Posts Tagged ‘Modernism

22
Aug
15

Quick Notes on John Berryman

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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John BerrymanJohn Berryman (1914 – 1972) was an American poet and a contemporary with Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath, as well as Delmore Schwartz, whose death was very troubling to him as can be evidenced from the many initial poems of book VI of The Dream Songs. Loss is a main theme of The Dream Songs, the collection I will focus on. But The Dream Songs are neither dreams nor songs. The dreams are more like fantasies of what might have been, is, or could be, and many of the fantasies are dark and troubling. Despite the structure of the poems, which usually consist of three six-line stanzas that play off iambic rhythms and rhyme, the poems are too complicated to be sung. There are other complications, too, and these complications grow out of the Modernist poetry tradition.

What is often said of Modernist poetry (and maybe Modernism as a whole) is that it is difficult, complicated, and frustrating, and Berryman’s Dream Songs certainly frustrate. The syntax is complicated and jarring, there are varying speech idioms, and the speaker of the poems (Henry) will refer to himself in the first-person, often in the third-person, and sometimes even the second-person. I find these poems more challenging than Modernist poetry, even The Waste Land. There’s a lot to say about these poems, but I think the opening poem might provide a good gloss of the poems, as a whole.

     Huffy Henry hid     the day,
     unappeasable Henry sulked.
     I see his point, – a trying to put things over.
     It was the thought that they thought
     they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
     But he should have come out and talked.

     All the world like a woolen lover
     once did seem on Henry’s side.
     Then came a departure.
     Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
     I don’t see how Henry, pried
     open for all the world to see, survived.

     What he has now to say is a long
     wonder the world can bear & be.
     Once in a sycamore I was glad
     all at the top, and I sang.
     Hard on the land wears the strong sea
     and empty grows every bed.

The shift between first and third person is obvious here. There are sentences with interruptions or with delays between subject and predicate, such as in lines 7-8 with the unrestrictive clause “like a woolen love” interrupting “world” and its verb “seem.” Also notice how the tense has shifted from the end of the previous stanza. A similar interruption happens at the end of the stanza. These are just examples of some of the less difficult sentences to parse through. Not to mention the tension between line and syntax. This poem also introduces the big the themes of the book, which includes the tension between the reality he expects and the reality he lives in – or maybe between fantasy and reality. Henry thought happiness possible until “a departure.” Something significant is gone, and the “a” indicates that there were other departures, too, and/or maybe more to come. And here is where I want to make a point for Berryman as transitional figure between Modernism and what comes after Modernism.

When I think of Modernism, I don’t think of subjectivity. Many critics say the Modernist poet wears a mask or assumes a personae. The reader does not really get involved in the personal life of the poet. In fact, after The Waste Land, as Al Poulin Jr. would say, there are no bodies in the waste land until Ginsberg populates them. This is where Berryman comes in as a transitional figure. He, it seems, is trying to insert a real life person with actual feelings into the waste land. He is telling of his pain and despair in regards to his loss, “a departure.” However, he wears a modernist mask in the form of Henry. Most critics agree that Henry is Berryman, despite Berryman’s protestations. And the “departure” is really the death of Berryman’s father. Even though Berryman is considered a confessional poet, we don’t get to see Berryman as Berryman. We see Berryman as Henry. This is why I consider him a transitional figure. We don’t get the real life person that we might get with Ginsberg, Lowell, or Plath. Berryman is carefully surveying the waste land, before the later poets as people arrive and populate the waste land.

An alternate title for The Dream Songs could be Song of Myself as Henry. The poems are very personal and introspective, but, perhaps, the Henry figure makes them more universal, available, or public. Henry is the archetypal white depressed and dysfunctional male form into which Berryman pours his own pain and angst and sufferings and hopes.

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For more on John Berryman, please read what I noted a few years ago, which I may or may not still agree with: On John Berryman’s Syntax and Other Observations.

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07
Jun
14

Modernist Style, Contemporary Play, and Ecological Lament: On Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose. //

