, in what passes  in our town   for dithyrambic applause.   Any questions?  Yes I have one,  Do you actually get paid for this?  But had no chance to ask it, as someone broke in and suggested he read one of his (maestro! maestro!)  translations from Montale  (the name evoking knowing nods, from the one or two people who knew what the hell that meant) :  an immense volume of the collected poems, of that worthy gentleman, on which Galassi had labored diligently (in a garret?  No, doubtless in a loft) for fourteen years.   Galassi fumbled a bit, Well yes, I do happen by mere chance  to have that actual exact volume right here in front of me, on this very lectern; which was funny, because he'd borrowed it before the talk  from the woman sitting next to me, so obviously he'd already intended to read from it, from the outset.  (One detects a claque.) 

Anyhow, one poem later, the meeting broke up into little standing circles, sampling the (of course white, and possibly de-alcoholized ) wine (wine of a safe sort  guaranteed not to transubstantiate, however much the priest might try),  and the, actually not cheese exactly, but those adorable (if inedible) little Japanese whachamacallum little  (tiny, asshole)  cracker-snacks.

            At this point (having  no longer  anything to lose),  I made so bold as to approach the invited speaker himself, reigning at his rostrum.  "In your poem `Flâneur', you're ambling easily along in plain English,   and then you suddenly say `simplex munditiis'.  What does that mean?"  (No-one had asked him that.  It had all been softball, nay whiffle-ball questions:  like, In what precise manner do you perform your mighty works?  Did your greatness come upon you suddenly, or gradually? )  He seemed taken aback at my ignorance;  but then, evidently remembering that he was down in the provinces here, said (with gracious tolerance of our hayseed shortcomings), "Yes, I should have explained that.  It's a tag from Horace – extremely well-known… It means `the simplicity of elegance', or…"  (Wink wink;  blink blink.  His voice trailed off.)
"Mm.  Ah.  Uhsee. --  Also – why did you title your collection `North Street'?" (Nothing in the poems or on the jacket had given a hint, and the “reading” had offered no particulars, beyond what you would get for your  $24.95.) 
            He glanced at the woman shimmering beside him, and gave a complicit smile.  She returned it.  Mmmmmmm….  For a moment, they basked in complicity.  Like twin muffins.  Mmmmmmmm… "She knows," he breathed at last.  She nodded; a knowing nod.
And they fell silent for a while.

"Oh, really???" I said, "She knows?  She does? That's nice for us, you f*cking milksop, you overpaid penman of overpriced poetizings, you
  sherry-swilling, biscuit-nibbling
  limp-wristed, lily-livered
  semi-addled, over-coddled
  trust-fund-sucking panty-waisted
Tribeca-haunting watered-down dipshit-dripping wilted wet waterlily --  I'm asking YOU!"
            No no, of course, I didn't say that; wouldn't be prudent.  Anyhow he then revealed the secret.  "I ... live ... on North Street.  And…  the poems…. were written on…” (a pause, where one might weep, or sigh, according to one’s personal sensibility) : “ … North Street.  And because North Street….has a deeper… meaning…which I am loth to reveal…"  We all maintained a respectful silence.  Then he revealed it anyway.  "It has a meaning…about … g-growing old…."  (Ahhh! …… swoon ………)
            Yeh, totally, it's a bitch, all right; but I figured I'd do the rest of my growing old somewhere else, and effing left.

~     ~      ~

            What that poet, and many another literary speaker, fails to realize,  is that, even apart from one's personal coterie, who have heard it all before and basically come, not to listen, not to learn anything,  but to bask in one another's approval, -- the rest of us as well  do not go out of our way to attend these things  simply to hear an author (who, whatever his merits with the pen, is not a rhapsode, a professional reciter) drone out a few scraps off the printed pages, which we could as easily read ourselves, or listen to  in an often masterful performance  by a professional reciter  on cassette.  We come in the half-conscious and absurd hope that the author will, taking us into his confidence, tip his hand; as, My poems all actually mean the opposite of what they say; or, The lover in Filched Kisses is actually Madonna, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Hillary Clinton; or, By means of this simple alphanumeric key  you may decode my poems into messages meant only for the Illuminati; stuff like that.  Or even:  “The reason these poems are called North Street  – and I’ve never revealed this to anyone ever but your own extraspecial selves! – is that I used to live on…. N-N-N-North Street !  Don’t tell anyone !”  -- Or, even if there comes no esoteric exegesis of the work itself, yet may we gain some revelation from beholding the man in his unvarnished selfhood, a glimpse of the spirit that animates and gives meaning to these lines.  As, the Melville I always imagined at the back of Moby-Dick, no slim despondent clean-shaven youth like Ishmael, but a broad and salty sea-dog, a cross between Hemingway and Jehovah, roaring with anecdote and flushed with grog: from such lips  should we hear  a salt tale of the sea!  (Later I saw a photo of the actual Melville, and he did have a beard, but a weird beard, and was looking askance as though at the possible source of a bad smell.)


[A pause, to rinse the taste from the mind, of these self-celebrating literary onanists….]

*      *      *     *     *

Quite otherwise was the recent poetry slam, sponsored by the Arts Council, right here in Princeton.  [Yes, that Princeton; but it includes in fact  a second Princeton, much of it on drugs, or in despair, or surfing the world on gloomy skateboards; of which the first Princeton knows nothing, and wishes to know  less.]  I can’t recall where it took place, exactly; off on a side street somewhere, in some vague spaces located above something anonymously else, which was closed.

Slams have become a truly demotic-democratic institution, in which we detect the echo of our musket-bearing ancestors, crowded round the fire, sipping toddies and swopping stories, ready to defend their freedoms against all comers.  What is spoken is seldom poetry  from any structural or formal standpoint; but then, printed poetry (swooning upon the subsidized printed page)  long ago ceased to be that.  In fact it is refreshing, in slamland’s oral presentation, the lack of visual flimflam to disguise the bare word.  Whoever gets up in front of his neighbors to speak  cannot hide behind the tricks of those

who fondly imagine (assholes)
that by setting their words

   like                              this

they can turn their puerile prosings   into a poem,

thereby however forgetting
the wise words of Li Po
that you cannot make a sow's ear
out of an old turd.

Basically slam poetry consists in this:  that you can touch on any subject, say anything, with a certain attention to how you say it.  This in itself lifts the experience somewhat beyond the bulk of streetcorner / armchair / how's-tricks / got-a-match  conversations.

These events too  were half an hour late in starting, as befits bohemia.  The slam-master, a portly old poet with a seasalt-and-crackedpepper beard, stood puzzling at length over a list of performers who'd registered, many of whom had not shown up.  (That’s life in the counterculture;  get used to it.)  Some filtered in late.  Some had probably  in the meantime  died.  And by way of compensation,  a young fellow in a backwards baseball cap  who hadn't registered  and who gave his name only as "Doug",  bounded at the last minute  into the room  and onto the list. (A crafty-angry poet, he went on to win his round).
Finally we got down to it.  The genial gentle slammaster explained the rules, how the judges would hold up cards Olympics-fashion, with numbers from zero to ten.  "You can use decimals, and I encourage you to use them," he said, with a wisdom that became apparent as the evening went on.  There was such a range of presenters, from kids of twelve to grandmoms, and such a painful range of abilities, that the only way to score things without making invidious distinctions, was to tacitly agree that every performance would be scored with an eight or a nine, with various frowning fussy sometimes two-place decimals  giving the appearance of judiciousness, and deciding things in a way that made it hard for people to do the math.
As for the judges, the main qualification was lack of eagerness to be one.  "We consider that wanting to judge your fellow men is a character defect.” (The demotic equivalent of nolo episcopari.)  “And if you're a professor of literature, -- you're overqualified."  (More wise words right there, than I have ever imbibed at McCawber.)  Judges for the night included a young, vaguely punk couple; a high-schooler; and a stock assistant (shades of Bartleby!) at the university press.  And they acted, one must say, with great sobriety, their judgments never straying far from that basic eight or nine, and corresponding pretty well (though in decimally telescoped fashion) to the merits of presentation and content, unswayed by the occasional audience inputs of "Woo, woo!"  (these  in no wise related to the actual performance, but based upon ties of blood or age, or being in the same class in high school);  assessment of the weak acts being rounded affirmatively upwards  for any of a hundred disabilities, but never so far as to produce a win.