Betsy Andrews – The BottomBetsy AndrewsThe Bottom (42 Miles Press, forthcoming 2014), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, opens with the 48-page long poem “The Bottom,” which consists of 48 juxtaposed smaller poems varying in length from poems of 12 short lines to poems of 21 long lines. The poems feel like they arrive from a life experienced, or should I say, these ecological poems don’t seem a step removed from experience, as if written from only studying, or appropriating information from, texts about pollution, ecology, marine biology, etc. At the same time, this long opening poem, which is rooted in the Modernist tradition of long poems of disillusionment, exposes what lies behind the illusions from the denial of ecological harm or future ecological harm. And like a Modernism poem, the language is of the language spoken by everyday people (especially people from the United States), but unlike some Modernism poems, Andrews’ allusions are shared allusions of the American populace. Along the way, we encounter mermaids, Martians, and even Mr. Limpet (the Don Knotts character from Disney’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet.) With that in mind, this long poem is also very playful, which is a difficult endeavor to do in political poems without being didactic or heavy handed, but she succeeds by way of her playful allusions, irony (another Modernism device), and music – rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance, consonance, word repetition, etc. In addition, this music, unlike music in Modernism poems, feels like it is discovered or is spontaneously composed rather than imposed or purposely created to frame the mood of the poem. As a result, Andrews is able to entice the reader with the sugar of music and play and then deliver the ecological medicine. Fortunately, the medicine doesn’t arrive in one dose. Rather, it’s an accumulation of 48 little doses. And even though there are 48 different doses of poems, there is cohesiveness about them. Unlike some  long Modernism poems that often hope for a cohesiveness to be discovered, the cohesiveness is 48 different ways of looking at the harm to marine biology and ecology in ways in which a reader can experience – whether the experience comes from the real, the imagined, or the intersection of both.

If the poems are enough or aren’t enough to move the reader to an ecological empathy, The Bottom has, like The Waste Land, a notes section (which might also be a poem depending on how it is viewed) at the end titled “Tributaries.” The “Tributaries” lists the sources I assume Andrews read in composing this long poem or that were influential to her and fed into the making of this ocean of a book. “Tributaries” starts with The Oxford English Dictionary and then moves into newspapers, National Public Radio, national parks, books of myth and symbolism, books and articles about seashells, books and articles on marine biology, books about the aftermath of unrecoverable ecological harm, and then concludes with books, stories, songs, and writers that I assume are inspirational to her, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Saxie Dowell’s “Three Little Fishies,” Anne Sexton, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom is a short book that playfully moves in the imagined and heroically moves in the unimagined, and by the latter I mean that it moves heroically within the unimagined that is real and the “dry page of fact” and within the unimagined (or suppressed imagination) that exists because of the denials of ecological harm “when we go still and are quiet.”//

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Andrews, Betsy. The Bottom. South Bend: 42 Miles Press, 2014.

30
Jan
13

James Longenbach’s Draft of a Letter (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.

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James Longenbach – Draft of a LetterIn a previous issue of Redactions, we put out the question, “Can you use ‘soul’ in contemporary poetry?” Many poets responded with fine answers. Somehow Longenbach got wind of this question, as he mentioned in a reading at Writers & Books in Rochester, NY, & though he didn’t respond to the question through Redactions, he did respond. Longenbach, instead, explored using “soul” in poetry in Draft of a Letter (University of Chicago Press), & he succeeded. He affirmed what most of our responders said to the question said: Yes.

It’s not like every poem has “soul” in it, but, ah, they all have soul. You can feel it in the lines. The slow lines with long pauses at their ends. The implication of each line is: “Hey, reader/listener, read & listen. When my line ends, hold on to it for a moment. There’s more magic that will happen if you stop before making the turn. The unexplainable occurs here. Listen to the reverberations. Listen for the echo of the line that is about to arrive.” And then Longenbach, in a way, tells us this in these lines, which are not directly about poetry:

   In time,
   Without trying,
   I found a rhythm
   Of thought ineffably
   Hesitant, serene.
                              (“Draft of a Letter”)

I also want to mention one more thing that I hadn’t planned to talk about until I read Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet [which appears in an earlier review]. My first encounters with Longenbach were his critical books on poetry and Modernism. All very good and intelligent, which you can gather from an early review/celebration of mine in Redactions on The Resistance to Poetry. Between that review and Draft of a Letter, I read Fleet River, which is a fine book of narrative poems, with wonderful vertical moments ( that is, Li-Young Lee vertical moments and not the vertical moment I mention in the Dan Gerber A Primer on Parallel Lives celebration/review). So Wiman says two things:

I have little patience for people who see the application of critical intelligence as somehow inimical to poetic creation. (p 61)

The worth of a poet’s critical awareness will have been determined by the truth and intensity of the poetic activity that preceded it, the depth to which he descended in his poems. (p 62)

I agree totally with those two statements, and I’m overwhelmed when a person can both be critically intelligent and have intense poems, especially when the poems are accessible. And Longenbach does this. The poems in Draft of a Letter are accessible with a music of tones and with rhythms of a soul that have found depth, or a person who found the depths of his soul.

Yes, Longenbach can play both sides of the ball, well.//

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Longenbach, James. Draft of a Letter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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