            The first up  had a sort of Julia Roberts strut and swagger, and she eyed the audience awhile before embarking on her poem.  This seemed to portend a note of competition and contention  such as does in some places prevail among the scribbling set, but her poem turned out to be, with absolutely no irony, "A Mother's Prayer".  The burden:  Kids are tough to bring up, and Mom deserves some credit.  Applause was hearty, and would remain so throughout the evening, maintaining the generally wholesome tone.
            Next up was a black girl, ushered up with enthusiastic whoops from her homeys  before she had said a word; the high-schoolers had their claque, and dominated the evening in this regard.  Her performance was delivered without notes, eyes half-closed, chanting in a sort of Eartha Kitt accent, body swaying to a rhythmic murmur, apparently on the subject of dancing.  It was the kind of voice-music that can be effective  even if you can't quite make out the lyrics.
            A skinny fellow barely in his twenties  was next.  He looked like the young Allen Ginsburg: which is to say, not handsome, but in this context it seemed a plus.
            A blonde girl of perhaps fourteen  came forward from the table where she'd been sitting with her family, and recited a prim little poem about unrelieved bleakness complete and total hopelessness implied threatened suicide and terminal despair.  She delivered it as though it were a Sunday School recitation – not entirely inappropriately, for this wasn't teenage mutant nihilism, but the sort of plain and faintly formal language her grandmother might have used in an earlier age, in similar impenetrable distress.  And though it contrasted oddly with her scrubbed bobbed look, there must have been some sort of a kind of a layer of truth to it, or she wouldn't have prepared it so carefully  and recited it before a roomful of townspeople.   (We --  are – un-know-able…)
            It soon became apparent that technical proficiency in the traditional sense scarcely mattered.  Anything really intricate  would not be understood by the ear  on the fly anyway.  And even when the production is that of a reasonably ungifted twelve-year-old, the slam format has an advantage over, say, Amateur Night at the piano.  A botched chord is a botched chord, and hard to appreciate.  But we each of us have a voice, the very voice God gave us; and a body, and things that matter to us; presented with spirit, these cannot fail to enlighten and entertain.

            We then were treated to a 17-year-old  who looked like the cheerleader in "American Beauty" though more scantly clad, indeed you could hardly call it clad, more like barely veiled.   (Naturally, none of us had the slightest reaction to this.  Six times seven is forty-two;  seven times… six is…. forty….. eleven……)  Her contribution was addressed to "a co-worker", apparently a man far sunk in middle age (a contemptible age for anyone to be), whom she rebuked  for being turned-on by her (possibly understandably, given her provocations); but she would not leave it at that.  She drove in the knife, wiggled it, twisted it, swished it from side to side:  mocking his over-the-hump hopelessness, and exulting in her own fresh    ripe   peach-like  dew-bedecked   succulent young age, as were it a virtue,  like courage or fidelity.  "I have a tightness which is purity," she said in one memorable line.  (Not making this up, folks;  not making this up.)  It was the only queasy note of the evening.

            Between rounds, the slammaster chipped in with interesting bits of history.  Such as:  Slam was born in Chicago, which still boasts one of its Meccas, the Green Mill.  And: It originated as the equivalent of jazz “cut” sessions, poets interrupting one another and handing the energy off.  And:  The present media attention is partly sparked by the commercial success of Cowboy Poetry, which draws thousands of paying customers to the West every year.
            [A note in passing:  While Cowboy Poetry is no doubt a healthy development, as a fad it sort of misses the point.  What we need is Plumber Poetry – poetry by and for the guys who fix your HVAC.  We already hear quite enough about cowboys.  Indeed, the ranks of actual working people, are surprisingly thin  in cowboys.]

            A tall thin black guy  in a white stretch cap  got up and immediately won the audience  by commenting to the previous poet, who had received uncharacteristically stingy sevens, "I would have given you a nine,"  he said with a mischievous grin. -- He then chanted something rhymed and rhythmic, accompanied by a series of complex small gestures  involving touching the elbow and bending the arm and what have you, evidently from the rap repertoire.  This kinesthesia is a useful adjunct to the spoken word;  an ancient Arabic poet would use his staff to thump out the beat.  -- General observation fyi, about the teen-aged poets: The blacks rhyme, the whites do not.

            Absent from the pool of contestants  was any widely-known or conventionally published poet.  This circumstance may stem from more than mere hauteur.  For were anyone to stray into this backwoods belowdecks den of expressional democracy, and recite the sort of exsanguinated pap that passes for poetry in the pages of The New Yorker or the Little magazines, in the pained costive tones that the grotesquely overrated T.S. Eliot used for reciting his own involved excretions,  and imitated ever after  by every  MacArthur-aspiring, grant-enabled  Mischling sans estrogen sans testosterone sans everything -- : he she or It  might well be hooted from the stage;  and the judges, brows clouded, awful in their majesty, be moved to issue the little-used rebuke  of a "six point seven".

            Finally a haunted-looking,  tense old man, thin to inanition, appeared at the microphone. He clutched a tiny scrap of paper bearing a scrawl,  and stared down at it; beneath the black brim of his ranchhand hat, you could not see his eyes.  This was obviously hard for him,  but he pushed on, stammering through a short poem consisting of a narrow range of variations on the theme "Loneliness…is an empty room."   Its combination of visible truth and utter artlessness  made it actually paradoxically powerful; he scuttled off to thunderous applause.           

Oh we went to the poetry slam,
to dine on green eggs and ham.
  A grizzled 'bo    from an S.R.O.
was telling the world, "I Am".

©2000, David Bruce Justice

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